Travel agents with customers booking Disney resort vacations are currently engaged in an annual rite, getting up early in the morning to capture Free Dining discounts that could save their clients hundreds, and in some cases, a thousand dollars or more.
Their dedication to their customers is another example of how agents add value for travelers who either might not know the mysterious inner marketing workings of certain travel suppliers, or not have the inclination to be in front of a glowing computer screen while most people are sleeping.
Nicole Thibault, owner of Magical Storybook Travel, Fairport, New York, and a small army of fellow travel agents are up before dawn, communicating through Facebook and other electronic means, “trying to keep each other awake and supporting one another,” she said.
“Every year, the Free Dining promotion gets more and more competitive. Walt Disney World only releases so many rooms under the promotion, and those rooms sell very quickly. Clients are looking to their travel agents to secure the Free Dining promotion for them, and with the limited availability, there is a lot of pressure to come through for your clients,” said Thibault.
“As agents, we’re a bit ‘plugged-in’ to rumors and things that float around about discounts and other Disney news, so we often have a bit of a heads-up on when things will happen,” said one agent who requested anonymity.
“There is a massive sub-culture of Disney fans that talk about these sorts of things endlessly, and as a card-carrying member of this culture, I keep my Mickey Ears to the ground in anticipation of news — not only for discounts, but for other tidbits, as well.”
Launched on Apr. 24 with big savings
This year, the promotions were launched around 5 a.m. Tuesday, Apr. 24. According to Thibault, the current offer needs to be secured before July 7, and is good for travel dates that start in late August, and cover September, the Thanksgiving period, and most of December. The packages include rooms, theme park ticket(s) with Park Hopper or Park Hopper Plus Option, and the Disney Dining Plan (Disney Quick-Service Dining Plan with Value and Moderate Resort hotel packages; Disney Dining Plan with Deluxe and Deluxe Villa Resort hotel packages).
The offer Thibault reviewed says “the number of rooms allocated for this offer is limited,” advance reservation is required, and tickets and options must be used within 14 days of first use, which must be on or before Dec. 31, 2019. The offer excludes campsites, 3-bedroom villas and Little Mermaid Standard Rooms at Disney’s Art of Animation Resort.
Thibault currently has 12 clients that could possibly qualify, depending on the promotion dates and resorts that might be included. “I have one party of five staying for a week who can get the free dining plan, which is worth $1,407, so it can be significant,” Thibault said.
“There are many families that count on the discount and plan for Fall trips, just because they know the Free Dining promotion will be offered,” Thibault said.
Disney declined to comment on the dining promotion.
Promotion’s 'Black Friday' nature can complicate an agent’s life
The agent who requested anonymity talked about how Disney’s marketing and limited availability for a number of promotions had increased the demand on agents to come through for their clients. For example, Disney promotes heavily through its consumer website.
“Walt Disney World dining reservations also open up online at 6 a.m. Eastern and FastPasses at 7 a.m. Eastern, and just like promotions, the early bird often gets the worm here, too, so some early mornings are expected,” she said. She currently has 25 clients that may qualify for this year’s dining promotion, versus about 50 last year.
The agent cited how FastPasses for Walt Disney World’s new and popular Avatar Flight of Passage (at Disney's Animal Kingdom) run out very quickly due to popularity. “If I'm not online at 7 a.m. Eastern booking that FastPass for my clients, I will miss out on it.”
“We never get advance notice about the discount,” Thibault said, “so a lot of us wake up at 4 a.m. on the rumored day. If you can get into [Disney’s online travel agent portal] and make the changes on the portal, it’s better than hanging on hold on the phone for seven hours, which is my record.”
While the Black Friday nature of the discounts has caused agents to lose some sleep, Disney has improved the process somewhat for agents over the six years that Thibault has been securing them for her clients. She said that when she started, agents could not apply the promotion to an existing reservation online.
“Phone lines opened at 7 a.m., and sometimes it would take a good 30 minutes to just get into the phone queue. Then the wait time started. My longest hold time for the Free Dining promotion was 7 hours on hold,” she recalled. Now agents can use their portal to apply the discount to existing reservations and create new ones.
Not every agent is willing to make this sacrifice. “There are many agents that don't get up early for one reason or another, that is how they have chosen to run their business,” said the agent who requested anonymity.
“I personally feel I give my clients the best opportunity at a discount (or a certain desired dining, or FastPasses) if I am up early to try and get it the moment it releases. If I had my vacation booked through a travel agent, I would hope they would do the same for me — so that is how I conduct my business. It's important to me.”
Disney complicates promotions by also limiting the number of rooms available based on resort, number of days booked, and dates of stay, the agent who asked for anonymity said.
“If the Smith family is staying at Disney's Port Orleans Riverside Oct. 5-10, you think they should get the discount, right? Not always. Just because their dates are included and their resort is included, there might be no rooms at Port Orleans Riverside that are discounted during Oct. 5-10,” the agent said.
“If they can adjust their travel dates to Oct. 1-5, then there is a room open. This can be difficult for clients to understand. Quite often I can find a room at regular price open, but nothing on the discount.”