Monday, August 31, 2009

No Reservations

In general, you can take a trip down to Disney with very little advanced planning. There are those who would argue that your experience is better with planning, and that may be true, but it CAN be done. Last-minute trips happen all the time and are quite successful. However, the main issue you will most likely run into with a last-minute or casually planned trip is dining. Specifically, I'm referring to Table Service meals where you sit down, order food from a waitperson, and leave a tip at the end of the experience. And it's worth it to experience at least one of these restaurants while you are there. Disney knows how to do food. Some restaurants are quite exquisite and even the worst of the lot are still a worthwhile experience.

Disney does not take official "reservations." What I mean is they don't hold a specific table for you at a specific time. What they do instead is take a "Priority Seating" call, where you are essentially holding your place in line for a restaurant at a given time. This process is very similar in appearance to a reservation, but you do usually have to wait 5-10 minutes between the time you check in at the podium and when you are seated. This is similar to when you call Outback at home before you leave, holding your place in line so that by the time you get there, you only have a short wait for the next available table.

The catch here is that you make your call to hold your spot 90 days in advance. And on October 27, 2009, that window becomes even larger. You will be able to call 180 days before your checkin date. If you are "math-challenged" like myself, that's about six months in advance. If you are "planning-challenged" like myself, you will find this more than frustrating. While it's true that you are not REQUIRED to call 180 days in advance, you will find that thanks to offers of free dining and other incentives through the year, you will have trouble holding a spot in line at your top restaurant choices if you do not.

The Disney slang term for these "reservations that are not reservations" is ADR -- short for Advanced Dining Reservation. (See? They even call it a "reservation" just to confuse you.) The suggested strategy to ensure you get to eat where you want is to call exactly 90 days (or 180 starting on October 27) at 7am when the phone lines open with your list ready. This means that you are expected to have thought out which parks you will be in on which days of your trip and what food you might like to ingest on those days.

If you sense that I am biased against the large time frame that reservations are open, you are right. Personally, I am more of a spur-of-the-moment traveler. But I do understand not everyone is like that and I certainly can plan ahead when called upon to do it. If you feel strongly about where you'd like to eat and (most importantly) what time, here is how to prepare:

  • Plan your days in general. - Where will you be on which day and which restaurants will be closest to you? You can also reverse this... choosing your restaurants, then planning where you will be around that. You need to take park hours into consideration when you do this, especially if you like to dine late and travel in the cooler months, as the parks close earlier. We'll discuss how to map out your days in a future post, if you are at a loss as to where to begin.
  • Choose your restaurants and dining times, along with second choices. - Keep your plan open. When I call, I have a general time in mind such as "We'd like to get the earliest reservation available for lunch" or "We want to eat as close to 7:30 pm as possible." And if the only lunch reservation is at 2pm, know if you are willing to take it. The younger your kids, the less flexibility you might have. But remember, there are plenty of snacks around the World, so a late lunch is doable and frees you up to visit attractions while most people are eating a meal.
  • Call Disney Dining (407-WDW-DINE) at 7am exactly 90 (or 180) days before your checkin date. - There is an online reservation system now, but I don't recommend using it; especially if this is your first or second trip. Talking to a person is far more flexible and they can "poke around" to look for times better than the online system. If you wish to explore online ADRs, the website is

    Disney's online registration system - ©2009 Disney

  • Remain flexible. - You can change your ADRs as time goes by, but it will be harder and harder to get exactly what you want. With Disney's frequent offers for free dining plans, more people are crowding into restaurants they normally wouldn't try, making it harder to come by exactly the time and place you want.

For those like me who really dislike planning so far in advance, has created a fabulous chart that tells you which restaurants book faster than others and which ones are likely to have priority seating available right up to when you are ready to eat. This way you can easily see that if you REALLY want to eat at Le Cellier in the Canada pavilion in Epcot (which I highly recommend doing), you want to plan that out. But maybe you can wait another month or so before mapping out the rest of your food experiences. I am hopeful they will update this chart once the 180-day window has been implemented for long enough to capture good data, but I still expect it will give you a generally accurate idea of where you need to book early even after they move to the 180-day window.

Table Service restaurants have always been a very special part of our trips to Disney. Although the ADR system can seem a bit much for a new traveler, the payoff is worth it. The ADR system has its flaws, but overall, it will help ensure you spend your time eating your meal and enjoying the restaurant rather than waiting in a lobby outside for your table. Bon appetite!


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