The Disney online community loves talking about free dining: Is it any good, does it diminish the caliber of food, and most of all, is it going to continue to be offered? Every year you’ll hear rumors that free dining is coming to an end and yet every year, there is it. Yes, there have been some changes here and there, but for the most part, free dining exists in the same form year after year.
Lately, I’ve been hearing rumors from fairly credible sources (in other words, not Disney bus drivers or the occasional pot stirrer on Disboards) that free dining won’t happen this fall. Balderdash.
Sorry, I’ve always wanted to use that word in a post.
Free dining will happen this fall just like it has for the last few years. In fact, you can make a stronger case for free dining this year than in previous years. Here’s why:
1. Free dining is being offered at Art of Animation for September. When free dining came out for August 25 – September 29, we were told that Art of Animation was excluded from the offer. In fact, word was that Art of Animation would be excluded from all discounts for the first six months. It made sense, of course: It’s a new resort and the thinking was that it would be so popular, Disney wouldn’t need to offer discounts. Well, that’s not what happened. Several weeks into the promotion, free dining was added to Art of Animation.
Now, here’s the thing. Discounts are offered based on the need to fill rooms, nothing more. The number of rooms allotted for a certain discount are based not just on actual bookings already in place, but on projected bookings. Projected bookings are based on a number of things, everything from how the economy is doing to patterns of guest behavior in the past. When bookings are expected to be down, discounts are released to fill those rooms.
2. The Fantasyland expansion is lagging behind. Yes, we speculate constantly about when the FLE is going to open. Dates are all over the place, from early summer to early fall. While we would love the project to open sooner rather than later, our sources inside the expansion tell us that the expansion will open later than previously expected.
I’ll be honest. From what I’ve seen of the expansion so far, it’s fantastic. Please continue to take your time and show us the incredible work you can do. But when you’ve been dangling a carrot out in front of guests for two years and it still hasn’t happened, people are going to want you to give them some incentive to visit now rather than when the expansion opens.
3. Disney has to fill nearly 10,000 beds at Art of Animation. No one expects Art of Animation to completely booked, but even at just 70% capacity, Disney needs to put about 7,000 guests into Art of Animation every night by the time it’s complete by mid-September. That’s a lot of guests. We know that there’s only a certain number of guests who will be travelling to Walt Disney World each year. We also know that the goal isn’t to lure guest from one resort to Art of Animation; that wouldn’t make sense. So how does Disney lure budget-conscious guests, their target audience, from cheaper off site hotels? By offering them incredible deals like free dining.
4. Free dining keeps restaurants running during slower times of the year. This is something that a lot of people don’t talk about, but it’s a really important reason for offering free dining. Disney prides itself on having well-trained professionals in their restaurants and it shows: Disney servers are some of the best you’ll find. But you can’t keep a professional wait staff on hand throughout the year if your restaurants are sitting vacant. You’d have to let them go or reduce their hours. Not exactly the way to keep your employees motivated. Free dining gets guests into restaurants that might otherwise have to reduce their hours or staff. This is particularly true for less popular restaurants, like Kona Cafe, Chefs de France, or Sannaa, places that serve good food but are not always on guests’ radar.
5. Gas prices and a shaky economy continue to erode the tourist dollar. Vacations are still a luxury and while I generally believe that a Disney vacation is one of the best deals around, the fact is that without discounts, many guests will stay off site, particularly in this economy.
Expect free dining for fall to be announced in early August, possibly sooner. Be flexible regarding your dates, because there will be a lot of black out periods. Don’t buy airline tickets from a carrier that charges high change fees until you know what your travel dates will be. And as always, if you want a specific resort, make sure you book as soon as the discounts are available.
Disclaimer: The opinions contained in this article are my own and do not represent the Walt Disney Company nor should they be construed as fact. For more information on free dining rumors and speculation for Fall 2012, please see this article.