Question: Is it worth booking restaurants online before you go for the evening seated dining plan or can you just book on the day in the park or walk in when ready?
Answer: The short answer is yes, book your dining online in advance!
I totally get why you might want to wing and have the flexibility to decide while you’re there, especially if you weren’t wanting to plan what days you’ll spend where ahead of time, but thanks to the dining plan (which is sometimes given ‘free’ as part of a package) the restaurants can get booked solid. If you were planning to eat at a table service restaurant, not being able to is disappointing. But if you’re on the dining plan, not being able to get a table means you could be throwing away money if you don’t ensure you’ve got a table in advance.
The most popular restaurants can get fully booked as soon as they become available to book – 180 days ahead (190 for those staying at a Disney hotel). The rest will get busier the closer to the date. The only time you may be able to get away without booking and still find a table somewhere might be if you were visiting off-peak and are a small party of one or two. If you’re a bigger group visiting in school holidays, you could find you can’t get a table anywhere – and certainly not at the best restaurants.
If you do decide to wait until you get there to book, I’d recommend doing one of two things. Either a) visit guest services in the park or hotel in the morning, as they can search a range of restaurants for you. Or b) use the Disney dining mobile site on a smart phone, which will allow you do search for yourself. I’d only really recommend this if you have wifi in your hotel though, as data charges on a mobile when you’re in the US can rack up.
And if you book a restaurant now and change your mind, you can always cancel – you just let guest services know. They ask that you cancel 24hours ahead – some restaurants (mainly character and signature meals) now have you provide credit card details when you book to try and prevent no-shows, but as long as you cancel 24hours ahead of time you won’t be charged.
The dining I would particularly recommend you book ahead would be any Character meals you want to do (especially Chef Mickeys and Cinderella’s Royal Table), any Signature meals – the two credit meals (California Grill and Le Cellier are particularly hard to get), any dinner shows. Also the the very popular restaurants – Ohana at the Polynesian Resort is the one we would hate to miss but find it really hard to get reservations for.
I hope that helps – if you want any recommendations for restaurants, have a look through my blog, or feel free to ask another question. I would also thoroughly recommend the disney food blog – the unofficial but definitive guide to food and restaurants at Disney World.