Matthew J. Palm/Staff photo
More Walt Disney World restaurants are expanding their hours and opening for breakfast, which experts say could continue as attendance grows and the company looks for new spending opportunities.
Within a week, Disney announced that two of its popular theme-park eateries will make breakfast a permanent addition: Be Our Guest at the Magic Kingdom and Garden Grill at Epcot's Land pavilion.
A few other Disney restaurants are staying open later as well. Disney won't talk about whether more will change their hours, but says such decisions are carefully thought out and involve discussions with marketing and finance departments.
"We're always evaluating our business model here in … the Walt Disney World resort," said Robert Gilbert, the Magic Kingdom's executive chef. "It's not just the chef saying, 'You know what, let's offer breakfast everywhere.'"
Disney's MyMagic+ technology project could be playing a part in the additional hours, experts say. A major part of MyMagic+ includes an electronic system of reserving FastPasses in advance. Reducing visitors' waits in line means more time to spend shopping and dining.
"Traditionally, people's focus has been go to the attractions," said Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com. "With MyMagic+ and FastPass+, you've got people who have got three FastPasses in the bag. When they walk in in the morning, they might be more amenable to sitting down and having a nice breakfast."
Still, Gilbert said one challenge of creating a breakfast menu is that people expect it in less time.
"You want to be able to offer the same creative and visual appealing entrée as you would for dinner," he said, but, "you have to take less steps so you can feed your guest and they can get out into the park."
Restaurants in general are paying more attention to the early meal. Recently released statistics from NPD Group show that breakfast was the only meal for which restaurant traffic grew in the year ending May 2015, by 2 percent.
And experiencing good dining has become more important to Disney visitors, said AJ Wolfe, editor of the Disney Food Blog.
"With the upswing in social media and people sharing your food photography … it is a serious part of the fandom for a lot of people," she said.
For theme parks, though, what your mom used to call the most important meal of the day has often been treated more like an afterthought. Hotel restaurants serve it.
Inside Disney's theme-park gates, there are just a few places that serve a full breakfast. There are also spots where you can grab pastries and coffees, including recently opened Starbucks cafes.
SeaWorld serves breakfast at its Seafire Inn. Universal Orlando offers it at two restaurants in its Harry Potter lands, the sections that allow early access to hotel guests. Universal Studios Florida also hosts character breakfasts.
Breakfasts featuring visits with cartoon characters are one way theme parks could capitalize on the morning meal, said Joni Newkirk, a former Disney senior vice president who now runs a consulting company called Integrated Insight.
She sees potential for Disney to do even more of them.
"It kicks your day off to a great start, and breakfast food is relatively cheap," she said. "You don't have to focus as much on the meal as the experience."
Garden Grill's breakfast will feature characters. Be Our Guest does not.
Be Our Guest began testing breakfast a few months ago. The French-inspired menu includes a Croque Madame sandwich with ham, cheese and a fried egg; a croissant doughnut with banana-caramel sauce, pastry crème and chocolate ganache; and the most popular item, an open-faced bacon, poached egg and brie sandwich.
An elaborate re-creation of the castle from "Beauty and the Beast," Be Our Guest has been enormously popular since it opened as part of Disney's revamp of Fantasyland. It has a reputation as a tough place to book a reservation.
Offering breakfast was a way to let more people experience the restaurant, Gilbert said.
Garden Grill will in November start serving biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs, and Mickey waffles in the morning. Garden Grill used to serve breakfast and lunch but discontinued those meals years ago.
But attendance at the parks has been on the upswing since the economic downturn. This week, Disney announced Disney World attendance hit a third-quarter record.
"If their attendance grows, it's either build more restaurants or extend the hours to try to meet demand," Newkirk said.
It's not just the a.m. hours that are getting extended.
Garden Grill also will start serving lunch in November.
Earlier this year, Tony's Town Square in the Magic Kingdom began staying open between traditional lunch and dinner hours. Disney also recently began lengthening the window for reservations at Cinderella's Royal Table later into the night, past 11 p.m.
Later hours are another opportunity for the theme parks, Newkirk said, especially for international visitors who tend to eat later.
"The tables are there," she said. "To fill them up would be great."