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

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.

  • If money is your biggest concern, you’ll generally pay less staying outside of Disney World. Disney resort prices (excluding campsites and time-share villas) range from $77 to $131 per night at the cheapest resorts to $349 to $870 at Disney’s Grand Floridian. Outside Disney, average monthly hotel rates in 2004, based on research compiled by the Orlando Convention and Visitors Bureau, were $45 to $52 in Kissimmee West, $77 to $104 on International Drive, and $91 to $124 in Lake Buena Vista. Bear in mind that these rates are averages—you can certainly find much higher rates at individual offsite hotels that are on par quality-wise with Disney resorts.
  • If you want a lot of space and would prefer to book a suite rather than two standard rooms, you’ll find more options and lower rates at other hotels. None of the Disney-owned resorts are all-suite, but there are plenty of all-suite options in the area, including the Double Tree Guest Suites in Downtown Disney, where we found online rates as low as $89 per night for deluxe suites.
  • If you plan on visiting other Orlando attractions such as Sea World or the Universal Parks, staying offsite may be more convenient, especially if you don’t have a car. Many offsite hotels provide free shuttle service to the other major theme parks. Before you book an offsite property, however, find out exactly how the hotel’s shuttle service works. Some hotel shuttles might only go to select parks, require reservations, run very infrequently, or charge a fee.
  • If you’re looking for an upscale place that has amenities for couples or business travelers, there are plenty of upscale offsite properties that offer golf, spa treatments, fine dining, meeting space, and business centers without the kitsch and cost of Disney’s more adult-friendly resorts. Check out properties such as the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress (sample online rates from $179 per night) or the Orlando World Center Marriott (sample online rates from $169 per night).

Making the choice

Making the best decision means doing your homework. Figure out what’s most important to each member of your group and what perks they might be able to do without if money is a big issue. Then, go online or pick up a guidebook and learn more about hotels and resorts that fit your interests and budget. Visit the Disney World website for detailed information about Disney resorts. For offsite hotels, start with the Orlando Convention and Visitors Bureau website. But don’t just consider the cost of your hotel. You’re on vacation, so consider which property will allow you to spend more of your time enjoying yourself.

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