When Will Disney World’s Dining Plan Return?

When will the Disney Dining Plan return in 2023?” and “will Walt Disney World bring back Free Dining?” 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 February 15, 2023.)

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…except the DDP. At this point, the Disney Dining Plan is one of the few things that’s still temporarily unavailable. Virtually everything else has been officially ended/cancelled or brought back as of early 2023.

For its part, Walt Disney World has not been totally silent about the Disney Dining Plan’s future–they released a statement saying that it would be back soon…but that was over a year ago. 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 “February 2023 Update” section for the latest developments, which are really more like the absence of action

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 in normal times. 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.

The big caveat here is the “in normal times” part of that. Right now, Walt Disney World is seeing record-breaking per guest spending, which is up over 40% as compared to 2019. Consequently, it’s entirely possible that guests paying out of pocket are spending more on average for their food than they would with the Disney Dining Plan. That’s just a guess on our part, and even if true, that level of pent-up demand won’t last forever.

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.

In normal times, 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.

This is the traditional analysis of why the Dining Plan benefits Walt Disney World, but it fails to account for on-the-ground circumstances. To that point, it’s worth addressing inflation and the wave of price increases on hundreds of food items at Walt Disney World.

This occurred twice last year, and if precedent is any indication, another round of increases will occur in the first half of 2023. The latest wave of price increases were more comprehensive and sweeping, with everything from snacks (again) to character dining experiences going up in price. This latter one is particularly significant, because character meals are particularly popular with guests who typically purchase the Disney Dining Plan.

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. It’s thus always notable when Walt Disney World increases menu prices, as that could be a sign that they’re preparing for the return of the DDP.

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.

It’s also possible that food inflation is one reason why the company has been hesitant to bring back the Disney Dining Plan. If guests are able to pre-pay for their food 6 months to a year in advance, they are able to lock-in current prices to some degree. With so much volatility in food and other input costs, Disney may view this as problematic. Of course, this is all totally speculative–but predictability and pricing psychology are important to Disney.

Also important to Walt Disney World is having sufficient restaurant capacity for the demand induced by the Disney Dining Plan. This was a significant problem for much of the last 2 years and a big reason why the Disney Dining Plan was temporarily suspended in the first place.

This is still a consideration, but not nearly to the degree that it once was. 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). Additionally, restaurants that have been open for months have continued to scale up operations, bringing back breakfast, buffets, or other missing meal services.

This won’t materially change capacity, but it’s yet another significant step in restoring normalcy to Walt Disney World’s dining scene. It’s also indicative of Walt Disney World’s intentions to bring more back to normal with regard to missing meal services at its table service restaurants.

Character dining experiences continue returning and more restaurants are reopening. Akershus Royal Banquet Hall recently reopened for dinner, becoming the first face character meal to return in full form. (Well, ‘full’ form minus breakfast and lunch.) This is good news, but it’s happening slowly and with a tremendous amount of lead-time. On February 28, princesses will return to Cinderella’s Royal Table. Following that, Chef Mickey’s returns to a buffet on March 1, 2023.

Other previously missing meals have been coming back in the last few months. This includes all meals at Crystal Palace: A Buffet with Character featuring Winnie the Pooh and Friends, Minnie’s Beach Bash Breakfast at Cape May Café, and ‘Ohana Best Friends Breakfast featuring Lilo and Stitch. The buffet at Tusker House also just returned. This leaves only Bon Voyage and 1900 Park Fare as without characters or still closed, respectively.

As intimated above, staffing remains an issue at many Walt Disney World restaurants, but this is nowhere near as bad in 2023 as it was in the last two years. The company has had tremendous difficulty filling certain key roles, and turnover is incredibly high–even as Disney hires aggressively, it has been losing employees almost as quickly as it can onboard them.

The result is some locations unable to operate at full capacity, and leave tables unfilled as a result. Breakfast isn’t being offered at restaurants because Disney can’t fill enough Cast Member shifts–adding breakfast to the slate would require cutting hours at dinner. This reinforces the reality that just because most restaurants are reopened doesn’t mean they’re firing on all cylinders. Dining capacity has improved, but still is not at 100%.

In an attempt to remedy that, Walt Disney World continues holding job fairs on a regular basis. However, the frequency of these has decreased. Last year and even last month, there were hiring events at the Casting Center every Wednesday with highlighted roles including Culinary & Quick Service Foods with start bonuses for most roles. Now, there’s one virtual culinary jobs fair on February 21 and one in-person culinary jobs fair scheduled for February 22, and bonuses for only a few, harder-to-fill roles.

Since the return of CEO Bob Iger, Cast Member morale has improved significantly. Whether this translates into less turnover remains to be seen, but that’s our expectation. If that does happen, all of the lingering staffing shortages should be quickly resolved. (A recession or economic downturn would also eliminate that issue.)

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?

February 2023 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 regular 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. If anything, it’s the lack of changes that’s conspicuous here.

It has now been over 18 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 do we.

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 is still present on Walt Disney World’s official site. There continue to be 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 the EPCOT Festivals also still features the DDP symbol next to eligible snacks, as if food & beverage teams are preparing for it to possibly return at any time. That has been the case over and over, and is meaningless. However, the company has not since stated that the Disney Dining Plan is returning imminently.

The bigger non-developments are two-fold. First, the company released the ‘Free’ Disney Dining Card Discount at Walt Disney World for Summer through Fall 2023. Although fundamentally different in nature, this is very clearly a “replacement” for Free Dining.

That’s true in terms of the promotion name, what it offers, and the travel dates it encompasses. This discount begins June 25 and runs through September 14, 2023. That ends earlier than past Free Dining promos, but it otherwise fits the parameters. We aren’t the least bit surprised that a different discount was offered in lieu of Free Dining–we’ve always expected the paid Disney Dining Plan to return first.

There’s almost no chance that Walt Disney World would simultaneously restore both Free Dining and the paid Disney Dining Plan. That would be slamming on the gas, going from 0 to 60 on the Disney Dining Plan when restaurant capacity still might not allow for that. However, it is definitely disappointing that this package doesn’t even include the option to add-on the Disney Dining Plan out of pocket.

Second, during the Walt Disney Company’s most recent earnings call in February 2023, recently-returned CEO Bob Iger and his team revealed that the Parks & Resorts segment saw a 21% increase in revenue to $8.7 billion. More notably, over $6 billion of that came from the domestic parks, and the bulk of that was attributable to Walt Disney World.

This was once again due to higher per guest spending numbers, which has become a common refrain. While no comparison was drawn to pre-pandemic, it was certainly high. Disney leadership has been touting these record numbers for the past year, so growth of over 20% is really, really strong. The company pointed to higher ticket prices as well as Genie+ and Lightning Lanes as the primary drivers, so it’s possible spending on food & beverage has slowed, but we’re skeptical.

So, when could the Disney Dining Plan theoretically return in 2023? To borrow a line from Ernest Hemingway, change happens “gradually, then suddenly.” His famous quote about personal finances also applies to corporate ones, as well as supply and demand, economic outlooks, and even the return of the Disney Dining Plan. Thus far, progress to lay the groundwork for its return has epitomized a gradual change.

However, that could change suddenly. In particular, the resolution of staffing shortages resulting in across-the-board increases to restaurant capacity could collide with a slowdown in consumer spending and pent-up demand running its course. When (not if) that happens, the Disney Dining Plan’s expeditious return (at least to the extent Disney does anything “expeditiously”) won’t be too far behind.

With all of that in mind, our prediction for the Disney Dining Plan’s earliest likely return is April 17, 2023. This is not when we expect the DDP to come back, simply the earliest realistic return date.

This actually isn’t much of a change as compared to our prior prediction, which indicated that Walt Disney World would wait until after what’s going to be a very busy Presidents’ Day and Mardi Gras, as well as the Spring Break and Easter rush. April 17 is roughly the start of another relatively quiet stretch until attendance starts increasing for summer, which is expected to occur in mid-June 2023. This window between mid-April and May 2023 offers the absolute earliest realistic timeframe for the Disney Dining Plan to return.

The big difference between now and our last update is that we previously expected the Disney Dining Plan to return during that pre-summer timeframe, and now we do not. It’s plausible, but seems far less likely.

The sustained high level of per guest spending is certainly a factor, but that’s the less significant factor. The growth during the past quarter was the popular holiday season, and spending was expected to be strong then as a ‘last hurrah’ of sorts for elevated consumer spending. Walt Disney World has dramatically increased discounts for 2023, which alone suggests pent-up demand is starting to fizzle out.

The bigger factor is the aforementioned Disney Dining Card promotion. We do not expect this to replace the Disney Dining Plan in the long-term, but it does seem implausible that Walt Disney World would restore the Dining Plan and start offering these cards in the span of a few weeks.

Introducing two complicated programs each with their own rules and policies would be overwhelming and confusing to Cast Members, most of whom probably were not employed by Disney during the DDP days. More importantly, it would be stressing to the system to go from guests paying out of pocket only to having both programs. That would mean inducing a lot of new demand all at once, which seems unlikely given Disney’s ongoing struggle with restaurant capacity.

For this reason, it now appears more likely that Walt Disney World will wait until (at least) the tail end of the dining card promotion before restoring the DDP. That does not necessarily mean the Disney Dining Plan will return on September 15, 2023–nor does it preclude the DDP from coming back slightly before then.

More likely, it means that the company will wait for both a material slowdown in per guest spending that needs to be boosted (and in fact, the dining card promo accomplishes exactly this, as it requires booking a non-discounted hotel room) and to see whether the the dining card places an added burden on Cast Members or stresses the system and reduces overall capacity. All of that could be accomplished by late in the summer, paving the way for the Disney Dining Plan to return once school goes back into session in late August through mid-September 2023.

Honestly, even that is pretty far from certain. The Disney Dining Plan returning in early Fall 2023 is more plausible than pre-summer, but both are questionable at best to unlikely at worst. If the DDP’s return misses that August/September window, the next most likely date is early January 2024.

That’s obviously far away and a lot could change in the next several months, but if I were forced to bet on a specific return date for the Disney Dining Plan right now, I’d choose January 1, 2024. (It’s not that other dates are impossible, it just feels like Walt Disney World is kicking the can down the road with the dining card.) If it does take until January 2024 for the Disney Dining Plan to return, it will have been gone for so many years that the DDP may look materially different when it does return. Those of you hoping for the Disney Dining Plan to come back may not want what you see.

Ultimately, we hate to be so pessimistic, but that’s increasingly how we feel about the eventual return of the Disney Dining Plan. Optimism has gotten us nowhere, and it’s not worth continuing to hold out hope as Walt Disney World tests other ways to sustain high per guest spending while inducing less crushing demand on restaurants that are already mostly filling up.

There is a scenario where guests have already started to spend less on dining as of early 2023, and that’s being felt by Walt Disney World even amidst higher overall spending driven by Genie+ and Lightning Lanes. In such a situation, it’s possible work is already occurring behind the scenes to bring the paid Disney Dining Plan back in mid-April 2023, allowing sufficient time between the relaunch of that and debut of the Disney Dining Card special offer in late June. But we really, really doubt that this is what’s going to happen. It would truly take the stars aligning.

It’s more likely that it takes until the end of Summer 2023 or even beyond for pent-up demand to fizzle out, more missing meals to be restored, staffing shortages to be fully resolved, and less of a supply v. demand imbalance. The totality of those circumstances could pave the way for the Disney Dining Plan’s return and, right now, it seems like it’s still several months from all of those pieces falling into place.

That’s a huge range of predictions, but 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 in 2023…or 2024.

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 could still be a while with ADRs filling up and per guest spending skyrocketing? Think Walt Disney World will bring back the DDP in April/May or August/September 2023? Or, do you think Disney will be more slow and conservative, waiting until 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!

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