I get asked one question more than any other right now. And I wish I had a better answer.
Surprisingly, this question doesn’t involve Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser or either of the upcoming roller coasters at Walt Disney World.
People want to know what’s the deal with the dining plan. I’ll tell you what I know.
What Is the Disney Dining Plan?
Did your school employ some sort of voucher system at the cafeteria? Many elementary/middle school/high school/college programs employ this tactic.
Under the various meal plans, you pay a set fee at the start of the school year (or week/month).
In return, you get a specific number of allotted meals during the scheduled time frame.
With a meal plan, customers know that they’ll always get a meal, often at a reasonable price.
Meanwhile, businesses claim a set amount of revenue that makes operating a kitchen much less stressful.
As we learned during the pandemic, when a restaurant lacks consistent business, it often collapses.
Disney hasn’t been in danger of financial ruin in a long time, even including the pandemic.
Still, the company has historically loved the dining plan as a business model.
At Walt Disney World, tourists could leave the campus and buy food at other restaurants.
When these same individuals employ the dining plan, they stay at Disney for their meals.
Stating the obvious, Disney earns a lot more revenue when its customers never leave Walt Disney World.
Ergo, Disney has always benefited from the dining plan. In fact, you likely know the most popular package that Disney has sold over the years.
Yes, I’m referencing the Free Disney Dining Plan, quite possibly the best incentive for any theme park in the world.
When you book this package, you’ll combine a hotel stay at a luxurious Disney resort, admission to the parks, and free meals during your trip.
One size absolutely fits all here, as it’s everything a Disney could want.
A Brief Look Back
January of 2020 feels like forever ago, doesn’t it?
At the time, we were all carrying on with business as usual when a shocking turn of events a few weeks later put society on pause for two years.
Some Disney fans can say that they did something rare that year. They signed up for the free Disney Dining Plan.
These same folks never got to use it, though. Disney scheduled the packages for May (for kids) and June and beyond.
Then, the parks closed in March due to the pandemic. When they reopened, safety measures prevented Disney from operating the dining plan.
Disney wanted to discourage interactions with cast members as much as possible.
With the dining plan, you use a barcode scanner to verify your MagicBand’s entitlement privileges.
I guess I should explain what that means. Disney has historically sold several versions of the dining plan.
Some of them included Quick Service entitlements only. Other combined Table Service and Quick Service meals.
The most decadent of them, the Deluxe Dining Plan, entitled the buyer to three Table Service meals per day.
For each meal, Disney credits your account with an entitlement. So, let’s say that you bought the standard dining plan.
Your account/MagicBand would show one Quick Service and one Table Service entitlement, thereby allowing you to eat two daily meals with the dining plan.
Fans (like me) enjoy the dining plan because we don’t need to pay money while we’re at the parks. Instead, we pay for the dining plan ahead of time.
Once we’re at the parks, we use entitlements instead, thereby allowing us to ignore money stressors during our vacation.
I’m an unabashed supporter of the Deluxe Dining Plan, as I can “buy” meals for friends and family during my trip. So, I feel your pain.
Why Isn’t the Dining Plan Back Yet?
Yes, I’m in the same boat as you. I want to know when the dining plan will return as well.
Alas, Disney has proven tightlipped on this one, and I understand the why of it.
The company’s current mantra prioritizes revenue per customer. In fact, company Chief Financial Officer, Christine McCarthy, found herself in hot water over this subject.
She joked that Disney may reduce portions to increase profits. Her tone-deaf joke suggested that our waistlines would appreciate the lack of food.
What you should take from this quote is simple. Disney executives in the C-suite are thinking of ways to counteract rising food costs in the industry.
You can guess where I’m going with this. The dining plan has always worked as a way for Disney to keep the full vacation budget of its hotel guests.
Now, the company is exploring ways to earn more from everyone. So, the dining plan suddenly looks like a bad fit.
If Disney believes that people will stay on the Walt Disney World campus for food, it possesses zero financial incentive to operate the dining plan.
I don’t like that thought any more than you. I’m just being honest about the matter from a business perspective.
However, that’s also the positive for dining plan fans. Now more than ever, guests can easily leave Disney to dine elsewhere.
All you need to do is contact a ridesharing service or rent a car. Then, you can ride/drive wherever you want.
I can say with complete confidence that MANY places in the surrounding area sell food for cheaper prices than Disney.
Now, you’ll sacrifice all the glorious theming in the exchange. Plenty of vacationers will do that to stretch their budgets, though.
That’s Disney’s dilemma. Without the dining plan, Disney could potentially lose revenue per customer.
When Will the Dining Plan Return?
Disney has stated that the dining plan will return in 2022. They said this last June, and that’s the last we heard of it.
For all the criticism it receives, Disney isn’t in the habit of lying to its customers. That’s bad business.
So, I have complete confidence that Disney will restore the dining plan at some point.
The problem is that the situation feels uncomfortably similar to annual passes.
Disney suddenly shut down the sales of those in late 2021 for all non-Floridians. It promised annual passes would return…and we’re still waiting.
We still have ten months remaining in 2022. Ergo, there’s a loooong way to go before the year ends.
Disney could feasibly wait until the last moment and still keep its word. I don’t expect that to happen with the dining plan.
In case you’re wondering, I’m less sure about the annual passes.
I associate the two because Disney is obviously using the cover of the pandemic to try out some experimental ideas.
What’s the difference in profit per guest if Disney doesn’t sell the annual pass or dining plan? What’s the fallout from alienating loyal customers?
These conversations are ongoing among Disney executives. And there’s another consideration as well.
Staffing issues continue to impact Disney. The most dramatic of them is apparently kitchen help.
Disney is offering some unprecedented financial incentives to hire more cooks.
For this reason, some restaurants remain less crowded. It’s also why not all Disney restaurants have reopened. The lack of demand negates the need.
However, if Disney sold the dining plan again, customers would pack every restaurant. But could Disney hire enough chefs to serve them all?
What’s the deal with the dining plan? The truth is a multitude of nuanced questions, none of which come with easy answers.