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Disney Food for Families: A Holiday Without Dining Reservations

The next installment in the Disney Food for Families Column by Erin Foster:

I had the good fortune to be able to spend the week leading up to and including Christmas Day at Walt Disney World. Because I knew this was a high-traffic time of year, I was diligent about making my Advance Dining Reservations the full 180+ days in advance of our trip.

I booked family favorites like the character breakfast at the Crystal Palace and special treats like a holiday dinner at the posh Victoria & Albert’s. Disney geek-and-a-half that I am, I even typed up all our confirmation numbers on a wallet-sized card and laminated it. I had planned for us to eat well. And we did.

Merry Christmas at the Magic Kingdom

We were scheduled to return home the day after Christmas, just as a blizzard was descending upon the East Coast. Needless to say, our flight was canceled. We were stuck at Walt Disney World. You’re feeling sorry for me, I know.

Once we got our accommodation situation settled, my kids started asking me, “Where should we eat?” Since this was now the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, notoriously the busiest week of the year, I assumed that we would be eating only counter service meals. I told the kids that last minute dining at table service restaurants would be laughably impossible. My daughter Josie handed me our trusty iPad and urged me to “just check” to make sure I was wrong. Her instinct was spot-on.

So, What’s Available at the Last Minute During Christmas Week…?
During what became four extra days at WDW (flight after flight was canceled), some of our dining experiences are depicted below. All these meals, and several more, happened with dining reservations made less than 12 hours in advance:

Tonga Toast at the Kona Cafe

Vegetarian sampler plate at Sanaa

La Hacienda Parrillada (mixed grill) at La Hacienda de San Angel

Hanging with Chip at the Garden Grill

How to Book a Last Minute Meal
Not bad for stranded travelers on a holiday week, right? So how did we do it? It turns out that if you’re flexible about where you eat, Disney’s online reservation system makes it quite easy to find your best dining option, even at the last minute. If you’re ever in a similar bind (or even just a bit behind in your planning), here’s what to do:

  1. Start at the main Disney Dining reservations webpage at http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/reservations/dining/. There’s also an app for this!

    Dining reservations page of the Walt Disney World website

    When you’re in last-minute mode, the key part of this page is the little box near the top that says “Location.” The default here is “No preference,” and that’s what you should make as your selection — you want to see what ALL your choices are.

  2. After that, choose the date and your party size as well as the meal time you’re interested in booking. To maximize your options, choose the broader “Dinner” (for example) rather than choosing a specific time (such as 6:00).

    Select date and time

  3. After you’ve input your date/time/party size information, click “Search for a Table.” The first time I did this during Christmas week, I have to admit that I held my breath for a second, really not expecting the system to come up with anything. I was pleasantly surprised that the first time out I was offered for my party of five nearly 30 different dinner choices at restaurants both in the Disney parks and in the resorts.Some of them were not ideal for us (e.g. Boatwrights when we had no car and were not staying at Port Orleans) and some were at off times (dinner at 4:00?). But many of the options were wonderful, including meals at 6:00 p.m. in our resort and even a character meal (Garden Grill) at the very reasonable 7:15 p.m.

    Below are some screen shots of some of the 26 options offered to us for dinner on December 29. I ran this search at approximately 10:00 a.m. that morning, about eight hours in advance of when we wanted to eat.

    Page one of 12/29/10 dinner availability as of 10:00 that morning

    Page two of 12/29/10 dinner availabilty as of 10:00 that morning

    When I changed the party size from five to four (my hubby had to attend to some work issues and might not be able to dine with us), ten more options opened up.

    More options for a party of four

Running Some Experiments
I then became curious and started to experiment. What would happen if I wanted to eat table service with a large party on New Year’s Eve? Even then, there were a couple of options.

Again, if I changed to a smaller party size, the options expanded.

Trying to put the system to the test once more, I searched for a character breakfast on New Year’s Day and did come up with one option.

One particularly instructive thing about this experience was that we definitively learned which restaurants you absolutely DO need to book early. You’ll notice that popular spots like Chef Mickey’s, Cinderella’s Royal Table, and Le Cellier were nowhere to be found on my last minute searching.

For further education, I ran a similar search (dinner, 5 people, search run at 10:00 a.m. on the day of dining) on a low-crowd day during the first week of January. Instead of the 28 restaurants offered on December 29, the choices expanded to 55 different dining experiences.

The 18 restaurants listed with no availability 10 hours in advance on a low-crowd day were: 1900 Park Fare, California Grill, Chef Mickey’s Cinderella’s Royal Table, Crystal Palace, Diamond Horseshoe (seasonal) , Fresh Mediterranean Market (Dolphin), Garden Grill, Hollywood & Vine, Brown Derby, Le Cellier, ‘Ohana, Planet Hollywood, Sci-Fi Dine-In, Teppan Edo, Tomorrowland Terrace Cafe, and Tutto Italia, and Yak & Yeti. Interestingly, several of these (Garden Grill, Ohana, Yak & Yeti) were ones that had decent availability during a much busier week.

55 restaurants available for dinner with 8 hours notice on January 3, 2011

What We Learned
The moral of the story is, if there are very specific meals you absolutely must-do, make your reservations as far in advance as possible. However, if you’re not in planner mode or are making a last-minute trip, you need not worry. For a hyper-planner like me, it was a true insight to learn that my family would not starve without meal reservations at Walt Disney World. In the future, I’ll continue to be vigilant about making prompt reservations for my family’s most favorite dining experiences. But for everything else, I may be waiting until much closer to travel time to see what we happen to be in the mood for.

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13 Comments

  1. Janna says:

    I LOVE it! I, too, am a planner (over-, hyper-, it all applies). I think it would unhinge me to face days without ressies at the busiest time of the year! Thanks for sharing your experiences with last-minute dining.

  2. Kristina says:

    I had to do this on Sat. I had Via Napoli booked, but my family decided last second that since we come from Brooklyn, Italian is the last thing they wanted to eat. I went to the mobile dining site and managed to get Garden Grill instead.

  3. AJ says:

    Janna — My over-planning tendencies have relaxed over the years, but I would be so stressed to have to face those crowds and no dining reservations! Someday we’ll have to go cold turkey and see what happens if we just go to WDW with no plans!

    Kristina — Fantastic! So glad the mobile site is getting some good use!

  4. Tricia says:

    Great post! Love the on-line ADR system because I can play with it.

  5. Josh says:

    Wow Erin, you got STUCK in DisneyWorld? I could see the dining part being a bit of a twist, but that would be most people’s dream to get stuck there.

    I’ve also heard that you can get into Le Cellier (It’s a small chance) by just walk up if you’re so desperate to have it or the other packed table-service restaurants.

    Also, if you happen to over-book (as you see the weather is getting bad) do you have to pay a deposit for each ADR?

  6. melissa sue says:

    Erin, how lucky can you get?! We were in the World at around the same time, but our flights didn’t begin getting canceled until we were at JFK … being stuck at JFK is a lot worse than being stuck at Disney, that’s for sure!

    I kind of love the idea of “winging” it. Going in with no meal plans AT ALL, then using the online system to make the ADRs you want the morning of … it’s like adding another level of adventure to your adventure!

    It’s official–I am trying this during our September trip!

  7. Shayne says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Erin! I am also one of those people typically counting the minutes until my 180-day ADR window opens. Interestingly, just last week, I was offered the opportunity to spend 2/13 and 2/14 at WDW with my husband and without our kids. GREAT!

    Then my heart sank…what dining would be available on this short notice? Would everything good be booked for Valentine’s Day? Also to my surprise (though pre-President’s Day is much lower crowds than when you were there), we had several appealing options, and we decided on La Hacienda de San Angel.

    Like others, I now am curious about what it would be like to take a trip with no pre-planned dining. I suspect we’d end up trying out a lot more different things than we normally would, and I think that’s a great thing!!

  8. EEFoster says:

    Thanks all for the kind comments.

    I think the my mindset of panic about making ADRs was formed during the phone-only phase of reservations. I remember often spending well over an hour with a reservation agent on the phone going through lists of restaurants and times and having her reject one after another. Now with online booking, you can see what all your options are. This seems much less stressful to me.

    Also, my kids are a bit older now. When they were small we did at least one hard-to-get character meal per day. Now we usually do just one or two per trip. That takes some of the stress off as well. “Winging it” may work better with older children or adults who are not picky eaters.

    Josh – There are occasionally stories about the lucky walk-in at Le Cellier or Cinderella’s Royal Table, but I certainly wouldn’t count on being able to do this. As to your question — There are a handful of dining experiences at Walt Disney World that require you to leave a credit card number when making a reservation. These include the dinner shows, CRT, a few of the signature meals, and things like the Fantasmic and Candlelight Processional packages. For these meals, you must cancel within a certain timetable (usually 24 hours in advance) or face penalty charges. However, the VAST majority of restaurants have no penalty for last minute cancellations or no-shows.

    Melissa Sue – I am incredibly grateful that I was at WDW and not at JFK during the storm. Our bonus days ended up being very special.

    Shayne – A romantic trip with just your hubby. Sounds wonderful! Have a great time.

  9. Heather says:

    I did this very same thing the week before Christmas! I was amazed at what I was able to book at only a week out. (I planned a very last minute trip) I was also amazed at what I found available day of or day before. I ended up with meals at Portobello, Beirgarten, La Hacienda, Chef Mickey’s Liberty Tree Tavern, Sanaa, and Yak and Yeti. Overall I found it completely possible to eat well at the last minute!

  10. Erin says:

    Heather – A last minute ressie at Chef Mickey’s – super cool! I am definitely going to be more relaxed about my future dining.

  11. Alan says:

    I miss the old days. Before the DDP and especially the free DDP, we would go to whatever park we felt like visiting and then walk over to whichever restaurant appealed to us and make an in person reservation. It was never a problem. Now you have to plan the whole trip so that you are close to the restaurant you are eating at in order not to waste a lot of travel time. I will say that in the fall, when we usually visit, we have no problem making last minute changes while at the park. Things have changed but a great help would be more restaurants on the plan.

  12. Figment says:

    It is so true that the days of carefree dining are over with the introduction of the Dining Plan. However, our entire party scored Free Dining on our last trip and the savings were enormous. And we, too, were able to get 2 last minute seatings – dinner at Cape May Cafe (we had ADRs for the breakfast) and at Nine Dragons (all the other World Showcase dinners we had ADRs for).

  13. Paul C says:

    We met the ultimate go with the flow couple on our last trip in April. They were waiting for the bus with us at SSR, and whatever park bus showed up first, that’s the park they went to that day. Great idea. :)

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