A big part of planning your Disney vacation is choosing the best places to eat. But which restaurants are really the best — and which are mostly just hype? For as much as it costs to eat at Disney World — and even if you’re […]
Tag: Disney World
If your family is spending the day at one of the Disney World parks, you’re going to need plenty of stuff with you. How much stuff depends on your personality, how old your kids are, and your eating game plan for the day, among other […]
Every year since 2009, Walt Disney World has offered a “Free Dining” package for specific dates in the fall and early winter. It is always a very popular promotion that my family has taken advantage of in the past and plan to do again in the future (although our next experience with it will be a little different; more about that later.)
When is Free Dining Available?
If you haven’t already, you can book Free Dining now through July 7, 2018.
The promo is available for the following dates. Note that these are the arrival dates. So, for example, that if your family’s vacation is from September 28-October 4, yes, you can get free dining for your entire vacation. But if your vacation is from August 19-25, you are not get free dining. Make sense?
2018 Free Dining Dates (arrival)
August 20* – September 29
November 24 – 27
December 7 – 23
Other Requirements to Qualify for Free Dining:
In addition to arriving during the specific dates when the promo is offered, you must also:
1) Stay for a minimum of 4 nights and a maximum stay of 14 nights (seriously, are their people who stay at Disney World for more than 14 nights? Because I would like to know who exactly these people are.)
2) Purchase a minimum 4-day Park Hopper or Park Hopper Plus tickets. (Also, you cannot use existing tickets, Disney Vacation Club points, or an Annual Pass.)
3) Stay at a Disney Resort that qualifies for Free Dining.
There are actually quite a few resorts and/or rooms that don’t qualify for Free Dining this year, in a variety of different price ranges.
Rooms that Do NOT Qualify for Free Dining in 2018:
All Star Movies
Art of Animation Little Mermaid Rooms
Bay Lake Tower
Port Orleans Resorts (both Riverside and French Quarter)
Polynesian Village Resort (villas & standard rooms)
Fort Wilderness campsites
Villas at Disney’s Grand Floridian
All 3-bedroom Villas
It’s interesting to see how Free Dining has been evolving over the years, as it’s definitely been getting more narrow and more difficult to get. Take a look:
Our first year with Free Dining (which I believe was in 2009):
1) We stayed at Port Orleans Riverside;
2) We had Base tickets (ie, not Park Hopper tickets);
3) I don’t particularly remember having to scramble or stress out to get it.
Now, with 2018 Free Dining:
1) Port Orleans does not offer Free Dining;
2) You must get Park Hopper tickets;
3) My understanding was that it was incredibly stressful day for travel agents everywhere when Free Dining was announced, and that many people who wanted the Free Dining promotion were not able to get it.
I Want Free Dining, But Nothing’s Available!
Don’t give up hope just yet.
One option is to modify your plans. Yeah, I know that’s always a drag, but do you really have your heart set on that one resort, or would you consider something else? Can you change your arrival date? Maybe the answer to both these is “no,” but it’s worth asking yourself how badly you want Free Dining.
Also, cancellations happen all the time. Be persistent and keep checking back, and maybe something will open up for you. I would highly recommend doing everything online and not over the phone. Better yet, contact a travel agent to help you. We booked with Michelle at
So what exactly is included in the Free Dining Plan?
Of course nothing is simple and straightforward when it comes to Disney, and there arethree different tiers of Dining Plans. Which one you get during the free promotion depends on where you’re staying and whether or not you want to pay extra to upgrade it.
If you’re staying at a Walt Disney World Value or Moderate Resort, you’ll receive the Quick Service Dining Plan during the free promotion.
If you’re staying at Deluxe or Deluxe Villa Resorts, you’ll receive the Standard Disney Dining Plan
This actually threw us for a loop this year, because we will be staying at Caribbean Beach Resort (a moderate resort) and I had no idea until after the booking was made that we would not be getting the “Standard Dining Plan” that we were used to getting in the past. (I’m sure somebody told me and I just wasn’t paying close enough attention.)
I debated upgrading to the Standard Plan Dining Plan. But at $22.99 per adult and $4.00 per child (ages 3-9) per night, that would come to $115 per night for our family. That seems a little ridiculous for something that we originally chose to get because it was “free.” (Especially considering that price doesn’t even include tipping.)
So we will stay with the Quick Service Plan. I definitely do not want to eat counter service at the parks the entire time, so this will be a nice opportunity to hop on the monorail and try places like Captain Cook’s at the Polynesian, Contempo Café at the Contemporary Resort, or the Gasparilla Island Grill at the Grand Floridian Resort, none of which I’ve tried before and all of which I have heard good things about.
So we’ll make it work, and it will be fun. And I’ll have plenty of new restaurants to report back to you about. Everybody wins!
By the way, if you’re staying at Deluxe Resort and, therefore, getting the Standard Dining Plan, you can pay extra to upgrade to the Deluxe Dining Plan. I have no idea why you would want to do that, since it’s way more food than I can imagine anybody needing, but hey, the option is there and I’m sure there are some people who take it.
Is Free Dining “Worth It”? What’s the Catch?
The short answer is that it depends on your personal situation and priorities.
First let me say that our family is very pro-Free Dining. We have done it twice and totally loved it. Part of the appeal for us — a big part of it, actually — is emotional rather than logical. It feels like we’re being showered with riches and treated like royalty. (“We get dessert, too? And we don’t have to pay for any of it?”)
My husband Robert especially loves the fact that we don’t have to act financially responsible during the actual trip. We just eat what we want, when we want it. We don’t have to shudder at the thought of our vacation bill steadily climbing with each cream cheese pretzel we purchase — or worse, ruin half our vacation debating things like whether it’s in our budget to get yet another Dole Whip.
But while Free Dining is a great deal, it’s not quite the amazing, “Wow, constant free food!” situation that we like to pretend it is.
If you are really on a tight budget and concerned about saving money, then ironically, the Free Dining Promo might not be your best option.
How is that possible?
Well, for one thing, if you choose the Free Dining Promo, you are almost always forfeiting some sort of room discount promo that you could have opted for instead.
So now you might be wondering: What’s the better deal, the room discount or Free Dining?
Ha ha ha … you didn’t actually think there would be a simple answer to that, did you?
It depends on several different factors, like where you’re staying and how many people are in your party. You’d have to crunch some numbers and do calculations for different scenarios to really know for sure.
Fortunately, you don’t need to do that (and more importantly, I don’t need to do that) because someone else has already done it for us.
Leah Althiser at The Frugal South has some helpful charts here that compares the prices in different scenarios.
Tom Bricker at the Disney Tourist Blog has an in-depth discussion of the free-dining-versus-room-discount discussion that involves more numbers than you may even care to know. )
But there’s a third option that might even be better: Not getting Free Dining or the room discount.
After all, hink of all the other potential ways to save money that you’re forfeiting by getting Free Dining.
What if, instead, you stayed off-site, bought discounted Base tickets from from Undercover Tourist, ate most of your meals off-site, and brought your own snacks into the parks?
True, that would be a different type of vacation than staying at a Walt Disney resort and getting the Free Dining Plan. But it would probably be a cheaper vacation than it would be if you opted for “Free Dining.”
Just something to think about it. As for me and my family, we’re opting for Free Dining yet again — and were lucky enough to get it.
I hope this post answered all of your questions about Free Dining at Walt Disney World. Like I said, we’ve taken advantage of it multiple times and love it.
If you have any questions, or have your own experience to share, just leave a comment below!
Planning a vacation to Disney World is a strange thing. It often requires that someone (probably you, since you are the one reading this) needs to take on a part-time job of learning complicated details of things thing that are relatively simple in Real Life. […]
A big part of the Disney World vacation experience is dining. However, as you probably know, eating at Disney World is no simple matter. It requires planning (sometimes almost a ridiculous amount), there are a huge amount of choices, and none of it is cheap. […]
Originally this post was going to be called “Ways to get your kids excited about your Disney trip,” which is sort of funny, if you think about it. As if most kids are sitting around lethargically complaining that they have to go to Disney World, and it’s up to you as a parent to beg and plead and cajole them into looking forward to it.
So no, you probably don’t need to “do anything” to get anyone excited if you have a Disney trip scheduled. But why not make the weeks or months leading up to it as fun as you can? I mean, seriously … for as much as a family Disney trip costs, you might as well get the most bang for your buck and “start the magic” as early as possible.
Here are some great countdown calendars, as well as activities that you can do together as a family, to enjoy your waiting period.
1. Disney Countdown Chains
There are two nice things about chains. One, they’re easy to make. Two, seeing the chain physically get smaller over the days is particularly satisfying to me, more so than just crossing off numbers on a calendar.
To make a chaing, just cut strips of yellow, red, and black construction paper (or whatever color you prefer; no one will come after you if you do it in “non-Disney” colors). Once you have enough strips for each day of your trip, tape or glue them into a chain, and hang it somewhere. Then make two smaller black chain links and attach them to the top to create “mouse ears.”
It’s nice, but not necessary, to number each chain link going backward. And if you’re really hard-core, you can write an activity for that day, like “watch Pixar movie” or “make Mickey Mouse pancakes,” on each strip
2. Countdown Signs
These are even more simple; almost ridiculously so, if you want them to be.
All you need is a simple hanging dry-erase board or hanging chalkboard sign, plus something to write on it with,Ggive it a title, draw some mouse ears on it, and write the number of days until your trip. Then every morning erase the number and write the new one.
If you want something more elaborate, you can always turn to Etsy, either for making a purchase or just to get some inspiration to create your own sign.
3. Countdown Blocks
Countdown block sets are cool because they can potentially be used for years, if not decades, and they make nice home decor. They’re also great for people who like to start their countdowns as early as possible. I don’t think I would want to make a chain with 350 links, but with these blocks? A 350-day countdown is no problem!
Now on to activities …
4) Games and Toys
My girls were ages 2 and 4 when our family went to Disney World for the first time, and in the days leading up to it, they had me play “Going to Disney” with them at least once a day, if not more.(I’m guessing that I have a higher tolerance for “pretend play” that a lot of other parents do.)
This game involved getting in the “car” (actually our living room couch), arriving at “Disney World” and running to and hugging various characters, and then riding some of the “rides.” (The slide on our backyard swing set was Splash Mountain, but I can’t remember any other specifics.
Another fun game is Disney 20 Questions. Basically, someone thinks of a Disney character and the other people ask yes or no questions until they guess who it is. (We never actually count the questions when we play this.) This is a nice game because you can play during Annoying Times in Life like while you’re sitting in the carpool lane or waiting in line at the post office.
This board game is one that we own and have enjoyed playing, whether we’re counting down to a Disney vacation or not. I would agree somewhat with this negative review, but we solved that problem by re-wording one type of question and completely skipping a second type of question.
This Little People Day at Disney playset for preschoolers is absolutely adorable:
It has two figures, Mickey Mouse and a kid wearing Mickey ears. Together they can ride the train, the tea cups, It’s a Small World, and Dumbo. There’s even a button you can push for music and a fireworks show. You can also buy additional figurines of other Disney characters.
5. Educational Activities
I’ve always been a book nerd and homeschooled my kids for a decade, so it’s not surprising that I would want to turn a trip to Disney World into a reading opportunity and an educational experience.
Biographies are always fascinating and inspiring to me, so I really enjoyed reading about Walt Disney with my family. Interestingly (and sadly), a schoolteacher called him “the second stupidest kid in the class,” and his father was extremely reluctant to buy Walt even the most basic art supplies. And of course, if you saw the movie Saving Mr. Banks, you already know about how Walt had to wake up at 3:30am to deliver newspapers in the snow when he was a boy.
A sneaky way to get children to practice their writing skills is to have them write to one or more of their favorite Disney characters at the address below. They will get an autographed postcard mailed to them within 4-6 weeks.
One activity I wish I had thought to do when the kids were younger was learn a little about the World Showcase countries. We had lunch at Biergarten, and it would have been neat if we had learned a little about German costumes, music, and food beforehand.
Ah well, you can’t do everything.
6. Disney movies
This is a pretty obvious pre-Disney trip activity, and an easy one. We used to have Friday movie night where we would watch a movie and make pizza, and it was a nice ritual.
There are 730 films that are considered “Disney movies,” so if you are the type of person who likes to be thorough, you could be busy for a very long time.
To make it a little easier for you, here’s my personal list of the top movies you should see before a Disney trip, both because they are featured prominently at the parks and because they’re my favorites:
It’s a Bug’s Life
Beauty and the Beast
The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh
Dumbo (be warned, though; this one is gut-wrenching in parts)
Cars (this isn’t one of my personal favorites, but my son Benjamin loved it)
The Little Mermaid
If your kids are really little and you’re afraid that a full-blown movie might be too scary for them (which was an issue in our house), then check out the Disney Singalong Songs series. They have the clips of songs from various Disney movies, along with the words at the bottom of the screen. My girls loved them and watched them again and again.
7) Videos about the Disney parks
If you haven’t already, you can easily request the FREE Disney World planning videos by clicking the image below. Yes, they’re a little, uh … promotional, but it’s a good place to start, and they’re completely free, so why not?
Our family watched videos about Disney World again and again (and again). Rebecca was fascinated with the beginning of this 1980 video, where a little blond girl walks up to the Cinderella castle. (What was fascinating to me was how, apparently, in 1980, Disney characters would just hang out in the middle of the park dancing with people and shaking kids’ hands.)
A Dream Called Walt Disney World
If your kids like to sing (or even if they don’t), this is a really fun DVD where you can watch the more “classic” Disney characters romp happily around the Disneyland while singing songs like “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “It’s a Small World.”
I know a lot of people like to get on YouTube and just watch complete footage of specific rides, but as someone who didn’t know any of my kids’ genders until they arrived, I personally don’t like to have that much information beforehand.
8) Outdoor Activities
I read that the average Disney guest walks between 6-13 miles a day, which means you’d better start getting ready! (AND you’d better get comfortable shoes for walking around Disney World!)
A daily walk or bike ride in the name of “getting ready for Disney” isn’t a bad idea. You get some family togetherness and some exercise, and hopefully you’ll end up with more energy for your days at the parks.
Hopefully there’s plenty here for you to have fun with as you count down the days until arrive at Disney!
If you’re planning a trip to Disney World, you should really check out Etsy. They have some digital printable downloads that can make your vacation easier, less stressful — more fun! Here are four types of printables you don’t want to miss. They are cute, […]
The very first time we went to Disney World as a family, I debated whether we should spring for an autograph book. After all, if you think about it (although I usually try not to), it’s really just an employee in a suit who has […]
“The best meal I have ever had at Disney World,” my eye doctor told me a couple years ago, “was breakfast at the Tusker House restaurant in Animal Kingdom.”
Well, she should know. This is a woman in her mid-thirties who has been to Disney World at least once a year since childhood, she’d told me, which adds up to … well, a lot of visits to Disney restaurants.
Earlier this year my two daughters were eager to go back to Disney, while my son and my husband didn’t particularly care one way or the other. Since we didn’t have the money at the time for all five of us to go, we split up one week in September — the guys drove to the next state to relatives, while we girls went to Disney, just the three of us.
(This is highly recommended, by the way, especially if you have a family like ours, where the “Disney desires” are a little off-balance. It made the trip extra special for it to be “just the girls” and managing three people’s desires, energy levels, hunger, and other annoyances is much easier than juggling five.)
While planning the trip, I remember my eye doctor’s wise words and made a Tusker House breakfast our number one priority when making dining reservations.
The Tusker House Restaurant
The Tusker House character meal buffet is located in the Africa section of Animal Kingdom, sort of in-between Festival of the Lion King (which we’ve never seen) and Kilimanjaro Safari (which we’ve ridden multiple times and enjoyed very much.)
The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Is is themed to look and feel like a Harambe marketplace, and there were, in fact, cast members performing on African drums outside the restaurant as made our way in.
The one downside I would say about the restaurant was that it had a “dark and busy” feel to it. Obviously that’s somewhat by design, but for that reason I felt a little more cramped and didn’t enjoy the environment quite as much as, say, the buffet at The Crystal Palace.
The actual food at Tusker House, however, was much better than it was at The Crystal Palace. I guess there’s always a trade-off.
Tusker House Breakfast Menu
I absolutely loved the Coconut Sweet Potato Casserole, the Sweet Plantains, and the Banana-Cinnamon Banana Pudding (oh my gosh, that was good!). I also really enjoyed the Basmati Rice with Lemon Cinnamon and Cardamon.
The girls particularly loved the scrambled eggs (I don’t know if there was something particularly “African” about the eggs, but Rachael thought they were amazingly good) and the Cheese Blintzes which came with an optional cherry or apple topping.
The meal also comes with something called Jungle Juice, which was a combination of orange, guava, and passion fruit juice that we loved. It was very thick and sweet in a natural-fruity way. One of the girls — I won’t say which one — chugged two full glasses pretty quickly because she loved it so much. I wouldn’t recommend this, as it made her feel a little sick afterwards. So consider that your Java Juice Warning.
Tusker House Jungle Juice Recipe
Tusker House Characters
The Tusker House is home to Mickey, Goofy, and both Donald and Daisy Duck, all dressed in safari outfits, which is a nice touch. There aren’t a whole lot of places in Disney World where you can find Daisy Duck (the entrance to Epcot is one of the other spots), so that’s a fun treat in itself.
I admit that I’m a sucker for meeting the characters at Disney World, getting full-out giddy like I’m still a kid. I personally prefer the characters like this that are “animals” (ie, Mickey Mouse) as opposed to “people” (ie Cinderella).
We’ve been to three different character meals with Mickey Mouse and his friends — Chef Mickey’s at the Contemporary Resort, Garden Grill at Epcot, and Tusker House in Animal Kingdom.
Of the three, Tusker House had the best food by far. I would say that Garden Grill and Tusker House are tied for best environment, depending on how your personal feelings about buffets, rotating restaurants, and African marketplaces.
If you want to have a little bit of your own “safari outfit” yourself, then check out this Mickey safari iron-on that can be personalized with your name.
Or you can even get your own safari hat to match Mickey’s!
I don’t know if this is typical, but it took us an awfully long time to get to see the characters, especially compared with our other character meals that week. I think we had all finished eating and still hadn’t seen anybody, or even see any sign of them heading our way. This wasn’t a big problem, but it could have been if we had been on a tight schedule.
One thing worth noting for any character meal: When Daisy Duck came to our table, one of my daughters was in the bathroom. (She was the one who was not feeling well after OD-ing on Java Juice. I told Daisy to go on to the next table while we waited, but my daughter was gone for a while and by that time Daisy was in another part of the restaurant.
When we were leaving, I explained the situation to our server and they had us come wait in an area near the entrance until they could get Daisy to make a special visit with us. (That’s why we’re all in front of a blank wall in that photo.)
So just keep in mind that if you miss a character for some reason, you can still flag them down — as long as you don’t mind waiting for a few extra minutes.
The Best Breakfasts at Disney World
Lunch and Dinner Menu at The Tusker House
Dinner and lunch menu items include basmati rice and curry chicken, whole salmon, roasted chicken, roasted pork, fresh breads and pita, tabouli and hummus dips, fruit chutney, and fruit salad.
For the kids (although I suppose adults are allowed to eat them too) are mashed potatoes, mac & cheese, corn dog nuggets, and various deli meats and cheeses.
There are also a few alcoholic beverages, including draft or bottled beer, African Margaritas, and Sugar Cane Mojitos. And if you haven’t already heard, one of the changes to the 2018 Disney Dining Plan is that alcoholic beverages are now allowed.
They also, of course, have several non-alcoholic beverages, including not just sodas, but also
We had lunch there previously and I remember liking it a lot, but that was before I was blogging and doing things like taking photos of my meal, so I don’t remember many details. I do remember really liking the plantains and banana bread pudding.
Review of Flame Tree BBQ in Animal Kingdom
The Prices at Tusker House
Breakfast — $30 (child $18)
Lunch — $38 (child $23)
Dinner — $42 (child $25)
Tusker House is less expensive than some of the other character meals at Disney World. As a point of comparison, the cost of breakfast at Cinderella’s Royal Table — if you’re lucky enough to get a reservation — is between $45-$65 for adults.
Of course, I personally was not paying much attention to how much it cost at the time because we were there during Free Dining dates.
You could reasonably argue that the Tusker House breakfast is a bad choice if you’re on the Free Dining Plan, because you could eat someone else more expensive for no additional cost. However, our family tends to just eat Wherever We Want to Eat when we go to Disney World and not worry too much about things like that.
So while the Tusker House isn’t perfect (the noise and slowness of the characters’ arrival were the main downsides), the food is excellent and it’s a great way to meet multiple “classic” Disney characters.