Last year, Walt Disney World surprised everyone by releasing Free Dining in January before releasing two subsequent waves of discount dates and hotel room inventory later in the year. The same happened again at the beginning of this year with the popular Disney Dining Plan promotion.
Prior to that, Walt Disney World historically dropped its Free Dining promotion at the beginning of the last or second to last week of April. With that ‘traditional’ date now in view and many Walt Disney World fans eager to book something for this Halloween or Christmas season, many are wondering whether that might come soon.
For our part, we’ve been discussing the prospects of a second wave of 2020 Free Dining since the very beginning of this year. Unsurprisingly, there have been a lot of reader questions about this, and our consistent answer about a subsequent release was that we felt it was highly likely. Perhaps it’s time to rethink that…
The first thing we want to do is once again reiterate that Walt Disney World does not offer any promotion out of corporate generosity. The Disney Dining Plan is given away for to incentivize guests to travel at times of year that have historically lower hotel occupancy rates.
Moreover, there’s no such thing as a free lunch–you receive the Disney Dining Plan for “free” because you pay full price for your hotel room and park tickets. (A bit tangential, but this is also why Free Dining is often not such a great deal. For many families, taking the room-only discount is superior. Always do the math, because the comparative value varies based upon resort, party size, and eating preferences.)
Last year, there was the added motivation of the “pre-Star Wars Land Lull,” which is basically the phenomenon of guests postponing trips until Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opened. It’s for this same reason that the new land ended up debuting in two phases, with the first half opening during the early fall in an ineffectual attempt to buoy off-season occupancy rates.
This year, it’s not quite as clear why Walt Disney World released Free Dining so early. With both Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure set to open in advance of or during the summer season, it took us by surprise that Disney wouldn’t wait to see organic booking levels prior to discounting. Our best guess is that the discount release stemmed from Disney’s desire to best its year over year numbers.
Regardless, it has seemed relatively likely from the beginning that September, plus parts of November and December (at minimum) would also need a boost to their hotel occupancy numbers. Hence a second wave of 2020 Free Dining, just as was offered last year.
In fact, when the 2020 Free Dining Recovery Deal was released to Walt Disney World guests whose trips were postponed or cancelled, we speculated that this same offer would eventually be made available to the general public. Suffice to say, we’ve been pretty vocal and consistent in predicting more 2020 Free Dining.
While we can quibble and speculate as to which of those altered operations will actually come to fruition, reduced restaurant capacity is pretty much an inevitability. Per the federal government’s Guidelines for Opening Up AmericaAgain, a three-phased approach based on the advice of public health experts, sit-down restaurants “can operate under strict physical distancing protocols.”
That means increased spacing between tables, which in turn reduces restaurant capacity. We’ve already seen this play out in some places, where it has meant every other table going empty or significantly increased spacing between tables. Given that some tables are practically on top of one another at Walt Disney World, it’s safe to anticipate one-third to half of dining capacity removed at each restaurant.
In turn, this means that the limiting factor for a second wave of 2020 Free Dining could be table service restaurant capacity rather than hotel occupancy rates. In our view, there will be plenty of the latter, but perhaps not as much of the former–especially with seating potentially cut in half. (This doesn’t even taken into account buffets, bars, and lounges that might have to more radically adjust–or not operate at all.)
It stands to reason that the same would happen with Advance Dining Reservations for table service restaurants. However, in over a dozen searches for Advance Dining Reservations on a variety of dates, I don’t see any red flags.
There are plenty of options at most restaurants, including some you might not expect under normal circumstances. For many dates, only a few restaurants aren’t options. Perhaps I just got lucky, but with how “unlucky” I got with FastPasses over the same period, I’m guessing not.
To me, this suggests a couple of possibilities. First, that Walt Disney World has not yet reduced table inventory for restaurants in the online reservation system. Alternatively, they have but restaurant reservations are already so low that it hasn’t made any difference. (For the sake of everyone using the Disney Dining Plan, here’s hoping it’s the latter!)
From the outside looking in, it’s impossible to know which is the case. What we do know is that Free Dining normally distorts ADR availability. In a normal year, it’s common for there to be slim pickings for ADRs in late August or September. This inevitably leads to questions from readers about whether crowds will actually be heavy during a time that’s predicted to be off-season.
Our answer is always that the crowds will not be heavy. “Restaurant crowds” operate at a disconnect from overall crowd levels during Free Dining “season.” While we don’t know what percentage of guests at any table service restaurant in the months of August or September are normally taking advantage of Free Dining, my educated guess would be “more than half.”
If that’s true (or close to it), and if Walt Disney World reduces table service capacity by around half, that could preclude another wave of 2020 Free Dining. Conversely, there’s also the possibility that Walt Disney World will be so eager to fill hotel rooms and sell tickets at full price that they will offer another wave Free Dining, and figure out the capacity details later (or not at all). Finally, if across-the-board demand plummets (and we anticipate that being especially true for sit-down dining), this potential problem may naturally work itself out and not become an actual issue at all.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that we really don’t know what will happen at this point. A month or so ago, we would have (and did!) confidently predicted more Free Disney Dining Plan deals in 2020. In fact, probably a couple of waves. Now, there are more variables at play, and while Free Dining remains a lucrative discount that Walt Disney World offers for its own selfish reasons, how its restaurants operate could be a limiting factor that prevents another round from being released.
While we stand behind our prediction that Walt Disney World will run aggressive discounts for this summer and beyond, Free Dining might not be among them. Regardless of what ends up being released, we don’t expect any deals to drop until Walt Disney World leadership has concrete plans for how it’ll operate the parks, resorts, restaurants, and more. That’s probably not happening by the end of this month. In other words, you shouldtemper your expectations and be patient if you’re waiting on a great deal before booking your next trip.
What do you think will happen–will there be a second wave of 2020 Free Dining for the general public, or will Walt Disney World stick to other discounts that don’t unduly burden restaurants? Think a reduction of table service capacity will pose problems for Disney Dining Plan users? Are you apprehensive about doing sit-down dining at this point? Any questions? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!