You can’t predict a lot of things in life: I can’t tell you with any certainty if it will rain next week or who’s going to win the next presidential election. But since 2005, Disney fans could almost guarantee one thing: That Disney World would offer free dining in the fall. And it wasn’t just travel agents who were looking at past dates and playing Nostradamus. You could go to any Disney message board and see thread after thread about free dining rumors, speculation about dates, and what resorts it would cover. The great thing was, they were almost always right. Sure they might be off by a day or two and maybe we would get a surprise about a certain resort being excluded, but you could plan your trip around it and budget accordingly.
For the last few years however, Disney has been saying they’re going to end free dining. It wasn’t just the occasional cast member you’d talk to while you were booking your room. No less than Tom Staggs, the COO of Walt Disney Resorts, said four years ago that Disney was going to do away with deep discounts and free dining in particular. But then the next fall, it was back again and just as good as it had always been.
We didn’t see the first cracks until 2013. As a travel agent, if you’re lucky you book hundreds of rooms, but you quote ten times that number, if not more. And when you do a lot of quotes, you see patterns. The thing we were seeing is that beyond outright exclusions of resorts like villas located on the monorail and the Little Mermaid rooms at Art of Animation, even some of the resorts that were offered lacked any real availability. This was particularly true with Port Orleans Riverside. In 2013 I couldn’t get this resort for most of my clients, which puts families of five or more with nowhere to stay at the moderate level, but when I made a reservation for a spur of the moment day trip thanksgiving week–literally the day I checked in–I had my choice of all room categories. I’ve seen this at the Little Mermaid rooms as well. During free dining last year in December, the Little Mermaid section of Art of Animation was a ghost town. Anecdotally, it appears to me that these rooms aren’t filled when they aren’t discounted. Obviously I don’t have access to Disney’s actual occupancy numbers, but it also seems that Disney is okay with it, at least to an extent.
Last year, Disney offered free dining for the fall, much as it always had, save for the fact that they offered it for the entire fall period, which resulted in massive hold times on the phone and daily system outages for a week. In addition to the usual resort exclusions, Port Orleans was basically off the table. Still, most people were able to get what they wanted if they were willing to switch resorts or play a little bit with their dates.
Free dining for fall 2015 has been an entirely different experience thus far. Both the consumer and travel agent online systems were down and again, people spent hours and hours spent on hold waiting to talk to a Disney agent. But the worst of it was that there was simply no availability. While the usual resorts were excluded, and we expected that, the fact that I couldn’t get Pop Century, a resort I could usually book under a promotion right up until the day that promo closed, twelve hours after the discount was announced means they simply did not offer many rooms. Even at the value resorts, usually our go-to option for families.
And ultimately that’s fine. I mean, no one was promised a discount. At least I don’t know any agents who did. And Disney certainly doesn’t. But the problem with announcing a discount is that people’s expectations are, particularly given past experiences, pretty high. Instead, what guests found was a “black Friday” type of situation that none of them ever signed up for, where they camped out all night outside of their local Walmart, only to find that there were only three televisions available under the offer and those TVs were actually several times more expensive than the television they were actually going to buy. If that’s too oblique, what I mean is, the guest who booked a moderate room hoping for free dining could get free dining, if they moved their dates and upgraded to a concierge-level room at the Grand Floridian.
A brief word about how all of this works is probably called for. Free dining, just like any discount, is based in part on both actual and projected bookings. Think of each resort as a separate entity. That resort provides Disney’s bean counters with what they think their occupancy is going to look like for a certain time period. These bean counters weigh that information against a number of other less concrete factors, like the economy and consumer confidence, along with school holidays and last year’s projected numbers. This is why free dining dates vary slightly from year to year and why certain resorts may be excluded. For example, villas at Bay Lake Tower. Disney knows, or at least hopes, that they can fill them at full price. Why offer a discount?
So did Disney offer considerably fewer rooms because bookings are up? I don’t think so. I think Disney is willing to take a hit on occupancy this year. If that hit becomes too dramatic, I think they’ll offer another discount, sometime during the summer. I also think that Disney is moving toward “Stay Play & Dine” type of offers, which are almost as good as free dining, depending on where you stay and the configuration of your group. Perhaps more interestingly, I think we will also see offers which don’t cost Disney actual money.
Offers that don’t cost Disney any money are brilliant. Yes, the guest is still getting something tangible, but think about the park hopper that you had to add to get free dining this year: a lot of guests don’t bother with the hopper, because at 70 per ticket, it’s just too much money on top of everything else. When Disney gives a guest free dining, Disney is still shelling out money for food and services. But when I require that same average family to purchase a park hopper just to get free dining, I just recouped almost $300. And I didn’t give them anything. In fact, just sent them to another park, extending their day, which equals more money for the Mouse. If you think that Fastpass+ is just a nice way for guests to organize their day, well that’s a lovely way to live. But it’s also an effective way to keep you in the parks. So is park hopping.
There’s a definite possibility that without free dining, guests wont’ stay on property or will cancel their vacations. And when guests don’t fill up rooms, they do more than just leave resort rooms unoccupied. They find out that there’s really good, cheap food off property. They head over to the outlet malls and shop there. And think about this: each person’s vacation time is finite. I’ve only got so many hours of the day that I can spend in a Disney park. But if I’m “commuting” back and forth from a hotel on 192, some of that precious vacation time–and the money I would otherwise spend–is being spent in a car. Finally, if restaurants aren’t at capacity, what happens to Disney’s well-trained staff? Sure, Chef Mickey’s is always going to be full, but what about restaurants like the Wave or San Angel Inn, restaurants that already seem to struggle? Does Disney shutter them during the traditionally slower fall months or reduce cast member hours? It’s all interconnected and the effects are property-wide, not just at the resorts.
It’s far too bold to say that free dining is dead and in fact, I don’t think it is. What I do think is that this is probably the start of some major changes made with regard to this particular discount. Going forward, I think any guest traveling in the fall with the expectation of free dining is not being entirely realistic. Free dining is great, but the happiest clients I had on Monday night were the ones who viewed free dining as an nice bonus, not a given. And I would suggest that for anyone reading here as well.
What are your thoughts? Did this latest promotion change how you felt about fall travel? I’d love to hear about it in the comments or on the Facebook page.