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
Though they're called Advance Reservations, most reservations at Disney World don’t guarantee you a table at a specific time as they would at your typical hometown restaurant. Disney restaurants operate on what they call a “template system.” Instead of scheduling Advance Reservations for actual tables, reservations fill time slots. The number of slots available is based on the average length of time that guests occupy a table at a particular restaurant, adjusted for seasonality
Here’s a rough example of how it works: Let’s say 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 Disney’s central dining-reservations system (CDRS) with a computer template of its capacity, along with the average time the table is occupied. When you use Disney World’s dining website or call its dining hotline (at 407-WDW- DINE, 407-939-3463), both access CDRS for your requests.
Thus, when you use the website to make Advance Reservations for four people at 6:15 p.m., CDRS removes one table for four from overall capacity for 45 minutes. The template on the system indicates that the table will be unavailable 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, then assigned to other guests and subtracted again, and so on, throughout the meal period. CDRS 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.
Templates are filled differently depending on the season and restaurant. All Disney restaurants now charge a no-show fee; this has reduced the no-show rate to as little as 2%, and these restaurants are booked every day according to their actual capacity.
A couple of tips: Only one person needs to dine at the restaurant for Disney to consider your reservation fulfilled, even if you’ve got a reservation for more people. Also, while Disney says it requires 24 hours’ notice, you can cancel up until midnight of the day before your meal. The upside to the no-show fee is that it’s easier to book most restaurants closer to the date of your visit, as the fee discourages tentative plans.
With Advance Reservations, your wait will usually be less than 20 minutes during peak hours, and often less than 10 minutes. If you’re a walk-in, especially during busier seasons, expect to either wait 40–75 minutes or be told that no tables are available.
Getting Advance Reservations at Popular Restaurants
Dinner and the quick-service lunch at Magic Kingdom's Be Our Guest Restaurant, in Fantasyland, and the 8 a.m. breakfast slots at Cinderella's Royal Table, in Cinderella Castle, are the two hardest-to-get reservations in Walt Disney World. Why? Be Our Guest has arguably the best food in the park, awesome special effects, and good word of mouth; Cinderella’s Royal Table is Disney’s tiniest character-meal restaurant, accommodating only about 130 diners at a time. You’ll have to put in some effort to secure an Advance Reservation at these places.
Disney charges a $10-to-$25-per-person penalty for missing an Advance Reser-vation, or if you cancel on the day of the meal.
The easiest and fastest way to get a reservation is go to Disney dining website starting at 6 a.m. Eastern time, a full hour before phone reservations open. To familiarize yourself with how the site works, try it out a couple of days before you actually make reservations. You’ll also save time by setting up an account online before your 180-day booking window, making sure to enter any credit card information needed to guarantee your reservations.
If you live in California and have to get up at 3 a.m. Pacific time to make a reservation, Disney couldn’t care less: There’s no limit to the number of hoops they can make patrons jump through if demand exceeds supply.
Disney’s website is usually within a few seconds of the official time as determined by the US Naval Observatory or the National Institute of Standards and Technology, accessible online at time.gov. Using this site, synchronize your computer to the second the night before your 180-day window opens.
Early on the morning you want to make reservations, take a few minutes to type the date of your visit into a word processor in MM/DD/YYYY format (for example, 11/16/2015 for November 16, 2015). Select the date and copy it to your computer’s clipboard by pressing the Ctrl and C keys simultaneously (Command-C on Mac) or right-clicking your mouse and selecting “Copy”). This will save you from having to type in the date when the site comes online.
Next, start trying Disney’s website about 3 minutes before 6 a.m. You’ll see a text box where you can specify the date of your visit. Click the text box and press Ctrl-A, then Ctrl-V (substitute Command for Ctrl on Mac) to paste the date; then press the tab key on your keyboard. (You can also click on the blue calendar icon to flip through a month-by-month calendar, or you can select the entire date in the text box, right-click your mouse, and select “Paste,” but these are slower.) You’ll also see a place to specify the time of your meal and your party size; you can fill these in ahead of time, too.
Above the “Party Size” widget is a text box with the words “Search Within Dining.” Start typing your restaurant name in that text box. As soon as you start typing, the website will start guessing which restaurant you want and offer a list of suggestions. It’s faster if you just type a few letters—"bog" or "cin" is enough for the site to know you mean Be Our Guest or Cinderella’s Royal Table, respectively. Click on the desired restaurant in the list of suggestions. Finally, click “Find a Table” or hit the Enter key on your keyboard—both submit your request to CDRS.
If your date isn’t yet available, a message will appear saying “There is a problem searching for reservations at this time” or something similar. If this happens, refresh the browser page and start over. If you don’t see an error message, however, the results returned will tell you whether your restaurant has a table available.
Note that while you’re typing, other guests are trying to make Advance Reservations, too, so you want the transaction to go down as quickly as possible. Flexibility on your part counts—it’s much harder to get a seating for a large group, so give some thought to breaking your group into numbers that can be accommodated at tables for four. Also make sure that you have your credit card out where you can read it.
All Advance Reservations for Cinderella’s Royal Table character meals, the Fantasmic! Dining Package, the Hoop-Dee-Doo Revue, the Spirit of Aloha, and Mickey's Backyard BBQ require complete prepayment with a credit card at the time of the booking. The name on the booking can’t be changed after the Advance Reservation is made. Reservations may be canceled, with the deposit refunded in full, by calling 407-WDW-DINE at least 24 hours (Cindy’s) or 48 hours (Fantasmic! and the dinner shows) before seating time.
While many readers have been successful using our strategies, some have not:
I got up extra-early 180 days before our trip to get Thanksgiving reservations at Le Cellier for my husband’s birthday. Even though I logged on to Disney’s website right at 6 a.m., by the time I got done typing and clicking the only table that was available was for 8:40 p.m.—too late for our children, and we would have missed IllumiNations.
On most days, a couple hundred users slam Disney’s computer system within milliseconds of one another. With this volume, a 20th of a second or less can make the difference between getting a table and not getting one. As it happens, there are variables beyond your control. One is the number of computers through which your request passes before it reaches Disney’s reservation system. The explanation is somewhat technical, but the same principle applies whether you’re trying to get dining reservations online with Disney or concert seats through Ticketmaster.
When you enter a URL into your browser, the request for that page gets passed through a series of intermediate computers spread throughout the Internet. The specific route is chosen based on network speed and traffic volume, and preference is given to faster routes. For example, from Len Testa’s house in Greensboro, North Carolina, the request for Disney’s dining page usually goes from his computer to a small Time Warner Cable facility in Greensboro. From there it’s routed through Raleigh, North Carolina, to Washington, D.C. From Washington it goes through Chicago, then Denver, and then Las Vegas before finally making it to Disney’s computers. (This also tells us that Disney’s computers may be hosted somewhere out west—nowhere near Orlando.)
If you don’t have access to a computer at 6 a.m. on the morning you need to make reservations, be ready to call 407-WDW-DINE at 7 a.m. Eastern time and follow the prompts to speak to a live person. You may still get placed on hold if call volume is higher than usual, and you’ll be an hour behind the early birds with computers. Still, you’ll be well ahead of those who couldn’t make it up before sunrise.
Never, Never, Never, Never Give Up Not getting what you want the first time you try doesn’t mean the end of the story. A mom from Cincinnati advises persistence in securing Advance Reservations:
I was crushed when I called and tried to reserve Chef Mickey’s and couldn’t. I decided not to give up and would go online once or twice a day to check reservations for Chef Mickey’s and the other restaurants I wanted. It took me about a week, but sooner or later I ended up booking every single reservation I wanted except ‘Ohana.
Last-minute Advance Reservations Because Advance Reservations require a credit card, and because a fee is charged for failing to cancel in time, you can often score a last-minute reservation. This is attributable to reservation-holders who are tired or have last-minute conflicts calling in at the last moment to avoid paying the $10-per-head penalty. As long as the reservation-holder calls to cancel before midnight the day before, he or she won’t be charged. So your best shot at picking up a canceled reservation is to repeatedly call or ping the Disney dining site as often as possible between 10 and 11 p.m.
Still Can't Get An Advance Reservation? Go to the restaurant on the day you wish to dine and try for a table as a walk-in (most full-service restaurants take walk-ins between 2:30 and 4:30 p.m.). This is a long shot, though you may be able to swing it during the least busy times of year or on cold or rainy days during busier seasons, when there’s a greater chance of no-shows. If you try to walk in then, your chances are best during the last hour of serving.
Landing an Advance Reservation for Cinderella’s Royal Table at dinner is somewhat easier than for breakfast or lunch, but the price is a whopping $73 for adults and $43 for children ages 3–9. As at the other two meals, five photos of your group, a photo of Cinderella Castle, and a Cinderella-themed photo holder are included in the price—like it or not. If you’re unable to lock up a table for breakfast or lunch, a dinner reservation will at least get your children inside the castle.
As noted earlier, Disney charges a per-person penalty if you fail to show up for an Advance Reservation the day of the meal. A $10 no-show fee is enforced at all Disney sit-down restaurants; at Victoria & Albert’s, it’s $25 for the main dining room, $50 for Queen Victoria’s Room and Chef’s Table (the latter two also require 48 hours’ notice to cancel an Advance Reservation).