Disney Dining Cash Grab

Yesterday, I posted my immediate response to a change in the reservation policy at Walt Disney World.  Essentially, Disney will now require a credit card hold for any reservation at their signature dining restaurants or any restaurant that hosts character dining.  If reservations are cancelled for any reason without at least 24-hours notice, the credit card will be charged a cancellation fee of $10 per diner.

When I posted yesterday, I tried to represent both sides of the issue as best I could.  I reasoned that the new policy might have the benefit of making difficult reservations easier to get.  But after thinking about this for the last 24 hours (probably more than is healthy) and having debated the issue with several other Disney World fans.  I have come to the conclusion that this new policy is nothing more than a cash grab by the Mouse.

Not exactly, Timon!

A lot of Disney fans are cheering this policy change because they are frustrated with the current reservation system.  Disney tries to prevent people from booking multiple reservations, but people who want to keep their dining options open have found ways around this.  The result is that some restaurants are booked up to six months in advance.

It’s worth noting that Disney has created this situation themselves.  For one thing, they allow reservations to be made up to 6 months in advance!  That window would be ridiculous anywhere but Disney World. 

But then they made matters worse with the Disney Dining Plan.  In an effort to fill every table at every restaurant, Disney created a plan that encourages people to schedule more sit-down dining at restaurants they would not have visited if they were paying “out-of-pocket”.  Then they started giving the dining plan away as an incentive to fill their hotel rooms.

I’m not going to turn this post into a discussion of the “evils” of the Disney Dining Plan.  But there is an argument that the plan has had a negative impact on the dining experience at Disney World.  Because it charges a flat fee, it forces participating restaurants to operate within a limited budget.  Expensive menu items have to be cut from the menu.  Less expensive ingredients get used.  I could go on at length, but that’s a discussion for another day.

The fact of the matter is the Dining Plan is here to stay and we’re all just going to have to deal with it.  That likely means the days of being able to walk up to a restaurant on property without a reservation are over.  Yes, it still happens.  But a walk-up at a popular dining spot like Le Celiere is about as likely as winning the lottery.

The argument in favor of the credit card hold and cancelation fee is that it will prevent people from booking multiple reservations that they don’t intend to keep.  But will it really?  Disney has tried several less invasive methods of preventing this behavior.  And people have put forth the extra effort to work around it.

Why?  Because they can rationalize their behavior pretty easily.  It’s an expensive vacation.  Reservations are hard to come by.  If you’re spending that much money, you want to have some options rather than being locked in to set meal times which you selected six months in advance. 

“Double booking” seems like a victimless crime.  Disney will likely fill the table anyway.  All of these restaurants have people lined up hoping for a walk-up reservation.  So Disney is unlikely to be harmed by no-shows.  The only people who are inconvenienced are fellow guests who did not plan six months ahead.  It’s easy to rationalize that since this is the way Disney set things up.

 The new policy isn’t likely to change this behavior.  People who have already rationalized “double booking” are still going to do it.  It will just be slightly more work to make sure to cancel reservations that involve a credit card hold at least 24 hours in advance.  But anyone with a smart phone will be able to set up reminders.  You can do it easily enough while waiting in line at the parks. 

If it’s not a disincentive, what’s the upside of this policy?  Will it at least create more availability for walk-ups?  Nope.  If anything, walk-ups will be harder to get than ever.  Why?  If someone cancels in time to avoid the fee, Disney will have at least 24 hours to fill that table.  24 hours they didn’t have under the original policy.  And people who don’t cancel are going to have an incentive to keep their reservation come hell or high water.

So, if the plan doesn’t prevent double booking and doesn’t make walk-ups easier to get, what does it do?  Well, it does create some availability with-in that 24 hour cancelation window.  The odds of calling and getting a reservation same-day do go up slightly.  But by then you’re likely to have another reservation which you will then need to cancel.  And that reservation may also involve a cancelation fee…

(It occurs to me that this will likely benefit locals moreso than tourists.  Locals are more inclined to book a spur-of-the-moment reservation if they can get one.  Most tourists will already have a reservation to keep and won’t bother trying to trade up.)

For the guest, there’s not a lot of upside to this policy.  Instead, there’s the looming threat of consequences should your vacation plans hit a bump in the road.  Sure, Disney may let you off the hook if you find a sympathetic cast member.  But as my story yesterday showed, you can’t count on that.  And those fees add up for a family of four!

In fact, Disney has less incentive to grant exceptions under the new policy.  Those “double bookers” Disney is trying to crack down on know the system.  If Disney starts letting people with a sob story off the hook, the “double booking” crowd is going to sing a sad song every time.

The only way Disney’s new policy has any teeth is if they take a strong stance and allow no exceptions.  But that is bound to result in unhappy guests (like myself).  But if they allow exceptions, they are really just creating more hoops for guests to jump through with no benefit to be gained.  It’s a loose/loose situation for guests.

So who stands to benefit?  Why, Disney of course!  If people keep all of their reservations, Disney operates at capacity more often.  But now, they have a revenue stream beyond operating at capacity.  They can actually make money without serving their customers! 

As I said before, the restaurants on this list usually turn away walk-ins.  If they have empty tables, it’s because they are not operating with a full staff that day for budgetary reasons.  It’s not typically due to no-shows.  Under the new policy, Disney can continue operating at capacity while pocketing a little spare change on the side every time some one catches a stomach bug or has their day rained out.

The question is, will this padding of Disney’s bottom line be worth dissatisfied customers?  Sadly, I think Disney will see it this way. 

Edit: I wanted to add this as I have seen the question asked on many forums.  If you book a reservation for a large party and some members of the party do not show, will you be charged a fee?  I called Disney and asked this question.  The cast member commented that it was a very good question.  She put me on hold and then verified that under the new policy you WILL be charged a fee for any partial cancelations or no shows.  So be careful about inviting unreliable guests to dinner!

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Posted on October 13, 2011, in theme parks, Walt Disney World and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I 100% agree with your article. I feel like, after reading other blogs, we are in the minority….and I just don’t understand that. I am the mother of two 2 year olds….last year I took them for their first bithday, I ended up getting sick on their b-day and had to cancel reservations with less than 24 hours. I felt fine the following day but my kids were both sick now, having to cancel more reservations.

    I also wouldn’t want to burden people with my screaming crying kids if they happen to have a tantrum at our reservation time. Unfortunatly I’ll have to keep the reservation and hope they calm down. Maybe everyone that is ok with this change needs to sit next to my sick, tantrum throwing children and then they will understand the need to cancel reservations!!


    • People who support this policy seem to think they will suddenly get a walk-up at Le Celier when all the double booking stops. They are living in a dream world because this policy won’t stop double booking. And if anything, it will decrease the number of walk-ups available.

      I suspect people’s opinions will change when they see reservations aren’t any easier to get. And once people start having to pay fees (or spend precious vacation time begging for an exception to a fee they never should have been charged in the first place).

      I also wonder if Disney will feel it’s worthwhile when they take so many complaints and spend so much time policing cancellations.

      I would have no problem if they charged for no-shows. A shorter window would be acceptable. 2 hours should be plenty of time. 4-6 hours seems reasonable. But 24 hours while you’re on vacation (in a town known for freak rainstorms in a theme park targeting families with little kids) is beyond ridiculous.


  2. i disagree about one point. double booking is not a victimless crime. for example: le cellier is booked for dinner 5 months prior- i try to get a reservation and can’t. if some of that is double booking i would be able to get one. now the claim of no victim implies that just because someone will get a walk up- i 5 months early was not a victim- but i would have had that reservation! so double bookings do punish other guests!


    • Yeah, I agree. What I meant was that it “seems” like a victimless crime to those who engage in it. It actually does hurt other guests. But they aren’t thinking in those terms or they rationalize it that everyone else should be doing the same thing.

      I was just attempting to explain the mindset of double bookers and how Disney created the problem.


  3. While I agree that it should be considered a common courtesy to cancel a dining reservation if you change your plans, I seriously doubt that no-shows have a negative impact on WDW restaurants. If you have ever tried to dine at the most popular restaurants without a reservation, you know it is almost impossible. Even with reservations you often have to wait a long time to be seated, leading me to believe that they overbook. Our trip last December coincided with record-breaking cold weather and by the end of the week my husband and I were both sick. We ended up cancelling our last two reservations several hours before, after it started raining. Had we incurred the fees they are now implementing, I would have been one very unhappy, sick guest.
    I really can’t see that it will make reservations easier to obtain. And if that is not the end result, it’s just another money-maker for Disney.


    • You’ve hit the nail on the head.

      The restaurants who are being included in the policy change don’t have empty seats. Walk-ups are almost always being turned away. However, there are other restaurants where Disney could save a little money by cutting staff if reservations get cancelled. Say, Tony’s for example. I am wondering if this expansion of the policy works out without too many complaints, will Disney expand it further? I think that is their goal. They want to be able to predict and trim costs down to a norrower margin. And pass the cost on to the guest should something go awry.

      It’s exactly the kind of spreadsheet-obsessed decision making that is making Disney World less of value these days. And part of the reason I am writing my Disney Deal or No Deal series.


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