Booking Free Dining at Walt Disney World
Free Dining is the most popular Walt Disney World vacation package deal, year after year. Not only do people love getting FREE food, but it’s also a tremendous bargain for a large number of families. Because it’s so popular, however, it’s also one of the hardest discount offers to book. This page contains advice for maximizing your chances of booking this offer (and other popular discount offers), plus tips for choosing the best deal for your family and making the most of the benefits.
This page is primarily about the Free Dining offer, but the same basic advice can be used for any tough booking at Walt Disney World. If you want to get the Stay, Play and Dine offer (usually offered in the early Spring), or want to book the Beach Club during the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, you can use the same basic strategies.
Free Dining: The Basics
Free Dining is a package discount at Walt Disney World that has been offered every year since 2005. The exact details vary from year to year, but the basic offer is typically as follows:
- Book a room and tickets, and get one of the Disney World dining plans, FREE
- The specific plan varies with the type of room booked. With a Value resort booking you typically get a Quick-Service Dining Plan, and with a Deluxe resort booking, you typically get a standard Dining Plan. A Moderate resort booking has sometimes included a Quick Service Dining Plan and sometimes a standard Dining Plan.
- The room and tickets are full price (or “rack rate”), and there are typically minimum stay requirements (3-4 nights is typical) and minimum ticket requirements (2-4 day is typical). Sometimes Park Hopper tickets have been required.
- You get the FREE dining plan for the whole trip as long as you check in on a valid date, even if the booking extends past the valid date range.
- For a family of four staying at a Value resort, this is often a fantastic deal. For two or three people staying at a Deluxe resort, this may or may not come out ahead of other kinds of discounts (like a percentage discount on the hotel room, which commonly is offered at roughly the same time). Really, it’s important not to get too hung up on the “free food” aspect and just see it as an overall discount on a vacation package. There may be a better deal for your family out there, especially if you’re not big fans of the dining plans.
Free Dining: World’s Toughest Offer to Book?
Every year when the Free Dining offer comes out, we see a massive number of people complain on various sites, such as Facebook, that “there’s nothing available.” And we always head over to Walt Disney World’s website, check a bunch of date ranges, and find that there are, in fact, rooms available for most dates. The selection is not great, especially on popular weekend days, but there’s usually something available.
The key to success is flexibility. If you are only looking at one date range, and a holiday falls on those dates, then yes, the selection is going to be pretty limited. It’s important to get creative. If you can’t find anything for the specific date range you most want, check shorter periods to try to figure out which day or days are unavailable. Take another look at your calendar and ask yourself if there’s any other dates when you could travel. If your district offers an unusual break that no other district does, that can be a great opportunity. If your kids don’t start school until the end of August or the beginning of September, you can probably find some availability in mid-to-late August, and that’s a fairly slow time. Yes, it’s going to be hot. Bring a hat, take a break in the middle of the day, and get a cooling towel for everyone. It’s hot, but everywhere you go at Disney World you’re only a few steps away from an air-conditioned space. Make good use of the early and late hours when the parks are most bearable.
If you’ve always stayed at Value resorts, maybe consider Moderates as well; sometimes they don’t cost that much more, and the amenities are nice. They also book up slightly slower than the Values, so availability will often be better, especially at Caribbean Beach and Coronado Springs. And if you usually stay in a Moderate, take a hard look at the less expensive Deluxe resorts. The Animal Kingdom Lodge and Wilderness Lodge have lower rates than the other Deluxe resorts, and typically don’t book up as quickly as the Moderates and Values.
If you don’t have kids in school, it probably should go without saying: take your trip when school is in session. Look up the vacation days for the school districts around you, and don’t go during those vacations if you can possibly help it. The non-holiday segments of September, November or December are often a great time to be at Walt Disney World – it’s less crowded and less hot. (October is also a good time, but is often blacked out for Free Dining.) Try to schedule as much of your trip as possible on weekdays. On weekends, locals and people within a half-day drive will come in and the parks will get much more crowded.
Check all of your possible date ranges for availability, as well as sub-ranges; if you can’t get all the dates you need, can you get some of them? If you can get the first or last part of your trip, you can book that to lock it in, then keep trying to add days. Often as people cancel bookings it’s possible to get a day here and a day there until you’ve got all of your days, or at least enough to be workable. At that point, you can call Disney (or transfer your booking to a travel agent) and get all the small bookings merged into one long one. If you can get every night but your arrival night, consider spending one night in an off-property hotel. If you’re going to be arriving at night anyway, you can check into an independent hotel just for that night, and check into your Disney resort first thing the next morning to activate your package.
A key factor is to jump on the discounts as soon as they come out. It’s a good idea to check our historical Walt Disney World discounts list so you have some idea of when a particular discount is likely to appear, and then check the MouseSavers home page every day, starting a few weeks before you think it’s likely to appear. When the discount actually goes live, you will want to get on the phone and/or online as soon as possible. When the offer comes out, the Disney’s phones will open up at 7 am Eastern, though sometimes the offers have been bookable online an hour earlier. It may take a long time to get through, and the web site may be flaky as it gets hammered by everyone trying to book at the same time. Be patient. If that sounds like torture to you, you’re not alone; we feel the same way, which is why we use a travel agent for these tough bookings.
If you can’t get what you want at first, it’s important to be persistent and keep checking. People cancel or adjust their hotel reservations every day, so rooms that were booked up solid can become available at any time. We recommend checking at least once a day. And again: be flexible. If you only check for your favorite resort and one set of dates, you’re far less likely to find something than if you have a list of three or four resorts and several sets of dates that will work.
We highly recommend booking a alternative reservation as soon as you can, preferably before Free Dining actually comes out. When the discounts come out, rooms will book up very quickly, so you should ask yourself a few key questions beforehand:
- If you can’t get Free Dining, will you go to Walt Disney World anyway? (If not, then don’t bother booking the alternative; just keep trying for Free Dining.)
- If you’re going to go anyway, where would you stay if you can’t get Free Dining? Whatever that is, get that booking in place before Free Dining is announced, if possible. If Free Dining is already available book the alternative if you can’t find Free Dining for any of your date ranges, then keep checking back regularly to see if Free Dining opens up for dates you can use.
Here’s a workable plan of action:
- Investigate any lingering issues with work schedules, school schedules, etc. so you know all the dates that could work.
- Make a list of the resorts that you could live with. Be as flexible as possible; try not to fixate on a specific room type or resort.
- If Free Dining hasn’t yet come out, book your alternative plan so you’ll have something in your back pocket if nothing else works out.
- When, and if, Free Dining is available, book the best package you can find, then (assuming you’re successful) cancel your alternative plan.
- If you don’t get your first choice, check back as often as you can to see if something better comes up, all the way up to the final payment date for your package.
The Travel Agent Advantage
If you’ve read MouseSavers for a while, you know that we recommend using a top-tier travel agency as a good option for booking Disney travel, especially Walt Disney World vacation packages. This is especially true when you’re booking hard-to-get rooms and offers like Free Dining, for a few reasons:
- Top-tier travel agents know all the tricks. At a big agency like Small World Vacations, all the agents are highly experienced and have each booked thousands of packages. They also share any new information with each other, so if one figures out a clever way of finding a room at a resort that seems to be booked solid, she’ll pass that along to the entire agency. You get the benefit of their collective wisdom.
- Top-tier travel agents have dedicated booking lines. The top agencies have special agent-only booking phone numbers and special booking websites. They aren’t competing with the general public to get their bookings made. Perhaps even more importantly, booking travel is their job. If they have to wait on hold for five hours, they’ll do it. And when they get through, they can book packages more quickly than you or I, because of their familiarity with Disney’s booking process. They can book multiple clients in a single phone call, further upping their efficiency. They can also pool their resources: the first agent that gets connected can book packages for other agents while they have Disney on the phone.
- Top-tier travel agents work (and think) fast. One of the great things about working with a travel agent for a tough booking like Free Dining is that you can give them a variety of different options, and they can quickly and efficiently compare the various options and get you the best one. Disney’s booking website for travel agents has side-by-side comparisons so they can compare different dates, different package options and different discounts to find you the one that works best. When you’re competing with lots of other people for the same rooms, speed is of the essence. It makes sense to enlist the skills of someone who can get your booking secured as quickly as possible.
- Top-tier travel agents will keep an eye out for you. This is one of the key factors that separates a top-tier agency like Small World Vacations from a standard agency. The standard agency will book you whatever they can find today, but never check back later to see if there’s a better booking that could save you money or is closer to what you really want. Small World Vacations agents go back and check all their outstanding bookings whenever Disney releases a new discount offer to see if they can save their clients money. If they have a client who really wanted one resort, but couldn’t get it originally, they’ll check back from time to time to see if anything has opened up.
- Top-tier travel agents are in your corner. The best agents do more than just book your hotel room and tickets. They help their clients understand the best way to maximize their time, which rides their kids will like best, what resorts have the features they care about most, and much, much more. If something happens on your trip that needs fixing, your agent can go to bat with Disney and figure out a resolution. Agents know who to talk to and what to say to get the best possible outcome for their clients. It’s like having a personal friend who knows exactly how Disney works.
- And perhaps most importantly, all this is FREE. Authorized Disney travel agents work for you, but they’re paid by Disney. They have the same rates as Disney, so you get all of the personal service and benefits listed above, and pay no more than you would to book directly. You can read more in our complete guide to using a travel agent to book Disney vacations.
- To book Free Dining, or just find the best possible option for your Disney vacation with the least effort, we definitely recommend filling out a quote request now with Small World Vacations. They are one of the largest Disney-specialist travel agencies in the world and have some of the most experienced agents in the industry. When you work with them, they assign you a personal agent. If you have a question or need a change made, you can email or call your agent, and it gets taken care of.
- When you submit a quote form, if Free Dining is already out, your agent will use every trick in the book to try to get it for you. If it’s not yet out, your agent will immediately secure a booking for the best currently-available option for you, and once Free Dining comes out your agent will be on the phone bright and early to rebook with the discount, putting you first in line to snag a Free Dining reservation. No one can guarantee they’ll be able to get you Free Dining, but when you get a great agency in your corner, you can raise your odds considerably.