Advance Dining Reservation availability can be limited or inconsistent, especially for certain parties and restaurants, prompting questions and concerns from Walt Disney World fans. This post attempts to answer all of that with our experiences, ADR searches we’ve conducted, what readers have shared, and what’s happening ‘on the ground’ with WDW dining.
The troubles with Advance Dining Reservation availability are yet another issue that has morphed over time. When Walt Disney World first reopened, physical distancing and a significantly smaller slate of operational restaurants meant that demand far exceeded supply. This was true even as the parks operated with capacity caps and the resorts seldom were anywhere close to fully booked.
Obviously, a lot has changed since then. For the last year-plus, reduced restaurant capacity problems have persisted because of staffing shortages. If you’re wondering why Walt Disney World has not yet brought back something, there’s a 90% chance that’s the answer. (The other 10% is money…which also plays a role in the staffing shortage.) There is more than enough demand to bring back everything at this point. The biggest impediment is that operational locations are short-staffed and ones that have yet to reopen need to hire and train new Cast Members.
This is hardly unique to Central Florida or Walt Disney World. You’ve probably seen similar stories on your local news about the hospitality industry having a tough time finding workers. We’ve also discussed it in countless articles. Nevertheless, it’s worth reiterating yet again for those who are new to the site. Disney has left a lot of money on the table by virtue of the staffing shortages. (Point being: they are absolutely not by design.)
The primary limiting factor is a lack of Cast Members. Unfortunately, the company was caught off-guard by the speed of America’s reopening and labor market realities. The company has brought back and ramped up the College Program and international programs, while also undertaking a hiring blitz and offering hiring bonuses. That has all helped, but only so much. (Disney is also experiencing unprecedented employee turnover, which has hurt.)
Staffing shortages persist for several key positions, including on the culinary teams. CEO Bob Chapek has directly addressed this problem, stating that Walt Disney World’s capacity constraints are self-imposed, and due to insufficient restaurant capacity to serve more people.
In short, dining capacity is still pretty far from 100% of what it was pre-closure. For the sake of discussion, let’s just arbitrarily say it’s around 75% due to reduced hours, missing meal services, staffing shortages, closed locations, and other assorted inefficiencies. (From what I’ve heard, this arbitrary number is actually not that far off.)
It’s one thing to reduce capacity on a ride or show; wait times go up until enough people balk and opt. Eating is not the type of “experience” that people visiting theme parks opt out of doing. The distribution of people can be reallocated to something more efficient, like Cosmic Ray’s or Pecos Bills, but few people visiting Magic Kingdom for the day will be discouraged from dining by ADR availability or Mobile Order return windows.
One thing we’ve noticed lately is that last-minute availability is often better than booking a few weeks or even a full month or more in advance. In fact, we’ve been able to score same-day or night-before reservations to some of the most difficult ADRs (by post-reopening standards) in the last two months.
To put this theory to the test that ADR availability is better last minute than it is at the one month mark, we conducted dozens of searches today. (Actually, not just today–this article has been a work in progress for 3 weeks, and keeps getting pushed back. I’ve done these same searches two other times, and the results have been more or less consistent with what’s below).
In searching for ADRs today for a party of 2, we found 32 restaurants with availability when we simply searched for “lunch.”
That number jumped to 53 when looking for dinner, which likely reflects more restaurants being open for dinner. It’s also slightly further into the future–at least some restaurants are likely doing Walk-Up Waitlist for those lunch openings.
Readers often comment that we have better luck since we’re a smaller party. In actuality, the opposite is true right now. During this era of limited capacity, Walt Disney World’s booking engine actually prioritizes larger parties. (For a while, it was impossible to book certain restaurants as a party of 2. We didn’t eat at Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant for almost 2 years because of this.)
When increasing our party size to 4, the options for lunch increased to 46 restaurants with availability and 65 at dinner. That’s definitely the sweet spot, as a party of 6 had 40 lunch options and 59 restaurants with availability at dinner.
Availability was even better when searching tomorrow, which is a Saturday–prime date night for locals. For a party of 2, lunch restaurants with open ADRs increased to 42 and dinner to 60. This included plenty of popular picks, like Beaches & Cream, Chefs de France, Oga’s Cantina, ‘Ohana, and more.
For 4, there were 60 restaurants with availability at lunch and 74 at dinner. Again, this included the hard-to-book restaurants you see in the above screenshot, plus Boma, Cape May Cafe, Flying Fish, Garden Grill, Topolino’s Terrace, and Tusker House. All of the aforementioned restaurants had multiple ADR times, too.
Even for a party of 6, there are still 44 choices at lunch and 65 dinner ADRs available for Saturday night. That’s really good by historical standards, and even better relative to recent limitations.
One thing to keep in mind here is that I’m simply searching for “lunch” or “dinner” to simply this process. If you search for specific times or specific restaurants, that can yield different results or show availability for specific times that did not previously appear.
Advance Dining Reservation choices for Sunday are slightly lower across the board, but still showing healthy numbers. You’d have a number of good options regardless of your preferences and party size–lots of character, buffet, mid-tier, Signature, etc. restaurants.
Monday is when we see the biggest drop. My first thought was that this might be because that’s a weekday, and restaurants allocate their limited (staffing) resources to weekends v. weekdays. However, next Saturday also shows diminished availability as compared to this Saturday. There’s no historical basis for this–neither in ADR booking trends nor anticipated attendance/occupancy levels.
Jumping a full month into the future, and availability looks similar to next Saturday.
It’s actually slightly worse across the board, but only by a few ADR options. Look closer and you’ll see that the specific restaurants available–and unavailable–is actually quite different despite the total numbers being similar.
Finally, we look as far forward as the calendar allows–to November 15, 2022.
This produces the most interesting results. A few restaurants for which we had seldom seen near-term availability (e.g. California Grill) have ADR openings. Conversely, many that we know are not popular have nothing. This list is longer and includes Amare, City Works, Coral Reef, the Edison, Skipper Canteen, and more options in Disney Springs. The third party restaurants are easy to explain away–the way some of those release reservations differs from Disney-operated locations. The others, not so much.
A few days earlier is Veterans’ Day weekend, which we’ve flagged as being a particularly busy time at Walt Disney World.
However, ADR availability is not materially better or worse that Saturday. This is especially true for a party of 4 (consistently the sweet spot for the best selection), but even parties of 2 and 6 have plenty of choices.
From all of these test searches and our own firsthand experience since the start of summer, there are a few lessons that can be learned.
First, smaller parties are penalized. Thankfully, there are ways to circumvent this, but it’s still frustrating for a couple to be penalized by the system when the table space exists. (Although you probably disagree if you’re a larger family!)
Second, some restaurants release all or most of their reservations at the start of the booking window, and seldom offer reservation refills. The main ones that come to mind here are Chef Mickey’s, Artist Point, Cinderella’s Royal Table, Space 220, Topolino’s Terrace (breakfast), and California Grill.
You either need to book these at 60 days, or hope for the best with cancellations the night before. Walk-Up Waitlist is another option, and we’ve seen a few of those restaurants (and other tough ones) available via Walk-Up Waitlist that have not done day-of ADR drops.
Third, a lot of restaurants aren’t releasing all or any ADR availability at the 60 day mark. Throwing out third parties as obvious anomalies, this is still happening with many Disney-owned restaurants.
The big one we’ve seen holding back ADRs (probably more noticeable in part due to the alphabetical ordering when we search!) is Be Our Guest Restaurant. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen nothing at 60 days, but there are numerous times for lunch and dinner released the morning of or one day in advance.
While availability dumps are most common same-day or 1-2 days ahead of time, that’s not always the case.
We’ve heard reports (and seen ourselves) instances of certain restaurants holding back all or most reservations, and then releasing them 20-30 days in advance for a wide range of dates.
All of this is almost certainly a result of the staffing shortages. (This isn’t really speculative–we’ve had Cast Members at multiple locations confirm as much.) We once again discussed staffing shortages at length above, and that’s because they’re a big deal when it comes to ADR availability.
It used to be the case that we recommended searching for last-minute ADRs due to cancellations. That advice still applies, but the bigger reason is restaurants opening up more reservations. That is more much more significant, and it’s a relatively new phenomenon. Maybe it happened before to some extent, but I don’t recall restaurants “holding back” ADRs being a thing on a widespread level.
Finally, ADR availability or lack thereof is not really conclusive of crowds. It’s generally true that fewer seating options at table service restaurants is suggestive of higher crowds and more options means lower crowds. If we’re painting with broad strokes, that’s still–largely–the case. But the two are more disconnected than ever before, and there are variables and other externalities (e.g. EPCOT festivals, conventions, weather, holidays, etc.) that change the equation.
There’s also the reality that only a fraction of all guests dine in table service restaurants. The available total table service capacity, even when firing on all cylinders, is a small percentage of the total park capacity. Moreover, when a restaurant like Cinderella’s Royal Table is booked up, there’s no telling how much demand exceeded supply. Maybe in September, it’s fully booked and had another ~125 families who would’ve made reservations if they could’ve. But in November, it might’ve had ~250 parties who were shut out each day. Excess demand for ADRs is not something we can measure.
Similarly, this is also why Disney Vacation Club availability offers almost no insight into crowds. Sure, if there’s a lot of availability, it probably says something about attendance being low. The opposite is not true, though. DVC almost always has excess demand–that’s just the business model (coupled with inventory issues).
We mention this because a lot of people point to DVC or ADR availability as indicative of crowds. That’s not even remotely the case with DVC, and even with ADRs, the correlation is tenuous at best.
Ultimately, there are a couple of key takeaways from this. The first is that Advance Dining Reservation, as a whole, is markedly better than it was one year ago. Even excluding the current off-season, which was super slow last year, too. This is not an entirely new trend, and we’ve been having a lot more success booking ADRs since May–including summer season. There also continue to be good options and availability during the holiday season.
The second is that not every restaurant at Walt Disney World releases reservations in the same way. Some should–or must–be booked 60 days out. Otherwise, you’re not going to get them because there’s so much excess demand and certain popular restaurants seldom release more reservations. Then there are other locations, that don’t release their full slate of ADRs until only a few days in advance (or the same-day) when their scheduling and staffing situations crystalize.
Accordingly, the best approach to booking ADRs is scoring some at 60 days and booking others at the last-minute. Of course, this itself can be stressful and not work well with other vacation plans you might make. Personally, I would book all or most of my ADRs at the last minute unless character dining were a top priority.
With every other type of restaurant, there are typically sufficient options 0-3 days in advance and some of the least popular ADRs are actually the best restaurants. Advance Dining Reservations are one of many aspects of Walt Disney World vacation planning that I don’t think are worth stressing out over (again, unless character dining is important), and I’ve felt that way for a while.
If you’ve visited or booked ADRs for Walt Disney World in the last few months, what has been your experience? Have you had success at the last-minute (0-3 days in advance)? Had challenges at the 60 day mark? Notice any differences in the dynamic as compared to pre-closure? Think staffing shortages explain most of what’s happening with fluctuations and limitations in Advance Dining Reservations? Agree or disagree with our assessment? 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!