MouseMisers has a nice overview of the promotion here: http://www.mousemisers.com/2011/disney-world-free-dining-2011-and-2012/.
Q: Does this mean the crowd numbers for these dates will go up?
A: No, not necessarily. The occupancy rate for Disney World resorts is between 80-83% on average. The Crowd Calendars assume an occupancy rate of about 90% on any given day because Disney will find a way to fill their rooms. They may do that through discounts, special events, promotions of another variety, or whatever else. There are about 25,000 Disney-owned rooms on property. With an occupancy rate of 83%, that’s 20,750 occupied rooms on any given day. Even if the Free Dining promotion increases occupancy to 97%, we’re only talking about an additional 3,500 occupied rooms. Assuming 3 people per room on average, that’s about 10,500 additional people. Spread out over four major theme parks, two water parks, Downtown Disney, Universal Studios, etc. it’s really just a blip on the radar. To put it in perspective, about 130,000 people are dispersed over just the four major Disney World theme parks on any given day. So to answer your question, the increase in Disney resort occupancy is already built into the model. When you see crowd levels of 7+, it means that more people are coming from off-site hotels, condos, townhouses, etc. If anything, the fact that Disney is forced to offer significant discounts indicates that crowds coming from off-site will be lower.
Q: Free Dining isn’t offered when I’m there. Does this mean crowds will be heavier?
A: It might. “Blackout dates,” as they’re called, are usually over holiday weeks/weekends or other major events. It may also indicate that you’re visiting during a week that Disney resort occupancy will be high, but overall crowd levels will still be relatively low. Pop Warner Week from December 3 – 10 is a good example. Many of the participants in the Pop Warner Football Championship stay on Disney property, which means occupancy will be high, even if crowds in the theme parks aren’t necessarily high. Certain conventions and other special events like gymnastics and dance championships also increase resort occupancy as do marathons. See the respective Crowd Calendar to see if crowds are expected to be above or below average.