Walt Disney World has not been immune from the U.S. recession. In-park merchandise sales have slowed, and high-end resort bookings are lagging. And while park attendance hasn’t suffered all that much, Disney executives have noticed that people are more likely than before to book last-minute trips to Orlando. Trips that might have been booked six months or more in advance during better times are now being booked six weeks out, and more frequently than ever within 14 to 30 days.
The Unofficial Guide staff noticed this pattern early In 2009, when we began receiving emails asking for recommendations for good park sit-down restaurants that families could book within 30 days of their trip. Using dozens of volunteers with free long-distance phone plans, and access to the online Advance Dining Reservation system used by Disney travel agents, we began building profiles of each theme park restaurant, showing how many days in advance (on average) that restaurant filled up for various meals.
To check availability, we asked Disney’s systems for a table for four people at each restaurant. Our dining times were 8 am for breakfast, noon for lunch and 6 pm for dinner, give or take 45 minutes either way. (That is, if we ask for a 6 pm reservation at Tusker House and Disney told us that 6:15 pm was available, we counted that as “available.”) We also measured breakfast and lunch availability for locations serving those meals. We surveyed each restaurant for a week, with our 90-day reservation window extending through Labor Day 2009. Our results are shown in the chart below. All meals are dinner unless otherwise noted.
Not surprisingly, you’ll need to book Canada’s Le Cellier steakhouse a full 90 days in advance. Le Cellier consistently gets top marks from our readers and demand for tables far exceeds supply. Interestingly, however, Epcot’s Coral Reef restaurant also requires dining reservations about 90 days in advance, too. While our readers (and dining critics) don’t give Coral Reef’s food particularly high marks, Coral Reef’s popularity might be explained by noting that it is one of the few non-ethnic sit-down restaurants in Epcot, it has relatively few tables, and it’s the only dedicated seafood restaurant in any Walt Disney World park.
Slightly farther down the list, the Magic Kingdom’s three Cinderella meals all generally need to be booked within 80 to 85 days of your trip. Breakfast here used to be the hottest ticket in the parks, but price increases and additional capacity at lunch and dinner have made tables much easier to get. Rounding out the list of most popular dining locations is the Crystal Palace’s character breakfast, the surprisingly good Tusker House character breakfast and dinner at the Garden Grill.
It’s possible to snag reservations at Germany’s Biergarten buffet within three weeks of your trip, which is surprising because it’s well-regarded by both our dining reviewer and readers. Tutto Italia, which was exceedingly difficult to get into when it was L’ Originale Alfredo’s di Roma, now requires less than a month of lead time to reserve.
A couple of notable restaurants appear toward the bottom of the list, meaning it’s possible to get a prime-time dining reservation at these locations within a ten days of your trip. When the characters left Liberty Tree Tavern, for example, so did the customers. (We wouldn’t be surprised to see the characters return.) Also good for last-minute reservations are Epcot’s Bistro de Paris, Tokyo Dining and Restaurant Marakkesh. In fact, these are some of the restaurants we’ll try for walk-up reservations when we’re doing in-park research and haven’t made other plans.
Bringing up the rear is World Showcase’s Nine Dragons, at the China pavilion, and most of the sit-down restaurants at the Animal Kingdom. Nine Dragons may be one of the most disappointing restaurants in all of Walt Disney World, with expensive, uninspired food. Regarding the Animal Kingdom’s diners, we think this is less a statement about the restaurants than it is a comment that people don’t need to hang around until dinner to see the entire park. As attractions (and hopefully some nighttime entertainment) are added to the Animal Kingdom, dining reservations may be more difficult to get.