Is It Time to Retire Free Dining

For the last several years, Disney has offered a free dining promotion during what are “slower traffic months” for Walt Disney World.  Free Dining started in the early 2000’s when people were travelling a lot.  Free Dining was designed as way to get people to the parks.  My family took Disney up on the Free Dining offer in 2009 and we’ve made eight more trips since that first trip.  As years have gone on and more and more people have come to expect free dining in the fall, Disney has made the dates more restrictive, resort availability more restrictive, and increased the number of days or type of ticket that you need to qualify for free dining.

I have spent many years as avid Disney follower, one year as independent Disney blogger, nine months as an independent travel agent specializing in Disney vacations, and will be soon coming out with my first guide-book for Walt Disney World.  Nothing getting more people, in my opinion, excited about a Walt Disney World vacation than the prospect of Free Dining.

Braised pork plate at Be Our Guest
Braised pork plate at Be Our Guest

All of that said, there are five things which helped during this year’s roll-out of the Free Dining package a nightmare on many fronts.

Need for Less Speculation

Disney does not do any “advance marketing” of the Free Dining promotion.  If they did, people would just hold on booking their vacations until the promotion came out.  Disney wants people to book vacation without knowing the unknown.  What happens though is speculation abounds especially as the calendar turns toward the dates of a “suspected announcement.”  Facebook pages, twitter feeds, and message boards were flooded with speculation threads.  “I heard this from a Cast Member.”  “A friend of mine who lives in Orlando heard this.”  Hotel discounts are like stocks…”past discounts are no guarantee of future discounts.”  Every year is different just because there was a discount last year that does not mean that there will be one this year.

“Book What You Can Afford, Any Discount Is a Bonus.”

A quote from a friend of mine who is also a travel agent.  This quote makes a lot of sense.  People should go into booking a vacation especially one that can as pricey as a Walt Disney World vacation with their eyes open.   Do we all want to save money on our vacations?  Of course, we do.  Are we always able to do that?  Most of the time but not always.  Every vacation has some level of corner cutting.  A drive to an airport that has cheaper airfare, a stay in a value resort instead of moderate, getting the quick service dining plan instead of the plus dining.  But, if a discount should come out and you are able to use it for your vacation needs, OF COURSE you should take advantage of the offer.  However, a vacation budget should not take into consideration a “speculated discount.”  That will only lead the vacationer over their potential budget and/or lead to disappointment if the “speculated discount” does not come out or can not be applied to your specific travel.

Travel Agents Aren’t Miracle Workers With Advance Discount Knowledge

For Free Disney Dining 2015, the Travel Agents found out about the discount at the same time as the general public – the morning of April 27.  The one marked change for this year’s Free Dining rollout was it was not a staged rollout.  In past year’s, Disney Visa cardholders got a couple of day jump on everybody.  The cardholders would have access to the deal on Monday while the general public had to wait until Thursday or Friday.  This year, everybody jumped into the pool at once.  Combine that with a more limited number of rooms available, more blackout dates, and another increase to the ticket requirement.  It led to a lot of changes to existing reservations and a lot of new reservations.  Early in the morning, the Disney Travel Agent crashed (I don’t know about the consumer side).  This led to the travel agents overwhelming the Disney Travel Agent phone lines and consumer phone lines in hopes that they could talk to a cast member.  This led to hold times of over two hours.  Disney’s internet system can barely handle a normal day of traffic let alone the large influx of traffic due to the rollout of the Free Dining Promotion.

Wilderness Lodge Villa Towel Animals

Don’t Assume that Free Dining is Free

Disney, when they offer free dining, is making that lost revenue somewhere.  A guest is, more likely, paying close to the rack rate for the room and, like I’ve said a couple of times, Disney continues to increase the park ticket requirement to be eligible for free dining.  Guests can sometimes make out better by booking a room discount and paying for their Disney Dining Plan.  But that’s what I like about vacation planning, every vacation is different.  What works for one group may not work for another.  It’s a giant puzzle that needs to be put together.

Maybe Free Dining Has Outlived It’s Life Cycle

With the increased speculation, increased blackout dates, decreased room availability, and increased park ticket requirement may be it is time that Disney retired the Free Dining promotion.  The speculation from the general public has gotten worse and worse over the years.  They expect more and get less every year leading to disappointment.  But more importantly for Disney, park traffic and heads in beds has greatly increased in the fall over the last 10 or so years.  Disney has a lot to offer guests in the fall starting with Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party to the EPCOT Food and Wine Festival and keep in mind Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party and Osborne Spectacle of Dancing Lights entertain guests in the late fall as well.  The fall can be a busy time especially deeper into fall.  It may be time for Disney to put Free Dining on hiatus for a year or two and see if the park traffic, especially in early fall, maintains itself by just offering late summer/early fall room discounts.

Whether on Disney continues to offer Free Dining or not, they need to greatly improve their internet servers, phone and wi-fi in the parks capacity.  But that’s an article for another day.

Thanks for reading!

5 thoughts on “Is It Time to Retire Free Dining”

  1. Reblogged this on The Mature Mouse™ and commented:
    Do you agree with dad for disney? Should Disney World discontinue the offer of Free Dining? Have you booked a trip simply because of this offer. The Mature Mouse™ would like to know what you think? I booked my next trip for June, hoping for summer savings, but not budgeting for this offer.

  2. normally we do not travel in the fall, we usually (in the past 15 yrs) have traveled there in July. The hotel prices are higher then and the only time we get the dining plan is when we take grandkids with us. They like going up and ordering and paying for their own meals. But this year I wont be working in the fall so we decided to go then. The free dining plan was just a bonus for us. Usually we buy a prepaid debit card and use that for meals. I don’t like huge meals like they serve , I don’t normally get a desert like they give at each meal . If I want a snack I want one I can carry in my bag, not something that has to be eaten right away. of course we will accept the meal plan and enjoy it plus we usually stay 8 or 9 days so having to stay at least 5 days is no big deal to us.

  3. Totally disagree.
    All things have flaws.
    This has benefited many and hurt none. I like having the expense upfront, with that little extra savings and if I don’t qualify, it’s just life.

    1. I’m not saying it isn’t worth offering, but if the main point is to not have to worry about paying for dining while you are at the parks, you can still buy the dining plan you want (as opposed to the one Disney tells you you get with the room type you choose). Also, maybe you have zero desire to hop parks, or go to the water parks.

      A room only discount, and greater flexibility on which dining plan and ticket type can often be cheaper, but it doesn’t have the word “free” in it.

      It is purely a psychological game at this point. The only time I remember a true savings was the 2009 buy 4 get 3 free promo. One that has never returned.

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