What's In A Name

Disney tinkers ceaslessly with its restaurant-reservations policy. In 1997, reservations were replaced with Priority Seating, a confusing system with a befuddling name that issued reservations that weren't really reservations. In 2005, after eight years, and just when we were beginning to understand what a Priority Seating was, Disney decided to change the name from Priority Seating to the rather redundant Advance Reservations. Indeed, the name is all that changed: When you call, your name and essential information are taken as if you were making an honest-to-goodness reservation. The Disney representative then tells you that you have Advance Reservations for the restaurant on the date and time you requested and usually explains that you'll be seated ahead of walk-ins—that is, those without Advance Reservations.

Behind The Scenes At Advanced Reservations

Disney restaurants operate on what they call a "template system." Instead of scheduling Advance Reservations for actual tables, reservationists fill time slots. The number of time slots available is based on the average observed length of time that guests occupy a table at a particular restaurant, adjusted for seasonality. Here's an example of how it works: Let's say the Coral Reef Restaurant at Epcot has 40 tables for four and 8 tables for six, and that the average length of time for a family to be seated, order, eat, pay, and depart is 40 minutes. Add 5 minutes to bus the table and set it up for the next guests, and the table is turning every 45 minutes.

The restaurant provides Walt Disney World Dining (a.k.a. WDW-DINE) with a computer template of its capacity along with the average time the table is occupied. Thus, when WDW-DINE makes Advance Reservations for four people at 6:15 p.m., the system removes one table for four from overall capacity for 45 minutes. The template on the reservationist's computer indicates that the table will not be available for reassignment until 7 p.m. (45 minutes later). So it goes for all tables in the restaurant, each being subtracted from overall capacity for 45 minutes, then listed as available again, and then assigned to other guests and subtracted again, and so on, throughout the meal period. The WDW-DINE hotline tries to fill every time slot for every seat in the restaurant, or come as close to filling every slot as possible. No seats—repeat, none—are reserved for walk-ins.

Unofficial Tip

The no-show rate in January, a slow month, is about 33%, while in July it's less than 10%.

Templates are filled differently depending on the season. During slower times of year, when Advance Reservations are easier to get, WDW-DINE will overbook a given restaurant for each time slot on the assumption that there will be lots of no-shows. During busy times of year, when Advance Reservations are harder to come by, there are few no-shows, so the restaurant is booked according to its actual capacity.

With Advance Reservations, your wait will usually be less than 20 minutes during peak hours, and often less than 10 minutes. If you walk in, especially during busier seasons, expect to wait 40 to 75 minutes. Disney offers a dining program as an add-on to vacation packages. Unlike previous dining programs, the current Disney Dining Plans can save money for certain guests.

Getting Your Act Together

If you want to patronize any of the Walt Disney World Resort full-service restaurants, buffets, character meals, or dinner shows, you should make Advance Reservations (up to 180 days in advance) by calling 407-WDW-DINE or online. (Phone lines open at 7:00 a.m. Eastern, and the next day of reservations is available on the website at 6:00 a.m. Eastern.)

For most full-service restaurants, buffets, and character meals, there will be sufficient availability to make Advance Reservations 30 to 90 days ahead of time. If you fail to make Advance Reservations before you leave home, or if you want to make your dining decisions spontaneously while at Walt Disney World, your chances of getting a table at the restaurants of your choice aren't the best, especially during the hours when most folks prefer to eat dinner.

If you visit Walt Disney World during a very busy time of year, it's to your advantage to make Advance Reservations before you leave home, as this Houston couple attests:

Make reservations if you plan on having table service. Even trying to walk in for full service at off-times was impossible.

Another reader warns of a sea change in Advance Reservations policy that practically eliminates same-day reservations and walk-ins:

While walking around the parks and resorts this weekend, I think literally every sit-down restaurant we passed had a sign out front saying something like, IN ORDER TO SERVE OUR GUESTS WITH DINING RESERVATIONS IN A TIMELY MANNER, WE ARE NOT ACCEPTING WALK-UP DINING REQUESTS AT THIS TIME. I believe every World Showcase country had this sign, as did the Magic Kingdom, the Yacht and Beach Club, and Animal Kingdom Lodge's two sit-downs, all weekend, so I don't think this is a one-time thing. This may also explain why the World Showcase restaurants are going through refurbishments one by one—must be to add capacity.

A dad from St. Paul, Minnesota, changed course, much to his and his family's satisfaction:

We had so much difficulty booking the Disney restaurants that we just threw up our hands and reread the part of the guide about places to eat outside of WDW. We ended up eating only one meal (a character breakfast) in a Disney restaurant. The rest of the time we followed your suggestions for non-Disney restaurants in the general area. I'm happy to report that we had some super meals and that the money we saved more than paid for our rental car.

Though securing Advance Reservations before you leave home is more important than ever, there's no need, except as stated previously, to call 30 to 90 days in advance. For most restaurants, calling 45 days in advance will get you the restaurants you desire. If you're visiting during an extremely busy time of year, try to call about 80 days out.

If you've lined up many Advance Reservations, it's a good idea to check the My Disney Experience app to verify your reservations are showing up. You can also phone 407-WDW-DINE a few days before you arrive to make sure everything's in order. If you stay at a Disney resort, Guest Services can print out a summary of all your Advance Reservations. If you have an Advance Reservation for a theme-park restaurant at a time prior to opening, simply proceed to the turnstiles and inform a cast member, who will admit you to the park. If you fail to make Advance Reservations, most full-service theme-park restaurants will take walk-ins between 2:30 and 4:30 p.m.

Unofficial Tip

For Advance Reservations, make sure you bring your confirmation number to the restaurant.

Cancellation Policies

If you poop out at the theme park and you don't feel like using your Advance Reservations that night, be aware that restaurants have penalties for being a no-show and will charge you a cancellation fee.

Disney requires a credit card guarantee for reservations at all full service dining locations. That is to say, for any location that takes reservations, you'll be asked to make a credit card guarantee when you make the reservation. This has been the policy at many character meals and buffets in the past, and as of October 31, 2013, became policy at full service restaurants. This includes all reservations made through Disney (407-WDW-DINE or the web site), even those for restaurants that are not owned and operated by Disney, such as Big River Grill and most of the Downtown Disney restaurants. The guarantee is not required for non-Disney owned restaurants if you reserve directly through the restaurant or through a third party service like Open Table. If guests miss their meal reservations at these locations or cancel less than a full day in advance, they will be charged a $10 per person penalty. The fee rises to $25 per person at Victoria & Albert's.

In addition, Disney requires full pre-payment at the time of reservation for its dinner shows (Hoop-Dee-Doo Revue, Mickey's Backyard BBQ, and Spirit of Aloha) and for Cinderella's Royal Table. No-shows and those who cancel less than one day in advance forfeit the full cost of their meals, and these meals aren't cheap.

If you will miss your dining reservation, cancel by calling 407-WDW-CNCL or by using the Disney World Dining web site.

It remains to be seen how strictly Disney will enforce these dining cancellation policies. Among the many things we do not know are whether guests can reschedule rather than pay the penalty, the precise time at which guests must cancel to avoid a penalty, and what (if any) penalty will apply if some but not all of the people on a reservation show up.

When you make a dining reservation, pay careful attention to its terms and conditions, especially those involving penalties.