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