“When will the Disney Dining Plan return?” and “will Walt Disney World bring back Free Dining in 2022?” are common reader questions. We’ll try to answer based on what we know about the prepaid meal plan and this popular discount, plus an earnings call update, restaurant capacity, crowds, staffing shortages, and more. (Updated September 5, 2022.)
When the parks & resorts reopened, Walt Disney World temporarily suspended the Disney Dining Plan (DDP) and cancelled Free Dining, along with several other things. In the time since, Walt Disney World has restored or announced the return of most offerings, with the pace of this dramatically accelerating last summer. That should underscore the temporary nature of these changes–the vast majority of which are not irreversible or permanent.
However, the Disney Dining Plan is not (yet) among the things to return–despite the company releasing a statement last summer that it would be back soon. If you want to be notified when the Disney Dining Plan’s return is announced, you can subscribe to our free email newsletter for instant alerts. For now, here’s everything you need to know about when the Disney Dining Plan might return this year or in 2023. If you’ve already read this post in the past, scroll down to the “September 2022 Update” section for the latest developments.
We should start by addressing a common misconception: Disney eliminated the Dining Plan as a cost-cutting measure. This is patently false. The Dining Plan is actually incredibly lucrative and advantageous for Walt Disney World. The Disney Dining Plan is a primarily a revenue engine, but one that’s also perceived as a perk by guests. It was truly a win-win for company and consumer. As such, it’s a matter of when the Disney Dining Plan will return, not if it will.
One of the biggest reasons Walt Disney World offers the DDP is because it keeps guests on-site. If guests are already locked-into all of their meals at Walt Disney World, they’re less likely to venture to Universal, SeaWorld, and so on. Even if they do, Disney already has their money for those meals.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch–Disney benefits from the Dining Plan by capturing guests’ vacation dollars and boxing visitors into making all of their purchases at Walt Disney World, where every price has an on-site premium. Moreover, guests using the Disney Dining Plan order more than those who pay out of pocket.
This is quantifiable. Historically, per guest food & beverage spending is lower among guests who do not use the Disney Dining Plan than those who do. Consider how many guests on the DDP end up stockpiling Mickey Mouse Rice Krispie Treats at the end of their trips because they have so many unused snack credits. Now think of how many guests do not do that, and instead just let snack–or even table service–credits go to waste.
The portion of guests who save money on the Disney Dining Plan is relatively small. Sure, you can consult online tips and hacks to leverage it to your advantage, but most people don’t have the time or desire for that level of work.
The vast majority of the park-going public is not reading blogs like this one to meticulously research and plan their Walt Disney World vacation. They want the simplicity of an “all-inclusive” meal plan and costs known up front. They don’t care (or realize) they’re potentially wasting money or credits. Suffice to say, when it comes to the DDP, the House of Mouse (almost) always wins.
That’s not the only way that the House of Mouse almost always wins. In our Disney Dining Plan Info & Review post, we reverse-engineer a dollar value for each type of DDP credit, with $45 being the amount ascribed to a table service credit. Walt Disney World does the same and sets a reimbursement rate for the many third party restaurants operating in the parks and at Disney Springs.
If a third-party table restaurant accepts the Dining Plan, they’re repaid at a set rate–often below the cost of the meal. For example, the third party might be paid $25 by Walt Disney World for each credit that’s redeemed, even though the guest is ordering $40 worth of food. Without the Dining Plan, Disney is missing out on this cut of business at most restaurants in World Showcase and Disney Springs.
Our strong suspicion has always been that higher menu prices made the Disney Dining Plan more attractive and pushed guests towards it. People comparing menu prices to package prices would see that, even though the DDP is pricey, so too are individual entrees, snacks, desserts, drinks, etc. At least, this has always been our theory, and the past precedent of both increasing around the same time made it plausible.
Then there’s inflation, which has dominated the real world news and has been a major problem for Americans everywhere. It’s no secret that inflation has hit the cost of food especially hard. The USDA tracks a breakdown in its Food Price Outlook page, which shows that the cost of meat, poultry, fish, and eggs in particular has all skyrocketed.
It should go without saying, but businesses attempt to pass higher costs on to consumers. This is clearly what’s happening at grocery stores, but the USDA’s “food away from home” index shows that restaurants have not increased in lockstep with grocery stores on the CPI. This is despite higher ingredients costs and higher labor costs.
We’ve noticed this at Walt Disney World restaurants in the time since reopening. Don’t get us wrong–table service entrees are very pricey at Disney, but they have been for years. That’s nothing new. Walt Disney World’s aforementioned price increases disproportionately impact snacks and other impulse purchases and not items that have seen the highest inflation.
One potential industry-wide explanation is trepidation among restaurants about their ability to pass on higher prices to consumers without seeing a corresponding drop in demand. Those same concerns likely exist with the Disney Dining Plan. Even in the last few years pre-closure, the rate of its price increases had slowed significantly. Menu item increases had outpaced Disney Dining Plan price increases pre-closure, making the DDP a better value in early 2020 than it was in ~2017.
The theory for that was Walt Disney World had reached its price ceiling (or close to it) with the Disney Dining Plan, but not with individual component prices. Now, food costs are even higher. Consumers might be more willing to pay this impulsively and in smaller increments, but balk at a ~$90 regular Disney Dining Plan. The company thus might modify (a positive spin on “reduce”) what each tier of the DDP includes to keep margins high. Of course, this is totally speculative–but consumer pricing psychology is important to Disney, and the company is incredibly adept at it.
Of course, all of this is not directly relevant to the imminent return of the Disney Dining Plan. Nevertheless, hopefully it offered helpful context explaining how and why the Dining Plan is a profit center for Walt Disney World and not just a guest perk, and also, how that analysis might differ in the current inflationary environment. Even if you’re a fan of the DDP who is personally able to leverage it to your advantage, it should be obvious that it’s also beneficial to Disney. It’s not like free FastPass+ or other perks that the company cut and will never bring back.
To all of the above points, Walt Disney World confirmed in an announcement about theme park early entry and extended evening hours on-site guest perks that the Disney Dining Plan will return, but that the company is “not quite ready to share an update on timing.” Disney indicated that the guest-favorite option would be back soon, with more updates on restaurants to come.
The operative question here is thus, when is it possible to bring back the Disney Dining Plan?
September 2022 Update
We’re back with an update, despite no major news or announcements about the return of the Disney Dining Plan. Readers continue to ask about it on a daily basis and there has been more incremental progress, so we have a look at that. However, we’ll warn you up front that you won’t find any official announcements or ‘seismic shifts’ here.
It has now been over one full year (!!!) since Walt Disney World confirmed that the Disney Dining Plan would be back soon, but that they were “not quite ready” to make an announcement. Apparently Disney has a different definition of “soon” than do we.
Officially, nothing has changed with specific regard to the DDP since then. There have been appearances of the Disney Dining Plan in marketing materials and is still present on Walt Disney World’s official site. There continue to be a few “fakeouts” in Disneyworld.com booking process where it appears you can add the Disney Dining Plan, but nothing real.
Every new menu that goes up for the 2022 EPCOT Food & Wine Festival also features the DDP symbol next to eligible snacks, as if food & beverage teams are preparing for it to possibly return at any time. However, the company has not since stated that the Disney Dining Plan is returning imminently.
Most restaurants have reopened, to the point that the number of locations that are unavailable is fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of Walt Disney World’s dining capacity (See Open & Closed Restaurants at Walt Disney World). Additionally, restaurants that have been open for months have continued to scale up operations, bringing back breakfast, buffets, or other missing meal services.
This won’t materially change capacity, but it’s yet another significant step in restoring normalcy to Walt Disney World’s dining scene. It’s also indicative of Walt Disney World’s intentions to bring more back to normal with regard to missing meal services at its table service restaurants.
Later this month and in October 2022, more character dining experiences are returning to restaurants that have already reopened. This is good news, but it’s happening slowly and with a tremendous amount of lead-time.
Unfortunately, most table service breakfasts in the parks and face character dining isn’t back. Cinderella’s Royal Table is open but doesn’t feature princesses. Likewise, Akershus and Bon Voyage remain closed, as do other locations that previously featured face and fur characters, like 1900 Park Fare. Not to ruin the illusion, but we’ve heard that this is because Walt Disney World is currently experiencing a pronounced ‘princess shortage.’
Staffing remains the key impediment to this across all Walt Disney World restaurants, and that goes for both operational and closed locations. The company brought back the College Program and undertook a hiring blitz last year, and that has helped. Nevertheless, staffing shortages persist for several key positions.
The result is many locations unable to operate at full capacity, and must leave many tables unfilled. Breakfast isn’t being offered at many restaurants because Disney can’t fill enough Cast Member shifts–adding breakfast to the slate would require cutting hours at dinner. This reinforces the reality that just because most restaurants are reopened doesn’t mean they’re firing on all cylinders. Dining capacity has improved, but is still pretty far from 100%.
On a positive note, we’ve continue to hear credible rumors that Walt Disney World is targeting the start of its new fiscal year as having as much restored as possible. The goal is to increase capacity across the board (including the parks themselves and restaurants), and will be rolling out a variety of changes in the coming weeks and months in the lead-up to early October 2022.
To accomplish this, Walt Disney World is on another hiring spree of job fairs, dubbed the Fall Hiring Celebration. There are big hiring events at the Casting Center on September 7 & 21, with highlighted roles including Culinary & Quick Service Foods. The company is offering start bonuses of up to $1,500 during that event for food & beverage roles.
There’s another positive note on the staffing front: Cultural Representatives Have Returned to Walt Disney World. We’ve already spotted these Cast Members around EPCOT in the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Norway, Germany, and Italy. The international programs are smaller than the College Program, but nevertheless help restore capacity at a multitude of World Showcase restaurants.
The bigger impact is that it’ll free up non-international Cast Members to move to other roles, thereby improving restaurant capacity elsewhere. This is notable, as the monthly hiring fairs and hiring bonuses discussed below aren’t getting the job done. CEO Bob Chapek has directly addressed this problem, stating that Walt Disney World’s self-imposed capacity constraints are due to insufficient restaurant capacity to serve more people.
When it comes to the rumor that Walt Disney World has a target of October 2022 for complete operational normalcy, we have not heard the words “Disney Dining Plan” in tandem with that. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, as we haven’t heard many specifics about what else will be back, aside from generalized goals. (We have heard about what likely won’t be back–and fortunately the Disney Dining Plan is not on that list!)
In general, the goals for the company’s new fiscal year mostly pertain to capacity, and the Disney Dining Plan itself doesn’t materially change capacity. Rather than being restored for the sake of expanding capacity, it would come back as a consequence of that. In other words, the Disney Dining Plan would be a beneficiary of improved capacity, not a cause of it.
One positive development we’ve continued to see is improved Advance Dining Reservation availability. We’ve been able to book restaurants that have eluded us since reopening and in spot-checking ADRs. This started back in July and has gotten even better as of early September 2022. We’ve had a ton of success booking ADRs, especially 0-2 days in advance. (Beyond last-minute cancellations, it seems like Disney is holding back availability…perhaps to assess staffing?)
In searching for parties of 4 in the theme parks, we’re seeing numerous time slots open throughout the next two months–even at popular restaurants! We’ve also spotted more same-day ADRs dropping on a regular basis, which could be a sign that better staffing is allowing for more tables to be filled. We’ve also noticed that far fewer tables are going unfilled as compared to last year and earlier this year.
We’ve also noticed several restaurants have added signs outside advertising walk-up availability in the last month. This is in addition to the Walk-Up Waitlist feature in the My Disney Experience app. Some restaurants are so slow that they’re immediately seating guests who come to the podium outside the entrance. We’ve had this experience multiple times in the last few weeks.
Even in October 2022 when Walt Disney World is forecast to have higher attendance, there are still ADR options for many restaurants (not everywhere, but that was never the case). As we’ve said for months, increased availability and dining capacity are a necessary prerequisite to the Disney Dining Plan coming back.
With that said, we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, as we made this exact same observation last fall. The critical difference between then and now is that was the off-season and it was a time when Walt Disney World was hit hard by cancellations due to omicron and reinstated mask rules. By the time November and December rolled around, ADRs were more competitive than ever.
By contrast, right now attendance is normalizing into familiar seasonal patterns. While September is slower than the next 3 months, it’s not as slow as last year. Moreover, the improved ADR availability began in July, which was the peak of summer travel season. That would suggest either improved restaurant capacity or rising cancellations due to the increased costs of travel or a slowing economy. In other words, not things that’ll quickly be reversed in a couple of months.
Nevertheless, it’s unclear what all of this means for the return of the Disney Dining Plan. As we’ve pointed out for the last year or so, it’s the totality of things–more restaurants reopening, filling more tables, restoring missing meals, staffing reaching sufficient levels, and less of a supply v. demand imbalance–that would pave the way for the Disney Dining Plan’s return.
Another consideration is Walt Disney World’s record-breaking per guest spending, which is up a staggering 40% as compared to 2019. As we’ve pointed out previously, it might be savvy to “save” the Disney Dining Plan’s return until that slows down. The DDP could function as an offset, giving a boost to spending when the economy otherwise might start slowing down.
To borrow a line from Ernest Hemingway, change happens “gradually, then suddenly.” His famous quote about personal finances also applies to corporate ones, as well as supply and demand, economic outlooks, and even the return of the Disney Dining Plan. Thus far, progress to lay the groundwork for its return has epitomized a gradual change.
However, that could change suddenly. In particular, the resolution of staffing shortages resulting in across-the-board increases to restaurant capacity could collide with a slowdown in consumer spending and pent-up demand running its course. When (not if) that happens, the Disney Dining Plan’s expeditious return (at least to the extent Disney does anything “expeditiously”) won’t be too far behind.
With all of that in mind, our prediction for the Disney Dining Plan’s return is still Fall 2022. That has been the case for the last several months, and still is so with the latest update. Sometime in September or early October 2022 are distinct possibilities, and that timing would make sense in light of the new fiscal year target.
However, an announcement would need to occur very soon given the lead time needed to bring back the DDP. Each day that announcement isn’t made, the less likely it is that the Disney Dining Plan will return at all in 2022. (For those who have asked, this is unlikely to be the type of announcement that is made at the D23 Expo–but we’d love to be proven wrong about that!)
Frankly, I wouldn’t bet the farm on a Fall 2022 return of the Disney Dining Plan. The company may be content waiting until there’s a considerable slowdown in per guest spending or restaurant demand falls considerably, and may then roll out the DDP as a way to offset that. Although the Disney Dining Plan was not released for 2023 vacation packages, it returning in January 2023 is still a distinct possibility. This might make sense given that the holiday season will likely be busy regardless, while also offering a “clean break” with the new year.
What we do not expect is for Walt Disney World to bring back the Disney Dining Plan in November or December 2022. Those months are huge for Walt Disney World, with peak crowds and limited reservations. Consumers spend big during the holiday season on everything from merchandise to meals. It’s possible that this will be the year to buck that trend, but we doubt it. As such, it seems unlikely the company would bring back the Disney Dining Plan right before the holiday season. If based on logic or spending, it’s pretty much now or sometime in 2023; the window for the Disney Dining Plan to return this year is rapidly closing.
As is pretty clear by now, we do not have a crystal ball, and circumstances continue to change. Given how lucrative the Dining Plan is for Walt Disney World in “normal times,” I never would’ve predicted it would be gone for this long. But clearly these are not normal times. In any case, you can sign up to our free email newsletter and we’ll keep you posted as soon as Walt Disney World makes an announcement or there’s more news regarding the DDP’s return.
When do you expect the Disney Dining Plan to return? Do you agree or disagree that it could still be a while with ADRs filling up and per guest spending skyrocketing? Think Walt Disney World will bring back the DDP in Fall 2022? Or, do you think Disney will be more slow and conservative, waiting until pent-up demand fully fizzles out and spending starts decelerating? Would the Disney Dining Plan’s reinstatement make you more likely to book a trip? 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!