Ask A Travel Agent: What Happens When Free Dining Is Released?

by on July 17, 2017 6 Comments

Filed under: Dining, discounts, Free Dining, Walt Disney World (FL)

We are truly lucky to get know some fantastic travel agents through our work here at TouringPlans. When the latest Disney Free Dining promotion was released, we heard stories from many of our friends in the industry about how busy Disney’s reservation systems were that day. That got us thinking: what’s it really like for a travel agent on the day a big promotion is released. Here’s one anonymous agent’s story:

Free Dining.

Two simple, innocuous little words that put together have created a cult-like response in the Disney community. Over the years, they’ve also created a bit of a sense of dread in the hearts of Disney-focused travel agents. Allow me to share with you what free dining is really like for a TA.

Years ago, free dining was a different beast. From the first release in 2005, popularity grew and grew, and as it grew the scope of requirements increased (like minimum ticket requirements), availability decreased (more date and resort blackouts), but guests were as starved as ever for this promotion. It was becoming somewhat of a holy grail, a unicorn if you will, for Disney vacationers. And TAs became Unicorn Hunters. And a vicious hunt it has become.

If you have been on the internet at any given point in time during the early spring, chances are you’ve seen the free dining rumors circulating. The rumors are everywhere – every forum, every blog, every Facebook fan page. Speculation of when free dining will be released. What dates will be included. What resorts will be blacked out. Book now, or wait for a release. If only there was a Magic 8 Ball who had all these answers…..

I’m lucky to work with an agency that has a great relationship with people at Disney, who (when possible) will give us a heads up that goes something like this: Hey, free dining is being released Monday. That doesn’t sound like the Magic 8 ball with all the answers, but let me tell you how HUGE that simple heads up is. From this sentence, I go into battle mode, like Kevin McCallister does in Home Alone preparing for Harry and Marv to invade his home. Because the key to this free dining hunt is speed – those unicorns are few and fast, and only the prepared will succeed. Here’s a look of my battle plan from this most recent release:

Weeks and weeks leading up to FD-day (it’s an accurate moniker):

Read rumors of speculation. Field numerous inquiries from current and potential clients who hope I have answers like Zoltar (sadly, I don’t). Focus on facts instead – what does current inventory look like? Are there any pin code offers out there for free dining? This gives me some clues as to what to expect. The less rack rate inventory there is makes me likely to believe there will be more limited free dining inventory.

The Disney community’s reaction to free dining. ©20th Century Fox

Heads up day:

Ok, now things are getting real and getting real fast. Step 1 is clear the calendar for FD-day. Clear it of everything – find someone else to take care of the kids, get take-out menus ready because there will be no cooking, and get someone else to walk the dog cause ain’t nobody gonna have time for that. Step 2 is compile two lists: one of clients currently booked, and one of those waiting to book once an offer is out. Now here’s where it starts to get tricky – despite what my kids would like to think, I do not have 8 arms and can only do so many things at once. On FD-day, this means I can only work on one reservation at a time. So the question becomes…who is the lucky client that gets attended to first? There is no perfect way to go about this, and I’m sure there are many differing opinions by TA’s out there. Some may base it on highest package price. Some may base it on client loyalty. I think there has to be a bit of a blend – we know there are some usual suspect resorts that tend to be excluded from free dining. We know there tends to be certain chunks of time that are excluded. Reservations that fit those two criteria tend to go toward the bottom of the list – but only after I reach out to those clients, and let them know that free dining is “likely” coming “soon” (but NEVER EVER EVER will I tell someone that I have an official heads up – my job means way too much to me to ever do that) – so let’s make a game plan in the event your resort/dates don’t fit the bill. The game plan helps so much – are you willing to change dates? resorts? or change nothing at all? In fact, I’ll generally reach out to everyone, because FD-day requires quick decisions, and since that day usually starts waaaaaaay earlier for me than my clients, the few hours it takes for them to wake up and see my emails, well, that’s hours of availability flying out the window. Once all emails are sent, as many plans are in place as possible, I set up my workspace with fully charged laptop, lists, files, pencils and off to early bedtime. Tomorrow comes early. The early bird gets the worm, but only the earliest bird gets free dining.

Don’t worry – your travel agent has this. ©20th Century Fox

FD-DAY:

3am EST – wake up 30 minutes before first alarm. Check online to see if anything is live yet. Nothing. Close eyes. “Sleep” for 10 minutes before 3:30am alarm. Repeat process every 30 minutes until it happens – those magical words appear in the online booking system. In the words of Kevin McCallister, “This is it. Don’t get scared now.” The first few minutes are a bit of a frenzy, and I’m lucky to have a fabulous team of agents to make it all happen. First, make sure everyone is awake (sorry to the significant others that have been woken up with phone calls on these days). Next, check the details of the offer – dates, resorts, exclusions, and minimum requirements. Work fast to get alerts out – on our private agent page, on our social media outlets, and to clients. Next, say a prayer to the tiki gods that the online modification system is going to cooperate, and GO. One by one, go through the list to see what existing packages can be modified, and squeal (but not too loudly so you don’t wake up your family) when you succeed! Keep working, fast. Uh oh. About an hour in, it seems the gods have been angered by all of the celebrating – and down goes the online system. This is pretty much worst case scenario, because this means modifications will have to be done through the phone reservation center – cue flashbacks from a few years ago of waiting on hold for SEVEN HOURS, yes you read that right, before getting through to a cast member (clearly still suffering PTSD from that day). Time to take deep breaths, try not to panic (too much), and begin the game of refresh, refresh, refresh. Online system clearly wasn’t ready to be awake despite the sky now being awake, so at 6:59am my fingers are poised to dial in when the phones open at 7am. Now that I’m in the holding queue (which is *shockingly* experiencing longer than average wait times), I turn up the volume on the hold music to enjoy while making a giant cup of coffee with one hand and refreshing the online system with the other. By a great stroke of luck, a fellow agent gets through in just 15 minutes and offers to help out those still waiting – did I mention how amazing our team is? Not all travel agencies are created equal, but man oh man is ours ever the best! Shortly after, the online system is back! So at this point the first wave has passed. All existing reservations have been checked, what modifications could be done have been done, emails sent to those lucky clients who now have lower package prices (woohoo!), emails sent to those with alternate options that are available (for the moment, at least), and quotes sent to those waiting. There is no lull until the second wave hits – clients are waking up to the news, and emails are coming in fast and furious. The pattern holds steady for the rest of the day – lots of email, lots of quoting, lots of options going back and forth but unfortunately all based on not so much availability – which was none too surprising to us. Thanks to laptops and free Wifi, I continue my day from the hair salon (I know I said I clear my schedule, but rescheduled hair appointments can be as difficult to get as free dining at Beach Club, amiright??). Multitasking at its finest. Pretty sure I never ate breakfast or lunch. Positive there was pizza for dinner. Totally sure I passed out cold on that couch that night.

You – planning your meals! ©20th Century Fox

FD-day, the rest of the week:

Well at least today started at a more reasonable hour. But it isn’t too much calmer. The good news is that the online system is happily chugging along – and that means just about everything as far as productivity goes! The extensive blackout dates and low resort availability make decisions difficult as people are trying to decide what the best choice will be, so the back and forth continues for days and days. Also over the course of these next few days, we see shifts in inventory – packages that were put on hold but never confirmed go back into available inventory, which is great! But it takes constant vigilance over the week to try to make that free dining magic happen for clients. By the time Friday comes, sleep has never sounded better.

Free dining is pretty much the most intense week of the year in the life of a Disney-focused TA. It’s quite something to work your tail off to lose money, but there is such satisfaction in it too – because it feels really really good when you have clients that genuinely thank you for your efforts, who know you are there to help make their trip the best trip ever in any way that you can. So if you have never used a TA to book your Disney trip, give it a chance – most won’t cost you a penny to use! Find a good TA, one who doesn’t mind getting up at 3am and keeping at the grindstone, sitting on hold for hours on the phone, working through multiple scenarios to find you the best deal. And if you already have a TA, especially one that helped you with free dining, say thank you. Chances are, your TA worked really hard for you, and a sincere thank you can go a really long way. Also, during free dining week, a Starbucks can too. 😉

What else would you like to hear from travel agents? Let us know in the comments.

Posted on July 17, 2017

6 Responses to “Ask A Travel Agent: What Happens When Free Dining Is Released?”

  • Why not to get an agent: “On FD-day, this means I can only work on one reservation at a time. So the question becomes…who is the lucky client that gets attended to first?”

    There is a good possibility that you won’t be first in line. If you are paying attention, free dining is usually “leaked” a few days before it goes live. If you are willing to get up early, you yourself are able to wake up early and book your package. With the added benefit, that if free dining doesn’t exactly meet your plans, you can decide the best way forward without going back and forth with an agent while open inventory disappears.

    The marketer in me thinks that Disney should tighten their cancellation policy. “Free dining” use to be a way to get folks in the door late, to use extra inventory. Now it seems to be going to folks who already have packages booked. They are cannibalizing their own higher rates. A cancellation fee of 1 night or so would nip that in the bud, and they could still allow free date changes to reservations and fee waivers for specific conditions (death, illness, job loss, etc.).

  • Way to brag about something that Disney claims doesn’t happen, that you get a special heads up about free dining. Your agency should be blocked by Disney.

  • I have developed a greater appreciation over the years for TAs. I have been fortunate enough to develop a relationship with mine. He always goes above and beyond and I try to make sure I can give him as much business as possible either through me or friends and family because of it. I have been fortunate to receive his help during this hellacious period more than once. Thank you for the post and thank you TAs. It really is a thankless job alot of the time.

  • Went to WDW for a week in February and I truly wish that the TA my sister had booked through [I’ll be nice and not reveal the agency’s name, but it’s Peter Pan related! Jus sayin’!] was as dedicated as the TA who wrote this (pretty funny!) tale of FD-Day. I was going along on this trip with my sister to help with my nieces and to be a “tour guide”, but my sister is a control freak and insisted on a TA from this agency.

    Our TA was shocked that I wanted to sigh-up for my own Fast Passes vs. allowing her to do it. Come to find out: she was getting onto a Disney Cruise ship that AM that the FP window was opening up…ummm….how were you going to get our FP in if you were already figuring out your drink of the day, ma’am? Thank goodness I check things ahead of time, because I then realized she had never given us our reservation number, so I wouldn’t have been able to book the FP. Yeah…on President’s Day week? No, those E-ticket FP would’ve gone quicker than doughnuts at a Weight Watchers meeting! At least I got everything I needed and had the FP booked within 5 mins of the day’s opening for the online system.

    And then the TA booked a random character meal right in the middle of some of the best FP times and sold the idea to my sister that this was the “to die for” reservation…sigh…my sis wasn’t listening to me so I had to find different FP selections. Yes, I was muttering lotsa foul language at that point!

    The TA sent a tips and tricks booklet to my sister that had every basic “every Disneyphile already knows this stuff and it’s on their dang website, so it’s not a secret” suggestion in there. Plus, it was full of formatting errors and included no punctuation. Not acceptable. Nope.

    And then…this is the BEST part…the TA meets up with my sister to give her goodie bags for my nieces [ages 4 and 8]. I felt bad for all the bad energy I had sent her way, so I forgave her in my mind because I thought the bags were nice. Until I looked at what was in them: Mickey Ears…from Disneyland. O. M. G. My sister couldn’t understand why I was livid and said I was over-reacting because DL and WDW are the same thing. I temporarily shunned her from my existence. The ears are now on my dart board and I shoot darts at them when I’m feeling angry…quite cathartic.

    So, yes, our TA was horrible, but I think there are great ones out there and that’ll be my Unicorn to search for! I’m helping a friend book a week trip to WDW with her daughter who has Cerebral Palsy, so I’m definitely going to need a TA’s help on that one to learn the ins and outs of all the systems. [Touring Plans peeps: y’all should do a piece on that!]

  • I do everything myself and was able to get free dining, all the table service reservations, and Fast Passes I wanted. Yes, I stayed up all night when FD was released but like another posted said I was only working on my own reservation not relying on a travel agent who has many clients for whom they are trying to get free dining.

    I really couldn’t stand not having total and immediate control of my own reservations because I know exactly what I want. So a travel agent would never work out for me.

    And contrary to popular belief Disney travel agents can’t save you anymore money than you could save by doing your own thorough research. They don’t get to book you a package at a special discount…nothing that’s not available to anyone else. A travel agent would be good for someone who really doesn’t know much about WDW and is not too picky about what they do there.