As promised, we have some Free Disney Dining Plan promotion predictions for Fall/Winter 2018 at Walt Disney World. Up front we want to be clear: we do not yet know what exact dates will be (but we do have rumored 2018 Free Dining dates here). Rather, this post offers predictions about what you can expect in terms of availability so you can manage your expectations.
The first thing we want to do is–for like the thousandth time–reiterate that Walt Disney World does not offer any promotion out of corporate generosity. Free Dining exists to incentivize guests to travel at times of year that have historically lower hotel occupancy rates.
The problem (well, unless you’re Disney!) is that occupancy rates have steadily increased for the last several years. This has been true even for times that were low seasons in the past, and there are a number of explanations for this, from a rise in conventions to special events to consumer confidence. We’ve covered all of this in past posts, so we won’t rehash it here.
The salient point is that Walt Disney World has less of a need to offer discounts to fill hotel rooms. Those of you who follow the financial side of Disney might recall several years ago when then-chairman of Parks & Resorts Jay Rasulo stated Disney’s goal is to slowly wean guests off major discounts at the theme parks, but at the same time, “we don’t believe we’re dealing with an economy that allows us to cut off the discounting immediately.”
Well, that time is now. With a strong economy for the past few years, the weaning has already begun. We’ve witnessed Free Dining slowly scaled back at the Value and Moderate Resorts, and other promotions have not been nearly as aggressive as their counterparts in prior years.
Moreover, as Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge prepares to open late next year, Disney fans should be bracing for a time when discount availability is incredibly limited–if not totally nonexistent. We don’t think it’s all that bold of a prediction to say that Free Dining, as we know it today, probably won’t exist come 2020.
We anticipate that Walt Disney World’s Free Dining dates will track fairly closely with last year’s Free Dining dates. (See this post for historical/rumored dates.) The most reliable set of dates will be in mid-August to late September, and those dates should also have the best availability in terms of hotels. Don’t expect a single day in October. A scattering of November 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 22.
As compared to last year, the dates most likely to be scaled back are in November and December. While not as busy as October, the “off-season” dates in these months have increased in popularity. Expect the November and December dates that are offered to have more limited hotel availability than September.
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.
One tidbit we heard recently, and I had a difficult time believing this, is that Walt Disney World must offer 50% of its available room inventory for any date and room category that is included in any discount offered to the general public. Rather than doing the smart thing and, you know, asking follow-up questions when presented with this information, I just shook my head and said, “no way–no way.”
Most people who have experience with Free Dining the last couple of years has likely encountered firsthand–or heard stories of–people being denied on the morning the deal dropped, despite their resort choice and dates falling within the promo range.
However, if you take a step back from the above (supposed) requirement, a few things stand out. First, although I don’t know just “who” is mandating this 50% number, whether it be Disney internally or external. If the latter, an FTC mandate seems most plausible. There has been a growing crackdown on illusory discounts and phantom markdowns, and hotel room inventory in a discount could fall under the purview of an FTC rule. (For what it’s worth, I did some research and couldn’t find anything.)
Second, there’s the word available in room inventory. This could very well mean that if a resort is already at 80% occupancy for a certain time of year before Free Dining drops, Disney only is required to offer 10% of the rooms (half of 20%) for that resort. With occupancy rates inching up every year for the past several, that could explain the dearth of availability the last couple years.
Third, it’s also possible that Disney allocated more than 50% of its inventory to Free Dining in the past, and has reduced that to 50% as occupancy rates have been on the rise. This would compound the relative lack of inventory as compared to previous years.
Finally, Disney’s hotel room inventory has decreased over the last couple of years. In addition to the buildings that were demolished last year at Coronado Springs and Caribbean Beach, Wilderness Lodge had hotel rooms converted to Disney Vacation Club, and several resorts had large blocks of rooms taken out of inventory as large-scale refurbishments occurred. For Free Dining fans, the most notable of these has been Pop Century. Again, another compounding factor.
There is a silver lining, at least. Pop Century’s rooms should all be back into inventory by the start of Free Dining. Really, the only large-scale refurbishment we can think of that will impact room inventory will be Old Key West, and that’s hardly a hotspot for Free Dining.
With all of that said, we don’t doubt that Disney has ways of manipulating its available room inventory. Rooms could be blocked off as “out of service” so as to avoid inclusion in the promotion, only to be brought back at a later date. This could explain why availability has suddenly appeared a week or so after the promotion has kicked off in the past.
Even with all of these caveats, it’s still very hard to believe that some of the resorts had anything more than a minimal amount of availability. Some resorts were “sold out” almost instantly the first morning last year, and although many of these ended up having availability open up later, it was disconcerting to such limited options on day one.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that you should really temper your expectations, and plan on being flexible with your hotel choice, room category, and even travel dates if Free Dining is a must-have for you. With each year, Free Dining gains in popularity, and more people try to score the deal, and every year for the last several, availability has been lower. Free Dining is more competitive, more stress-inducing, and just plain more difficult than it was only a few years ago. For many people, Free Dining release is like Christmas morning. Unlike Christmas, though, this is a day on which many of you will just get lumps of coal.
Have any predictions for Free Dining this year? If you’re trying for Free Dining, what travel dates are you aiming for? Are you ‘sitting out’ Free Dining this year, not wanting to deal with the headache and stress? 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!