“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 July 5, 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 as of Summer 2021. 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.
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 all quantifiable. In fact, 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 ASAP, whereas FastPass+ likely wouldn’t return in its prior form. But that’s a whole other can of words, we address timing and a potential replacement for that ride reservation service in When Will FastPass+ Return to Walt Disney World?
To all of the above points, Walt Disney World reiterated in an early July 2021 announcement about new theme park early entry and extended evening hours on-site guest perks that the Disney Dining Plan will return.
Here’s that non-update update on the DDP: “While we’re not quite ready to share an update on timing, we are planning to bring this guest-favorite option back at a later date. We will also continue to reopen more Resort offerings, including restaurants like ‘Ohana (with the noodles!).”
The operative question here is thus, when is it possible to bring back the Disney Dining Plan?
The original reason Walt Disney World cancelled the Dining Plan was reduced restaurant capacity. The first six-plus months after Walt Disney World reopened, dining was operating at less than 25% capacity due to a mix of physical distancing and so many venues being closed. 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 DDP, 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 more difficult than 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’s ironic is that the reason for the lack of restaurant capacity has changed over time. Initially, Walt Disney World held back on opening more venues because it simply was 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.
For months, the obstacle was physical distancing rules. That is no longer the case. Last month, Walt Disney World effectively ended face mask rules and dropped physical distancing across the board. Even prior to this, Disney tweaked the verbiage of its physical distancing policy to allow for decreased table spacing at restaurants.
Great news, right? More tables being filled and distancing being decreased means more dining capacity/efficiency, which means more restaurants can reopen. In theory, that paves the way for the return of the Disney Dining Plan!
Unfortunately, that has not been the case in practice. We’ve done numerous meals in the parks and resorts since Walt Disney World dropped physical distancing and not too much has changed. With the exception of two restaurants, we’ve observed just as many tables still being marked as unavailable at numerous locations around the parks & resorts in the last few weeks.
Despite the physical distancing policy ending, the little signs on the unavailable tables indicate that they’re commission in the name of your health and safety. Optics-wise, this makes sense. Removing the signage and telling walk-up guests the restaurant is “fully booked” when it’s plainly visible that over half the tables are empty might be a bad look. However, health and safety is not the rationale for these tables being unavailable.
Staffing shortages are the real issue at this point. That’s the main obstacle to reopening more restaurants and restoring capacity at ones that are already operational. Burnout and turnover among previously-recalled Cast Members have been serious issues. Additionally, Walt Disney World has already recalled all eligible furloughed and laid-off Cast Members, which amounts to tens of thousands of employees. In some cases, Disney has tried to coax recent retirees to return and even sought the return of seasonal employees.
Despite all of that, there are countless unfilled positions, some of which present an impediment to further accelerating reopening efforts. Walt Disney World has posted new job listings and begun a marketing campaign (you’ve probably seen the advertisements if you’re near Orlando). However, all of that can only do so much.
This is a nationwide problem, but is particularly pronounced in Central Florida since a lot of people are transplants. Many hospitality industry workers left the region when unemployment skyrocketed last spring and job openings dried up. There are a variety of causes of the problem, but the bottom line is that the labor pool is too shallow for all of Disney’s current needs.
All of that presents significant issues for Walt Disney World, especially given the sheer volume of employees necessary to scale up operations. The company literally needs thousands of employees just to meet current guest demand. Obviously, hiring woes will further delay the return of additional restaurant capacity, which is a necessary prerequisite for the return of the Disney Dining Plan. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that help is on the way. The College Program officially restarted in mid-June and will grow further in August 2021. Tons of students have already moved in, gone through Traditions, and been assigned to locations around Walt Disney World. We’ve seen a number of these fresh faces in the last couple weeks, and they should help alleviate some issues once fully trained.
Additionally, Walt Disney World’s hiring blitz continues. The company is running job opening advertisements and even offering significant signing bonuses. It’s starting to pay off, as Disney is holding colossal training classes at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex and new Cast Members are all over the parks right now. However, it’s not an instant fix. There’s a lot of on-the-job learning, and it’ll take some time before all of these new Cast Members have the knowledge/skills/etc. necessary to make a big impact.
In the last couple of weeks, this has facilitated the reopening of many additional restaurants, with more coming online between now and mid-July 2021. In fact, our List of Open & Closed Restaurants at Walt Disney World has mostly minor locations left in the closed column, which is a pretty significant shift as compared to even a month ago.
However, that does not mean that the return of the Disney Dining Plan is imminent. Even the newly-reopened venues are operating at a reduced capacity. Sebastian’s Bistro at Caribbean Beach is a good illustrative example. That fantastic table service restaurant just returned, but with fewer than half the number of normal tables in use. This is because the location isn’t fully staffed and many of the Cast Members there are brand new. Disney will gradually increase how many tables are filled there as recent hires get more experience under their belts and more new hires are assigned to the location. It’s a similar story pretty much everywhere.
With all of that said, we expect most staffing-related problems to work themselves out by mid to late September 2021. Not only because that’s a realistic date for the company to have significantly more qualified Cast Members, but also because October 1, 2021 is the kickoff of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary Celebration. Internally, October 1 is viewed as the next significant milestone for having as much restored as possible. It’s the target date for most things that couldn’t be ready by July.
Accordingly, our best guess as to when Walt Disney World will bring back the Disney Dining Plan is shortly before October 1, 2021. While many other things are debuting on that date for the start of the World’s Most Magical Celebration, the DDP is something we’d expect to return a bit before then so its resumption occurs during the off-season. That would coincide with the mid to late September 2021 staffing timeframe above, and allow for any wrinkles to be ironed out while crowds and demand are lower.
Pessimistically, Walt Disney World might wait until the new year, 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 that’ll be the case, 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 and many more restaurants once College Program participants are trained in late September 2021? Or, do you think Disney will be more slow and conservative, waiting until 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!