“When will the Disney Dining Plan return?” and “will Walt Disney World bring back Free Dining in 2021?” 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 reopening rules, and more. (Updated March 16, 2021.)
Walt Disney World temporarily suspended the Disney Dining Plan and cancelled Free Dining last year, along with several other things. In the time since, Walt Disney World has started to restore offerings, with Park Hopping now back and Early Theme Park Entry coming later this year. 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 will undoubtedly restore more in the lead up to the start of the 50th Anniversary celebration on October, 1, 2021. If you want to be notified when the Disney Dining Plan’s return is announced or Free Dining is released, 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…
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. Here’s why…
One of the biggest reasons Walt Disney World offers the Dining Plan 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 by capturing all of those guests’ vacation dollars and boxing visitors into making all of their purchases at Disney, where every price has an on-site premium.
When it comes to the Disney Dining Plan, guests are also likely ordering more than if they were paying out of pocket, given what the DDP provides. Per guest food & beverage spending is lower among those who do not use the Disney Dining Plan than those who do.
Look at how many guests on the Disney Dining Plan 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 Disney Dining Plan, 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 demonstrate the Dining Plan is a profit center for Walt Disney World and not just a 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.
The operative question here is thus, when is it possible to bring back the Disney Dining Plan?
The reason Walt Disney World cancelled the Dining Plan in the first place is reduced restaurant capacity. Disney is currently filling table service restaurants to roughly half-capacity, and that’s the venues that are even open. Between the parks and resorts, just over half of all dining options are open.
While guests have to eat regardless, the Disney Dining Plan is conducive to a certain type of eating habits, and causes many guests to dine more frequently than they would if left to their own devices. Without the Disney Dining Plan, more guests would dine off-site, do grocery delivery, or opt for higher capacity counter service restaurants as opposed to table service restaurants.
It’s worth pointing out here that restaurants aren’t closed for lack of demand. In fact, it’s as difficult as ever to score Advance Dining Reservations for popular restaurants on many dates, even outside of peak season. Between ADRs and Walk-Up Waitlist for day-of availability, the majority of in-service tables are filled at most Walt Disney World restaurants daily.
What this suggests to us is that many restaurants remain closed because it’s simply not profitable to operate them at reduced capacity. This might sound outlandish given the markup on Walt Disney World menu prices, but restaurants operate on razor thin margins. That’s particularly true for the numerous third party operators at Walt Disney World, which pay rent on par with or above major metro markets.
If this is the case, the the biggest impediment to profitability, as with Walt Disney World theme parks themselves, is physical distancing rules. It’s worth pointing out here that Walt Disney World is not constrained in how many tables it fills. Florida fully reopened months ago, and restaurants can operate at 100% capacity. Disney has chosen to follow CDC guidance rather than what the state will allow.
Unofficially, we’ve noticed a tad less table spacing and more guests being seated. Walt Disney World restaurants still are not filling all tables–or even 75% of them–but it’s more than were in use over the summer and early fall. We’d hazard a guess that Walt Disney World will continue to fill more tables going forward if they can do so without issues.
To that point, Walt Disney World recently updated its face mask rules to require: “Face coverings for each Guest age 2 and up, which must be worn in all public areas and can only be removed while actively eating or drinking. Face coverings must be worn while standing, waiting or sitting in dining locations.”
In practice, the previous rule was that guests could remove their face masks upon being seated, and leave them off for the duration of the meal, so long as they were at their table. If enforced, this clarification now require guests to stay masked except while actively eating their food or drinking. While this is a seemingly minor semantics change, in our FAQ & Guide to Face Masks at Disney World, we speculated that it was being done so Disney could justify filling more tables during the busy spring break season.
On that note, public health experts have indicated that guidelines on face masks and physical distancing will be much more liberal by the Fourth of July if current case and vaccination trends hold. Moreover, new research suggests there is no significant difference in spread with six feet versus three feet physical distancing. The Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the agency is now exploring changes to social distancing recommendations.
Other international health organizations and countries already have issued more relaxed distancing guidelines, especially in situations where face masks are in use or a majority of individuals have been vaccinated or are low risk. Some state health officials have indicated that they will likely follow suit, particularly in school settings.
Increasing physical distancing and effectively doubling restaurant capacity would be a game-changer for Walt Disney World. While we want to be abundantly clear that there are no credible rumors of imminent changes to policies at Walt Disney World, it’s an inevitability at some point. This becomes more likely as we approach Memorial Day–a date by which most American adults who so desire could be fully vaccinated–and the Fourth of July, when things could largely be back to normal.
On top of that, it’s likely that demand and Walt Disney World attendance will continue to increase as those dates draw nearer. There are already signs that it’s going to be a busy summer travel season, with all of that “revenge travel” and pent-up demand we’ve discussed for months finally coming to fruition.
This is hardly a problem. To the contrary, Walt Disney World having more dining demand is a good thing. Not only does this enable more restaurants to reopen, but it means more Cast Members coming back to work, and guests having more options in terms of places to eat. That’s win-win-win.
In essence, the Disney Dining Plan returning would present solutions to several problems. It would also be viewed as a positive development by many guests–another step towards a resumption of normalcy at Walt Disney World. (Not to mention bringing back the Free Dining promotion, which would be hugely advantageous for both guests and Disney.)
As a brief aside, it might seem noteworthy that Walt Disney World is not offering the Disney Dining Plan for this year or 2022 vacation packages. However, that’s not really indicative of anything.
Those packages simply reflect the status quo, from hotel closures to availability. As soon as official announcements and decisions are made, those offerings will be updated to reflect said changes.
With all of that in mind, our prediction is that Walt Disney World leadership and decision-makers will gradually and quietly increase restaurant capacity before significantly relaxing physical distancing rules in line with CDC guidance. Given the lethargic pace at which the CDC has issued changes, that might not happen until around Memorial Day 2021.
If our theorizing is correct, that will be what enables higher attendance caps (or no limits) on the parks as a whole, restaurants to operate at higher profit margins, and more dining venues to reopen. In turn, that will also pave the way for the Disney Dining Plan to return. It’s essentially a domino effect, all predicated upon a relaxation of physical distancing rules.
That does not mean that it’ll be like flipping a switch with the Disney Dining Plan returning immediately the day after new guidance is issued. While Walt Disney World can undoubtedly accomplish a lot behind the scenes in anticipation of that happening, some things will need to be ironed out after new guidelines are released–including contracts with third parties and reopening of additional venues. All of that will take time.
Throughout the phased reopening, Walt Disney World has erred on the side of caution to a greater degree than we would’ve expected. Given that, plus the anticipated timing of new guidance and all of the logistical hurdles, our best guess (and this is very much a guess) for the Disney Dining Plan’s return is July 5, 2021. If it doesn’t happen around then, we might actually be waiting until right before October 1, 2021. These are very unpredictable times, and it’s entirely possible that Walt Disney World will essentially write off the entirety of the next fiscal year. After all, that’s exactly what they’re doing with the opening of Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure.
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 regrets temporarily suspending the DDP? 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!