On the face of it, there are nothing but positives associated with this week’s announcement that Epcot is expanding its holiday food and drink services come the holiday season. They are adding even more festival-style booths than before, and expanding the menu offerings on the existing booths. They are making the booths more heavily themed. Plus, it’s something new! Everyone likes new stuff, including (and maybe especially) those of us lucky enough to live so close by that we can visit regularly. This all sounds like a win. But if you scratch at the surface a little bit, you find there are some negatives, although they are only tenuously connected to this specific event. The bigger picture is that the new Epcot holiday booths are symptomatic of a larger movement going on at Disney World–a movement of prices and services, and this larger movement definitely has winners and losers.

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Let’s back up and acknowledge all the positives. We already said that new is good, that themed is good, and that expanded offerings are good. In theory, this is the sort of thing that can drive new attendance to the park, and new spending. I think there is little doubt this is what Disney would like.

Put another way, Disney wants to “grow the pie” (where “the pie” refers to Guest spending). They want new people coming in, spending dollars here rather than, say, the movie theater or football game. To the extent they construct experiences that people really react to–new lands like Star Wars or Pandora, for example–they probably succeed in this goal.

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But it’s worth pausing and asking the question whether the pie is truly always growing for each new initiative and each new attempt. Pandora will surely bring new visitors who would otherwise have stayed away, but will a revised Hocus Pocus show? Will the addition of free guacamole in the Pecos Bill toppings bar? More to the point of today’s news, will slightly expanding the festival booths for the holidays get new people to book vacations? I’m sure this is the sort of thing that gives Disney marketing folks headaches: how do they choose which ones to market as a reason to come, and which to assign more to the “plussing” mission that Disney parks are famous for?

Realistically, I have to think that the pie doesn’t grow every time. Or, if it does grow, that doesn’t mean that all the activity associated with it represents new spending. For of the visitors, what we see instead is the pie staying the same size, but being divided differently. From the point of view of Disney profits, what that means is that you aren’t generating *new* dollars, but diverting existing ones.

Think of it this way. Someone on vacation at WDW and staying at a resort hotel isn’t going to grow his appetite or stomach capacity based on new Epcot festival booths. What he’ll choose to do is sample those foods–because they are new and exciting–and thus skip buying a regular dinner. He will spend a lot of money since these are basically “small plates” meals, and thus Disney is happy, but the salient point is that he will become sated from these booths. His fullness translates into not eating at the regular Epcot restaurants…and here is the moment when we start to find fissures in the Pollyanna story of everyone winning.

Biergarten at Germany
Biergarten at Germany

The dispatcher at Space Mountain might not care about how busy (or uncrowded) a given day is, and the same is true of a street sweeper, monorail pilot, bus driver, merchandise host, or parade entertainer. Actually, strike that. For most of them, the better days are the slower days, when there are fewer Guests around, and they can chat with their work buddies. But servers lose money when there is less business. As we all know, they make less than minimum wage, and when there are fewer people in the restaurants, that means fewer tips.

As you might surmise, having fewer visitors in the restaurant means a server might only be helping one table at a time rather than three (or whatever the normal number is)–that translates to less money, of course. That’s one scenario, but there are others. The management is more likely to staff the restaurant at half levels, meaning the servers who ARE working will make their usual money, while the others simply are called off work that day. So having additional festival booths around probably result in a bit of a “drought” for the servers in regular restaurants–maybe doubly so for those in restaurants at the Epcot resorts, since the festival booths are such a short walk away and an obvious draw over the normal offerings.

This whole angle is making me want to consider the plight of restaurant servers for a moment. I think we can say that those who worked at Adventurer’s Club probably didn’t like the nature of the visitors (they came frequently but ordered paid drinks infrequently, and tipped indifferently). I’ll bet a similar pattern holds true at Trader Sam’s today. (Or maybe I’m just extrapolating my own experience unwisely? I’m a local and usually avoid Trader Sam’s…because it’s too expensive).

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The regular table-service servers we’ve talked about, but what about those working in “all you care to eat” restaurants? My money says that they are happy doing what they do. Prices keep going up. It now costs the same to eat at Hollywood and Vine ($46) as it does to eat at the posh Texas de Brazil steakhouse up the road on I-Drive. And with increased prices come increased tips, especially when you consider that an auto-gratuity of 18% is applied when there is a group of six or more (and the people who tend to eat AYCE? Large groups of six or more). My suspicion is that the servers in “all you care to eat” restaurants clean up at Disney and make plenty of money.

The same is probably not true of other servers. My experience with life (and a few conversations I’ve had with park servers) suggests that servers struggle in the modern era. First, you’ve got rising prices on everything: the food at your restaurant, yes, but also the cost of the Disney hotel. The sticker shock on the hotel room might (will?) be leading people to eat more fast food and less sit-down service.

And we need to account for the ‘trick’ Disney uses to get their hotels closer to full occupancy. In the off-season, they frequently give away free Dining Plans if you book a hotel room. That gets heads in beds, but at the cost of free dining. Why is free dining so bad for servers? Because apparently there is a subset of visitors who take the word “free” and apply it to the entire dining experience, and therefore do not tip on the service received at the restaurant. Remember we’re talking about people who earn less than minimum wage, since they are supposed to be making tips.

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If we switch over to the hotels, especially the convention hotels, the view is probably even worse. If you’re a server at a restaurant in a convention hotel (like Contemporary), then you likely see the off-season as a time to get basically laid off. No one is eating in those hotel restaurants in the daytime. Sure, the beds are all full of conference and convention visitors, but they are eating food provided by the conference center and Event Services, not the restaurants.

I suppose if we want to be thorough we should at least mention the fact that Disney Resort restaurants also have to compete with the real world out there. Many of their visitors have cars and can go to Chuy’s, McDonald’s, Joe’s Crab Shack, or Publix instead of staying on property, so the constantly-increasing prices on the Disney side work against the servers again.

We’ve taken a relatively deep dive here on the life of a server at a Disney restaurant, but it’s not an isolated phenomenon. Take to its extreme – Disney charging enormous prices for restaurant entrees; Disney offering a dazzling array of festival booth alternatives, etc. – what we might find is a small seismic shift away from table service in general, and toward more fast-casual service on the Disney property. Is it the end of the world if you have to get off your lounge chair at the resort pool and go to the nearby pool bar to order your own drink? No, of course not. But it’s another thing gone; another item relegated to the “past” for our memories of what makes Disney World worthwhile and memorable. It’s the little things that count, and as the little things disappear, this column in particular wants to make note of it. It’s not like the expanded holiday offerings will be overall bad. In fact, on balance it’s likely to be a positive, as we said at the outset. But when things have negative underbellies, that deserves analysis, too.

Now it’s your turn. Do you see an overall progression away from table service dining at Disney World when viewed against a historical context? If so, is that a bad thing?


Want to catch up on past articles, you can read more of Kevin’s thoughts here