There are a few times when even the most frugal families find the extra cash to have a little fun. For my family, the A-number-one reason for a food splurge? Our annual family vacation!

This year, we’re taking our almost four-year-old daughter to Disney World in Orlando (technically Lake Buena Vista), Florida. My husband and I have budgeted for this vacation over the past 14 months, saving $150 a month during that time, so that we’ll have enough to pay for our trip in full before even setting foot on Disney property. We’d planned for our hotel room, our park passes, food, and souvenirs. Then, Disney gave us a special gift.

Now through May 18th, guests can get a Disney dining plan for free (FREE!) for travel dates between August 25th and September 29th. According to the website MouseSavers – which isn’t formally associated with Disney World in any way – the folks at Disney have offered the free dining plan only sporadically over the past several years, meaning that if a Disney vacation is in your family’s plans, now may be the perfect time to take advantage of this rare freebie.

How It Works

The free Disney dining plan varies depending on which Disney property you’ll be calling home during your stay. If you stay at a moderate or deluxe level property, you qualify for a Magic Your Way plus dining plan. This plan includes:

  • One table-service meal (or buffet) daily for every member of your party; this includes most character dining meals
  • One quick-service meal
  • One snack
  • A resort refillable mug

If you opt to stay at one of Disney World’s value resorts, you’ll qualify for the Magic Your Way quick-service dining plan. This option offers:

  • Two quick-service meals per person, per day
  • One snack
  • A resort refillable mug

What It’s Worth

The real question here is, what is this free dining package really worth?

We’ll use my family as an example. If my husband, daughter, and I (we’re leaving our youngest at home; his nap schedule would interfere with all the fun, so he’ll spend some quality time with his grandparents instead) were to stay at a the Caribbean Beach Club, moderate resort, we’d pay $1750.11 for a five-night stay – that cost includes our six-day park passes. If we wanted to add in the Magic Your Way Plus dining plan, we’d have to shell out an extra $590.50; that’s nearly $100 a day to dine!

If we were staying at a value resort, like the All-Star Music property, the standard cost for five nights and six-day passes to the parks would be $1319.27; add in the quick-service dining plan, and we’d up the price tag an additional $409.85.

The Best of Disney

Let’s face it – unless you stay at a Disney villa, campground, or cabin, you’re not going to have access to the amenities of a full kitchen, making it nearly impossible for your family to avoid dining out. And dining out at Disney World – where even the cheeseburgers are $3.95 – isn’t cheap; there’s no way you’d be able to spend $25 a day for a family or four to eat, let alone $25 a week.

But when it comes to Disney’s discounts, the free dining plan is the best of the best. Other special offers typically offered by Mickey and friends include up to 35 percent off on your hotel stay, or the “kids stay and play” free option, which gives you your children’s park passes for free with the purchase of adult passes. While these options can save you several hundred dollars, neither comes close to offering the discount on food available through the free meal plan.

Reader, how do you negotiate dining out on vacation? Do you reassess your options while away from home?