Complete guide to the Disney Dining Plan (and how to get it free)
(Article last updated: January 27, 2016)
If you're staying on-site at Disney World, almost everything is paid for before you even arrive - hotel, park tickets, airfare - but that leaves one main expense that you still have to think about: food.
As they always do, Disney came up with a solution for handling this when they created the Disney Dining Plan. This plan allows you to pre-pay for all of your dining so you don't have to worry about it later and gives your vacation an "all-inclusive" feeling. Disney even offers the Disney Dining Plan for free during some promotions.
Here's how you can figure out if the Disney Dining Plan makes sense for you.
Who can use it
In general, people that can purchase the Disney Dining Plan are those who have booked a package to stay in a Disney World resort (does not include the Swan, Dolphin, or Shades of Green). Packages include a resort and park tickets at a minimum, and you can optionally add a Disney Dining Plan.
There are 2 exceptions to this (these people will not qualify for Free Dining since that requires a package):
- If you book a room-only reservation, you can add a Disney Dining Plan by using a travel agent or calling Disney World yourself and adding it.
- Disney Vacation Club members or point renters can add a Disney Dining Plan to their reservation without booking a package.
What is included
When you're using a Disney Dining Plan, you can use it toward these things:
- Table Service credits - used at participating Table Service restaurants, includes an entree, dessert and non-alcoholic beverage. People using the Deluxe Dining Plan also get an appetizer with lunch and dinner.
- Quick Service credits - used at participating Quick Service restaurants, includes an entree, non-alcholic beverage (plus dessert if you're eating lunch or dinner)
- Snack credits - used at many locations, including some food carts. Can be used toward everything from a bottle of water to cotton candy to an ice cream bar. For the most current list of snacks, see this DISBoard list of confirmed snacks.
- Refillable mugs - each dining plan includes a refillable mug for every guest who is 3 years old or older that can be refilled in any resort but not in the parks
Disney Dining Plan options
There are 3 main types of dining plans, each with different perks. The information below is per person per night (except for the refillable mug which is per person, but each mug is used throughout the duration of your stay).
2016 Disney Dining Plan pricing
All of these plans include 1 refillable mug per person which can be refilled at any resort, but not in the parks.
How to use your credits
There's a lot of confusion about how credits can be used. Here are some tips and tricks for using DDP credits:
- Although the number of credits you get are based on how many nights you stay, you can use DDP credits whenever you'd like until they run out.
For instance, you may have the regular dining plan which gives you 1 Table Service credit and 1 Quick Service per day. You could decide to use 2 Table Service credits one day and 2 Quick Service credits the next. You could use all of your credits in one day. It's up to you.
- It's really difficult to break even or come out ahead financially on the DDP, but if you plan strategically, you can maximize your DDP credits. To see which restaurants provide the best value, check out my analysis of all Table Service and Quick Service restaurants.
- Quick Service credits are not divided between adult and child's credits, which means kids can order off of the adult's menu if they'd like.
- You can split meals using Quick Service credits which can allow you to stretch your DDP credits to cover all of your meals.
- You can use Table Service credits to pay for non-DDP people. As long as 1 person is on the DDP, you can use the credits to pay for non-DDP friends.
- At Table Service meals, you can substitute your dessert with a fruit plate, side salad, or cup of soup, but you can not substitute appetizers for desserts.
- Quick Service meals include a dessert at lunch and dinner, but you can substitute your QS dessert with a DDP-eligible snack.
- You can use 1 Quick Service credit to purchase 3 DDP-eligible snacks, as long as they're done all in the same transaction.
- People using the Deluxe, Premium, or Platinum Disney Dining Plans can use a child’s credit to purchase adult entrees.
How do you get it free?
Of course, if you don't have to pay for your Dining Plan then the calculations and comparisons don't matter at all. Free food is awesome. Disney does Free Dining promotions periodically.
Here's the history of when they've been announced and for what dates they were valid. You'll notice that Free Dining is usually a fall promotion.
|Free Dining Stay Dates||Booking Period|
|8/28/2015-12/21/2015*||4/27/2015 - 7/10/2015|
|8/31/2014 - 12/23/2014||5/7/2014 - 8/8/2014|
|9/29/2013 - 12/22/2013||8/1/2013 - 9/15/2013|
|9/2/2013 - 9/25/2013||5/9/2013 - 7/31/2013|
|9/30/2012 - 12/13/2012||7/12/2012 - 9/29/2012|
|8/25/2012 - 9/29/2012||3/5/2012 - 5/18/2012|
|1/8/2012 - 3/31/2012||8/3/2011 - 10/29/11
and 10/27/2011 - 12/17/2011
|10/2/2011 - 12/17/2011||8/3/2011 - 10/29/2011|
|8/28/2011 - 9/24/2011||5/2/2011 - 8/27/2011|
|8/19/2011 - 9/29/2011||8/16/2010 - 12/20/2010|
|5/27/2011 - 6/2/2011||8/16/2010 - 12/20/2010|
|1/1/2011 - 3/3/2011||8/16/2010 - 12/20/2010|
|10/1/2010-12/21/2010||8/16/2010 - 12/20/2010|
|8/15/2010 -12/21/2010||7/6/2010 - 8/14/2010|
|8/15/2010 - 10/2/2010||5/3/2010 - 8/14/2010|
|9/27/2009 - 12/17/2009||7/27/2009 - 9/26/2009|
|8/16/2009 - 10/3/2009||3/30/2009 - 6/21/2009
and 6/10/09 - 7/26/09
|*Blackout dates included 10/3/2015-10/24/2015, 11/1/2015-11/7/2015 and 11/20/2015-12/14/2015|
When you book Free Dining, the level of your dining plan will be determined by which level of resort you have booked.
- If you book a Value Resort, you will get the Quick Service Dining Plan for free. You can upgrade to the Regular Dining Plan for $19/adult and $3.49/child per night, and you can upgrade to the Deluxe Dining Plan for $68.89/adult and $15.09/child per night.
- If you book any other level of resort, you will get the regular Dining Plan for free. You can upgrade to the Deluxe Dining Plan for about $49.89/adult and $11.60/child per night.
Note: as long as you arrive by the last day of the promotion, you can enjoy Free Dining during your whole stay.
Free Dining strategies
Free Dining is by far the most popular promotion that Disney does, which means it can be very competitive to try to be one of the people who gets to take advantage of it after it's released.
Here are my tips for helping you maximize Free Dining:
- Plan your trip during the time that Free Dining has historically been offered. The blackout dates have increased a lot over the years, narrowing the time frame that it's available.
- If you plan to travel in early fall, go ahead and book your room and make all of your dining reservations before Free Dining is announced. That will make sure you get reservations, because the restaurants fill up quickly after the Free Dining announcement is made.
- Since the phone lines are jammed for hours or days after Free Dining is released, I'd suggest making a whole new package reservation online and then calling to cancel your previous reservation a few days later. This will not affect any existing reservations you have.
- Stay at a moderate resort to get the best bang-for-the-buck since you get the Regular Dining Plan by staying there but with lower-priced rooms than if you stay at a Deluxe Resort. You might also consider staying at a Value Resort and upgrading the dining plan, but you'll have to do the math to see which one makes more sense for you.
Disney Dining Plan vs. paying out of pocket
People have different ways of looking at using a dining plan. For some (like me), it's about having a vacation that is stress-free where we aren't worrying about money. For others, it's purely a financial decision.
Create a list of what meals would cost you if you were paying out of pocket. Then see what the same meals cost if you have the Disney Dining Plan. Be sure to add 18% gratuity to the Disney Dining Plan figures (so if your strategy is to order the most expensive entree while using the Disney Dining Plan, remember that it increases your tip as well).
Many people get caught up in thinking that Free Dining is better than any other promotion but that's not necessarily true. For instance, there is often a discount code for 30% off room rates running at the same time as the Free Dining promotion. Depending on the hotel and dining package, 30% could work out to be a much better deal.
See my analysis of free dining vs. room-only discounts for more info on that.
Have question or other thoughts on the Disney Dining Plan? Feel free to share in the comments.