Everything Walt Disney World

Parks, Food, Resorts and More

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Free Dining.

Belgian Chocolate Trio at Yachtsman Steakhouse.

Unless you’re traveling during the busiest weeks of the year, you’ll probably get a discount when staying on Disney property. By far, the most popular discount is free dining. Originally offered in the fall to bring in guests during the slowest months of year, free dining is now offered, either through general public discounts or pin codes, during all but the most busiest times.  Here’s what you need to know.

When is it offered?

Free dining, like most Disney discounts is offered during the slowest months of the year. Safe bets are late August, September, the first and last weeks of October, select days in November and December, most of January, and select days in February and March. 

Keep in mind that free dining will be blacked out for holidays like Columbus day, where kids are out of school, Canadian Thanksgiving (the middle two weeks in October), Jersey Week (early November), Thanksgiving week, Christmas week (usually the 19th through New Year’s Day), marathon week in January, and Martin Luther King Day.  Black out dates will vary from year to year, so be flexible about when you can travel.  For this reason, I usually recommend people hold off on booking their flights until free dining is announced.

How do you get free dining?

Check into a Disney resort when free dining is offered and you’ll qualify.  As long as you’re checking in on a day it’s offered, you’re good for your entire stay.  You’ll need to buy a 2-day park ticket to qualify. If you’re an annual pass holder, you can save that ticket for another trip, pass it onto someone else, or use as “money” the next time you buy an annual pass. Just remember if you’re not using the ticket to have the cast member take it off your Key to the World Card at check-in so you don’t accidentally swipe it in the park.

Free dining is offered in two ways, either as a general public discount offered to everyone or as a pin code.  Pin codes are discounts that are personal to you; you can read more about them here

I’ve already got a reservation. Can I still get free dining?

Yes.  Just have the new discount applied to your existing reservation. If you’ve got a room-only reservation, you’ll need to switch it over to a package and add tickets.  A way to avoid this is to book a “base” package where you have the option of adding tickets and dining later.  Keep in mind that some resorts and room categories are excluded, so you may have to move up to a different category of room or even a different resort.

Generally, it’s best to get free dining added your reservation the first day it’s out.  Disney never announces how many rooms in a resort will get free dining, but you can bet that the availability of standard rooms under any promotion is very limited.  Once rooms are booked, that’s it.  So if you’re set on staying at a certain resort, you’ll want to have it applied right away, but if you’re flexible about where you’ll stay, you can avoid the three hour waits on hold the day free dining comes out and come back later when things slow down a bit. I know last August when free dining was announced, there were resort categories that filled up that morning. Others weren’t sold out even on the last day free dining was available.

Remember, there are no penalties for adding a discount to an existing package unless you’re under 45-days prior to travel. After that time, you may be charged a $50 change fee.  If you’re already booked under a promotion and free dining is better for you, you can switch to free dining, but remember the promotion you have will be gone. So a room discount will go to rack rate or a “kids free” option will disappear.  Disney has one clear rule with discounts and it is that you can only apply one discount at at time. Otherwise, feel free to change to as many promotions as they are released.

What’s better: A room discount or free dining?

It depends entirely on the make up of your group and where you’re staying, but generally free dining is best at the values and room discounts are a better option at the deluxe resorts. Moderates can break close to even. You’ll want to do all the math on this one, since your group make up can change your savings a great deal. Further, Disney doesn’t always discount deluxe resorts the same. In the past, we’ve seen 25% off at the Grand Floridian while other deluxe resorts were discounted at 35% off.  That can change your savings enough that free dining might be a better option.

I’m staying at a value resort and getting the quick-service plan for free.  Can I upgrade to the base plan?

Yes, you can upgrade to the base plan or even the deluxe plan. You’ll just pay the difference between the two plans, a minimal amount.

On a personal note, I don’t really like the quick-service plan. I think it can be too much “fast food” if you’re not familiar with the parks and the locations that serve healthier options, so I usually recommend guests upgrade to the base plan, which I think is the most practical plan and the best use of your money.

I’m not sure I’ll eat enough for the dining plan to be worth it. Should I still get free dining if it’s available?

It depends, but look at it this way: It’s free, and most of the time, it’s the best discount out there. Even if you’re a light eater, you’re going to have to eat on Disney property at some point, if not for your entire stay. Three small quick-service meals a day will run you around $30 to $40 per person. This is assuming you get a sandwich and a drink each time, nothing else.  So while you might be a light eater and feel that the plan isn’t worth it, when you add up what you’ll be spending anyway, it looks a lot better.

Again, do the math. Go to sites like All Ears and check out their menus. And then see if you can make free dining work versus a room discount.

12 Comments

  1. How does the tips work?

  2. Norie, tips aren’t included on the dining plan at all, so you’ll just add those when you get your check.

  3. Hi there! Planning on running the Princess 1/2 next February… Is this a time that’s usually blacked out for dining? Thank you! 🙂

  4. When would they announce free dining for sept.?

  5. I have received free dining 3 times. Once by pin code and twice for the time of year. It is wonderful to have and much nicer than carrying a lot of cash or going home to a big credit card bill!

  6. Karen R, no one knows. There will probably be two offers if it’s like last year.

  7. O Sheena, it might be. Your safest bet is to initially book a room through Run Disney–the discounts aren’t great but they’re better than nothing. Then when the promos come out, you can compare.

  8. Gaylin, I know some people loathe free dining but if you’re a TA, it’s your bread and butter. That’s when we book most of our clients. And the fact that I can eat whatever I want? I like that too.

  9. I’ve never purchased the Dining Plan (any of them) because up until recently Disney didn’t let annual passholders in on that benefit. I’m thinking about trying it on our next trip though.

  10. I’m a DVC member now, so I don’t get free dining anymore. I wish that Disney would change the dining plan a bit so that you could choose to add it for part of your trip, but not the whole trip — without having to switch resorts, or do some sort of split stay.

  11. Do you know when Disney will announce the Jan-Feb 2014 Free Dining dates (assuming its offered during that time)?

  12. I was wondering the same thing, but for March. We are hoping to go March 22-28th and I was wondering when they would announce the free dining days? Is it usually a few months in advance?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Magical Express.

One of my favorite benefits of staying on site is Disney’s Magical Express which, despite its name, isn’t the name of the tour bus belonging to a 1970s-era rock band. Magical Express, or “ME” as it’s known in Disney online communities, is Disney’s bus system that takes guests from the Orlando International Airport (MCO) to Disney World. Here are some of the questions I see a lot about Magical Express.

Sign for Magical Express at MCO.

QUESTION: How does Magical Express work?

ANSWER: Surprisingly well, actually. I know that some detractors criticize Magical Express as a way of getting guests on property and leaving them dependent on Disney transportation, which in turn makes it difficult to go off site. Okay, so that may be one of the results, but honestly, it’s a pretty good system. One of the things I hate dealing with on vacation is my luggage and this pretty much eliminates the need to worry about it from check-in at my home airport until I walk into my room later that day. That, to me, is brilliant.

Disney has a contract with MCO for the foreseeable future that gives them a central baggage receiving area right at the airport. All luggage with the yellow Magical Express tags goes to this location where it’s loaded onto Disney transportation and sent to the appropriate resort.

You’ll call ME at 866-599-0951 at least ten days before your departure date and give the cast member your flight and resort information. Shortly thereafter, you’ll receive your luggage tags. When you check in , you’ll put these tags on your bags and that’s it. Once you arrive you’ll take the bus to your resort and several hours later, your bags will be sent to your room. It’s a great feeling to spend a day in the parks and then come back to your room—happy and exhausted–and see your bags waiting for you.

QUESTION: Who can use Magical Express?

ANSWER: Anyone travelling domestically and staying at a Disney resort. The does NOT include the Downtown Disney hotels, Shades of Green, and the Swan/Dolphin. Not all carriers use the luggage service, although if your airline does not, you may still use Magical Express . Just check your own baggage, pick it up when you arrive, and bring it to the bus.

Currently, the following airlines use ME’s luggage service: Air Train, Alaskan, American, Continental, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, United and USAir. Southwest is currently in a trial phase of delivery to resorts. At this time it does not deliver luggage to all of them, so you’ll want to verify that with Magical Express that your resort is a participating resort for Southwest.

Keep in mind that minors under the age of 16 will need to be accompanied by an adult.

QUESTION: When should I book Magical Express?

ANSWER: At least ten days prior to arrival. Anecdotally, I’ve taken spur of the moment trips and used ME with only a few days notice; I didn’t get luggage tags on time so I just checked my own bags. I’ve also heard that people have gone up to ME with no reservation at all and used it after providing their resort reservation number. As always, it depends on the time of the year and availability, so if possible, let ME know ahead of time, even if it’s only a day’s notice.

About a week before your departure, you’ll receive your luggage tags and ME voucher.  Your tags will have your name and your resort name.  Should you change your resort after the tags arrive or if the resort name is incorrect, cross out the name, put in the proper resort and inform ME before you leave.

Magical Express luggage tags.

QUESTION: What do I do when I get to MCO?

ANSWER: You’ll go to Terminal B, Level 1 to get checked in and wait for your bus. Sometimes, there is no check in at all; you’ll simply be waived over to your bus. I’ve literally walked right on, waited a couple of minutes, and been on a bus out of MCO.

QUESTION: What are the buses like?

ANSWER: They’re very clean, with comfortable seats. It’s a typical tour bus, except with bright and cheery Disney colors. There are two seats on each side of the aisle. As the bus leaves the airport you’ll be shown a program telling guests about Disney World. It’s cute and like most people who ride ME a lot, for me it kind of says “We’re here!” On the way back, you’ll see a short program as well. I’d like to tell you what it’s about but I’m usually too sad to watch.

Service dogs are allowed with the owner. There is also wheelchair accommodation. Let the cast member know about any accommodations you’ll need when you make your ME reservation.

A little word of advice. These aren’t like Greyhound buses. There aren’t any bathrooms (however frightening) on board. If you or someone in your group can’t make it to the resort, make sure you stop and use the restroom before boarding. There are some on your left just as you get into the Magical Express area.

QUESTION: Do I have to check my bags with Magical Express?

ANSWER: No. Just use your airline’s regular baggage service. You’ll go to your appropriate luggage carousel when you arrive, get your luggage, and then bring it your bus. Your driver will load it underneath the bus and unload it when you reach your resort.

Feel free to use the force to get your luggage.

QUESTION: How long does it take to get from MCO to Disney World?

ANSWER: It depends on the time of year. During busier times, it could easily take three hours from landing to check-in at your resort. The usual wait is more like one and a half to two hours. This is mainly due to lines at MCO for Magical Express, not the drive itself. Keep in mind as well that MCO is actually around 35 – 45 minutes from Disney property. My average wait/travel time is about 90-minutes, although on more than one occasion I’ve gone from the airport to the parks in just under two hours. Often, I’ve walked right onto a bus and haven’t had to wait. Despite the occasional horror story you see posted on Disney message boards, Magical Express works quite well and is often the quickest way to get you to your resort.

Again, I want to caution that travel time can vary a lot. In fact, even during slower times of the year, you could easily get stuck behind a tour group and have to wait at MCO for a while. I’m a worse case scenario kind of girl: I assume, even during slower times, that it will take me a minimum of two hours to get from MCO to check-in at my resort, with another hour added on to reach the parks after check-in, that way I’m always pleasantly surprised when it takes less time.

QUESTION: I’d like to go directly to the parks. Can I ride a different bus to Disney property (such as a monorail resort) and then go back to my resort and check-in later?

ANSWER: No. You’ll have to ride the assigned bus for your resort. There’s no rule that says you have to check in right away. If you’re arriving with a lot of people, you could go right from your bus to a resort bus and head to a park. In fact, I often check in later if there are a lot of people ahead of me.

QUESTION: I won’t be staying at a Disney resort until several days after I arrive at MCO. Instead, I’ll be staying at Universal and plan on renting a car for those days and then returning it to MCO as I don’t think I’ll need it in Disney World. Can I take ME to my resort even though it’s not my arrival day?

ANSWER: Yes. You get one transfer to and from your resort. As long as you use your transfer on a day you are a registered guest, you’re fine. In other words, you don’t have to use ME on the day you fly in. To avoid confusion, some people just give ME an arrival day that isn’t the actual day they are coming into Orlando, but the day they will actually use ME.

QUESTION: On our next trip my son is bringing a friend who will need to return home several days before we do. His mother does not want him to ride ME alone as he is only fifteen. Can I go with him and then get a ride back to our resort?

ANSWER: Yes. While you are normally allowed one only trip to and from your resort, Disney will make exceptions in cases like this. Disney actually prefers that a parent or guardian accompany anyone under the age of 18.

QUESTION: What if I want to rent a car? Can some of my party take ME or do we all have to take it?

ANSWER: You’ll hear the same answer everywhere: Magical Express is not a luggage delivery service. If you ask Disney, they will tell you that at least one person in your party needs to ride ME. The reality is, Disney has a contract with MCO to deliver every yellow-tagged ME bag to its proper resort. Your checked bags do not go on ME with you. This means that if you’re willing to take the chance of your luggage making it to the resort even though no one in your party checked in with Magical Express upon arrival, then you don’t have to ride ME.

QUESTION: I have a carry-on bag that I don’t want to take to the parks. If my room isn’t ready, what do I do with it?

ANSWER: You can leave your bag with the resort’s baggage services. They’ll tag it and you can just pick it up later.

QUESTION: How many luggage tags will Disney give me?

ANSWER: They will give you one tag per guest. If you need more, call 866-599-0951 and they will send them to you.

QUESTION: How do I get back to MCO?

ANSWER: When you make arrangements to use ME, you’ll provide them will all your flight information. You’ll receive information the night before you leave telling you what time you’ll need to meet the ME bus the following day, usually three hours before your flight departs. You’ll check your bags and if you’re flying a participating airline, you won’t see them until you arrive back at your home airport.

Buses stop at four places in the airport, as well as at the several resorts that particular bus serves.

QUESTION: What if I miss my bus?

ANSWER: When you make arrangements with Magical Express, you’ll give them all your flight information which allows them to assign you to a bus. If your plane is delayed or if you miss your plane, Disney will still take you to your resort when you arrive. In other words, you’re not assigned to a bus for a specific time; there’s some flexibility. If you miss your flight and will be getting in later than 10:00 p.m., check your own luggage and pick it up.

Missing your bus from your resort is somewhat more complicated. Officially, Disney won’t put you on another bus. Unofficially, I’ve heard they sometimes will, particularly in cases where the delay is not your fault. Be prepared to pay for a cab, as it will depend on the time of year and the cast member you speak to. Keep in mind that their official policy is to only let you ride on your scheduled bus, so it really is beyond the individual cast member’s discretion.

A few final points:

o Magical Express luggage service stops picking up for flights arriving after 10:00 p.m. If your flight is arriving near or around that time, you’ll check your bags normally, pick them up at the baggage carousel, and then have them loaded on the bus.

o Drivers can accept tips. If they help you with your luggage, even a couple dollars is a nice way to say “thank you” to someone who works very hard. In my experience, ME drivers are especially friendly and helpful.

o Carry a travel-on bag with necessities. You bags may arrive within an hour or two or they may be . . . delayed. Significant delays (more than six hours) are rare and are usually the fault of your airline, but it does happen. Take medications, glasses, your little one’s favorite teddy bear, etc., with you on the plane. You can check that bag once you arrive at your resort.

o If your flight arrives later than 2:00 p.m., considering not going to the parks. Use that day to explore your resort. Many guests treat arrival day as a good excuse to enjoy the pool. There will be towels at the pool that you can use, so don’t worry about packing any.

o Don’t waste that Le Cellier reservation you worked so hard to get on your first day if you think there’s any chance your flight could get delayed or you’ll encounter substantial waits at MCO.

o Still feel like you need a car? You can rent one on Disney property and save money. More on this in an upcoming post.

o It sounds obvious but remember: If you don’t have a Magical Express tag on your bag, you’ll need to pick your bag up at the baggage carousel when you arrive.

o Car seats need to be stowed with luggage. They are not allowed on the bus.

4 Comments

  1. Hello Chris,
    I’ve been waiting for a post like this, and your next one on car rental on property. I’ve always rented but this fall I’ll be doing ME to and from and then renting while there. Thank you for this really good description.
    BruceWDW
    A World View

  2. One more point … be sure you are put on the correct bus by Disney. One year we discovered (after the bus left the airport) that we had been led to the wrong bus – it wasn’t going to our resort. Not a big deal … the driver happily took a detour and dropped us.
    Other than that – a great service.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Some updates that may be needed:
    I currently sit on a magical express bus going from our resort (CBC) to MCO.
    After checking in our luggage at the resort we headed to the food area for a last meal. A mixture of time getting away from us combined with the resort’s internal shuttle lagging behind, had us returning approx 10 min late for our ME bus. It had already left. The next bus arrived 30 minutes later to our resort and we hopped on and arrived in plenty of time to make our flight.
    Also, the bus we were on did have a bathroom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*