“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 May 11, 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 in 2022. If you’ve already read this post in the past, scroll down to the “May 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?
May 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 roughly 11 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. Apparently Disney has a different definition of “soon” than we do.
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 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 Epcot festivals 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 – Spring 2022). Additionally, restaurants that have been open for months have continued to scale up operations, bringing back breakfast, buffets, or other missing meal services.
With that said, there have been no official developments on this front in a couple of months. The last major restaurant to have its reopening announced is Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue. That was announced over one month ago and won’t reopen until June 23, 2022. Unless you count the new Connections Cafe & Eatery, nothing major reopened last month nor have any big announcements been made.
However, this did not materially change capacity. There still have not been any announcements about the reopenings of Akershus Royal Dining Hall and 1900 Park Fare, or the return of missing meals at Crystal Palace, Cape May Cafe, and many other restaurants. Some operational character dining restaurants have restored tables, adding capacity in the process, but that’s about it.
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. This reinforces the reality that just because most restaurants are reopened doesn’t mean they’re firing on all cylinders. Dining capacity is improved as compared to last year thanks to the dropping of physical distancing and hiring initiatives, but still pretty far from 100%.
It’ll also free up non-international Cast Members to move to other roles, potentially improving restaurant capacity elsewhere. This is notable, as the monthly hiring fairs and hiring bonuses discussed below aren’t getting the job done. During Disney’s last earnings call, CEO Bob Chapek directly spoke to this problem, stating that Walt Disney World’s self-imposed capacity constraints are due to insufficient restaurant capacity to serve more people.
Walt Disney World has been attempting to address this for over a year at this point, offering hiring bonuses and higher pay for certain roles, as well as regular job fairs. Most recently, the Casting Center held a “Culinary Careers Summer Hiring Celebration” on May 11.
This jobs fair was to hire a number of culinary positions, including line cooks, assistant chefs, bakers, dishwashers, and more. Currently, there are 13 different types of food & beverage jobs posted to Disney Careers, most of which are newly listed as of May 2022. Many of these offer hiring bonuses ranging from $1,500 to $4,500 for eligible new hires residing 50 miles or more outside the Walt Disney World Resort area. If you want to “help out” in getting the Disney Dining Plan brought back faster, apply for one of those culinary careers! 😉
All of the above has been updated in light of recent developments in May 2022, but it undoubtedly sounds familiar to anyone who has visited this page before. Although the specifics have changed, it’s been a similar story for most of the last several months.
Unfortunately, we haven’t had any major substantive updates. During the most recent earnings call on May 11, Disney’s CFO side-stepped a question about staffing challenges, but did acknowledge that Walt Disney World has “labor impacts” due to the tighter labor market, but framed those as the same problems that “everybody is dealing with.” So nothing particularly new or illuminating there.
Anecdotally, one positive development we’ve noticed thus far in May 2022 is that Advance Dining Reservation availability appears to be improving. We’ve been able to book restaurants that have eluded us since reopening (stay tuned for a new Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater review!) and in spot-checking ADRs for June and July 2022, even the peak summer months don’t look as competitive as spring.
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 (e.g. Be Our Guest Restaurant and the aforementioned Sci-Fi both have had consistently options added), which could be a sign that better staffing is allowing for more tables to be filled.
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, June and July 2022 are summer vacation months and should be a time of peak travel. More ADR availability then 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. (To the contrary, August and September will almost certainly be slower than summer.)
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 several months, it’s the totality of things–more restaurants reopening, additional tables being filled, 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.
That way, the Disney Dining Plan could be brought back when pent-up demand starts to fizzle, inflation on necessities influences discretionary spending, and the stimulus money plus what people saved during the pandemic is depleted. The Disney Dining Plan could function as an offset to all of that, giving a boost or second-wind to spending, so to speak, when it otherwise might slow down.
At some point, the money people saved while spending a portion of last year stuck at home is going to run out, consumers will return to being more cost-conscious and price sensitive, and things will largely normalize. That could collide with Walt Disney World being able to increase dining capacity, which is likely needed in order for the Disney Dining Plan to return.
It’s hard to say when that turning point will come, but it could be sometime this summer if this increased ADR availability is actually a sign that demand is cooling.
Timing-wise, it’s still important to acknowledge the reality that 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 other words, it’ll likely take Disney leadership observing a sustained slow-down before making the decision to bring back the Disney Dining Plan. From there, it’ll take at least a few weeks for the company to lay the groundwork for the Dining Plan’s return, and then likely another few weeks from the time the return is officially announced until it can be purchased and used.
Assuming that realization of a slow-down occurred today and the decision was made to bring it back, the best-case scenario is that the Disney Dining Plan will return sometime in June 2022. However, we do not want to give you false hope–like Disney gave all of us last summer when the company indicated it’d be back soon!
To the contrary, we think the Disney Dining Plan returning next month is unlikely given operational realities on the ground, and is a possibility we’re only putting out there because of the way that the company is pushing for normalcy by start of summer, and also because restaurant capacity continues to scale up. If the Disney Dining Plan does come back this summer, our guess is that after Independence Day holiday weekend is likely the best case scenario. And even that is not what we are predicting at this point.
Honestly, after months (and months…and months) of thinking that the Disney Dining Plan’s return was on the horizon, I’m not even feeling particularly optimistic about Summer 2022. While there’s a good chance of a lot normalizing in the next few months, I’m less confident that enough will happen (and with sufficient lead-time) for Walt Disney World to bring back the Disney Dining Plans before Fall 2022.
In all likelihood, not only will the groundwork need to be laid (staffing, third party contracts, etc.) but so too will there need to be a sufficient period of cooling for ADR demand and guest spending. After that, there will be delays from decision to announcement to implementation. All of that skews towards post-Summer 2022 as the more realistic scenario.
Given all of that, we think the most plausible scenario is August or September 2022 for the return of the Disney Dining Plan. Even if this summer ends up being slower than originally forecast or staffing improves significantly, that timeframe pushes the return of the Disney Dining Plan into the off-season, which is easier from a logistics perspective.
Frankly, I wouldn’t bet the farm on a Fall 2022 return of the Disney Dining Plan, either. Unless there’s a considerable slowdown this summer–and there are no clear signs of that just yet–the company may be content simply waiting until the start of 2023 to bring back the Disney Dining Plan. This might make sense given that the holiday season will likely be busier regardless of summer and fall, while also offering a “clean break” with the new vacation packages. The good news is that we should know one way or another by mid-June, as that’s when 2023 Walt Disney World vacation packages are likely to be released!
If you’re anxiously awaiting the return of the Disney Dining Plan, sitting on pins and needles for updates, don’t let my pessimism get you down. 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 by Summer 2022? Or, do you think Disney will be more slow and conservative, waiting until late Summer 2022 to bring back the DDP once 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!