Living within driving distance of a Disney theme park is a wonderful thing. It gives a different perspective on the parks and events, and on Disney dining. Being able to drive over to Walt Disney World and choose from the hundreds of amazing restaurants on property is a mouth watering concept…until you figure in free dining and ADR.
For most Walt Disney World guests, a visit to the World is a carefully planned, anticipated, and orchestrated event. A visit to most Disney message boards reveals passionate planners jumping on reservations exactly 180 days in advance, and a quick check of Disney’s dining reservation website will make many lose any hope of dining at certain coveted locations. If you’re a park guest who doesn’t get to plan 180 days in advance and, occasionally decides on a spontaneous dinner trip, getting in for dining at certain locations can seem utterly hopeless.
So, along the way, you discover a few dirty Disney dining tricks. The’re not foolproof, but if you happen to really want to eat a Le Cellier and you couldn’t snag that reservation, keep them in mind.
1) Be chronologically malleable in dining (AKA don’t be picky about what time you eat) – like all restaurants, Disney dining locations have on times and off times. Be willing to dine a little earlier or a little later than other people, and you might be surprised at what you find.
2) Watch out for free dining and peak events. Free dining, the friend of vacation planners, is a major selling point for vacationers. It is also the bane of walk-up diners. Usually, Disney table service restaurants leave a few free tables for walk-up guests. During free dining and events such as the Candlelight Processional, those tables are often already reserved. If you’re in the parks at one of those times, you might need to look to resorts or other venues if you want a nice table service meal.
3) Know what time it opens and be there. As I said above, most Disney restaurants reserve a certain number of spaces for walk-up guests…but they go quickly. If you really want to eat at Le Cellier, be willing to have lunch rather than dinner and arrive when they open. There’s no guarantee, but my party is usually seated within 10-15 minutes. Similarly, if you arrive at the podium at Artist Point or Yachtsman steakhouse around opening, you’ll find yourself seated almost immediately without any reservation.
4) Know your options. When you’re cruising the World’s dining options without a reservation, you always need to have a plan B. Know your resort restaurants, places off the beaten path that you can turn to. For example, whenever our plans for dinner fall through, my husband and I turn to Olivia’s at Old Key West. As a DVC resort, Old Key West isn’t on many guests’ radar. Olivia’s is always quiet; you can always get a seat without a reservation; the food is good, and the wait staff is phenomenal. If you’re going to dare to dine without a reservation, be sure you have a good knowledge of where you can go if your first idea doesn’t work.
5) Know your reservation choices – Depending on where you want to dine, you may not be wisest to go through the Disney reservation system. A number of restaurants on Disney property are owned by third-party vendors, and they make their own reservations. For example, T-Rex at Downtown Disney is often unavailable through Disney Dining reservations. Call T-Rex directly and you’ll have no problem setting up a dining time, often even on the same day. Similarly, check out Open Table. The website handles reservations for Raglan Road and Bull and Bear. I’ve turned away from an hour wait at Raglan Road, logged into Open Table on my phone, and been seated 20 minutes later. Know your options.
Does that mean you can always beat the system and eat anywhere you want at a Disney park? Of course not. There are restaurants that really do require reservations, and there are time when your dining plans don’t work out. But being willing to dine at restaurant opening and knowing your options in case your initial plans don’t work out can turn a counter service vacation into a Disney dining extravaganza.