As announced a couple days ago, Walt Disney World will be canceling all existing Advance Dining Reservations, plus Free Dining and paid Disney Dining Plans through next year. Email notifications have started going out, providing additional details–including the impact on character dining and other certain experiences.
This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. When Walt Disney World presented its official reopening plans, they stated that character meet and greets would be temporarily suspended. Walt Disney World has since announced that “characters will still be in our parks to entertain and delight you during your visit.”
It’s likely that these meet & greet alternatives will be accomplished via physical distancing. We’re not talking air hugs or plexiglass installed in normal meet & greet locations (a depressing prospect, to be sure). Instead, the more likely scenario is impromptu “Smile & Wave” greeting moments.
“Smile & Wave” (or “Meet & Smile”) greetings are a concept that has been popularized at Tokyo Disney Resort, where they were implemented for a different reason: high demand. There, Duffy is such a rockstar that he and ShellieMay frequently draw multi-hour wait times for (in our opinion) very poor and regimented meet & greet experiences.
The idea is similar to something like the “Move It! Shake It! Whatever It! Roaming Noise Festival” (as we call it) at Magic Kingdom. That gives a large number of guests the chance to see and engage with characters, but without the drawing power of a parade or intimacy of one-on-one meet & greets. It’s an in-between approach that would work perfectly during this temporary abnormal phase.
Since reopening, Shanghai Disneyland has introduced “Mickey Avenue Kiss Goodnight,” “Princess Balcony Greetings,” and “Wave Hello to Your Favorite Mickey Avenue Characters” as alternative character appearances that occur throughout the day.
These are little ‘magic moments’ that don’t appear on a set schedule. This is likely to prevent crowds from congregating, which would defeat the purpose of physical distancing. (Additionally, new stage shows have debuted and indoor entertainment has already returned after only a couple weeks of the park’s reopening.)
We would expect Walt Disney World to take a similar approach. (Perhaps moving to runDisney-style elevated selfie stations in a subsequent phase of reopening.)
Characters could likewise appear above turnstiles as guests enter the parks, on the Cinderella Castle balconies, catwalks in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, World Showcase windows, Main Street USA Train Station balcony (not like the train is operating, anyway) and other overhead locations.
Heck, maybe we’ll get Mickey Mouse perched high atop Spaceship Earth again! (Okay, definitely not–but that’d be something to see and would almost make all those construction walls in Future World worth it. Almost.)
Even before the latest announcement, character dining when Walt Disney World reopened never really was one of the viable alternatives to meet & greets.
For one thing, there is no physical distancing at character meals. They’re hands-on experiences occurring inside intimate environments with minimal control over guest movements. If anything, they’re worse (when it comes to current limitations and safety protocol) than structured meet & greets.
It’s easy to implement a “no hugging” rule on paper, but try explaining that to a 3-year old who sees Belle or Cinderella waltzing around the restaurant and is compelled to run over to their favorite princess. There’s no workable solution to that.
There’s also the practical reality that most character dining experiences are buffets. It’d be possible to convert these to family-style or a la carte meals, but with Walt Disney World already cutting the meet & greet components, it probably makes more sense to just cancel character dining reservations entirely for now.
Guests who booked these are paying a significant premium for the characters, so if an alternate arrangement for these restaurants is possible, it’d be better to open that to new reservations at a later date to avoid bait & switch accusations.
In any case, we now know for sure that character dining is not going to return when the parks reopen thanks to Disney Dining Plan cancellation emails. Here’s sample text of the email Disney began sending out late last night:
As we plan for the reopening of our Disney Resort Hotels and Theme Parks, we are keeping the wellbeing of our Guests and Cast in mind. And we’re here to help you as we introduce new measures focused on delivering an enjoyable and magical experience for everyone who visits.
Unfortunately, these new measures have also required us to cancel any dining reservations, experience reservations and FastPass+ selections you may have made.
As a result of physical distancing, capacity in restaurants and availability of dining experiences is very limited and certain experiences such as Character dining cannot be provided.
Because of this, we have also made the difficult decision to cancel and temporarily no longer offer Disney dining plans.
We recognize the inconvenience this poses and we’re deeply sorry. We will be modifying your package to remove the dining plan. As an accommodation, the price of the package will be adjusted to reflect a 35% savings on the room portion. This modified package and price will be provided in a new confirmation. You will receive a refund of the difference in the package price if you have already paid in full or a reduction in amount due if you have not yet made final payment.
There’s nothing you need to do at this time. We will be contacting you shortly with more details about the process to secure new reservations, including our new dining and experience reservation window which will accommodate selections up to 60 days prior to arrival to allow for planning closer to your visit.
At this time, while systems update, we are temporarily suspending all modifications. However, you have the option of canceling your entire reservation at any time. We’re putting a great deal of thought into helping you return to the magic and appreciate your patience.
In addition to the line that “certain experiences such as Character dining cannot be provided,” this should put to bed debate about whether Free Dining is being cancelled or if the 35% off discount is actually real–as we saw in many comments yesterday.
Again, this is an unprecedented time and Walt Disney World is scrambling to develop and implement new polices on the fly. Additionally, Walt Disney World isn’t transparently or consistently conveying all information on its public-facing websites or via the phone. In other words, be patient as information trickles out via official channels and don’t assume what’s published online or what you’re told on the phone will remain accurate.
What remains to be seen is how quickly character dining will return and what, if anything, will happen with those restaurants in the meantime. There are several locations that it would be awesome to see opened as normal table service restaurants again, as their themed design is something special that’s seldom seen by guests without kids.
(Ironically, we have a finished Akershus Dinner Review that’s been sitting in draft form for over 2 months because it felt odd to post…but might have renewed relevance right now.)
Ultimately, not a ton of new or surprising information about the status of character dining, but there was some uncertainty about if these meals would return. This should provide a definitive answer to that, while also (hopefully) providing insight into the types of alternative character greetings Walt Disney World will offer.
While character meet & greets and meals will not be possible in the first phase, it’s safe to say that Walt Disney World will reintroduce both as quickly as possible. These are quintessentially “Disney” experiences around which many families plan their vacations, and Walt Disney World will undoubtedly see trip cancellations because of their absence. That’s never something Disney likes to see, so expect character experiences to return in full force as some as health guidance gives the all clear.
Walt Disney World is figuring this out on the fly (several details have already changed multiple times in under 24 hours since last night’s big cancellation announcement) and is doing so with a limited staff while many people are still on furlough. The info is going to be released in a slow trickle, and specific details are going to change and evolve with circumstances. If you don’t urgently need an answer, just relax, sit back, and wait for the info to come to you–potentially with changes as subsequent updates are made. This can be a frustrating process, but this is an unprecedented time and Walt Disney World is in uncharted waters.
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Are you surprised that character dining is being cancelled? Will the lack of meet & greets or character meals cause you to postpone or cancel your Walt Disney World vacation? Would you like to see some character dining be temporarily converted into ‘normal’ restaurants? A variety of viewpoints are welcomed here, but we will not tolerate insults, arguing, or politically-charged comments. Additionally, please do not debate the efficacy of health safety policies–all such comments (for, against, otherwise) will be deleted. Those arguments are played out and isn’t the appropriate forum for that. (Saying you will or will not visit in light of certain measures is fine.)