There are a few main expenses when planning a Disney trip – we touched on ticket type in an earlier post. The biggest and possibly most expensive decision to make when you decide to take a Disney vacation is where to stay. We’ll talk about some of your options below but as always, this isn’t a one size fits all situation and you have to make the choice that makes the most sense for you and your family.
One thing of note – I’ll mostly be talking about a booking for one room, as opposed to a larger party that would require something much more vast and expensive. Chances are, if you need a villa on Disney property (or multiple rooms), the much more cost effective option would be renting a nearby house via Airbnb or VRBO. Since that’s generally out of my realm of experience, though, that can be something you look at with your group and decide your best course of action.
Essentially your choice of hotel or resort for a Walt Disney World vacation comes down to a simple question – on property or off property? I say “simple” but it actually can be quite complicated, considering all of the factors that go into the decision. We’ll discuss some of those here.
The first question many people have to decide on is cost. I’ll tell you up front – if cost is the biggest (or only) factor in your decision, your best choice is likely going to be off property. I checked a random week in January (1/9-1/15, if you were curious) and found the following:
Disney’s All Star Sports - $981.00
Best Western Plus Kissimmee - $1,066
Wyndham Lake Buena Vista - $1,113
A couple of points on the above. All Star Sports is an on property resort, meaning you get all the benefits of staying on property (discussed below). It is considered a value resort in Disney terms (the three categories are value, moderate and deluxe, which we’ll get into in a bit). However, I found that pricing information from a Google search – if you attempt to book that resort as of now, it’s showing no available rooms. Either they are fully sold out or they’re not accepting bookings at the moment (the resort is currently closed, and due to open on 12/9). I didn’t see a whole lot of options under value resorts in general, though, so you would either have to upgrade or look elsewhere. The Best Western is just a hotel in the area, while the Wyndham is considered a “good neighbor” hotel to Disney, meaning that they also get access to most of the perks of staying on property.
Of course, a lot depends on your perception of value for these hotels. For example, the standard rooms at All Star Sports are 260 square feet, Best Western Plus are 325 and Wyndham are 301. Disney’s Coronado Springs, a moderate resort on property, have rooms that are 314 square feet. In other words, based on room size alone, the two off property hotels are the equivalent value of a moderate resort but price wise, you’d only be getting a value. Other amenities likely differ in these off site hotels as well. And this was only a small sampling – the further away from Disney property you stay, the cheaper a hotel is likely to be. Of course, you would then still have to get to the parks each day. This leads into our next topic.
This is sure to be the most controversial aspect of the “where to stay” discussion, as in years past, staying on property had many more advantages. Slowly those have been eroded, and now there aren’t a whole lot of differences in terms of what you get. Rather than focus on the past, though, we’re going to talk about the present and see what IS still there for on property guests.
First, would be proximity to the parks and transportation options. To be clear, any of Disney’s internal transportation systems (bus, monorail, boat, etc) are available to anyone, free of charge. But obviously it’s more beneficial to take advantage of these if you’re staying on property. If you’re off property, you still have to make your way to the parks via your hotel’s shuttle service (if available) or some kind of taxi or ride share. Those can add up if you’re going to the parks every day. Plus it’s much easier to leave the parks mid-day and take a break when you’re staying on property. Off property hotels have drop off spots at all the parks, but they are usually the furthest away, making it much less convenient to use frequently.
Walt Disney World is a vast property, so some hotels are obviously going to be closer to the parks than others. But if you were to stay at a resort on Seven Seas Lagoon (Contemporary, Polynesian or Grand Floridian), you can walk to Magic Kingdom or at least have a short monorail or boat journey there. If you’re trying to get ahead of the crowds, proximity can be a major advantage. This is also true of the Crescent Lake resorts (Boardwalk, Beach Club and Yacht Club) as it relates to Epcot and Hollywood Studios. Note that all of these resorts mentioned here are deluxe resorts – this shouldn’t be a surprise given their location.
Another perk of staying on site is early theme park entry. Guests staying on property OR at good neighbor hotels (the full list is in that link) have the opportunity to access whatever theme park they have a reservation for that day thirty minutes earlier than off property guests. You might say that a half hour isn’t a huge benefit, and you may be right. But Disney fans are nothing if not determined, and if you want to rope drop Test Track, for example, you’re much better off being able to be thirty minutes ahead of the rest of the crowd. By the time the general public is let in, there are likely to be longer waits for all the major headliner attractions. As we’ve discussed before, one of the best times of day to get anything accomplished at Walt Disney World is first thing in the morning, and this early theme park entry gives you a leg up to knock out a couple of bigger rides before moving on to other things once everyone can get in the parks. Take a look at this post for our experience using early park entry.
The most controversial perk currently offered is extended evening theme park hours which is offered on select nights ONLY to those staying in deluxe resorts, giving you two extra hours in the evenings (as the name implies) for most attractions at Magic Kingdom or Epcot. The current schedule is at the link I posted, but it’s basically Mondays from 10:00 p.m. to midnight at Epcot and Wednesdays from 9:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. at Magic Kingdom. I say that this is controversial because there has been a large outcry on social media about how Disney is becoming “elitist” and pricing out the average person while giving the best perks to deluxe resort guests. These are fair points, though I will say that it makes sense to me that the guests paying the most money should get the most for their dollars.
So what do you get for those dollars during the extended evening hours? Basically just that – two hours after the park closes with access to most of the attractions with almost no crowds. While there are a lot of deluxe resorts compared to the other resort categories, this still represents a much smaller pool of people than say the early theme park entry that encompasses all on property guests. Plus, a later night in the parks usually means families with smaller children won’t stay as long, and the later you stay, the emptier the parks will be. These extra hours don’t impact regular operating hours either, unlike the holiday parties that Disney has become known for. If you have the means, this is by far the best perk currently offered to on site guests. You need to have a park reservation for that particular park or have park hopper tickets in order to gain entry. We had a great time using this perk - see a more detailed account here.
If that has you drooling and counting your pennies to see if you can afford to stay at a deluxe resort, I don’t blame you. One particular trick to gain some savings on these most expensive of resorts is to rent Disney Vacation Club points. I would recommend using either David’s DVC Rental or DVC Rental Store, both of whom have great reputations for brokering such transactions (we have personally used David’s twice and – even during a pandemic – haven’t had any major issues). DVC rental is a large topic that would extend this already long post but in a nutshell, you can book a stay at a deluxe resort for what amounts to moderate prices (give or take). There is some risk involved, as these transactions are non-refundable, but if you’re confident about the dates and times of your trip, this is a great way to save money and experience incredible resorts and some extra perks.
The last topic I want to briefly touch on when discussing where to stay is the atmosphere. This goes back to the idea of Disney “magic.” This is an intangible quality and one that is the hardest to quantify in a dollars and cents way. Many people (myself included!) love the idea of being inside the “Disney bubble” as it’s often called, meaning that as soon as you get to your resort, you are surrounded by all things Disney until you sadly have to return to the airport. This is one reason we don’t even rent a car – I drive enough in my “real” life, and that’s a headache I don’t want when on vacation (as always, your mileage may vary).
Walt Disney World resorts are designed to be immersive, with decorations, background music and general ambience being a part of your stay. To me, the vacation doesn’t end as long as I’m inside the bubble. How much this matters to you will largely dictate whether it’s “worth it” to stay on property or not. There are plenty of ways to save money, as I said earlier, if you’re staying off property. But there is something to be said for being engulfed in this immersive environment from start to finish on your vacation. That may not be enough to justify the price, but it is absolutely a consideration for many when booking their trips.