Did you try to get free dining today and fail? Maybe you got it–congrats. But if you’re a travel agent and you’re fortunate enough to have dozens of clients whose reservations you’re hoping to turn over, you probably had a pretty rough day.  Here’s what I think is happening, using the example of Pop Century.

First, there are very few discounted rooms available at Pop Century for September under free dining, which is HIGHLY unusual, in part because this is a massive resort. This isn’t because people jumped on at 4:30 in the morning (which is when I was up) and booked it all–it’s because it wasn’t released. We saw this happen last year, which I’ll come back to later. What is available is an offer called “Back to School Savings” (or something similar–there are a couple out there).  From what I’ve seen with my clients, it gives you about 40% of the savings you’ll get from free dining. Not bad, but certainly not the savings we’re used to during the fall.

Now personally, I have never seen Pop full in September even with free dining. This leads me to believe two things:  One, that Disney is truly trying to wean people off free dining. We already know this is true and they’d be crazy not to, but over the last couple years, finding a discounted room has become more and more difficult.  Could this be the year? Possibly, but I like this next option better. It’s a bit more nefarious and also more fun to speculate about.

Disney is a business, let’s not forget that, and what Disney wants is for you, for example, to book a room in February for a  September stay. They want you to book all your dining and Fastpasses. And then they want you to happily wait for your trip, go to Disney World, and have a great time. What they do not want you to do is realize that there’s a big fat discount available for your travel dates and have you book under that. Because that’s just bad business, right? And while Uncle Walt may have wanted nothing more than for you to skip happily through the park eating that free Mickey bar, Bob Iger wants you to pay for that Mickey bar because he has to answer to his shareholders and Shanghai Disney just happens to be a big blight on his legacy.  He needs the money, in other words.

But wait. While “forgetting” to apply a discount might work for some guests, it doesn’t work for all of them. You’re a smart consumer. You’ve followed all the blogs and online message boards. Maybe you have a travel agent. Whatever the case, you’re on the ball. So discounts are released and there’s no free dining for your dates. What do you do? Well, you’re lucky, because there are a couple of other discounts out that meet your needs and you book those.  And while it’s less than half of what you’re used to getting, you’re happy to just get something and you go on your merry way.

But does that fill up a resort like Pop Century during the slowest month of the year? Probably not.  But by this point most consumers have forgotten about free dining. They’ve got a discount. It’s as good as they’re getting. I  mean, you were fine with marrying the prom queen’s sister–why complain about this? It’s almost as good!  And that’s when more rooms are released. Because, and you know this, free dining really works best when it brings new bookings not when discounts are applied to existing bookings. I mean, those people are probably going anyway, right?  What they want, understandably, is to bring in new guests. And you can’t do that during many parts of the fall without a discount. So the spur of the moment guest–that’s the one who gets the discount. Not the guy who booked back in February and just saved $200 off a $5000 package.

Last year we saw rooms being released over a period of 2 to 3 weeks after the initial free dining discount was released. Now, some of those were probably rooms that went back into inventory after holds fell off. Last fall, that was 7 days after they were made. But that doesn’t account for discounted inventory that popped up 2 weeks after the initial discount was released. Last fall I couldn’t get free dining for a number of clients on day 1. By day 14, I had free dining for all of them. So did most agents at the agency where I work–we have 75 or so, a number which provides a pretty good sample of what’s going on as far as booking trends and availability are concerned.

Okay, of course all of this is conjecture. I could be completely wrong.  Also, I love a good conspiracy theory, so there’s that. But what do you think?  I’d be happy to hear in the comments.