Belgian Chocolate Trio at Yachtsman Steakhouse.
Unless you're traveling during the busiest weeks of the year, you'll probably get a discount when staying on Disney property. By far, the most popular discount is free dining. Originally offered in the fall to bring in guests during the slowest months of year, free dining is now offered, either through general public discounts or pin codes, during all but the most busiest times. Here's what you need to know.
When is it offered?
Free dining, like most Disney discounts is offered during the slowest months of the year. Safe bets are late August, September, the first and last weeks of October, select days in November and December, most of January, and select days in February and March.
Keep in mind that free dining will be blacked out for holidays like Columbus day, where kids are out of school, Canadian Thanksgiving (the middle two weeks in October), Jersey Week (early November), Thanksgiving week, Christmas week (usually the 19th through New Year's Day), marathon week in January, and Martin Luther King Day. Black out dates will vary from year to year, so be flexible about when you can travel. For this reason, I usually recommend people hold off on booking their flights until free dining is announced.
How do you get free dining?
Check into a Disney resort when free dining is offered and you'll qualify. As long as you're checking in on a day it's offered, you're good for your entire stay. You'll need to buy a 2-day park ticket to qualify. If you're an annual pass holder, you can save that ticket for another trip, pass it onto someone else, or use as "money" the next time you buy an annual pass. Just remember if you're not using the ticket to have the cast member take it off your Key to the World Card at check-in so you don't accidentally swipe it in the park.
Free dining is offered in two ways, either as a general public discount offered to everyone or as a pin code. Pin codes are discounts that are personal to you; you can read more about them here.
I've already got a reservation. Can I still get free dining?
Yes. Just have the new discount applied to your existing reservation. If you've got a room-only reservation, you'll need to switch it over to a package and add tickets. A way to avoid this is to book a "base" package where you have the option of adding tickets and dining later. Keep in mind that some resorts and room categories are excluded, so you may have to move up to a different category of room or even a different resort.
Generally, it's best to get free dining added your reservation the first day it's out. Disney never announces how many rooms in a resort will get free dining, but you can bet that the availability of standard rooms under any promotion is very limited. Once rooms are booked, that's it. So if you're set on staying at a certain resort, you'll want to have it applied right away, but if you're flexible about where you'll stay, you can avoid the three hour waits on hold the day free dining comes out and come back later when things slow down a bit. I know last August when free dining was announced, there were resort categories that filled up that morning. Others weren't sold out even on the last day free dining was available.
Remember, there are no penalties for adding a discount to an existing package unless you're under 45-days prior to travel. After that time, you may be charged a $50 change fee. If you're already booked under a promotion and free dining is better for you, you can switch to free dining, but remember the promotion you have will be gone. So a room discount will go to rack rate or a "kids free" option will disappear. Disney has one clear rule with discounts and it is that you can only apply one discount at at time. Otherwise, feel free to change to as many promotions as they are released.
What's better: A room discount or free dining?
It depends entirely on the make up of your group and where you're staying, but generally free dining is best at the values and room discounts are a better option at the deluxe resorts. Moderates can break close to even. You'll want to do all the math on this one, since your group make up can change your savings a great deal. Further, Disney doesn't always discount deluxe resorts the same. In the past, we've seen 25% off at the Grand Floridian while other deluxe resorts were discounted at 35% off. That can change your savings enough that free dining might be a better option.
I'm staying at a value resort and getting the quick-service plan for free. Can I upgrade to the base plan?
Yes, you can upgrade to the base plan or even the deluxe plan. You'll just pay the difference between the two plans, a minimal amount.
On a personal note, I don't really like the quick-service plan. I think it can be too much "fast food" if you're not familiar with the parks and the locations that serve healthier options, so I usually recommend guests upgrade to the base plan, which I think is the most practical plan and the best use of your money.
I'm not sure I'll eat enough for the dining plan to be worth it. Should I still get free dining if it's available?
It depends, but look at it this way: It's free, and most of the time, it's the best discount out there. Even if you're a light eater, you're going to have to eat on Disney property at some point, if not for your entire stay. Three small quick-service meals a day will run you around $30 to $40 per person. This is assuming you get a sandwich and a drink each time, nothing else. So while you might be a light eater and feel that the plan isn't worth it, when you add up what you'll be spending anyway, it looks a lot better.
Again, do the math. Go to sites like All Ears and check out their menus. And then see if you can make free dining work versus a room discount.