“When will the Disney Dining Plan return?” and “will Walt Disney World bring back Free Dining?” are two common reader questions. We’ll try to answer based on what we know about the prepaid meal plan and this popular discount, plus restaurant capacity, crowds, Florida’s staffing shortage, and more. (Updated October 4, 2021.)
Walt Disney World temporarily suspended the Disney Dining Plan (DDP) and cancelled Free Dining last year, along with several other things. In the time since, Walt Disney World has started to restore offerings, with the pace of this dramatically accelerating in the last few months. That should underscore the temporary nature of these changes–the vast majority of which are not irreversible or permanent.
To the contrary, Walt Disney World is restoring as much as possible for the 50th Anniversary celebration. 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. (If you’ve already read this post in the past, scroll down to the “October 2021 Update” section.)
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. Quite simply, the Disney Dining Plan is a primarily a revenue engine or a guest perk. 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. 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.
Hopefully that explains how the Dining Plan is a profit center for Walt Disney World and not just a guest perk. 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.
This is precisely why we’ve been predicting for months now that the Disney Dining Plan will return as soon as possible without significant changes, whereas FastPass+ likely wouldn’t return in its prior form. But that’s a whole other can of words, which you can read about in Paid Genie+ and Lightning Lanes Replacing Free FastPass at Walt Disney World.
To all of the above points, Walt Disney World reiterated in a recent announcement about new 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?
October 2021 Update
Another month has passed since our last update. It has now been approximately three months 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. Not that we’re counting the days, or anything!
Officially, nothing has changed since then. There have been occasional appearances of the Disney Dining Plan in Walt Disney World’s marketing materials, but the company hasn’t proactively indicated the Disney Dining Plan is returning imminently.
Unofficially, background circumstances continue to improve with each passing week. More 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.
Similarly, restaurants that have been open for months–some since last summer–continue to scale up operations. They’re filling more tables, seating more guests per day, and just running closer to normal. This is fairly significant, as many table service restaurants were filling fewer than half of their tables as recently as this summer.
The efficiency improvements have been facilitated by Walt Disney World turning a corner on its staffing shortage, at least for most dining locations. The College Program officially restarted several months ago, and has continued to expand in the months since. The hiring initiative is also paying off–tons of new employees have gone through Traditions training and been assigned to locations around Walt Disney World in the last 3-4 months.
As these fresh faces have gotten some experience under these belts over the course of the last couple of months, Walt Disney World restaurants have started filling more tables. Many of these new Cast Members now have the knowledge, skills, and comfort level necessary to make an impact. To be sure, they’re not seasoned veterans, but they’ve learned on the job to the point that has allowed many locations to scale up and increase capacity.
Consequently, Advance Dining Reservations are becoming easier to book and many restaurants have had signs outside advertising walk-up availability in the last month. Those have started to vanish as the World’s Most Magical Celebration has kicked off, but there’s still ample availability at many locations.
Even later this month and in November 2021 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.
Of course, none of this means that the return of the Disney Dining Plan is imminent. Rather, it’s the totality of these things–more restaurants reopening, additional tables being filled, staffing reaching sufficient levels, and less of a supply v. demand imbalance–that paves the way for the Disney Dining Plan’s return.
By and large, the way has now been paved. There are still some lingering issues and ways that Walt Disney World’s dining operations are not at 100% as compared to pre-closure, but the improvements are dramatic as compared to even a few months ago.
As for when the Disney Dining Plan could come back…at any time.
With that said, nothing with Walt Disney World is as easy as flipping a switch. The Disney Dining Plan has its own complicating factors, ranging from dining capacity to contracts with the aforementioned third party operating participant restaurants at Disney Springs, Epcot, and elsewhere.
In fact, this is something that’s been evident with Genie+ and Lightning Lanes. After the initial announcement, Walt Disney World still hasn’t revealed any additional details in well over a month. Rumors suggest that the company is scrambling behind the scenes to figure out logistics in a race against the clock to get that system launched.
Our expectation is that more Genie details will be released on one of the next two Fridays, and it’ll launch during the last two weeks of October–maybe early November 2021 if there’s another unexpected delay. While this is obviously not a Genie+ post, that is a relevant consideration.
Genie+ and Lightning Lanes have been spectacularly unpopular with fans, and it would be a savvy move for Walt Disney World to announce the return of the Disney Dining Plan alongside more Genie news or its launch. This isn’t idle speculation on our part–Disney often releases news that’ll garner a negative response alongside something positive. Revealing the Disney Dining Plan’s return would be one way to drone out the bad news, or at least take a quick and easy “win” after significant fan backlash to the Genie+ announcement.
That’s one plausible scenario, in which case the Disney Dining Plan would likely return in November 2021 in time for the popular Christmas season.
The other plausible scenario at this point is that the Disney Dining Plan will return on January 1, 2022.
This might be the route Walt Disney World opts to take, making a ‘clean break’ and re-launching the Disney Dining Plan beginning with 2022 vacation packages. If the company is confident in the strength of its bookings for the rest of this calendar year and believes restaurant reservations will be strong without the DDP, that might be the more attractive option.
Honestly, a lot of our optimism has been deflated now that the kickoff of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary Celebration has come and gone with zero mention of the Disney Dining Plan. It wasn’t discussed during the World’s Most Magical Celebration Showcase and no questions were fielded about it at the accompanying media event.
Since last year, our expectation has been that Walt Disney World’s “deadline” for bringing back the Disney Dining Plan was around the start of this month. Now, it’s still possible that’ll happen…but given that there hasn’t even been an announcement, we’re highly skeptical that will be the case. (Just watch, now that we’re expressing pessimism, it’ll be announced tomorrow!)
Ultimately, while we do not have a crystal ball, it would not surprise us in the least to see Walt Disney World make an announcement about the Disney Dining Plan within the next few weeks. With Annual Passes and the FastPass replacement now addressed, that leaves the Disney Dining Plan as the last “big” thing to return in 2021. Bringing back the Disney Dining Plan would be positive “counter-programming” to those announcements, restoring something familiar and largely beloved before the Christmas season kicks off in November 2021.
Pessimistically, Walt Disney World might hold off at this point on the strength of current bookings, wanting to wait until the new year arrives in January 2022 before making significant changes. The last three months of 2021 are going to be incredibly busy, so Disney may not want to bother with the Dining Plan until things slow down at the start of 2022. Given how lucrative the Dining Plan is for Walt Disney World, we doubt the company would deliberately delay its return, but crazier things have happened over the course of the last year-plus.
Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!
When do you expect the Disney Dining Plan to return? Do you agree or disagree that it’ll likely come back sooner rather than later? Think Walt Disney World will bring back the DDP by Christmas 2021? Or, do you think Disney will be more slow and conservative, waiting until January 2022 to bring back the DDP during the off-season? 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!