SURPRISE! Walt Disney World has released new promotions for the fall and holiday 2019 seasons, including Free Dining for select dates September through December, including Christmas week! Here we offer info, tips & tricks, and thoughts on booking this discount. (Last updated July 18, 2019.)
We’ll cover all the details of the new Free Disney Dining Plan at Walt Disney World promo here, what we recommend doing, and offer some speculation as to why this is occurring. This is truly huge, as all of the dates for these discounts are after the official debut of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, and include some of Walt Disney World’s most popular travel dates of the year.
July 18, 2019 Update: We’ve now had a chance to run some test dates and numbers (and have had significant feedback via the 150 commenters thus far–thanks everyone!). From all of this, we have a few takeaways to offer that might be helpful if you’re trying to book Free Dining or modify an existing reservation…
Walt Disney World’s system was predictably bad on release day. If you tried to book Free Dining after around 8 a.m. on Tuesday, you likely encountered issues. Wait times on the phone lines were reportedly over 4 hours later in the day, and sometimes the end result of that was Disney reps not being able to find anything or get the system to work.
This always happens the day Free Dining is released. The good news is that it’s working much better today. DisneyWorld.com has instituted a 2 minute wait time to search room availability, which is frustrating, but it’s certainly better than the system not working at all. Likewise, phone wait times have dropped considerably.
However, it’s not all good news. The first and most important tidbit is that for some dates, availability is laughably bad. Thinking about early December? Think again. In some searches, we could only find a handful of resorts with any rooms reserved for Free Dining, and even then, they were more expensive room tiers.
September is looking considerably better in terms of availability, but even then, some of our go-to favorites for Free Dining like Pop Century, Caribbean Beach, and Wilderness Lodge (over half of our Best Resorts for Free Dining at Walt Disney Worldlist!) aren’t options. Ditto the Crescent Lake Resorts, which are within walking distance of Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
As with all Walt Disney World promotions, it’s entirely possible that Disney will release more rooms into the Free Dining discount at a later date, or courtesy holds will fall through, adding some availability. Persistence often pays off. That’s usually our advice…but not this time. As we said/say below, this version of Free Dining is less about low occupancy for fall travel dates and more about bumping up already solid numbers for fear that investors may otherwise view Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge as a flop.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt to keep searching for Free Dining room availability, but it’s probably a lost cause if you haven’t already found something for your dates. We personally wouldn’t “throw good time/frustration after bad” (so to speak) if you’ve already tried and had no success.
Many of you who previously booked trips are reporting that you’re seeing minimal savings or, in rare cases, increased prices. While some are claiming that Walt Disney World spiked prices right before releasing this discount, that’s not true. It’s not to say prices haven’t gradually increased since you first booked your trip, though.
There are potentially two actual causes of this. The first is it’s not an apples to apples comparison–your room category or type changed. While the differences between some room types are insignificant, the price differences are not. Naturally, Walt Disney World tends to offer more promotion availability in higher priced room categories.
The second is that ticket prices increased since you booked your trip, and modifying a reservation effectively triggers paying the new prices for park tickets. This is another reason why we always recommend booking as early as possible, whether discounts are available or not. You effectively lock-in whatever pricing is at that time, and later have the option of weighing a discount against old prices. Best of both worlds!
That concludes the update–what follows is our original commentary about this round of Free Dining at Walt Disney World…
Note that this is not “Free Dining Lite” or “Half-Free Dining” as we’ve come to call Walt Disney World’s other marketing gimmicks that trade on the name recognition of the Free Dining offer. This is the real deal. Above is a look at resorts that are included in the offer, per DisneyWorld.com.
One thing we’d caution here before you get too excited is that availability for some resorts and dates is undoubtedly very limited. We’ve been harping on the reality that Walt Disney World resort occupancy is high for this December (it’s not for September), and this was and is accurate.
We haven’t yet had the chance to do a bunch of test searches to get an idea of availability–to the contrary, I’m having trouble getting this to work. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, as it’s more or less par for the course on Walt Disney World discount release day. Things will only get worse as more people wake up and try to book (which is a huge reason why we recommend just using a travel agent.)
My guess is that what I’m going to find once I start searches is that entire room categories, certain dates, etc., are already sold out from day one. (If you’d be willing to help me crowd-source this data, I’d love to hear via the comments what dates and resorts you were able–or were not able–to book!)
This is to say you will want to book ASAP for the best chance at scoring the resort and room you want, especially if you’re traveling in November or December. It’s always possible that more rooms will be added to the promo at a later date, but I’d highly recommend getting something locked-in right now.
As for why this is happening…well, by now you’re probably sick of seeing us link to the Why Are Star Wars Land Crowds So Low?post. Disneyland’s disappointing debut of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is likely the best explanation for why this is happening. While Disney sought to control crowds there to ensure a positive guest experience, the low turnout is a case of ‘too much of a good thing.’
To be clear, we love Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and think the low crowds at Disneyland have been great for guests. While there’s a lot of ‘sky is falling’ commentary online, the positive word of mouth from those who visit and don’t encounter wall-to-wall people is invaluable for the long term.
However, Disney has made itself beholden to quarterly results, and any quarter that isn’t a year over year improvement by X% is deemed a failure. Irrespective of guest satisfaction numbers, this abnormally low attendance is undoubtedly being viewed as a problem by Disney’s upper management.
Obviously, Walt Disney World is an entirely different beast, with different guest demographics and all sorts of other variables at play. However, one big demo that sat out the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in California was out of state tourists, which is borne out by low occupancy rates at Anaheim hotels, and the reality that nothing Disneyland has done to entice visitors to come this summer has had an impact–tourists can’t change their summer travel plans on a moment’s notice.
If you look at literally any post about Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge on this blog, specifically the Opening Date for Star Wars Land Announced and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance Opening Date posts, you’ll see that a ton of readers are upset about these debuts coinciding with their travel dates, and the anticipated crowds they’ll bring with them. Many commenters have openly contemplated canceling their trips because of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. It should go without saying that this is not Disney’s desired goal with Star Wars Land.
Speculating a bit, I’d say this release of Free Dining is being motivated by these two things. There’s the desire to make the last quarter and beginning of the next quarter as strong as possible from an occupancy perspective. Disney does not want Wall Street using the word ‘flop’ when it comes to its blockbuster Star Wars additions.
Second, while occupancy rates have been high for (literally) months for November and December, it’s entirely possible that new bookings have stagnated since the announcement of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. I’d be downright shocked if Disney has seen a net negative in terms of occupancy for the holidays since announcing the opening of Star Wars Land, but it probably has not moved the needle nearly as much as they projected.
Consequently, we have another Free Dining offer, to ‘pump up the numbers’ just a bit more and give the appearance that bookings are stronger than normal for September through December due to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
Even if these new promos have incredibly limited inventory and only result in a ~5% bump in occupancy numbers for next year’s first fiscal quarter (beginning October 1), that’s a big deal for Walt Disney World’s metrics. It also gives Galaxy’s Edge a greater perception of success in the eyes of analysts.
I know this is entirely unrelated to a post about Free Dining, but my personal take is that all of the speculation about Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge being a flop is overblown and misses the point. By and large, people are avoiding Disneyland–and wanting to avoid September and beyond at Walt Disney World–for fear of crowds, not due to the substance of Galaxy’s Edge.
There are some people, mostly those who haven’t been to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and want to advance their own narrative about Disney’s use of Star Wars, who point to this being substantive failings of the land, its use of the original trilogy, etc. This might explain low numbers a bit, but it’s not the main explanation.
Fear of crowds is the biggest explanation by a long shot. Following that, the perception that Galaxy’s Edge is mostly retail and the reality that the flagship Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is not yet open are also valid explanations. In the long term, once people experience the full land for themselves, I think most of this will fade away.
In the meantime, there will be growing pains and a lot of online handwringing. Nevertheless, I think we’ll look back on this period years from now, when Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is crowded, and wonder how this anomaly ever happened. Of course, I could be wrong…it’s happened before!
Circling back to the topic of Free Dining, take advantage of this promotion as soon as possible if you’re thinking about a fall or holiday 2019 trip to Walt Disney World. While there should be a decent amount of September room inventory, we’d expect November and December to go fast.
What do you think about these new Walt Disney World discounts? Surprised to see Free Dining return? Think we could see even more discounts–possibly for early 2020 dates–if Disney is fearful about the ‘performance’ of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge? rHave you booked any of these new deals? Do you agree or disagree with our analysis? 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!