For my thoughts on the re-opening of Walt Disney World, see this.

By the co-author of The easy Guide to Your Walt Disney World Visit 2020, the best-reviewed Disney World guidebook series ever.

Available on Amazon here.

(As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

The Impact of Free Dining on Crowds at Walt Disney World

By Dave Shute


Pretty much every time Disney World announces a free dining deal (like this one), I get a  bunch of comments like this:

“Dave–with free dining now announced for my week, should I move my dates to avoid the crowds it draws?”–Perplexed

My short answer is always something like “No, don’t change.  It’s mathematically impossible for free dining to much change park crowds.”

For the longer answer–and why the short answer is true–keep reading!


Here’s the basics:

  • The vast majority of people in the parks are NOT staying in a Walt Disney World hotel
  • Free dining only affects the number of people staying in Disney World hotels
  • Some people who take advantage of free dining arrival dates would have been in Walt Disney World hotels then anyway, so don’t incrementally add to park crowds
  • Some people are simply pulled into Disney World hotels from off-site hotels by free dining, so have no incremental impact on park crowds
  • Some people would not have gone during one of the eligible arrival dates at all except for free dining

Only this last group has an incremental impact on park crowds, and it is so small that it can’t affect park crowding much.

Here’s why:  including all the Art of Animation rooms, there’s about 27,200 Walt Disney World hotel rooms (excluding the Campsites at Fort Wilderness, which are never eligible for free dining).

The last bucket–people who would not have come but for free dining–is going to book at most 20% of these rooms, or about 5500 rooms.

At 3 people per room, that’s about 16,000 incremental people.

Divided across 4 theme parks, two water parks, off-days, Universal and SeaWorld, etc., the incremental effect on any given park is de minimis.

For example, on a slow day (and basically free dining is only offered during the slow periods–that’s why they offer it…), the Magic Kingdom will have 20,000-25,000 people in it; adding another 5,000 or even 10,000 people will have only a trivial impact on park crowding, as this will still put the crowd level well below the point where the park lines start going crazy.

Free dining does make the park crowds higher than they would be on the same exact dates without free dining, but not enough to change the nature of the parks or their lines.

It does crowd the hotels–that’s the point–and crowd the restaurants–that’s the tool.

But in general, you should view the presence of free dining during your week as an indicator that it’s a pretty low crowd week to attend!



1 Tom { 08.15.12 at 2:53 pm }

Dave, regarding this matter.
My last two visits to WDW (Feb’12 & May ’11) were both aimed to maximize free dining promotions. I mean, I would have gone anyway to WDW and I would have stayed at Disney hotels, but when I found out about “free dining” I altered my schedule.
For instance: In October 2010 I found out about “free dining” for 2011 so I made a choice taking into consideration this matter (that was checking in on a Saturday in late May) and the following October I made a choice for February also taking into consideration this promotion.
My kids are small so I didn’t mind which day to check in and the only thing I regret is that staying at Pop you don’t get Chef Mickey’s on the plan.

2 Dave { 08.15.12 at 4:51 pm }

Thanks, Tom!

3 Lisa { 08.16.12 at 8:25 pm }

I have to say I have been worried about this. Although this is not our first visit, it will be our first time in October. I have never been during a time in which ever hotel I check is filled. I was going to change my reservation from a moderate to a deluxe but when I checked for rooms the only thing left was club level. Who needs club level when you already have free dining? Anyway I am still hoping for an enjoyable trip, but I think it’s going to be a lot busier then what we are use o.

4 Dave { 08.17.12 at 7:45 am }

Lisa, the hotel will be busier, but not much the parks!

5 Lily from Destinations in Florida { 08.17.12 at 10:44 pm }

Lisa, I agree with Dave the park are great during October and you can’t beat the weather!

6 Amanda from Destinations in Florida { 08.19.12 at 10:14 am }

The Free Dining promotion is a great tool to help save families money. While it may seem that many Walt Disney World Resorts are sold out when looking up the free dining, it may not be. The resorts only offer a certain number of spots for FREE dining at certain resorts those spots do get grabbed quickly.
Our family visits every October, great events with Food & Wine Festival (use the snack credits for you samples at kiosks) and Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party!

7 Dave { 08.19.12 at 11:52 am }

Great point about the limited availability, Amanda…

8 Lisa { 08.19.12 at 8:31 pm }

Thanks everyone. I am less panicked now. Although I have checked both ways. With the free dining plan and just room only. Nothing left at any deluxe for our dates. Which are 10/20 – 10/26. Still looking forward to it. This will be our first time at a moderate. We usually stay at the Wilderness Lodge, but since we were just there 12/11 we needed to step down in price. We will see how we like it.

9 Dave { 08.20.12 at 8:00 am }

Lisa, have fun, and come back here after your trip and let me lknow how it went!

10 Chris F. { 08.21.12 at 12:08 pm }

I am going next week because of the free dining. Perfect week between school in philly area and school in FL area. Thanks for the info on the parks as I was thinking they may be a little more crowded. Of course, this morning we see information about a hurricane that just started so now I’m wondering whether I should move the trip because of that.

11 Dave { 08.21.12 at 12:32 pm }

Hi Chris! It’s premature–unless you are hitting a window where your cancellation penalties change–to worry about Tropical Storm 9.

It certainly looks possible that it may affect Florida over the weekend or early next week, but there’s still a ton of uncertainty–and even if hurricanes affect Orlando, which is rare, the feel is more like a bad thunderstorm, as it’s so far inland a lot of energy dissipates. But keep your eye on the forecasts, and double check the dates by which you can cancel any of your stuff and not incur a penalty…

See also this:

Leave a Comment | Ask a Question | Note a Problem

My response to questions and comments will be on the same page as the original comment, likely within 24-36 hours . . . I reserve the right to edit and delete comments as I choose . . . All rights reserved. Copyright 2008-2020 . . . Unless otherwise noted, all photos are by me--even the ones in focus--except for half a dozen from my niecelets . . . This site is entirely unofficial and not authorized by any organizations written about in it . . . All references to Disney and other copyrighted characters, trademarks, marks, etc., are made solely for editorial purposes. The author makes no commercial claim to their use . . . Nobody's perfect, so follow any advice here at your own risk.