Whenever Walt Disney World releases new discounts for 2024, fans ask about the Free Dining deal. With room, ticket, and Dining Plan special offers through Summer 2024 all now available–and more coming soon–we thought it’d be a good time to ‘answer’ those questions with our predictions as to if or when Free Dining will be released, and best guesses as to travel dates.
We’ll start by giving you a quick recap here to lay the foundation for our Free Dining predictions. The last two times the Free Dining deal dropped, Walt Disney World surprised everyone by releasing the special offer in January. (Well, the first time was a surprise–not so much the second.) The last ‘regular’ year of Free Dining, this was followed by two subsequent waves of discount dates and hotel room inventory in the spring and summer.
Prior to that, Walt Disney World historically dropped its Free Dining promotion between late March and mid-to-late April. This spring release window was common for about a decade, and happened year in and year out until the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. That year started a new trend due to people postponing trips until that new land debuted.
So the big questions for 2024 are whether Walt Disney World will bring back Free Dining and, if so, will it be released in early January 2024 or with the next quarter’s set of discounts in Spring 2024?
In trying to answer 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 to entice 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.
With pent-up demand having been exhausted, Walt Disney World once again needs to offer discounts to fill hotel rooms. Park attendance and hotel occupancy are both down this year. This is not in dispute–company executives have expressly stated as much during earnings calls, and we’ve been documenting the slowdown in crowds at Walt Disney World.
There’s been a lot of skepticism about this given that crowds can still feel pretty bad at times, but attendance absolutely is down year-over-year. Wait times and the company’s own financials corroborate this. No, the parks are not dead or ghost towns or totally empty, but they’re “underperforming” as compared to the blockbuster heights of revenge travel.
The company previously attributed the drop-off at Walt Disney World largely to pent-up demand exhausting itself for the Florida parks first since the state reopened earlier. By contrast, California and the international parks, as well as the cruise industry didn’t see a tourism rebound in earnest until roughly a full year later, so they are still benefiting from lagging pent-up demand.
For many dates during the holiday season, there were no general public discounts for the last 3 years. By contrast, this year has seen the best room discounts for October through December since 2018. As noted above, there are already deals through Summer 2024, which were released way early relative to recent precedent and about a month early as compared to historical (2019 and earlier) dates.
If this were a normal year–meaning that the March 2020 closure never happened–that would be all you’d need to know. We would predict with about 98% certainty that those discounts were a precursor to the real Free Dining. It would be a foregone conclusion that Free Dining would be released the first week of January 2024.
Unfortunately, March 2020 did happen. This is hardly a minor footnote or asterisk, as that changed a lot. For one thing, the Disney Dining Plan was suspended for a few years and is only finally returning as of January 9, 2024. For another thing, it allowed Walt Disney World to hit the “reset” button and implement a lot of changes they’d wanted for years–in some cases, as long as a decade.
Let’s start with that second point. Those of you who follow the financial side of Disney might recall back in 2010, when then-chairman of Parks & Resorts Jay Rasulo stated for the first time that Walt Disney World planned to “slowly wean our guests off discounting.” Rasulo and CEO Bob Iger talked about ending deep-discounting on countless earnings calls after that.
They indicated that the extreme measures put in place by Disney to prop up attendance and occupancy during the depths of the Great Recession were no longer necessary. However, they also said, “we don’t believe we’re dealing with an economy that allows us to cut off the discounting immediately.”
Variations of these lines were repeated ad nauseam for years. Whenever the release of a special offer was a few weeks late by historical standards or a room-only discount was 5% worse than the previous year, it seemed like maybe this was finally happening, for real this time. And then, like clockwork, Free Dining and 40% off rack rate deals would roll out a few days later.
In fairness to Rasulo and Iger, I guess, it is true that the value proposition of Free Dining was diluted at points with tiers and other things changing. It’s also true that ticket and hotel prices steadily increased, making the special offer more expensive. But that was not unique to Free Dining–prices went up across the board no matter how you booked. (This is why we’ve half-joked for years that Walt Disney World uses the “Kohl’s Pricing Model,” where the sticker prices are almost meaningless due to discounts. It’s a half-joke because it’s true!)
Suffice to say, Free Dining continued even as the economy recovered–and started booming. Walt Disney World saw its attendance soar by millions of guests per year, and the parks opened new lands based on Avatar, Toy Story, Star Wars, and more. All the while, Free Dining kept going strong.
In fact, Free Dining actually got better in the last couple of years it was offered, as it began encompassing more dates than previous years and by virtue of the Disney Dining Plan adding alcohol. Point being, it proved very difficult for the company to give up Free Dining–it was too lucrative, and great for incentivizing vacation bookings.
However, Free Dining now hasn’t been offered for 3-4 years depending upon how you count (it was bookable in early 2020, but no one who took advantage of the promo could end up using it). If you’re a pessimist, you could argue that this gap has provided Walt Disney World the opportunity to hit reset, and recondition guests who used to book Free Dining to accept alternative or lesser discounts.
This argument could be persuasive. After all, Walt Disney World did the same in changing free FastPass to paid Lightning Lanes, instituting park reservations, ending Disney’s Magical Express, limiting Park Hopping, and making a number of other guest-unfriendly changes.
Almost all of those were things they’ve wanted to do for ages–the closure and subsequent phased reopening gave Disney “cover” for making the moves without as much blowback. It was a chance to hit reset and/or blame the changes on outside forces, even if that wasn’t exactly true.
You could say that the aforementioned ‘free’ dining card and 50% off kids tickets and Disney Dining Plans deals are an example of this. For years before the closure, Walt Disney World had done “Free Dining Lite” or “Half-Free Dining”, but it was never as popular as the real deal. Perhaps now Walt Disney World has found a way to market a dining deal without actually going all-out and doing Free Dining?
Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that question. That’s precisely why this post isn’t presented with 98% confidence!
My counterpoint to all of those arguments is that many of the changes Walt Disney World made under the guise of the phased reopening have been or are being undone. There has been a lot of guest backlash at many of those changes, and lower satisfaction scores as result. Mid-January 2024 is going to be the start of a new chapter for Walt Disney World, and it’s one that looks a lot like the old chapter, pre-March 2020.
Discounts are a bit of a different story, as it ultimately comes down to the bare minimum that Walt Disney World finds necessary to offer in order to entice enough people to book vacations. If what they’ve offered so far isn’t it, they will offer more. It’s not a complicated equation.
The question thus becomes: are the current 50% off kids and ‘free’ dining card deals enough?
It’s also difficult to know the answer to that from the outside, but I think we can safely say that the dining card deal was insufficient. Shortly after it was released, Walt Disney World dropped the 50% off kids deal. Although these are technically distinct special offers that will appeal to different demographics (families vs. couples), there’s still a lot of overlap. And in the past, it was fairly rare for Walt Disney World to release ‘unique’ special offers (e.g. not percentage-off room-only rates) practically on top of one another.
Beyond that, we can somewhat reverse-engineer the popularity of a discount by searching for hotel room availability to see what’s sold out. During the heyday of Free Dining, entire resorts would book up quickly under the promo even for off-season travel dates. That’s not what we’re seeing for most normal dates during either of these 2024 special offers.
This is not necessarily conclusive, nor is it a huge surprise. For one thing, there’s the aforementioned exhaustion of pent-up demand. People made up for lost time and took Walt Disney World trips in 2021-2022. They’ve since looked to other destinations, and we’d expect that to be even more true in 2024.
For another thing, it’s common for people to not start planning the following year’s vacations in earnest until after the holidays. There’s a reason why Walt Disney World puts so much effort into the ABC Christmas Day Parade–the window from then until the first couple weeks of January is historically a huge time for bookings.
Suffice to say, it’s a bit premature to draw any strong conclusions about demand for the current promos.
Even though we can’t definitively answer the last question, we’ll move forward to the one about timing for release of the 2024 Free Dining promo.
If Walt Disney World had the luxury of exercising patience and restraint, the answer would be fairly obvious–they’d take a wait and see approach, releasing Free Dining in March 2024. That would give them time to test different promos in January and see how bookings develop early into the new year.
That’s not what precedent with recent releases suggests will happen, though. Discounts have been coming earlier and more aggressive. Notably, the current promos are offering significant savings in March 2024. This is an early ‘red flag’ for crowds next year, as normal spring break and Easter break will be consolidated into March rather than spread out across March and April 2024 due to Easter happening early.
Even with revenge travel burning out and a slowdown likely on the horizon, the final 3 weeks of March 2024 are going to be very busy. Occupancy for those dates being low right now doesn’t really mean much–people don’t start booking spring break trips in earnest this early. The early release of discounts for March 2024 was likely a matter of Walt Disney World wanting the capture the bookings and revenue in the last quarter and fiscal year, rather than letting momentum build gradually.
With that said, it could also point to forward-looking demand eroding even further. I’m skeptical that Walt Disney World is that good at effectively forecasting anything, but perhaps they have really good data that shows even lower demand next year.
Regardless of the reason, this is another point in favor of Walt Disney World releasing Free Dining in January as opposed to waiting until March 2024. Either they want to capture revenue and make the next quarter’s earnings look better (keep in mind, they’re facing another shareholder proxy challenge and investor unreset) or their data shows declining demand.
The ‘why’ doesn’t much matter–the outcome would be the same.
That is, of course, assuming that the other discounts they’ve released in the last couple of months didn’t already move the needle enough on occupancy and that Walt Disney World isn’t going to stick it out with hitting ‘reset’ on discounts, and refraining from offering Free Dining at all.
There’s a final reason that Walt Disney World might want to wait, which is gradually opening the ‘faucet’ of Disney Dining Plan demand. Remember, there were two big reasons why the paid Disney Dining Plan was so slow to return: higher per guest spending during ‘revenge travel’ without it and a supply/demand imbalance.
It’s possible that there are still concerns with dining capacity and the ability of restaurants to meet demand once the Disney Dining Plan returns in early 2024. The good news is that this has been lessening with each passing season, and it may be a total non-issue in 2024. But it’s difficult to say that definitively until Walt Disney World is able to see how things play out with the Disney Dining Plan.
I don’t really see this as a huge issue or impediment. The paid Disney Dining Plan will return in January 2024. At the absolute earliest, Free Dining travel dates won’t occur for another 6 months after that. (If there are Free Dining travel dates in May 2024 or earlier, it means something has gone horribly wrong–we think there’s a less than 1% chance of that.)
In any case, that ~6 month gap is more than enough time for more demand to fall off and what little capacity is still missing to be restored. This would’ve been a problem had the Disney Dining Plan returned this year–when it probably should have, in retrospect–but not so much in 2024.
Free Dining travel dates could start as early as late June 2024, meaning it would overlap with the current kids promo. I wouldn’t count on that–I think post-Fourth of July is more likely. Summer isn’t peak season and hasn’t been for a while, so the entirety of July through mid-August is a possibility.
With that said, the most reliable set of dates will be in mid-August to late September 2024. Those dates are the slowest of the year at Walt Disney World, and have been the most common and consistent for Free Dining. That date-range should also have the best availability in terms of hotels. A scattering of November 2024 dates should be available again, and there’s likely to be a stretch in December after (but not including) the first week and running until as late as December 20, 2024.
With all of that said, there are a couple of wildards. The first is October. That entire month had been excluded from Free Dining since 2016. Even before then, there were only a scattering of October dates, and not around holidays or fall break. October had spiked in popularity pre-closure and was also a popular month for conventions. But in the last 2 years, we’ve seen a decline. Will that be enough for Free Dining dates in October 2024? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
The second is Free Dining being released in multiple waves. This is something I would bet on, especially if Free Dining is released in January 2024. In fact, if the promo is released then, I would bet that it only runs through September 2024 travel dates. Even if there are trepidations about more of a slowdown and a desire to spike bookings, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which Walt Disney World drops general public discounts for the holiday season at the very beginning of the year. That’s just too soon.
If they do release a discount for October through December 2024 in January, it’ll likely be a weak one in an attempt to capture bookings without offering much. But my money would be on no discounts at all for that timeframe. Those later dates will only come if Disney waits until March or April to drop Free Dining. Even then, they might do a multiphase approach and slow-roll the promo’s return.
We’d also anticipate that Walt Disney World will continue its recent trend of offering an extended date range for Disney Visa cardholders. This offer is somewhat akin to a bounce-back in that it is more restrictive than a general public offer, and makes it easier for Disney to offer certain “borderline” dates to a subset of the general public.
Ultimately, I’m optimistic about the “real” Free Dining returning in 2024. Walt Disney World has now released several discounts for the first quarter of 2024, all of which came earlier than their counterparts in 2018 or 2019. In addition to that, Walt Disney World has also released the aforementioned free dining card and Kids Play & Dine for 50% Off Discount. While value for money can vary, these discounts are both better on average than the “Half-Free Dining or Free Dining Lite” discounts released back during the same time frames in 2018-2019.
In other words, what we have already seen from Walt Disney World in terms of discounting for 2024 is better than 2018 or 2019. The bottom line is that everything Walt Disney World has done so far with discounts in 2024 suggests that Free Dining is increasingly likely. Walt Disney World is heading down the road of at least matching deals from 2019 and earlier–Free Dining is the logical next stop.
With that said, it’s not a foregone conclusion. Free Dining was a big and bold deal that was leveraged by diehards, and Walt Disney World might be reluctant to bring it back after “retraining” longtime fans to accept lesser special offers. However, they’d been trying to “wean guests off discounts” since 2010–for a full decade as of 2020–and it had never quite worked!
There’s a good chance it’s not working now, either. That’s especially true as costs on everything else have gone up. Casual visitors pricing out a 2024 vacation with paid FastPass, no Disney’s Magical Express, etc., might need to see Free Dining before being willing to pull the trigger.
Given Disney’s sense of desperation and how that’s only likely to worsen once pent-up demand fades further in 2024 (not to mention a potential recession), I think Walt Disney World is more likely than not to release the Free Dining promotion by April 2024 with travel dates for Late Summer and Early Fall 2024. At this point, I’m far less confident about an earlier release than that or holiday season travel dates from the jump.
In the end, Walt Disney World is likely more concerned about filling hotel rooms and maintaining elevated per guest spending than they are about setting an unhealthy precedent with good discounts. My guess is that Free Dining is the ace up their sleeve that the company won’t be able to resist playing.
In my view, it’s more a question of “when” rather than “if.” But I could be totally wrong. After all, I did think that the paid Disney Dining Plan would return a full year before it did. (A viewpoint that, with the benefit of hindsight, I’m guessing many Disney executives share in judging by recent earnings calls.)
What do you think will happen–will Free Dining be released for the general public in January 2024, March/April 2024, or not at all? Predicted travel dates–think it’ll be the standard July through September to start, fewer dates, or more dates? Expecting a second wave of Free Dining, or everything to be released all at once? Agree or disagree with our predictions or commentary? 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!