Copyright Walt Disney Company.
You can see why a promotion like free dining gets all the attention: A family of four with older children can save more than $200 a night on their vacation, and since everyone needs to eat, it's a good deal even for those who normally wouldn't purchase the plan. But don't automatically assume that free dining is the best deal available. Depending on where you stay and how many people are in the room, resort discounts, sometimes as high as 40%, can be a much bigger savings.
How Room Discounts Work:
Room discounts are offered during most of the year, excluding peak summer months and holiday weeks. Don't expect room discounts to be available during Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, or other major holidays when children are out of school. Estimate about two weeks on either side of the holiday for black out dates. Easter is a good example of this. If you're traveling a week before or a week after Easter Sunday, discounts will be virtually nonexistent.
Room discounts are announced periodically or you'll receive one in the form of a pin code. When you book the room, just apply the appropriate code. If you have an existing room reservation, you can apply a discount if it becomes available for your room. Call Disney and give them your confirmation number and they'll apply the discount or code. If you have a travel agent, they'll do this automatically when the discount is released (you may want to verify when you book that this is their policy, but most Disney travel agencies will monitor your vacation for discounts and apply them when they are released). Often, there won't be any room discounts for standard rooms, so you may have to move up to a preferred room or to a "better" view, but it's generally still worth it.
Tip: Book the discounted room then add tickets and dining if you want a full package. If you start off booking a "magic your way" package, you won't get the room discount since it's not automatically factored in. If you're booking over the phone with Disney, their policy is to do this automatically but it doesn't hurt to verify.
Types of Room Discounts:
Pin Codes: Mailed directly to the holder, these are personal to you. As with all room discounts, black out dates apply and not all resorts are available.
General Public Room Discounts: These discounts are available to everyone and usually show up on the Disney website with very little fanfare, unlike the hubbub that comes with free dining. Under these discounts, rooms are usually discounted anywhere from 25 to 40 percent off. Watch out for "tiered" room discounts. For example, you may have become accustomed to value rooms being discounted at around 25% off, but under tiered discounts, some resorts under this offer may be as low as 10%, which means that shopping around and even moving up to another level of resort with a better discount might be possible. At the very least, compare the "rack rate" (full price) rate vs. the discounted rate to see what you're saving.
Annual Pass Discounts: Annual pass discounts are given to annual pass holders. They're usually slightly better than general public discounts and often cover more time periods, but in my experience they offer very few standard rooms, so get this discount when it comes out.
Tip: You don't need an annual pass to book an AP discounted room. You'll just need to show it within 24-hours of check-in.
Military Discounts. These are the best room discounts available, especially when you combine them with discounted military tickets (currently at around $139 for a 4-day park hopper). Military families will want to do the math when it comes to comparing this offer with free dining. This option is open to active duty, retired, and certain disabled veterans. You may book up to three rooms with this option but the servicemember will need to show I.D. at check-in. You may add the dining plan with this option even though you purchase discounted tickets separately.
Which Discount is Better for You?
I hear this a lot: Which is better, a room discount or free dining? If you're staying at a value, even if there's only two people in the room, free dining is a better deal. You really don't even have to do the math. But if you're staying at a moderate or at a deluxe resort, you're going to have to compare the two offers and see what works best for you. Even with an expensive villa, you can't just assume. I just booked an extended family in a two-bedroom villa at Saratoga Springs and I was surprised to see that even with an estimated 40% off the room (which is rare), they'd still save more with free dining.
Since you can always change discounts as they're released, it's always better to take the first discount that comes out. If something better is announced later you can switch over to that, but at least you have something to start with. Remember, you can only apply one discount at a time.