“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 December 19, 2020.)
Prior to reopening, Walt Disney World temporarily suspended the Disney Dining Plan and cancelled Free Dining for 2020. These weren’t the only changes made on that date–Walt Disney World cancelled all dining reservations, experience bookings, FastPass+ selections, and Extra Magic Hours. Shortly thereafter, Walt Disney World released 2021 vacation packages, which didn’t include the Disney Dining Plan.
As with other moves Walt Disney World has made during the reopening process, this was all a blunt instrument approach. Disney was scrambling to navigate uncharted waters, making operational changes due to capacity limits without clarity on the future. None of these decisions are irreversible or permanent. Walt Disney World has already restored Advance Dining Reservations, is bringing back Park Hopper tickets, and will undoubtedly restore more in 2021…
Let’s start by addressing a 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. It’s important to address this threshold issue of whether the Disney Dining Plan is a primarily a revenue engine or a guest perk.
If it’s the latter, there’s little incentive for Walt Disney World to prioritize its return. However, we strongly disagree with this categorization of the Disney Dining Plan. While some fans might view it as a perk, it’s a revenue generator from Disney’s perspective. 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 suffices to demonstrate that the Dining Plan is a profit center for Walt Disney World and not just a perk. Accordingly, the company has every incentive to restore it as soon as possible. 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. Cut that in half, and ~25% of normal capacity is available.
That makes offering the Disney Dining Plan difficult. If Walt Disney World continued to sell the DDP but didn’t have enough options to accommodate everyone who had purchased it, that would’ve been a guest satisfaction nightmare.
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.
Temporarily suspending the Disney Dining Plan for the remainder of 2020 and even for 2021 vacation packages was thus the safe and risk-averse move. After all, Walt Disney World could always restore the Disney Dining Plan if it became apparent that restaurant utilization was low.
In the first couple of months that the parks reopened, most restaurants had plenty of same-day availability. That is no longer the case. Restaurants have gotten progressively busier to the point that as of December 2020, many are now difficult to book a full 60 days in advance. During the holiday season, there has been little to no availability for many restaurants. That’s a sharp contrast to the scene over the summer.
To offset this spike in demand, Walt Disney World has started opening more and more locations. While only some of these have been popular table service restaurants (like Cinderella’s Royal Table or Chefs de France), every bit of increased dining capacity helps absorb demand.
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.)
Beyond opening more restaurants, there’s another way of increasing dining capacity at Walt Disney World: filling more tables. Florida has now fully reopened, allowing restaurants and more to operate at 100% capacity. Governor Ron DeSantis issued an executive order moving into Phase 3 of Florida’s reopening, which essentially means the state is back to business as usual. At least officially.
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 still more than were in use over the summer. Walt Disney World has indicated it won’t change its policies until health agencies, its panel of experts, industry groups, and research universities to determine best practices. Nevertheless, we’d hazard a guess that Walt Disney World will continue to fill more tables in 2021.
We’ve spilled a lot of digital ink focusing on motivations and plausibility of bringing back the Disney Dining Plan (important issues to establish that this isn’t simply idle dreaming or wishful thinking) but haven’t yet gotten to the titular question. Of course, we do not have a definitive answer.
At present, Walt Disney World is not offering the Disney Dining Plan through September 26, 2021. However, I’d be absolutely shocked if the Dining Plan doesn’t return before then. Given that Walt Disney World Announced Park Hopping Will Return in January 2021, and a range of other changes that suggest the parks and resorts are inching back towards normalcy, we’d imagine the Disney Dining Plan won’t be too far behind.
Our expectation is that Walt Disney World will assess guest behavior and dining patterns, plus booking trends and occupancy projections for early 2021 to determine if reinstating the Disney Dining Plan is likely to cause any problems.
Christmas and New Year’s Eve weeks will test dining capacity, and should offer insight into whether Walt Disney World could safely bring back the Dining Plan. Those two weeks will be critical as a “stress test” on the current restaurant policies, and whether there’s sufficient capacity to meet demand.
Ultimately, that’s about how we expect this to play out. Our prediction is that Disney leadership and decision-makers will likely monitor this holiday season, continue to scale up restaurant capacity, and reintroduce the Disney Dining Plan next year for travel dates beginning in or after Spring 2021.
Post-Christmas through early January is an incredibly busy time for new vacation package bookings, and having the Dining Plan would help improve numbers and signal to potential guests that things are starting to get back to normal. Walt Disney World has already announced that at least one discount will be released on January 5, 2021. That would be the ideal timing for an announcement that the Disney Dining Plan is also returning later in 2021. If an announcement isn’t made on or around that date, it’s more likely that the Disney Dining Plan won’t return until Summer or Fall 2021.
We could be totally wrong on this–Disney has erred on the side of caution to a greater degree than we would’ve expected–but that seems like the most opportune time for the Disney Dining Plan to return. If it doesn’t happen then, we might actually be waiting until September 27, 2021. While these are very unpredictable times, it’s just hard to imagine Walt Disney World essentially writing off the entirety of the next fiscal year.
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!