“When will the Disney Dining Plan return?” and “will Walt Disney World bring back Free Dining in 2021?” are two common reader questions right now. We’ll attempt to answer the first based upon what we know about Disney’s popular prepaid meal plan and this fan-favorite discount, plus current restaurant capacity & bookings, and what’s necessary for the DDP to come back. (Please note that this post is entirely speculative and we don’t have a definitive date.)
Prior to the reopening of the parks, Walt Disney World temporarily suspended the Disney Dining Plan and cancelled Free Dining for 2020. These weren’t the only changes made on that date–Walt Disney World cancelled all dining reservations, experience bookings, FastPass+ selections, and Extra Magic Hours. Shortly thereafter, Walt Disney World released 2021 vacation packages, which also did not include the Disney Dining Plan.
As with other moves Walt Disney World has made during the reopening process, this was all a blunt instrument approach. Disney was scrambling to navigate uncharted waters, making an array of operational changes due to capacity reductions without clarity on future guest demand or attendance. None of these decisions are irreversible, or intended to be permanent solutions. Walt Disney World has already restored Advance Dining Reservations and experience bookings, and will undoubtedly bring more back as soon as possible…
Let’s start by addressing a misconception we’ve heard several times from readers, which is that Disney eliminated the Dining Plan as yet another cost-cutting measure. This is patently false. The Dining Plan is actually incredibly lucrative and advantageous for Walt Disney World for a few reasons.
It’s important to address this threshold question of whether the Disney Dining Plan is a revenue engine or a guest perk. If it’s the latter, there’s little incentive for Walt Disney World to prioritize its return. However, we strongly disagree with this categorization of the Disney Dining Plan. While some fans might hope for it to be gone forever, there’s next to no chance of that happening. It’s a matter of when the Disney Dining Plan will return, not if it will. Here’s why…
One of the biggest reasons Walt Disney World offers the Dining Plan is because it keeps guests on-site. If guests are already locked-into all of their meals at Walt Disney World, they’re less likely to venture to Universal, SeaWorld, and so on. (And even if they do, Disney already has their money for those meals.)
This is the same reason why Walt Disney World offers Magical Express and “free” on-site transportation. Those services are costly for Walt Disney World to operate, but their effect is discouraging rental cars and keeping guests on-property for the duration of their trip.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch–Disney benefits by capturing all of those guests’ vacation dollars and boxing visitors into making all of their purchases at Disney, where every price has an on-site premium. (Not to mention that Disney can price that into the cost of the hotel because most guests do view free transportation as a perk.)
When it comes to the Disney Dining Plan, guests are also likely ordering more than if they were paying out of pocket, given what the DDP provides. As a whole, per guest food & beverage spending is lower among guests who do not use the Disney Dining Plan than those who do.
Just look at how many guests on the Disney Dining Plan end up stockpiling Mickey Mouse Rice Krispie Treats at the end of their trips because they have so many unused snack credits. Now think of how many guests do not do that, and instead just let snack–or even table service–credits go to waste.
We harp on this constantly, but it bears repeating that the portion of guests who save money on the Disney Dining Plan is relatively small. Sure, you can consult online tips and hacks to leverage it to your advantage, but most people don’t have the time or desire for that level of work.
The vast majority of the park-going public is not reading blogs like this one to meticulously research and plan their Walt Disney World vacation. They want the simplicity of an “all-inclusive” meal plan, and their costs known up front. They don’t really care (or realize) they’re potentially wasting money or credits. Suffice to say, when it comes to the Disney Dining Plan, the House of Mouse (almost) always wins.
That’s not the only way that the House of Mouse almost always wins. In our Disney Dining Plan Info & Review post, we reverse-engineer a dollar value for each type of DDP credit, with $45 being the amount ascribed to a table service credit. Walt Disney World does the same and sets a reimbursement rate for the many third party restaurants operating in the parks and at Disney Springs.
In other words, if a third-party table restaurant accepts the Disney Dining Plan, they’re paid a rate below the cost of the meal or even the actual cost of each DDP credit, with Disney also taking their cut in addition to the normal terms of the lease. For example, the third party might be paid $25 by Walt Disney World for each table service credit that’s redeemed, even though that credit is worth $45 to Disney and the guest is ordering $40 worth of food. (All made up numbers for the purpose of this example.) Without the Dining Plan, Disney is missing out on this cut of business at most restaurants in World Showcase and Disney Springs.
Hopefully that suffices to demonstrate that the Dining Plan is a profit center for Walt Disney World and not just a perk. Accordingly, the company has every incentive to restore it as soon as possible. Even if you’re a fan of the DDP who is personally able to leverage it to your advantage, it should be obvious that it’s also beneficial to Disney.
The operative question here is thus, when is it possible to bring back the Disney Dining Plan?
The reason Walt Disney World cancelled the Dining Plan in the first place is reduced restaurant capacity. Disney is currently filling table service restaurants to roughly half-capacity, and that’s the venues that are even open. Between the parks and resorts, we’d hazard a guess that only around 30% of all dining options are available right now. Cut that in half, and roughly 15% of normal capacity is available.
In such a scenario, the Disney Dining Plan is difficult to navigate. If Walt Disney World continued to sell the DDP but didn’t have enough options to accommodate everyone who had purchased it, that would’ve been a guest satisfaction nightmare. Without reliable attendance and resort occupancy projections, Disney didn’t have solid insight into whether or how such a scenario might play out.
While guests have to eat regardless, the Disney Dining Plan is conducive to a certain type of eating habits, and causes many guests to dine more frequently than they would if left to their own devices. Without the Disney Dining Plan, more guests would dine off-site, do grocery delivery, or opt for higher capacity counter service restaurants as opposed to table service restaurants.
Temporarily suspending the Disney Dining Plan for the remainder of 2020 and even for 2021 vacation packages was thus the safe and risk-averse move. After all, Walt Disney World could always restore the Disney Dining Plan if it became apparent that restaurant utilization was low.
We’ve observed the park and resort reopening play out over the last couple of months, and most restaurants have plenty of same-day availability. In fact, we’ve done several meals already with only a handful of other parties in the entire restaurant. (There are obviously notable exceptions to this, but I can find availability even for Be Our Guest Restaurant throughout the next week.) Numerous in-park restaurants have signs up advertising walk-up seating, which was previously fairly uncommon.
From this, our impression is that Walt Disney World probably never needed to suspend the Disney Dining Plan to begin with, and likely regrets doing so. To be abundantly clear, hindsight is always 20/20 and we’re not suggesting that we would’ve made a different or “better” decision. At the time, that was probably the right call. However, a lot has changed since May and the numbers have been far lower than expected (by Disney’s own admission on the recent quarterly earnings call).
Even if Walt Disney World’s guest numbers were to spike, that probably wouldn’t present a problem in terms of dining capacity because so many restaurants are still closed. To the contrary, Walt Disney World having more dining demand would absolutely be a good thing, as it would enable more restaurants to reopen. In turn, more Cast Members could come back to work, and guests would have more options in terms of places to eat. That’s win-win-win.
In essence, the Disney Dining Plan returning would present solutions to several problems. It would also be viewed as a positive development by many guests–another step towards a resumption of normalcy at Walt Disney World. (Not to mention bringing back the Free Dining promotion, which would be hugely advantageous for both guests and Disney.)
We’ve spilled a lot of digital ink focusing on motivations and plausibility of bringing back the Disney Dining Plan (important issues to establish that this isn’t simply idle dreaming or wishful thinking) but haven’t yet gotten to the titular question. Of course, we do not have a definitive answer.
At present, Walt Disney World is not offering the Disney Dining Plan through September 26, 2021. However, I’d be absolutely shocked if the Dining Plan doesn’t return before then.
Nevertheless, I also wouldn’t expect Walt Disney World to restore the Dining Plan immediately. The company has been fairly conservative and slow-moving with post-reopening policy adjustments. We’ve seen this with Park Pass, discounts, and more.
From the outside looking in, it’s difficult to ascertain whether Disney is being methodical and deliberate with an eye towards the future instead of the present, or if it’s simply a slow ship to turn–especially with so many Cast Members still furloughed. Reality probably lies somewhere in the middle, with potential PR impacts also causing some degree of hesitation in making any changes.
Our expectation is that Walt Disney World will assess attendance patterns over the next few months, plus booking trends and occupancy projections for early 2021 to determine if reinstating the Disney Dining Plan is likely to cause any problems.
The next two months won’t reveal much in terms of guest demand or restaurant utilization–it’s already quite clear this fall is going to be slow. However, November and December will better test dining capacity, and should offer insight into whether Walt Disney World could safely bring back the Dining Plan.
Ultimately, that’s about how we expect this to play out. Disney leadership and decision-makers will likely monitor this holiday season, continue to scale up restaurant capacity, and reintroduce the Disney Dining Plan late this year or early next for travel dates beginning in Spring 2021. Post-Christmas through early January is an incredibly busy time for new vacation package bookings, and having the Dining Plan would help improve numbers and signal to potential guests that things are starting to get back to normal.
We could be totally wrong on this–Disney has erred on the side of caution to a greater degree than we would’ve expected–but that seems like the most opportune time for the Disney Dining Plan to return. If it doesn’t happen then, we might actually be waiting until September 27, 2021. While these are very unpredictable times, it’s just hard to imagine Walt Disney World essentially writing off the entirety of the next fiscal year.
Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!
When do you expect the Disney Dining Plan to return? Do you agree or disagree that it’ll likely come back sooner rather than later? Think Walt Disney World regrets temporarily suspending the DDP? Would the Disney Dining Plan’s reinstatement make you more likely to book a trip? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!