Deciding where you want to stay on your Disney vacation is probably the second decision you’ll make, right after deciding when to go. It’s a decision that can greatly affect your experience and given the sheer magnitude of options in the Orlando area, your choice won’t necessarily be easy: Do you need a lot of space? Which parks will you be going to the most? Do you want a luxury resort or just a place to lay your head at the end of the day? To further complicate things, you have to decide whether or not you want to stay on or off Disney property.
All things being equal, staying on property for a vacation that is primarily aimed at seeing Disney parks makes perfect sense, but if you’ve researched resort rates, all things are decidedly not equal. You pay a premium for staying on site, so the question is, is it worth it? What does Disney offer for a standard resort room that a similar room off site can’t offer? And how does a luxury hotel off site compare with Disney’s deluxe resorts?
Here’s what staying on Disney property offers:
1. Bus transportation from the airport to your hotel and back.
2. Bus transportation from your resort to the parks and back.
3. Package delivery from the parks and Downtown Disney to your resort.
4. Extra Magic Hours which allow you to enter certain parks an hour early or stay three hours after regular closing.
5. The option of using Disney’s dining plan.
6. The ability to make advanced dining reservations at the 180 days plus 10 mark.
My favorite benefit of staying on site is Disney transportation. I love Disney’s Magical Express, which takes you to and from your resort and “magically” deposits your luggage in your room while you’re out enjoying the parks. I also like being able to ride Disney transportation to and from the parks and the flexibility that it allows. This is especially beneficial if you’re travelling with a group: You can all come and go as you please and no one will end up feeling like the chauffeur.
Perhaps the biggest thing that Disney resorts offer is something that isn’t exactly tangible. It’s not just the theming that makes your resort feel like an escape from the everyday. People describe staying on Disney property as being “inside the bubble.” You’re in a world where good service is the norm, where everything is kept clean and serviceable, and where attention has been given to the smallest detail. As much as I love Florida, the tourist areas around Disney are often not the most pleasing to the eye. Sometimes I like that escape from the real world that staying on Disney property offers. I also like the feeling that I can trust my vacation to Disney. It’s what brings visitors back to Disney property year after year.
With so much going for it, why would you stay off site? Well, in a word, cost. Particularly when you compare rooms at the moderate and deluxe price point, you will likely find more spacious rooms that are equal to or better than what you would find on Disney property. Travelers who normally stay in higher-end hotels are especially difficult to win over because they complain that Disney deluxe rooms, which are often pricier, just can’t compare to places like the Ritz Carlton or Waldorf Astoria. For these guests, the convenience of staying on Disney property isn’t worth giving up what they’ve come to associate with luxury hotels.
Per square foot, off site is almost always a better bargain. Parents who want to relax after the kids go to bed will be happier in a suite or in a house rather than together in a small room. If you have a large group, accommodating them on Disney property can be very expensive. For the cost of renting several Disney value rooms a night, you could rent a four-bedroom house with a screened-in pool and a full kitchen. If your group has different interests and schedules, the extra space is a great way to keep the peace.
What’s the downside? Primarily getting to and from the parks. While most rental communities are within minutes of Disney property, keep in mind that Disney property is quite large. We stayed at Windsor Hills, a popular resort right off Highway 192. It was literally a couple of miles to Disney property. In fact, getting to and from Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom was actually very convenient as we could just drive right to the parks. Paying for parking, parking the car and then walking over to the park added about 15-20 minutes to our commute, but it wasn’t a huge burden. The problem was the Magic Kingdom. Rather than taking Disney transportation right from our resort to the park, we had to use the Ticket and Transportation Center. This meant it took about an hour to get from our resort to the Magic Kingdom during one of the slowest times of the year. If you’re not going to be spending a lot of time in the Magic Kingdom, of course, it’s really a non-issue. But remember to factor in things like breaks during the day and your family’s individual needs. Going back and forth off site for breaks and naps can be exhausting.
Make sure you factor in all the additional costs of staying off site. If you need a crib and your rental doesn’t provide it, you’ll be paying an additional $10 or so per day. Parking on Disney property is free if you’re a resort guest; if not, you’ll pay $14 to park. You’re almost always going to need a car if you’re staying off site, adding several hundred dollars to your “savings.” If you have a large group or even if you are with a smaller group but will have different schedules, you may need more than one vehicle. Finally, if you’re renting a condo or home, be aware that most agencies add cleaning and security fees onto your final bill. This isn’t factored into the nightly cost and can add up quickly. We once stayed at a condo managed by one of the more well-known property management companies in the Kissimmee area. They had a great nightly rate until you added in the additional $300 per week cleaning and security fees as well as some additional fees that I still don’t understand. This is an acceptable business practice, so you can’t avoid it, but know going in what these fees are and factor them into your nightly rate when making your decision.
Ultimately, I think a couple of things drive one’s decision. First, ask yourself how important it is to be totally immersed in the Disney experience. For some people, it’s just not that big of a deal, particularly if you’ve never stayed on site before. If you’re going to visit other Orlando attractions, it might make more sense to stay off site. Next, how much is convenience worth to you? Some people are willing to pay extra to avoid hassles during their vacation. They figure they only get so much time off, they might as well enjoy it. If so, staying on site may be the answer. Finally, if having a lot of space is important and you don’t want to pay Disney resort prices, off site may be the best deal for you.
Regardless of where you stay, you’re going to have a great time. But with all the choices available, it can’t hurt to weigh some of these questions before you make your decision.