Effect of the Disney Dining Plan on Disney Restaurants

Editor: I am very pleased to welcome guest author AJ Wolfe from the Disney Food Blog.

Since the Disney Dining Plan came into effect in 2005 — and “free dining” was introduced in 2006 — there have been both cheers and groans from Disney-goers. Cheers because many folks are able to use the plan to dine differently than they ever have before in Disney World. Groans because the plan has introduced several perceived negative affects in Disney World’s table service restaurants.

What We Think We’re Seeing

(Disclaimer: I’m being careful about this one. We Disney fans sometimes have a tendency to target our anecdotal complaints at any large change, whether or not that change has anything to do with our particular complaint.) That said, here are a few of the consistent concerns guests have had since the Disney Dining Plan’s introduction in 2005:

Declining Selection and Quality

On a visit to Yachtsman Steakhouse in September 2006 (using the free Disney Dining Plan promotion), I lamented to the server the absence of a rib-eye on the menu. He told me that because of the free Dining Plan that Fall, the Yachtsman Steakhouse menu had been reduced to include smaller steaks as there wouldn’t be enough room on the grill for the amount of rib-eye steaks that would be ordered. (Yachtsman has since brought the rib-eye back to the menu and has had either a cowboy rib-eye or a boneless rib-eye available on all of my subsequent visits — even during “free dining” periods.)


Since then, the comments have been skyrocketing about Disney table-service restaurant menus offering not only a smaller variety of options, but also a decidedly cheaper selection (for example, the elimination of prime rib from the buffets not long ago). Additionally, appetizers and separately ordered side dishes seem to be increasing at a higher price rate; these aren’t included in the Disney Dining Plan.

Homogenization and Mass Production

With the exception of a few unique signature dishes, menus — and actual food items — look very similar across the board at many Disney restaurants. There seems to have been a step toward homogenization of dishes and ingredients across eateries — from appetizers to desserts and everything in between, including counter service.

Here’s a quick example: All of Disney’s restaurants have for a few years now offered the same drink menu based on whatever alcohol company Disney’s partnering with at the time. This hasn’t always been the case, and, luckily, several restaurants are still able to offer a few signature drinks. But in my discussions with a few Disney bartenders, even the quality of the alcohol used in the standard-across-all-restaurants drinks has been going down — particularly in the recent drink menu incarnation introduced in September 2010.

No Reservations Available, Yet Lots of Empty Tables?

The advent of the Disney Dining Plan meant that more people were eating in table-service restaurants than ever before. Since 2005, reservations for restaurants in Disney World have become much more difficult to get — requiring guests to book many popular eateries at the beginning of the 180-day booking window. The problem with this system: many guests either don’t want to, or can’t, plan their visits 6 months in advance; and last-minute reservations are next to impossible to book. I’ve heard from several Orlando locals who have allowed their visits to Disney World to dwindle due to an inability to get a dining reservation at a decent booking interval.

However, when dining in the restaurants on recent visits, I’ve noticed that the tables haven’t been full. In fact, there have been more seats open than taken on many occasions. Why? Common belief says this is due to a rush of restaurant bookings at the 6-month window and people booking unwanted meals simply because they’ve “already paid for them” on the Dining Plan, both of which result in excessive no-shows. This is the same problem many doctors’ offices encounter: if you book appointments too far in advance, the number of no-shows skyrockets.

Declining Atmosphere in the Signature Dining Restaurants

I’ll admit it. I’m one of those people who actually likes to dress up for a signature dining restaurant meal. We don’t dine at fancy-schmancy spots on a regular basis, so our signature dining meals in Disney World are our opportunity to clean up, look pretty, and linger over a long, relaxing meal.
But, we’ve been noticing on the last few visits that signs are being placed at the entrances to signature restaurants reminding guests of the dress code because so few people follow it these days. We’ve also been noticing that our meals have been rushed in a way we’re not used to; we’ve started to order one course at a time so that we’re able to stretch out our celebration.

Perhaps the Dining Plan is harpooning Disney’s efforts to cultivate high-end dining experiences altogether.

So What Does It Mean for the Future?

With the ability to get bodies into the theme parks and get them fed at Disney’s own restaurants instead of off-site, Disney World’s profitable Dining Plan is showing no signs of an exit. In fact, the “free dining” promotions usually reserved for Disney World’s slowest time of year have been expanded for 2011.

And while many of us are noticing a change in food quality and selection at many Disney World eateries – regardless of the cause – I think the truth is we’re in the minority. It seems that many guests are very happy with the Disney Dining Plan and will continue to purchase it, or book during the free dining promotion, for as long as it’s available. And I feel that as long as Disney’s able to cut costs and still come out on the positive end of the profit spectrum, we won’t see many changes for the better in the restaurants.

Unfortunately, who this hurts the most is the local theme park fan, the annual passholders, and others who visit the parks and resorts on a regular basis. At the moment, we’re in a cost-saving era where money is being poured into new parks and attractions, and restaurants are being outsourced more and more often.

New guests will continue visiting Disney World in ever-increasing numbers regardless of the food quality or selection, but many who have been loyal to Disney-owned restaurants for years might be starting to look off-site for their meals more often. Interestingly, there are some Disney-run restaurants that seem immune to the changes and are still delivering top-notch experiences no matter the cost. Clearly there’s more going on here than meets the eye…or the palate.

AJ Wolfe writes about food and restaurants at Disney Parks and Resorts at DisneyFoodBlog.com

24 thoughts on “Effect of the Disney Dining Plan on Disney Restaurants”

  1. As a local Disney fan who usually doesn’t plan a visit more than a week in advance, I have to say that I haven’t really had any problem with getting in to any of our favorite table service restaurants. I’ve made Crystal Palace reservations on less than a week notice, and Tusker House on less than a day. And if I really want to eat somewhere, but the reservation line says that there are no openings, I’ll take advantage of those no-shows that you talked about. We will walk up to the window about a half an hour before we want to eat and ask for availability. As of right now, we’ve never waited longer than fifteen minutes.

  2. AJ, you are so on target with this one. When I made my reservations for October at the 180 mark, many peak times were already filled within 45 minutes with people betting on free dining. That’s absurd. We just ate at California Grill last month and it was basically Cheesecake Factory quality. Actually, it might not have even been that good. The service was excellent and the view is incredible, but the entrees were uninspired and over-seasoned (desserts are still excellent). At least at the 2 credit restaurants, they need to try to keep up Disney standards. I mean, half of the reason I go to Disney is the food!

  3. Liz — What great experience! Thanks for your comment! Do you usually go to the restaurants during busy seasons or historically slow seasons? I’m glad to hear that the walk-up trick works well. You just never know…

    chris — I think Cali Grill is one of the spots that can be extremely inconsistent. I can eat there on one trip and have an incredible experience, then, on the next trip, it will be like a Cheesecake Factory in the sky. There are a few signature restaurants that I’ve always found to be excellent; the others vacillate.

  4. It really is a shame with price going down, that quality has to sometimes go down as well. So this brings up the question of when the Free Dining Plan is not available (sort of during black-out dates) as to whether or not the quality goes up or stays the same…

  5. Bravo AJ! This is a great article about an awful problem that needs to be addressed. Disney seems to conitnue to raise prices while reducing selection and they aren’t stopping. I really hope they get the message because it’s a troubling trend.

    Thank you for taking the time to call a spade, a spade and bring this issue to the forefront.

  6. Pingback: Gina-Renee Clark

  7. Pingback: Todd Perlmutter

  8. Pingback: Lynn Wiltse

  9. Pingback: Alltop Disney

  10. Hmmm. Let’s not forget that many of these perceived changes have come in a time of a declining economy and declining profits for Disney Parks. While some of these changes might be attributable to increased volume because of the free dining promotion, many of them are cost-cutting measures we would probably be seeing even if there weren’t a Disney Dining Plan.

  11. I have a very different experience with walk ups at most restaurants. During busy times (IE March-August) most dining locations that show no available ADRs will refuse walk ups. This is especially the case in EPCOT. None of the World Showcase restaurants that showed no availability have ever accepted me as a walkup.

  12. AJ:

    I agree with your article. The homogenization is the main problem. The ability to experience new choices and flavors is the main reason to dine at Walt Disney World. There is really no discernible difference between any of the buffets (outside of perhaps Boma). Most 1-credit dining sites have essentially the same menus.

    The same homogenization argument could be made about merchandise.

    However, I also agree with @themeparkmom that these are pure cost-cutting measures. I hope that these are decisions made by the accountants and not by the creative brass.

    I do think that the Dining Plan is a good idea, especially with children. We do the character meals to avoid having to stand-in line to meet characters while touring the parks. The character meals are a “bargain” on the dining plan and as long as my kids still want to do the character meals, we will continue to get the dining plan.

    The one Dining Plan feature that should be modified is the ability to select an appetizer over a dessert.

    Thanks again,

  13. I agree with everything you said here, but I think you kind of went off track when you were talking about Mass Production and then side tracked about alcoholic drinks. I understand what you’re saying about the alcohol and it being of lower quality, but how does this apply to the dining plan? It seems this is more of a property-wide consolidation of food related items in a likely effort to get a huge volume discount. However, since alcoholic drinks aren’t available on the dining plan, it wouldn’t really seem to fit in with this conversation. I would think a more appropriate discussion might be to talk about the limited beverages that are available on the dining plan, of which there’s only about a half dozen, Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Coke Zero, Fanta (Orange), oh and Lemonade too.

    We had an experience a couple of years ago where it seemed like the only counter service food options being offered at the Magic Kingdom were Pizza, Burgers, Hot Dogs or a Salad. It prompted me to write Disney with the following message.
    We decided to have lunch at what used to be one of our favorite places for counter service, Pinochio Village Haus in the Magic Kingdom. We were quite disappointed to find that one of our favorite’s, the Italian sub and the Turkey Panini sandwiches have been removed from the menu, and the only thing being offered was pizza and salad. We’ve been to WDW many times over the years and we understand, and even expect menus to change, however, on this trip, it seemed that the variety of meals available for counter service seems to be getting smaller and smaller. In fact, it seemed that almost everywhere we went, the choices were limited to pizza, salad, burgers or chicken fingers. I understand that these are all popular foods, and we like all of them. But during the course of a 7 day trip, there’s only so much of those that can be tolerated.

    I understand, that having a smaller menu, is easier for your cast members, and even the guests, but limiting the choices to so few and proliferating the same choices throughout the parks, gets a bit tiring on the food palette. I would urge you to re-consider some of the choices being made for counter service food, and make sure there is some variety other than the above mentioned items.
    I got the standard response back via email that they appreciated my comments and would look into the matter, and so I let it go. I will say that on our most recent trip, earlier this month, we saw a bit more variety than 2 years ago. So, perhaps they are listening. Now, if they could just offer a bit more variety in the fountain drinks.

  14. Since I haven’t been since 1998, I will be using the DDP for the first time next May. In ’98 we ate at Crystal Palace, 1900 Park Fare, Whispering Canyon, Biergarten, 50’s Prime Time, ESPN Club, Planet Hollywood, and Trail’s End. I remember how much FUN we had with the atmosphere (as opposed to considering what was on the menu) and the only absolutely awful meal we had was Planet Hollywood. Crystal Palace was the only place with a server more interested in the pyramid plan being offered by the guests at the next table than clearing our table. The server at Trail’s End stands out as being absolutely amazing. I wish I’d gotten his name and sent a letter because he was that good and overwhelmingly kind.

    Looking at my list again, I am sure many will think that we visited “Cheesecake Factory” type restaurants. Well, I like the Cheesecake Factory. The lack of certain cuts of steak or prime rib on a menu wouldn’t affect me because I don’t like them. And the drink selection doesn’t affect me, either, because I don’t drink alcohol due to medication.

    This year my ADRs will be going towards Biergarten, Akershus, Kouzzina’s, 1900 Park Fare, O’hana, Chef Mickey’s, and Boma. The problem getting ADRs because of people betting on free dining…I can see how that’s problematic. If I can’t get the ressies I want, I’ll probably just switch to the Quick Service Plan.

  15. Just wanted to self-promote an idea I had awhile back about how they might alleviate some of these issues with a modified dining plan using a token/credit system where each food item costs a certain amount of credits. I titled it “Disney Dining Your Way”, and admittedly, it’s kind of a complex idea that would take a lot more advance planning to be able to use effectively, but I believe it would solve some of the issues pointed out here and offer both Disney and their guests a lot more flexibility.


  16. Just got back from a weekend in Disneyland just a couple of months after a trip to WDW in August. The food services situation there is TRAGIC!

    The number of dining options is slim, and the quality and service is way below the level we have consistently experienced at WDW even a lunch at Yak & Yeti had higher quality of both food and service then what we experienced this weekend. Napoli was pretty decent and the burgers at the ESPN Zone were actually pretty good, but our dinner at Brennan’s was an unwelcome marathon because of “kitchen issues”.

    What about Napa Rose? you may ask. We have been there twice – the last time we booked well in advance to eat at the chef’s counter. We were served, but generally ignored. Rather then a show, the staff was in full pack it up mode to get out for the evening. It was a major disappointment.

    Compare that to any of the signature restaurants at WDW where we have always had great, friendly, personable service – and yes, it’s very possible to be polite and not friendly.

    While there may be issues cropping up at WDW related to the dining plan promotions, they are still way ahead of their corporate relations at DLR.

  17. Leigh and Ajecnac — I agree with you completely. Actually, this article originally included a broader discussion about how these effects could also easily be attributable to the cost-cutting measures being put into place because of the general state of the economy (even a mention of how the same mass production concerns are prevalent with the merchandise!). John and I decided it might make more sense to write that “30,000 foot view” as a second article in a series.

    Rob — I’ve been seeing walk-ups turned away as a general rule as well.

    Grumpyfan — Great point on the drinks — you’re absolutely correct. That portion of the article would fit better into the “30,000 foot view” section I mentioned above when responding to Leigh and Ajecnac. It’s more about overall cost-cutting rather than the Dining Plan.

    Jayne — I think your ADRs look fantastic for your upcoming trip! Thanks for sharing your planning with us here and over on The Disney Food Blog! I’m eager to see how you enjoy the restaurants compared to your experiences in 1998.

    Todd — Wow! I had a different experience in Disneyland! While the table service isn’t as outstanding as it can be in WDW, we had a wonderful time (and meals) and places like Cafe Orleans, Naples, Steakhouse 55, Carnation Cafe, and Storytellers Cafe. True, Napa Rose wasn’t all I’d hope it would be, and Blue Bayou seems to have faded a bit. ;-) I will say that our experience with counter service in Disneyland was far and above much of what you can find in Disney World. What did you think re: counter service?

  18. Very interesting article. I am one who would never have the chance to have a daily dose of TS restaurants if it were not for the dining plan and expressly the “free dining”. I will take that option over % off of hotel every time. I find the TS dining at Disney World wonderful. Of course some are more wonderful than others, but most people will have their own favorites. W/O the dining plan we used to eat 2 or 3 TS in a 10 day trip, and we quickly found out which CS to go to to not have burgers and pizza everyday. Since we don’t go w/ children anymore, the food offerings are a big portion of the planning of our day, and I think there are a miriad of wonderful places to try. I have found very little, so far, to complain about.

  19. As an active Cast Member, maybe I can try to shed some light on things:

    Regarding the empty tables, I do know that the usual cause for this due to a table-to-server ratio that all full-service restaurants have to maintain (or, at least the ones operated by Disney), which in turn is likely due to a union rule.

    You may think that they should schedule more servers — this is definitely a possible solution. However, servers are scheduled based on how many reservations have been made for a that particular day, and that number is matrixed against the projected park attendance, percentage of resort occupancy, history, and other factors. These schedules are made generally made two or three weeks in advance, so on any given night, servers are staffed based on a prediction that was made at least several days ago.

    To counteract an inaccurate prediction, Disney has the ability to put out a call for extra Cast Members to work a particular shift if they determine that they need additional servers, but if not enough Cast Members work these extra hours, you’ll see these empty tables.

    I hope that helps clarify things a little bit! =)

Comments are closed.