There’s almost no reason to stay on Walt Disney World property without a discount. Except for a few weeks out of the year, Disney offers great discounts that can make staying on site more affordable. By far the most popular discount is free dining, which is usually offered starting in late August through March, with significant black out dates for major holidays.  If you have a little bit of flexibility regarding when you travel, you can eat well and save a bundle.

By now, you may have heard the rumor floating around that free dining for fall 2012 is being offered starting on July 12th.  As of this morning, those rumors proved to be true! Here are some tips on how to get free dining for your next vacation and whether or not free dining is the best deal over other available discounts:

1. Avoid holiday travel. Thanksgiving week and the “two” weeks of Christmas break will be excluded from all discounts, but Disney also excludes Canadian Thanksgiving, the middle two weeks of October.  Finally, something we can blame the Canadians for!

If you see this, you're probably not getting a discount.

2. Be flexible. You may have to move an existing reservation around by a day or two. If your trip depends on getting free dining, never buy your plane tickets until you know the exact dates for your discounted promotion.

3. There’s no penalty for applying a discount to an existing reservation provided you do so more than 45-days prior to travel. The only rule is that you may only apply one discount at a time, so if you’re booked under a room-only discount, you’ll lose that in favor of free dining. If you have a Disney travel agent, chances are good she’ll do this automatically.

4.  If Disney is offering free dining, they’re probably also offering room discounts for the same time period. As a general rule, free dining at the value resorts is a better deal than the room discount there, whereas a room discount at a deluxe resort usually beats out free dining. There are exceptions to the rule, so you’ll want to weigh both discounts and see which one works best for you, especially if you’re staying at a moderate resort where the difference may only be a few dollars.

5.  Disney usually offers the free quick-service dining plan at the value resorts (including the Art of Animation suites).   Because eating quick-service meals for an entire trip is not ideal, I usually recommend guests upgrade to the base plan.

Get Park Wise:  A family of 4 (2 adults and 2 juniors) staying 7 nights on Disney property will only spend $275.12 to upgrade from the quick to the base plan. That may sound like a lot until you realize that two character meals for this family will equal almost that much.

6.  Let’s clear up this misconception:  Booking early does not guarantee you a room under a discount. This is because Disney only releases a certain amount of rooms per discount and those rooms are unrelated to rooms that have already been booked. For example, they may know they need to fill X number of rooms at Pop Century, all of them preferred views. Say you’re booked at Pop for those free dining dates, but you’re booked in a standard room. You will have to move up to a preferred room in order to get that discount. Your prior booking doesn’t guarantee you that space.  You’ve essentially made a new reservation.

The only real advantage to booking early is that you can start making payments and you’ll get a confirmation number which can make getting dining reservations easier.  Finally, your information is in the system, so when the cast member goes to change your reservation, it will take less time. Likewise, if you’re working with a travel agent, he or she will get a heads up on when the discount comes out and have you changed around immediately; she can’t do that if she doesn’t have your information.

7.  The best way to get a discount is to be aware of when they come out. Disney is a great company. They deliver a fantastic product. But the truth is, they’re not going to go out of their way to let you know that the room you booked six months ago is now available for free dining. Ideally, you book it, forget it, and show up at check-in.  The smart customer watches for discounts and has them applied the day they come out knowing that there’s only a limited amount of rooms offered.

Get Park Wise:  The day fall free dining comes out is the busiest day of the year on the Disney reservations line. Expect wait times of several hours. If you’re not booked at a highly desirable resort (such as Pop or Port Orleans) or if you have some flexibility (you don’t mind moving from a standard view to a preferred), you can probably wait until later in the afternoon and save yourself waiting on hold.

8.  Always apply the first discount that becomes available for your travel dates. Free dining might not be the best discount for you, but go ahead and apply it if that’s all there is. Just as there’s no penalty for changing discounts, there’s also no penalty for applying new discounts as they’re released.

9.  Free dining usually requires guests to purchase at least a 2-day base park ticket. If you’re a pass holder and want to take advantage of free dining, you can buy these tickets and then have them taken off your room key (simply because it’s too easy to accidentally scan), then just put them someplace safe. When it’s time to renew your annual pass, these tickets can be used like money.  The nice thing is, they only increase in value, so if you save them for a few years, your ticket is worth that day’s price, not the price you paid when you purchased them. One caveat: You can only use one type of “media” when you upgrade, so only one ticket per pass holder may be used.

10. While free dining is usually offered to the general public for the fall and early winter, you can often get free dining during busier times of the year by getting a pin code. Pin codes are discount offers exclusive to you and come directly from Disney. You’ll need to sign up at to get one.  Sadly, getting a pin code is fairly random, but rumor has it you can increase your chances of getting one by sending off for the DVD planning kit or by ordering the personalized maps.

When I first started going to Disney World, I didn’t know about discounts and I paid full price. I’m happy to report, you don’t have to do that. Next time you plan a Disney trip, make looking for discounts your mission. The money you save can go toward more Disney trips!

How do you save money at Walt Disney World?

To get free WDW Dining, or to see if it is available for your upcoming trip, please contact your travel agent or get in touch with the fine folks at MiceChat’s official travel agency, Fairy Godmother Travel[email protected]

Park Wise is written by Chris Wood.

You can find Chris at Everything Walt Disney World.

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If you have any specific questions you would like me to tackle, please leave me a comment!

  • jcruise86

    Chris Wood,
    THANK YOU for posting such useful information!.
    We won’t go to WDW for a while (summer of 2014), but your article raised a bunch of additional questions for me. Since I teach a class in 50 minutes I’ll have to figure out precisely what I don’t know later on. It just seems like a pain that Disney has dining reservations 6 months in advance, yet they are not as into planning ahead when it comes to when & what dining discounts will be offered. And I wrong? (I hope I am incorrect.)
    Jcruise86 (AKA, Tom)

  • I wouldn’t pay for the Disney Dining Plan because I just can’t eat that much. But when they start offering the Dining Plan for free as a promotion, then it get’s me interested. I really appreciate your article and the thoughtful look at when the Free Dining or other offers might be best.

    I’m on the phone to Fairy Godmother Travel right now to see if I can get free Dining for my WDW trip this September.

    Much thanks!!!

  • Pingback: A Single Parents’ Guide to Disney – ABC News | Mickey News()

  • jcruise86

    Please tell me what I’m missing from my plan for the summer of 2013 or 2014–yes, I love planning trips in advance.
    1. Reserve hotel (hopefully Port Orleans) in WDW over 6 months in advance (For June or August–I want as many attractions, shows and live entertainers up and running as possible, despite the summer crowds.)
    2. Reserve restaurant sit-down meals 6 months in advance. I’ll avoid parks on days they open early.
    3. Later (perhaps months later), call Disney and ask if I can add free dining to my reservation.
    4. If the “free dining” just includes counter service, upgrade to the plan that will allow us to have an average of one sit-down mea a day.

    Any comments & insider tips you can add will be greatly appreciated. I think I’ll add this to the WDW section, either as part of a thread or as a new thread.
    Thanks again!