“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 May 11, 2021.)
Walt Disney World temporarily suspended the Disney Dining Plan and cancelled Free Dining last year, along with several other things. In the time since, Walt Disney World has started to restore offerings, with Park Hopping now back and Early Theme Park Entry coming later this year. That should underscore the temporary nature of these changes, the vast majority of which are not irreversible or permanent.
To the contrary, Walt Disney World will undoubtedly restore more in the lead up to the start of the 50th Anniversary celebration on October, 1, 2021. If you want to be notified when the Disney Dining Plan’s return is announced or Free Dining is released, 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…
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.
Quite simply, the Disney Dining Plan is a primarily a revenue engine or a guest perk. 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 explains how demonstrate the Dining Plan is a profit center for Walt Disney World and not just a perk. 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.
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.
It’s worth pointing out here that restaurants aren’t closed for lack of demand. In fact, it’s as difficult as ever to score Advance Dining Reservations for popular restaurants on many dates, even outside of peak season. Between ADRs and Walk-Up Waitlist for day-of availability, the majority of in-service tables are filled at most Walt Disney World restaurants daily.
What’s ironic is that the reason for the lack of restaurant capacity has changed over time. Initially, Walt Disney World held back on opening more venues because it simply was not profitable to operate them at reduced capacity. This might sound outlandish given the markup on Walt Disney World menu prices, but restaurants operate on razor thin margins.
For months, the obstacle had been physical distancing rules. That’s still an issue, but is becoming less of one as Walt Disney World restaurants has started to fill more tables. Additionally, it’s anticipated that Walt Disney World will soon follow Universal’s lead and drop physical distancing from 6 feet to 3 feet.
To facilitate this change, we’d expect that indoor face mask rules will remain in place at Walt Disney World through summer. In fact, there was recently a rule clarification that requires guests to stay masked except while actively eating their food or drinking. While this is a seemingly minor semantics change, in our FAQ & Guide to Face Masks at Disney World, we speculated that it was being done so Disney could justify filling more tables. (For what it’s worth, we’ve never seen the modified rule enforced.)
More recently, the larger hurdle to reopening restaurants and restoring capacity has been staffing. Burnout and turnover among previously-recalled Cast Members have been serious issues for the company. Additionally, Walt Disney World has already recalled all eligible furloughed and laid-off Cast Members, which amounts to tens of thousands of employees. In some cases, Disney has tried to coax recent retirees to return and even sought the return of seasonal employees.
Despite all of that, there are countless unfilled positions, some of which present an impediment to further accelerating reopening efforts. Walt Disney World has posted new job listings and begun a marketing campaign (you’ve probably seen the advertisements if you’re near Orlando). However, all of that can only do so much.
No matter where you live, you’ve no doubt seen news reports of restaurants and other service industry businesses having hiring problems. The issue is pronounced in Central Florida since a lot of people are transplants, many of whom left the region when unemployment skyrocketed last spring and job openings dried up. There are a variety of causes of the problem, but the bottom line is that the labor pool is too shallow for all of Disney’s current needs.
All of that presents significant issues for Walt Disney World, especially given the sheer volume of employees necessary to scale up operations. The company literally needs thousands of employees this summer and fall. Obviously, hiring woes will further delay the return of additional restaurant capacity, which is a necessary prerequisite for the return of the Disney Dining Plan. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that help is on the way. Walt Disney World just announced the return of the College Program in Summer 2021. This is huge. Pre-closure, a non-trivial amount of Disney’s labor force was young people, either participants in the College Program or “holdovers” who just completed their semesters.
When the parks closed, much of that labor pool simply moved back home. Those people are gone–no longer in Central Florida to rehire. The College Program sidesteps issues with the local labor pool, enabling Disney to much more easily attract and hire tons of fresh young faces as part of a nationwide initiative.
Walt Disney World has wasted no time in restarting the College Program. The announcement of its return came just last week, and as of May 11, 2021 acceptance letters are now going out to applicants. These state that the College Program will begin on June 14, 2021. That’s 5 weeks from announcement to arrival–pretty impressive!
That doesn’t mean that dozens of restaurants and the Disney Dining Plan will all return simultaneously in June. It’ll take time to train the new College Program participants, after which more restaurants will reopen. Walt Disney World recently announced the return of a trio of character restaurants–expect many more announcements like that on the horizon for Summer 2021–everything from restaurants to resorts to Typhoon Lagoon!
On top of all that, it’s likely that demand and Walt Disney World attendance will continue to increase. There are already signs that it’s going to be a busy summer travel season, with all of that “revenge travel” and pent-up demand we’ve discussed for months finally coming to fruition.
Reducing physical distancing and hiring thousands of new College Program participants will be two game-changers for Walt Disney World. While we want to be abundantly clear that there are no credible rumors of imminent changes to policies at Walt Disney World, it’s an inevitability at some point. This becomes more likely as we approach the Fourth of July, when things could largely be back to normal in the United States.
Again, that doesn’t mean that it’ll be like flipping a switch with the Disney Dining Plan returning immediately the day after new College Program participants finish their training and/or physical distancing is relaxed. While Walt Disney World can undoubtedly accomplish a lot behind the scenes in anticipation of that happening, some things will need to be ironed out in the coming weeks and months–including contracts with third parties and reopening of additional venues. All of that will take time.
As a brief aside, it might seem noteworthy that Walt Disney World is not offering the Disney Dining Plan for this year or 2022 vacation packages. However, that’s not really indicative of anything. Those packages simply reflect the status quo, from hotel closures to availability. As soon as official announcements and decisions are made, those offerings will be updated to reflect said changes.
With all of that said, Walt Disney World has been conservative and slow to make changes throughout the phased reopening of the parks. Given that, plus the anticipated timing of relaxation to physical distancing, completed training of summer College Program participants, and the logistical hindrances of reopening more restaurants and restarting the Disney Dining Plan, our best guess for the Disney Dining Plan’s earliest possible return is late July 2021. That is very much a guess, and an optimistic one at that.
More realistically, Walt Disney World might wait until right before October 1, 2021 to bring back the Disney Dining Plan. These are very unpredictable times, and it’s entirely possible that Walt Disney World will essentially write off the entirety of the next fiscal year. After all, that’s exactly what they’re doing with the opening of Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure. Pessimistically, Walt Disney World might wait until the new year, wanting to wait until the off-season arrives in January 2022 before making significant changes, sort of like with the return of Park Hopping this year. Given how lucrative the Dining Plan is for Walt Disney World, we doubt that’ll be the case, but crazier things have happened over the course of the last year-plus.
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 will bring back the Disney Dining Plan and many more restaurants once College Program participants are trained in Summer 2021? Or, do you think Disney will be more slow and conservative, waiting until 2022 to bring back the DDP during the off-season? 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!