Disney World resorts vs. off-site hotels: Which option is better?

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Wishes fireworks show over the Magic Kingdom (Photo: The Walt Disney Company)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on May 31, 2005. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Disney, family travel, hotel, Molly Feltner, Orlando.

When a planning a vacation to visit one of the world's most popular destinations, Walt Disney World in Orlando, the first question on many people's minds is where to stay: at an official Disney resort or offsite? Cost is an important factor, of course, but so is the quality of your resort experience. For many visiting families, particularly those from out of state, a Disney trip is a rare treat. Expectations for the experience are high all-around. Balancing those expectations with good hotel value can be tricky, so being informed about your options is vital.

Why stay at a Disney resort?

There are more than 20 Disney-owned resorts on property, with accommodations ranging from campsites at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground to deluxe villas at Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa. There are many benefits to staying at one of these resorts:

  • Proximity to the Disney attractions. If visiting the Disney parks is your main or only vacation objective, there's really no way to get any closer than by staying onsite. It's easy to hit a park in the morning, return to your resort midday for a nap or some pool time, and then head off to another amusement later in the day. Plus, many of Disney's most popular restaurants, shows, and character dining experiences are located in the resorts.
  • Free use of Disney's intra-park transportation, including the monorail, boats, and buses. If you're only visiting Disney attractions, you can easily survive without a car by using the complimentary intra-park transportation. Keep in mind, however, that Disney World is big (47 square miles to be exact), and using Disney transportation to get from one point to another may require multiple, time-consuming stops and transfers. Some resort guests find driving to be more convenient.
  • Free airport transfers and luggage delivery with Disney's Magical Express. With this new service, you can check your bags at your home airport, and, upon arrival at Orlando International Airport, simply board a Disney coach to your resort without waiting at the baggage claim. Disney will then pick up your bags and deliver them to your room. Note that your checked bags may arrive at your resort several hours after you do, so bring essential items in your carry-on luggage. If you're flying home on one of Disney's partner airlines (American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, Song, Ted, and United), you can check your bag and receive your boarding pass at your resort before going to the airport. This service will be offered for free through at least October 2006.
  • More time in the parks with Extra Magic Hours. Most days, ticket-holding resort guests can enter one of the four Disney theme parks an hour earlier than regular opening time or stay up to three hours later than regular closing time.
  • Guaranteed entry into the theme parks, even when parking lots are full.
  • Use of a Disney concierge. Visit your resort concierge to purchase park tickets, make dinner reservations, or book a preferred tee time at a Disney golf course.
  • A resort card that allows you to charge food and merchandise to your room account.
  • Access to the Disney Dining Plan (as part of a resort package). For an extra daily charge of $35 per adult age 10 and up or $10 per child age three to nine, guests receive vouchers for one table service meal (appetizer, entree, dessert, beverage, and tip), one counter service meal (entree, dessert, and beverage), and one snack each day. Signature Dining experiences and dinner shows require two table service meal vouchers. Depending on how much you eat and the standard menu cost of each item, the vouchers can save you quite a bit on dining expenses.
  • More Disney "Magic." As with everything else at Disney, resorts are not merely functional, they are an experience unto themselves. Whether it's recreating the African savanna at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge or the ambiance of a classic New England seaside town at Disney's Yacht Club, each resort's theme is articulated through its architecture and landscaping, right down to minute details like the color of the bedspreads.

Why stay offsite?

While Disney resorts have many benefits, there are certain factors to consider that might make staying off property better for your trip.

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