“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 May 3, 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 “May 2023 Update” section for the latest predictions.
We should start by addressing the misconception that 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 has been up significantly as compared to 2019. This means that guests paying out of pocket have been spending more on average for their food than they would with the Disney Dining Plan. However, 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 twice last year, and if precedent is any indication, another round of increases will occur in the first half of 2023. (That has not happened through May 2023!) The last 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.
In the past, 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. 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.
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. Breakfast and lunch return to Akershus Royal Banquet Hall and breakfast comes back to Garden Grill in May and June 2023. Everything helps when it comes to dining capacity, but it’s already “close enough” to pre-closure levels even with some missing meal services and shorter operating hours at a handful of locations.
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 difficulty filling certain key roles, and turnover was high–but both of those issues have improved.
In an attempt to remedy that, Walt Disney World had been holding culinary job fairs and offering hiring bonuses for almost 2 years. You’ll notice that’s past tense. At present, the only job fair is for lifeguards, and the only hiring bonus is for specialized roles (e.g. pastry chef assistant). To be sure, there are still open positions–especially in kitchens–but absolutely nothing like the last couple of years.
That stated 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. Obviously, that was quite a while ago. So…where does that leave things?
May 2023 Update
We’re back with an update, despite no major news or official 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 almost 2 years (!!!) 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.
A much more meaningful development we’ve noticed as of May 2023 is that Advance Dining Reservation availability has significantly improved. We’ve been able to book restaurants that have eluded us since reopening and in spot-checking ADRs for June and July 2023, even the peak summer months don’t look as competitive as either of the last 2 years.
This isn’t a totally new development, as ADR availability has been easing for a while. However, the extent of options we’re seeing is pretty remarkable. Restaurants like Chef Mickey’s, Story Book Dining at Artist Point, Akershus, Cinderella’s Royal Table, Topolino’s Terrace, California Grill, and others all have availability throughout the month. The only restaurant I had difficulty finding was Toy Story Roundup Rodeo, which is understandable given that it’s brand new.
However, the improved ADR availability isn’t just for this month–it’s also for June and July 2023. Those are summer vacation months that should be a time of peak travel. As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, there are already early signs of slowing bookings at Walt Disney World. Perhaps this is what the exhaustion of pent-up demand really looks like; maybe consumers are finally changing their spending habits; it’s possible rising prices on everything have finally done their damage.
For its part, Walt Disney World already has released 14 different discounts for 2023, which is more than were available for the entirety of last year. Most of these discounts have been released earlier than normal by historical standards, and offer better savings than their counterparts from the last two years. Some are superior to 2018 or 2019, but baseline prices and perks have also changed since then.
As we’ve pointed out repeatedly, Disney doesn’t offer discounts out of generosity. Rather, the company releases special offers when attendance or hotel occupancy projections are soft. If weak discounting and late releases were a sign that pent-up demand had still been running strong, the increased discounting is almost certainly a sign that the opposite is no longer be true as of 2023.
This is relevant to the Disney Dining Plan conversation because it’s both a way to incentivize bookings and prop up per-guest revenue numbers. In the past few years, consumers had been freely spending–voluntarily dropping more on meals and travel & leisure to make up for lost time. If that’s no longer true, the Disney Dining Plan returning 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.
Nevertheless, it’s unclear what all of this means for the return of the Disney Dining Plan. As we’ve pointed out repeatedly, 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. From our perspective, all of that has now been achieved. There should be nothing holding back Walt Disney World from reviving the Disney Dining Plan.
Still, it’s 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, even if the stars have finally aligned and it makes sense for Walt Disney World to bring back the DDP ASAP, it still might take months for that to happen, unless leadership has been preparing for this moment and is ready to execute on its return. Honestly, I’m skeptical of that. Everything we’ve seen from Walt Disney World in the last few years suggests the change will take a minimum of a few months from decision to execution or implementation.
So, when will the Disney Dining Plan return?
With all of the above in mind, there are three possible scenarios. The first is any day now. In this situation, Walt Disney World leadership has been aware of and concerned about soft summer bookings for a matter of months, and now wants to pull available “levers” to bump up revenue and resort occupancy. One lever we’ve already seen pulled is new Annual Pass sales resuming. Another is the aforementioned increase in resort discounts. It wouldn’t surprise me if more summer ticket deals are released for Floridians, and perhaps more targeted room deals.
Honestly, it would surprise me if the Disney Dining Plan’s return is one of these levers. It’s just such a significant change that it seems unlikely that it’s something Walt Disney World would do while scrambling to buoy bookings for this summer, unless they are really bad–or unless the company has been concerned about this slowdown for months. (And this year’s earlier release of the free dining card discount suggests that might be the case.) So in short, we think a Summer 2023 return of the Disney Dining Plan is plausible, but highly unlikely.
The next scenario is that an announcement of the Disney Dining Plan’s return is made in Summer 2023, but for travel dates further into the future. While this doesn’t address the immediate issue of occupancy and attendance in the coming months, it’s a good compromise. It gives Walt Disney World the ability to open the DDP for booking soon, securing a commitment of future revenue. This would be a savvy move amidst a travel slowdown, as it’d be a way to capture bookings before consumers start reducing their budgets and scaling back plans.
As for the timing of the return, the most obvious possibility is January 2024. That gives the company the ability to make a clean break and manage bookings accordingly. It also allows Walt Disney World to get past the Christmas season, which is always a popular time for dining demand. However, we wouldn’t rule out an announcement this summer that the Disney Dining Plan is returning in August 2023. That’s more aggressive, but it also could make sense and give both travelers and the company time to adjust.
This announcement could be made anytime in the next three months, but would likely come alongside the release of 2024 Walt Disney World vacation packages (assuming the January return is more likely, which we think is the case). Last year, vacation packages were announced on May 18 and booking began June 8. Normally, the announcement comes between mid-June and July, but an earlier announcement is once again likely for 2024 packages–everything else has happened earlier than normal this year.
The final scenario is that the Disney Dining Plan will return around September 15, 2023. That’s when the previously-released free dining card promo ends.
The reasoning here would be that the dining card places an added burden on Cast Members or stresses the system and reduces overall capacity, and thus Walt Disney World would not want to juggle those cards and the Disney Dining Plan simultaneously. However, the strain that the dining card places on the system could be a good ‘stress test’ and pave the way for the Disney Dining Plan to return once school goes back into session and after that promo ends.
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. Again, it’s been over 3 years since the Disney Dining Plan was available. There has been a tremendous amount of turnover since then, both among frontline Cast Members and management.
If this were still 2021 or even last year, we’d be inclined to predict that the Disney Dining Plan would return ASAP. It would be a good lever to pull to maintain elevated per guest revenue numbers, maintain dining demand, resort occupancy, and everything else. But with so much time having passed since the DDP was last available, it now seems more likely that Walt Disney World isn’t going to rush into the return and rollout. (Frankly, we hope they don’t at this point. After seeing the struggles with Genie+ when it launched, it makes more sense to take time and get this right.)
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, and that’s being felt by Walt Disney World even amidst higher overall spending driven by Genie+ and Lightning Lane price increases. In such a situation, it’s possible work is already occurring behind the scenes to bring the paid Disney Dining Plan back for Summer 2023. But we really, really doubt that this is what’s going to happen. It would truly take the stars aligning.
More likely is a return of the Disney Dining Plan in September 2023. However, “more likely” is a relative term, and we’d still put the chances at under 50%. Again, if it were 2 years ago, our tune would be different–it would’ve made complete sense to bring the DDP back in September 2021 if the underlying circumstances allowed. Now, those do allow, but there are other reasons for a more cautious and drawn out approach.
Which brings us to the most likely scenario. There’s obviously a lot could change in the next several months, but if we were forced to bet on a specific return date for the Disney Dining Plan right now, our pick would be January 1, 2024. To address whatever summer slowdown may happen, the company can pull other “levers” while using the DDP as a way to boost 2024 bookings. This also offers a “clean break” with the new vacation packages. The good news is that we should know one way or another by June 2023, if not within the next few weeks, as that’s when an announcement is likely for 2024 Walt Disney World vacation packages.
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.
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 Summer or September 2023? Do you think Disney will be more slow and conservative, waiting until January 2024? Or, do you think all of this is wrong, and the DDP is dead and gone?! 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!