The recent closing of Disney Dining Buddy, and the interesting “Opening Soon” message on the former Dis Dining Agent has led people to talk about Disney’s response to the rather rapid rise of third party ADR services. (NOTE: As of this post, Disney Dining Scout appears to still be operating, and has said they “welcome any opportunity to speak to Disney” about their service.) Though a lot of the coverage on this issue has dealt with how “bad” such services are (for a variety reasons), I have been unable to find a good discussion about one of the primary, underlying issue: how Disney handles the scarcity in its available ADRs.
As anyone who has read The Unofficial Guide knows, it is pretty much a requirement that you be online, at 6am, exactly 180 days before you anticipated Be Our Guest dining date, if you want any real chance of getting a reservation. (Don’t worry, we’ll mention the onsite “whole trip” booking advantage later.) Though many restaurants will still have some availability 100, 60, or, possibly, 30 days out, Be Our Guest frequently fills up in a matter of minutes on the 180 day mark. This is a clear illustration of the extremely high demand for ADRs at this restaurant, and of Disney’s primary method of dealing this demand (a demand that clearly outstrips supply): distribution based on personal time investment.
Distribution based on personal time investment is basically saying that “those people who are willing to do thing X at time Y” are going to get a priority when it comes to distributing a scarce resource. In Disney’s case, this means being online at 6am, 180 days before your desired ADR date. Some view it as a “fair” system, since it has no real income or opportunity component (requiring you just that that you get up super early and be on a computer), but also provides a way for people to gain a small advantage by doing a little “something extra” (i.e., the previously mentioned getting up early.) In other words, it rewards people who are “invested” in their Disney vacations, but does not punish those who cannot afford to make more of a monetary investment toward them.
As you might expect, those who are well versed in Disney World planning usually like this personal time investment system, since knowledge of the system’s existence is such a high barrier to entry. (This “knowledge of the system” advantage was also one of the reasons people were upset with the removal of “Legacy” Fastpass, which significantly fewer guests used than the new Fastpass+ system.)
The third-party dining sites, however, fundamentally changed ADR distribution from being primarily based on personal time investment, to being primarily based on personal monetary investment. Now, instead of having a “fair” system where anyone could (in theory) book a reservation by getting up early, the reservations were based on who was willing to pay money to gain access to certain reservations. This distribution based on personal monetary investment is a valid way to distribute scarce resources (see, e.g., Uber’s surge pricing), but (thankfully?) Disney has not yet fully embraced it for ADRs. On the other hand, Disney has fully implemented such a distribution system on the room pricing side of the vacation (and has apparently investigated implementing it on the park admission side of things), so it’s not inconceivable that Disney could move to such a system to allocate ADRs. (Of course, to some degree, ADRs already have a flavor of monetary investment distribution because of the whole-trip booking advantages given to Disney’s onsite guests.)
At this point, it seems likely that Disney will continue to provide some kind of advantage to people who are willing to make a little investment, whether in time or money, to their vacation (especially, those willing to stay onsite at Disney resorts.) Should Disney want to completely remove this advantage, however, it could move to ADR distribution via lottery. In that case, everyone who wants to eat at Be Our Guest on a given day would put in their request, and then Disney would randomly choose who, out of all the submitted requests, would get the reservations. Though some people may view this as the “fairest” alternative (and though a move to such lotteries for extremely high demand experiences has some precedent), I find it unlikely that Disney would ever make such a change.
A quick aside before concluding this piece: I would imagine that, in addition to the recebt issues people had with an ADR distribution system based on personal monetary investment, people also had an issue with it being third-party sites that were gaining the windfall from the ADR “fees.” That said, I believe that if Disney were to move to a purely monetary investment based system (again, think Uber surge pricing), people would have a very similar reaction.
In summary, the rise (and fall) of third-party Disney ADR sites shined an interesting light on the scarcity problem that Disney continually has to face. The reactions to this issue from the Disney fan community seem to indicate that the status quo of distribution based on personal time investment is the preferred approach of most Disney fans. How are we all going to react, however, if Disney decides that continuing to refrain from implementing a monetary distribution approach means they are (almost literally) leaving money on the table?