(Article updated: April 24, 2018)
There is no denying that the money spent for food on a Disney World vacation can really add up.
But, it turns out, with a little planning there are ways you can save money and even get the food on your trip for "free".
Disney often offers discounts, and the Disney Free Dining promotion is the most popular discount of all. However, snagging this coveted discount has become more difficult in recent years - but it isn't impossible.
In the post below we'll show you exactly what you'll need to do in order to maximize your chances of getting your meals for free on your next trip. Plus, we have some ideas on ways to save even if you can't snag the Disney Free Dining promotion for your vacation.
Let's get started...
In this article
First, some Free Dining basics
What are the Free Dining dates for 2018?
These are the dates for 2018. As long as you check in during these dates, you can get it for your whole stay.
- August 20-September 29, 2018
- November 24-November 27, 2018
- December 7-December 23, 2018
What is a Disney Dining Plan?
Simply put, the Disney Dining Plan is an optional add-on that only guests staying onsite at a Disney-owned resort can purchase as part of their vacation packages.
It is basically a way to prepay for your meals - and it can be quite expensive.
That is a lot of money, and it's probably a huge portion of your entire Walt Disney World vacation budget. That's why getting a free Disney Dining Plan during the Free Dining promotion is so attractive to so many people.
What you get for free
When you book Free Dining, the level of your dining plan will be determined by which level of resort you have booked.
Make sure you know exactly what is offered in each Dining Plan before you commit. You don't want to be disappointed and find out you didn't get what you were expecting.
Booking a Value or Moderate Resort?
You will get the Quick Service Dining Plan for free.
The Quick Service Dining Plan credits can be used at participating quick service and counter service locations (you can't use them for table service).
You can upgrade to the Regular Dining Plan for $22.99/adult and $4.00/child per night, and you can upgrade to the Deluxe Dining Plan for $63.75/adult and $18.24/child per night.
Booking a Deluxe Resort?
You will get the regular Disney Dining Plan for free.
The Regular Disney Dining Plan includes a mix of credits that can be used for dining at participating counter service, quick-service, and table service restaurants
You can upgrade to the Deluxe Dining Plan for about $40.76/adult and $14.24/child per night.
Get all of the Disney Dining Plan details
Get even more info, including the best places to use credits, in our Disney Dining Plan guide.
Free Dining tips
Plan to travel when Free Dining is offered
Free food is awesome. But to get it for free at Disney World, you have to book a trip when Free Dining is usually offered.
Notice any patterns in the chart of historical dates for Free Dining below?
The dates don't lie:
Free Dining is usually a fall promotion, so if you want Free Dining make sure your travel dates include the fall.
|Free Dining Stay Dates||Booking Period|
|8/20-9/29, 11/14-11/20, 11/24-11/27, and 12/7-12/23/18||4/24/2018 - 7/7/2018|
|8/21-9/30, 11/14-11/20, 11/25-11/27, and 12/8-12/23/17||4/24/2017 - 7/7/2017|
|8/23-10/1/16, 11/15-11/21/16, 11/26-11/28/16, and 12/10-12/21/16||4/25/2016 - 7/8/2016|
|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|
Get online early
As it turns out:
Almost as important as knowing when you'll need to travel is knowing when the promotion opens.
That is because since there is generally a limited number of rooms available to book with the discount at each resort, and the best resorts and dates for Free Dining usually sell out quickly.
Every year, the moment the promotion is released people frantically start booking it.
Sounds crazy, right?
But it's true.
That chart above also has the historical release dates when the promotion has traditionally opened.
Study them. Follow on social media to get predicted release dates. And then be ready.
What time will the promotion be released?
Discounts and promotions generally go live really, really, REALLY early in the morning. Before the sun comes up early. 2 am, 3 am, 4 am early.
The exact time isn't always the same, but it definitely is always - say it with me - early.
In 2018, it came out at 5 a.m. eastern time on April 24.
Booking by computer is almost always faster than by phone
Here's the deal:
The promotions often come out overnight or really early in the morning.
The phone lines don't open until 7 am EST.
If you wait until you are able to call at 7 am, you'll be behind the hundreds - if not thousands - of people that have been up and on their computers since it opened, snagging up all the best rooms.
You want to maximize your chance of getting what you want? Be prepared to wake up early and book by computer.
But, if all else fails - try the phone
If problems arise and you must use the phone, try calling as soon as the lines open and be prepared to be on hold.
Wait times on days when promotions and discounts go live are often very long.
Get notified about Free Dining
This tip is easy to follow:
When Free Dining opens, those people that are on the email lists and follow us on social media will get notified - day or night - that the promotion is ready to be booked. All you'll need to do is make sure you have notifications turned on and up so that you'll hear them!
Use a travel agent
We can't repeat this tip enough:
If all of this talk about waiting for promotions to open up at 4 am is overwhelming for you, don't try to do it alone! Instead, use a good, reliable, Disney expert travel agent to book your trip.
One of the best perks about using a Disney vacation planning specialist is that they will work to secure you discounts when they come out - including Free Dining.
In fact, you could be in bed, sleeping like a baby, and they'll be up working their magic trying to get you the best deal possible for your trip.
Are you guaranteed to get Free Dining if using a travel agent? Nope.
But, are you chances better if you use an expert that knows the ropes? Absolutely.
The agents at Prep School Travel are Disney experts and completely free to use if booking a trip through them.
They work hard every single day to help families create magical memories on their vacations.
If you want their expert help booking your trip, submit a quote today.
Even if they can't book Free Dining yet (for example, because the booking window isn't open), you can still submit a quote request to start the process.
Make resort and dining reservations now
This could make all the difference:
Book a hotel reservation now, and then you can modify your reservation later.
This is especially true if you're going to be going to Disney World whether or not you get the Free Dining promotion.
Free Dining often means limited availability at the restaurants - but the Free Dining Promotion is often released AFTER the 180 day mark where guests can start making their Advanced Dining Reservations.
If you wait to start booking your dining reservations until the promotion is released, you might be left with 3 pm lunches and 9 pm dinners - not an ideal situation if you have little kids.
Might need to rebook instead of modifying
You're in bed asleep, when your phone starts buzzing from emails sent out from WDW Prep School.
"FREE DINING IS NOW OPEN," they say.
So you jump on your computer, log in to your My Disney Experience account, navigate to your reservation and go to modify it only to find out something is wrong.
It won't work. You try again. And again. And no matter what, you aren't able to modify the reservation.
So, think about it:
If you run into problems, instead of waiting until the phone lines open you should, instead, simply rebook the trip.
Waiting could mean losing out on the opportunity to snag one of the coveted rooms for Free Dining, so rebook and cancel your old reservation instead. Cancelling an old reservation will not affect any dining reservations you've already made.
Having an existing reservation can sometimes make it hard to book a new one, so try clearing your cookies, opening a browser tab in incognito mode, or using a different browser.
You can use Free Dining after the promotion dates
As it turns out:
As long as you arrive by the last day of the promotion, you can enjoy Free Dining during your whole stay.
This is an easy way to make Free Dining dates work for you. As long as your trip begins while the promotion is valid, you'll get the promotion for the duration of your trip.
But, the reverse isn't true:
If your trip begins before a promotion or discount period starts, you won't get the promotion for any part of your trip unless you book a split stay.
Basically, a split stay means you'll have 2 reservations: one for the dates that span the time before the Free Dining promotion begins and one reservation for the dates that include Free Dining. Only the dates of your trip that fall during that promotion window would be eligible for Free Dining.
The 2 reservations could be in the same resort or different ones.
Coordinating a split stay and making sure you meet all the requirements for a promotion can be a little tricky if you've never done it before (and split stays are fantastic vacations to book with a travel agent since they have lots of experience with them). But in some instances, the hassle of booking 2 reservations can save you money.
Be careful, though:
Some promotions (like Free Dining) have minimum ticket length requirements so you'll want to really look at the numbers before booking.
Other things to know about Free Dining
What happens if you miss out on Free Dining?
When Free Dining is released, many travel agents put 72 hour holds for their clients, but not all of these get booked, so they become available again.
Check the numbers
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.
Check out this complete list of discounts that have been offered in the past. And then, do the math for your family.
- Using the menus, create a list of what meals would cost you if you were paying out of pocket.
- For the prices of the dinner shows like Hoop Dee Doo or buffets, try a site like All Ears.
- Make sure to include the cost of beverages you think you'd order, especially now since 1 alcoholic beverage is included.
- Then, see what the same meals cost if you have the Disney Dining Plan.
- Make sure to include the cost of any meals above and beyond the total number of credits you'll have.
- Often times people find out that the room discount saves them more money.
Sometimes Free Dining can be part of a Bounceback offer
If you are already traveling to Disney World (especially August-October which has the best chance) and you know you might want to go back, don't forget to check out the bounceback offers currently running. Sometimes that promotion will include Free Dining for times of the year other than the general public Free Dining promotion that is offered in the fall.
Free Dining often includes ticket and length of stay requirements
You must book tickets as part of your vacation package in order to qualify for Free Dining. In the past, Disney has required 2 and, most recently, a 3-day minimum ticket and a 3 nights minimum stay at a Disney World resort.
Some resorts are never eligible for Free Dining
Ideally, every resort would have some rooms available to book with Free Dining, but that isn't the case.
There are several resorts that never (or very, very, rarely) offer Free Dining:
- The Little Mermaid rooms at Art of Animation
- Port Orleans French Quarter and/or Port Orleans Riverside
- Fort Wilderness Campsites
- Polynesian Villas and Bungalows
This list could always change, but it is safe to say that there will always be some resorts that will be exempt from the Free Dining discount.
Can Free Dining be combined with other promotions?
No, you can't stack Disney deals. If you book Free Dining, you won't be able to use other promotions. Just one at a time.
Can I get Free Dining if I rent DVC points?
No, you can't do that since Free Dining requires booking a package and point rental is not a package booking.
Can Annual Passholders get Free Dining?
In short, yes, but you'll still need to purchase park tickets to book Free Dining. People with Annual Passes should book the minimum tickets required for Free Dining (since tickets are a requirement for packages) and then keep them in their My Disney Experience account.
With both an Annual Pass and tickets from your package in your account, you should call Disney and ask them to prioritize your tickets so they are used in the correct order. Then you can use the tickets from your package if/when your AP expires.
Some final thoughts on the Disney Free Dining discount
Remember the 3 Bs for Free Dining:
- Be realistic - whether you use a travel agent or book it on your own - sometimes there just isn't availability. It happens every year and we hear stories from families genuinely distraught over not being able to book because there wasn't availability. Don't set yourself up for heartbreak by thinking you're guaranteed the discount.
- Be flexible - the more flexible your dates and resort choices, the better the likelihood you'll be able to snag the discount. Wait to book flights and be open to trying a resort that's not first on your list if you want to maximize your chances for Free Dining.
- Be persistent - If you don't get what you want right away, don't give up. Many people (and travel agents!) place holds on rooms when the promotion is released, and, if those holds aren't deposited, they are cancelled 3 days later. That means, if you really want to snag Free Dining you'll want to keep checking. And checking. And maybe even checking some more. Persistence pays off and every year we hear from readers that kept trying and were finally able to book what they wanted.
Watch the video
Prefer video? Check out this video on Free Dining tips.
Have question or other thoughts on the Disney Free Dining promotion? Feel free to share in the comments.