“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 December 19, 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 this year or in 2023. If you’ve already read this post in the past, scroll down to the “December 2022 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 a staggering 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 occurred once towards the start of the year, and again in late 2022. 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.
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 month.
Unfortunately, not everything is 100% on the character dining front. As of late December 2022, Cinderella’s Royal Table is open but still does not feature princesses. Likewise, Bon Voyage and 1900 Park Fare remain closed. Not to ruin the illusion, but Walt Disney World is currently experiencing a ‘princess shortage.’
As intimated above, staffing remains the key impediment to this across all Walt Disney World restaurants. 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 many locations unable to operate at full capacity, and must leave many tables unfilled. Breakfast isn’t being offered at many 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 is still pretty far from 100%.
Unfortunately, Walt Disney World fell (slightly) short of having complete operational normalcy by around the start of the new fiscal year last month. While giant strides have been made, it’s looking unlikely that things will be back to normal until 2023.
Nevertheless, Walt Disney World continues on its hiring spree of job fairs, dubbed the Hiring Celebration. There are big hiring events at the Casting Center on December 21 and every Wednesday in January 2023, with highlighted roles including Culinary & Quick Service Foods. The company is offering start bonuses for select roles, as well as higher wages.
With that said, there are a couple of positives on the staffing front: Cultural Representatives Have Returned to Walt Disney World. The international programs are smaller than the College Program, but nevertheless help restore capacity at a multitude of World Showcase restaurants. The bigger impact is that this frees up non-international Cast Members to move to other roles, thereby improving restaurant capacity elsewhere.
On another upbeat note, since the return of CEO Bob Iger, Cast Member morale has already started to improve 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?
December 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 near-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. If anything, it’s the lack of changes that’s conspicuous here.
It has now been over one full year (!!!) 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 2022 EPCOT International Festival of the Holidays also 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 will probably occur again with 2023 EPCOT Festival of Arts menus. However, the company has not since stated that the Disney Dining Plan is returning imminently.
The bigger non-developments are two-fold. On December 15, Walt Disney World released its “Power of Magic” holiday deal for residents of the United Kingdom and Ireland, which is valid April 19 to September 30, 2023. In the past, this has routinely been a sneak peek at discounts and special offers that would be released for the United States. The 2023 holiday offer is for up to 4 free nights during a two-week vacation. That’s a disappointment to those fans who were hoping for the return of Free Dining.
We aren’t particularly surprised by this, and always expected the paid Disney Dining Plan to return long before Free Dining. There’s almost no chance that Walt Disney World would restore both simultaneously, as 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.
This is the bigger disappointment, and what leads us to believe the Disney Dining Plan will not return on January 1, 2023. As that date has drawn nearer, it has increasingly become a longshot, but we had still held out a sliver of hope.
Also notable is that the next couple of weeks are the busiest time for booking next year’s vacations, which is precisely why that UK deal just dropped. Families gather and plan the year ahead, often with Disney+ on or while watching the ABC Christmas Day “Parade” (that has become a joke among diehard Disney fans, but it is absolutely huge as a marketing tool that drives vacation bookings).
Essentially, if Walt Disney World were on the precipice of restoring the Disney Dining Plan in early 2023, they’d have it ready right now. Walt Disney World will almost certainly release a huge special offer the first week of January, likely running through mid-September 2023. At this point, it’s a near-certainty that those packages will not include the Disney Dining Plan as an option, free or paid.
None of this should be a huge surprise or disappointment at this point–the wait is now measured in years rather than months now–but that’s nevertheless where things stand. While we still (strongly) believe the Disney Dining Plan will return at some point in 2023, we have become quite pessimistic as to when–and think the precise timing is going to be difficult to predict.
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 March 1, 2023. This is not when we expect the DDP to come back, simply the earliest realistic return date.
As noted above, January 1, 2023 now is highly unlikely. While it would make sense to offer a “clean break” from one calendar year to the next, it’s probably too late to make that move with next year only a couple of weeks away. We’d put the chances of a January 2023 return at under 5% as a result.
Accordingly, we think it’s likely that the Disney Dining Plan won’t return during the winter off-season at all. If anything, Walt Disney World will wait until after what’s going to be a very busy Presidents’ Day and Mardi Gras, which will be over during the last few days in February 2023. That’ll bring with it another window of low crowds, which is the ideal time to bring back the DDP. At least, in theory.
In reality, that window is also relatively short before Spring Break and Easter all spike crowds for another couple of months before the pre-summer lull. As such, we think the likelihood that the Disney Dining Plan returns in March 2023 is around 25%, at best.
The most likely scenario is that Walt Disney World will opt to wait once again, not bringing back the Disney Dining Plan until April 10, 2023 or thereafter. At that point, it should be 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 is when we do expect the Disney Dining Plan to return.
It’s entirely possible that it takes until then 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 a few 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.
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 January, March, or April/May 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!