Like it or not, making Advance Dining Reservations (ADR) for a Walt Disney World trip has become part of the planning process. Just as we do with booking flights, reserving Disney's Magical Express, making resort reservations, and securing park passes, we also must concern ourselves with making dining reservations—often 180 days before we set foot on Disney property.
I've long railed against this process as unnatural. Other than dental appointments, what else do we reserve six months in advance? I've now reached the age when I've stopped buying green bananas… but I'm supposed to know not only where I'll be in six months but what I'll want to eat? In the words of a few ESPN talking heads: "C'mon, man!"
However, what those of us who vacation at Walt Disney World know all too well is, without the ADR, you have little chance of dining in the more popular restaurants—or at least dining on your choice of day and time. Was it always this way? Certainly not. I can recall a time, way back in the last century, when making same-day dining reservations was the norm. There were kiosks set up in the front of Epcot, if I remember correctly they were where Guest Relations is today, and shortly after arriving, you'd interact electronically with a cast member and make your dining reservations. This interaction occurred via a two-way audio/video monitor so there was a certain coolness factor to it. Remember, this was in the 1990s before applications like Skype and FaceTime made this sort of thing commonplace.
So what happened? How did we get from same-day reservations and (dare I say it?) being seated in a restaurant as a "walk-up," to determining that "six months from today I'll be in Epcot and will desire French cuisine." The answer, in my opinion, is three words: Disney's Dining Plan.
You can argue that Disney has offered Dining Plans forever, but realistically, they never found wide acceptance until the 2000s. After raising the marketing of these Plans to new heights, Disney also began to bolster attendance during historically slower periods by offering a Dining Plan free of charge. Wait… what? Disney offered something free? I could go on about there being no such thing as a "free lunch" (or dinner… or snack…). These "free" Dining Plan promotions have always had a few caveats such as staying in non-discounted rooms, purchasing park passes for all members of your party, etc. I think I could successfully argue that the Disney Dining Plans are not a good deal financially for most people, but it's hard to argue against "free dining."
More and more people signed up for the Plans, and even today, many wait anxiously each year for the Free Dining announcement before booking their trips. So… what does all this have to do with the need for Advance Dining Reservations?
When the Dining Plans became ubiquitous, the "standard" plan offered included one counter service meal, one table service meal and one snack for each person in your party every day. The folks who had the Plan, via purchase or the "Free Dining" promotion, certainly wanted to take advantage of it—and who could blame them? Booking reservations early offered a way to guarantee they'd be able to dine at their choice of table service establishments. They could book 'Ohana for Monday, the Liberty Tree Tavern for Tuesday, Boma for Wednesday, and so on.
But then… the more popular restaurants started to fill to capacity. That, in turn, spawned the need to make reservations earlier and earlier and many people decided they really didn't know where they'd be that far in advance. Would we want to be in Epcot on a Wednesday night six months from now? Or maybe Hollywood Studios? The solution came when someone discovered it's possible to make two Advance Dining Reservations for the same time on the same day… at two different restaurants. Now I'm not saying everyone on the Dining Plan does this but I've seen the online forums discussing the practice to know that it was (and still is) widespread. Did I write "discussing" the practice? Many forums condone it and actually shared tips on how best to get it done. Heck, if I can make two reservations for the same night, why not three? Or four? Then I won't have to decide where to eat until that night.
What that meant for folks like you and me is that the chance of dining at 'Ohana was slim unless we secured an ADR months in advance. A new segment of the planning process, making ADRs, was born… much to my chagrin.
Some time ago, Disney expanded its website to allow guests to make their dining reservations online. In theory, if one is playing by the rules, Disney could prevent guests from the dreaded multiple bookings for the same time window. Unfortunately, it was a little too easy to find ways around that—multiple online IDs for example.
A little over a year ago, in another apparent effort to address this issue, Disney started requiring a credit card for reservations at its more popular, signature restaurants. If you were a no-show, and the reservation wasn't canceled 24 hours in advance, your credit card would be hit with a charge. Did it work? To some degree it did. However, like most enforcement systems, it can be beaten. I won't go into the "how to" scenarios here—let's allow the offenders to find their own way.
At any rate, I'd suggest we've seen a slight improvement in availability of Walt Disney World restaurants but nothing significant.
Similar restrictions are inherent in the new My Disney Experience website and app. If one uses the system as intended to take advantage of its features and benefits, double booking dining windows would be prevented. However, there's nothing to force people to use the system—although they could be missing out on some great new items.
On October 8, I was perusing the latest Walt Disney World Update from Stephanie Wien (available on MousePlanet every Tuesday—yes, I am a company man) when I caught this little update:
Dining policy changes coming this month
Starting on Thursday, October 31, all table service restaurant dining reservations will require a credit card to guarantee the reservation. In addition, any reservation that is not cancelled before 11:59 p.m. the night before the reservation date will be assessed a $10 fee at all restaurants in the parks and resorts.
Locations that already require pre-payment, such as the Hoop-Dee-Doo Revue, will continue with their existing policies. The new policy may help to alleviate the problem of people making multiple reservations on the same night, and perhaps make it easier to get table service dining reservations than it has been recently. A special cancellation line has been set up to avoid any issues with navigating the regular dining line. Read more details, and discuss these changes on our MousePad forum. Thanks to reader Cheshire Figment for alerting us to this change.
Now all table service restaurants will require a credit card and Disney will impose a fee on no-shows. Will this work to alleviate the problem of people making multiple reservations on the same night, and perhaps make it easier to get table service dining reservations? My guess? Somewhat. In other words, I think it will help, but not completely resolve the problem.
People who are intent on scamming the system will always find a way around the rules. Multiple IDs and multiple credit cards might be used to eliminate the chance of Disney (easily) catching on to double bookings. Some might even consider the $10 charge to be an acceptable expense for that flexibility. For those that do cancel reservations the previous day, they might be freeing up availability for same-day reservations and/or walk-ups so there is a ray of hope.
Unfortunately, at least for me, last day cancellations aren't much help. I long ago gave up trying to be seated as a walk-up. Oh, I might still try if I happen to be in the right place. What I'm saying is I'm not willing to waste my time taking Disney transportation to the Polynesian Resort just to see if 'Ohana has had any cancellations. It's just not a productive use of my time.
I've defined a progressive situation here. It began with Disney introducing programs to help them fill empty tables in their restaurants. No one can fault that premise. Every restaurant in the world strives for full occupancy. Empty tables represent wasted space and lost revenue. However, it is my belief that these programs have spawned an unfortunate side effect—and it's there that I have my complaint.
Please understand that most of what I've written here is conjecture and opinion. I have no firsthand knowledge of the level of multiple bookings and rely solely upon anecdotal evidence. To the best of my knowledge, Disney has not publicly stated precisely how the ADR system works nor if they have empirical data to support my claim of people making multiple reservations. I can only surmise I am correct. What other reasons could Disney have for these policy changes?
Do you agree? Has securing table service dining been an issue for you on your trips? Do you buy my premise that the Dining Plans are at fault or have at least contributed to the problem? Most importantly, will Disney's latest change eliminate or alleviate the problem? Let me know your thoughts below, and as always, thanks for reading.