Save yourself trouble and book Disney dining reservations online

When we were kids, a visit to Walt Disney World was a carefree affair. We could drift into the park like sleepwalkers, point to where our fancy led us, and explore without agenda until the fireworks kissed us goodnight.

Today, it's not so much fun. Disney has chosen to survive the recession in part by giving away food through its Disney Dining Plan, and the influx of hungry guests demanding their free meals has further clogged the sit-down restaurants. You can no longer walk up to any restaurant and expect to be seated. In fact, you'll often be turned away.

The value of the Disney Dining Plan is one of the most hotly debated issues in all of Disneydom. (My verdict: It's rarely worth it unless you're a huge eater, and it will slow you down if you're very active.)
But even if guests don't subscribe to the Disney Dining Plan, they're going to have to deal with its effects, because the backlog of diners can cause breakdowns in the park-going experience.

The simplest way to contend with the obstacles is to always make reservations when you intend to eat a sit-down dinner at Disney. Always.

Yes, that forces families to microscopically plan daily itineraries, like Patton trooping through Italy, and that sort of obsession is contradictory to what a "magical," relaxing vacation is supposed to be. But we're living in Realityland, and it is necessarily so.

What's more, the simplest way to make those reservations (or, as those military moms call them, Advance Dining Reservations, or ADRs) is to use the resort's online dining reservations service, which was put in place a few months ago.

Here's why when you take your next trip to Walt Disney World, using the Web-based ADR system is the way to go:

1. You don't have to pay to call Disney.

It perhaps speaks volumes of this company that it doesn't furnish a 1-800 number to prospective customers, not even when they're calling to lay down thousands of dollars on a family vacation. Even Tiffany & Co. and Neiman Marcus have toll-free numbers, but not Uncle Walt's greedy minions, who would rather shift the burden of the price of a sales call to the customer.

But rather than call the resort's 407-number (407-WDW-DINE) each time you want to check for dining availability and make a reservation, you can just do it online, where there's no hold music and no customer service rep reading off a script. And, again, you don't pay for the call.

There will be instances in which you will want to call. For example, a key feature at the California Grill, atop the Contemporary Resort, is the stunning view of the nightly fireworks, and only a live operator can tell you at what time they'll happen on the day you want to go.

2. You must book ahead anyway if you want to sit and eat at Disney.

It's not as if you can get out of it. Don't assume that going in low season will mean the restaurants will be emptier, because low season is exactly when Disney rolls out its free-dining incentives that often keep the restaurants busy despite lower crowd numbers.

The only way to get out of making reservations at Disney is to always eat at the counter service, or "Quick Service" locations -- those are the ones in which you bus your own tray. If you stick to those exclusively, you won't have to make reservations anywhere. Not so coincidentally, those places are also the least expensive.

3. It's open at 6 a.m.

The phone operators start picking up later. When you're dealing with fans as obsessive as Disney fans, that lead time can make a difference.

As of October 27, reservations are permitted 180 days in advance (before then, they were only allowed 90 days ahead), and for the coolest restaurants (such as Cinderella's Royal Table, the princess meet-and-greet inside the castle at the Magic Kingdom), slots are snapped up faster than a kitchen mouse can make a prom dress.

4. If the restaurant you want is full, the system will suggest alternatives.

That's convenient for those of us who don't care to study Epcot the way a freshmen would study for biology. There are a lot of places to eat at Walt Disney World, and not all of them require reservations, so it's handy that the system serves up only the sit-down locations. (Here's another alternative if your choice is full: For lunch or dinner, eat at 11a.m. or in mid-afternoon, when crowds thin somewhat.)

4. You can use it while you're in line.

Sure, you could also try calling while you're in line, but the queue areas can be noisy. Fetch the Web reservations pages on your hand-held device, though, and you can get your seats (if they're available) on the fly without struggling to be heard. Just don't make a habit of waiting until the last minute to do it, because that will usually be too late.

5. It's free.

Savor it. That doesn't happen often in Orlando.

Unfortunately, you will have to know the name of the restaurant you want to eat in before you can make your reservations in it, which means you'll have to trudge down the trail of advance research whether you want to or not. Remember why you're doing it, though: On the day, if you've got your Donald Ducks in a row, you will have fun.

There are times, too, when the online reservations system doesn't work. Disney had much better results in playing God and replicating human life in robotic form than it has had in building a smoothly operating Web site.

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