A Brit’s Perspective – Accommodation Dilemma in Orlando

| October 2, 2013 | 4 Replies

The sheer number of hotels in Orlando can be breathtaking, not to mention all the other types of accommodations that are available. The Orlando Tourist Board estimates that there are currently 450 hotels in the greater Orlando area with a total of 115,200 rooms. Furthermore, there are another 26,000 vacation homes and more than 20,000 timeshare vacation units available, leaving you with a rather daunting task when figuring out where to stay. One of the big dilemmas when facing this task is whether to stay onsite at Walt Disney World or at one of the many offsite hotels. Both choices have their own pros and cons in my opinion.

Disney's Contemporary Resort

Disney’s Contemporary Resort

Of course it may be time for a small confession about my trips to Florida – I’ve never stayed onsite at WDW. For one reason or another, it’s made sense to stay offsite for my trips so far, whether it’s taking advantage of a cheap offer at a hotel or the luxury of space at a vacation home. Eventually, one day I wouldn’t mind copying the DISUnplugged crew and their 7in7 series with an entire trip focused upon the WDW hotels. This would involve a three-week trip hopping from one hotel to the next until I’ve experienced every hotel and their amenities at WDW.  The other main reason I’ve yet to stay onsite is that I’ve used my accommodations primarily as place to sleep, as the rest of the time I’m busy touring the parks.

One of the key advantages of the onsite hotels at WDW is that they offer amenities and activities to make them a resort in their own right. From spectacular swimming pools such as Stormalong Bay at the Yacht and Beach Club or being surrounded by animals on an African savannah at Animal Kingdom Lodge. For some, it’s not a complete trip to WDW without staying onsite as you are constantly in a fantasy bubble surrounded by Disney-quality theming day and night. For example, you can’t have Mickey Mouse as a wake up alarm at the Radisson down the road.  You also won’t find the famous Disney customer service and hospitality elsewhere. Disney offers three different levels of accommodation at WDW. Value hotels like Pop Century, moderate hotels such as Port Orleans Riverside and deluxe hotels such as the Contemporary.

African savannah at Animal Kingdom Lodge.

African savannah at Animal Kingdom Lodge.

Staying onsite gives you access to other benefits, like Extra Magic Hours, which allow only WDW resort guests an extra hour in the morning or two hours in the evening each day in one of the four theme parks. These can be a great way of beating the queues, but a top tip for anyone staying offsite is to avoid the park offering EMH as it will most likely be busier than normal. Another theme park benefit is that you can opt to have any shopping delivered back to your hotel to save carrying it around. You can also charge everything to your hotel key allowing you one itemized bill at the end of the holiday.

Another benefit of booking a resort onsite is that you can get away with not having to rent a car. In the US, they drive on the “wrong” side of the road, the right side. In the UK we drive on the “right” side of the road, which is the left side. While we are on the topic of driving in Florida, why is it mainly time wasting traffic light junctions and no roundabouts? Anyway I digress, staying onsite at Disney gives access to the Magical Express that gives round-trip transportation from the airport.  This is in addition to all the other onsite transportation, such as the Disney buses, boats and monorails which enable you to get to all locations around WDW.

One of the many DME buses.

One of the many DME buses.

Even so, renting a car can still be a good option as it allows you to go where you want to go, when you want to go. No more sitting around waiting for a packed Disney transportation bus. WDW resort guests also get free parking at the theme parks which can be a significant saving over a trip, seeing as parking currently costs $15 a day at the theme parks. A rental car would also allow you to do the one thing Disney would least like you to do – visit another Orlando theme park such as Universal. Without a car you are very much stuck to visiting places on Disney property, as there is very little public transportation that comes within WDW; the easiest option would be a taxi but this can cost quite a bit. This is a significant issue for us Brits as we tend to come for two weeks or longer and like to visit more than just Disney.

Further benefits could be found in the future by the changes coming from MyMagic+. It is still currently in beta testing and only people staying at WDW hotels can be selected to test out Fastpass+ and all the other features of MyMagic+. This will eventually be opened up to everyone but it wouldn’t be surprising to see WDW resort guests being able to book Fastpasses a few days before everyone else or being able to book more than offsite guests. Even if you decide not to stay onsite, this doesn’t stop you from visiting the hotels and eating in their great restaurants and soaking up the theming. Touring around the hotels can be particularly cool during Christmas with the hotels decorating their lobbies, including the giant gingerbread house at the Grand Floridian and the chocolate carousel at the Beach Club.

There is one big reason why people choose to stay offsite and that is cost. A seven-night stay during March 2014 at the Gaylord Palms Resort in a 2 queen room comes in at £1523 ($2545). The same at Disney’s Polynesian Resort costs £2422 ($3867). Of course, this is comparing at rack rate and better prices may be available using discounts but you can see a significant saving can be made. Similar savings can also be made against value and moderate hotels. This cost savings could make all the difference in whether you can afford to visit. The savings could also be used to enhance other parts of the holiday, such as more table service meals. Offsite, you can also find a larger variety in accommodation sizes allowing you to easily fit your group into one room or suite, while at Disney most resorts may require you to book two rooms.


The impressive 4.5 acre glass atrium at Gaylord Palms.

The impressive 4.5 acre glass atrium at Gaylord Palms.

Other ways you can save money by staying offsite is that some hotels will offer a free breakfast, setting you up for a day at the parks. You can also take advantage of dining offsite, which will be considerably cheaper. For us Brits, even a normal American chain restaurant can be exciting and different as we don’t have Applebee’s, Outback Steakhouse, Cheesecake Factory or Olive Garden back home.

Researching this article I found a benefit some people feel that staying offsite gives that I hadn’t really considered before. It allows you not to be immersed in Disney 24/7 making your holiday a little more relaxing by not being engrossed in the world of theme parks all the time. Sometimes it can be nice to take a break from the busy caricatured world of WDW and see a little bit of normal Florida. This location advantage can also be better for anyone planning on visiting more than just WDW. You can base yourself in the middle of everything on international drive or perhaps spend a few nights closer to the beach or down in Miami. Offsite hotels also often offer shuttle transportation to not just Disney but Universal and Seaworld too. However these are usually more limited to a few times a day and a set return time unlike Disney transportation that is continuous from park opening to closing.

One more option is being “semi” onsite by staying at one of the other theme parks; both Universal and Seaworld offer hotels. Seaworld has partnered with nearby hotels such as Doubletree and the Hilton Garden Inn. When saying at these hotels they offer free transportation to SeaWorld’s parks, early entry on select days, discounts on dining and merchandise and complimentary Quick Queue (front of the line access). Universal, on the other hand, currently has three onsite resort hotels that are the Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Royal Pacific and the Loews Portofino Bay. The key benefits these offer is free Universal Express which is an unlimited pass to skip the lines on most rides and also the ability to enter The Wizarding World of Harry Potter one hour before the park opens to the general public. It can be advantageous to book a one or two night stay at a Universal hotel just to make use of the Universal Express pass.  Universal is also adding a new value/moderate hotel next year called Cabana Bay Beach Resort, which will also allow guests the early entry option. This resort will sadly not offer the front of the line access, but will offer amenities not normally found at a value resort such as lazy river, fitness center and a 10-lane bowling alley.

Artist's rendering of Cabana Bay opening in 2014.

Artist’s rendering of Cabana Bay opening in 2014.

The other main choice is to rent a villa or condo in one of the many nearby communities. When coming for a long vacation, it can be nice to have lots of room to spread out, which a vacation home can provide, particularly when travelling as a larger family or group. It also helps that you can easily find a four-bedroom vacation home for around £700 ($1200) a week. The main reason I like villas is that you often have your own private swimming pool and games room. Returning to the villa after a long day in the parks to enjoy a relaxing dip in the pool watching the sunset is simply priceless. The main disadvantages with holiday homes it that you have to hire a car, otherwise you are stuck with no other transportation options that onsite or offsite hotels can offer. You will also want to take a close look at the location of the rental property as some can be quite far away from the main theme parks and will quote unrealistic travel times to WDW.

Dreams Villas of Orlando.

Dreams Villas of Orlando.

A vacation home does have a full kitchen, which gives you the ability to save money by having meals at home. Cooking is not everyone’s idea of holiday, but just having breakfast at the villa can save money and eating at home can be easier for fussy eaters. This will involve taking a trip to Wal-Mart or Publix, which to an American may sound mundane. But I always enjoy a trip to the grocery store in the US just to walk around and look at the different food and drink available. Even grocery items also available in the UK tend to follow the “bigger is better” motto. A tip for British folk is to take a look in the International aisle for your favourite British groceries. Something I’ve yet to find a similar alternative for in the US is Robinsons Fruit Squash; it seems to not be a normal drink like it is in the UK.

I cannot really tell you what is the best choice for your trip, but hopefully this gives you idea of how to weigh up the pros and cons of accommodation in Orlando. Of course maybe the real answer to this dilemma is to swap around accommodation during a trip allowing you to experience the advantages of them all.

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Category: Disney World, Disney World Dining, Universal / Sea World

  • Fine China

    Thanks for this Rory. I am from the Cayman Islands (originally Jamaica) and have traveled to Disney World every 3-5 years since in the womb. I have stayed at all the types of locals mentioned and this year will be my first year staying on-site. I chose to do this for a few reasons. I was in Miami earlier this year and I swore after that, I am not driving in the USA for the rest of the year (I lived in Miami for a few years and its NUTS). Also it is my BFs first time to Disney :) as a Disney geek you have NO IDEA how excited I am about this. I hope that saying on property will put us in the Disney Bubble that I hear so much about on the site and others. I can tell you that my best experiences so far have involved villa stays. The owners keep the places in relatively good condition. You save $ by going with friends/family etc and splitting everything (Car, Food, Accommodation fees etc) and the option to travel to other parks and attractions are wide open. As we are only going to Universal, we decided that the USD$80 expense for the taxi to and from, wont kill us though it is exorbitant. Thank God our money is strong against the USD like the Pound.

  • Lynsey

    Interesting read and all valid points.
    If you are planning your next Disney trip and live in the UK, I would suggest you look at a stay at the Saratoga Springs or OKW resorts. We stayed at Saratoga and the pools are quiet and the rooms (1 bed villa) are spacious and provide a kitchen, washer, dryer.
    I’d assume you would visit for 2 weeks minimum (I know your examples highlight one week rates)
    Even in a Villa (studios are cheaper) the costs for March 2014 are circa £3100 based on a quick search) for two weeks with FREE DINING (assuming you’d be buying park tickets) As these resorts are deluxe resorts this includes table service meals. You won’t need to buy any other food.
    These are quieter resorts, affordable and give you all the advantages of staying onsite and are within walking distance of downtown Disney.
    Partly depends on the size of your family but we always rented Villas for reasons given above. In future we will always book onsite because when you look at the cost, it isn’t that more expensive to stay onsite and it enables you to pack a lot more in.
    No parking fees. Extra hours. Themed Dining. Transportation. Magic Pass advantages (likely)
    You’d never go back to a villa.

  • Lyn Shaw

    I am a Brit and staying in Disney is the holiday. I love being surrounded in the Disney bubble. We always hire a car, this is our 12th visit and hiring a car gives you so much freedom. If you want to go to a late night firework display or as we are this year, going to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, we park the car up early at the MK and get the bus to were ever we want to go. Go back to our resort on the bus relax for a few hours and then back to the park for the Party. So much easier and less tiring that staying in the park all day.

  • Rachelle Beaney

    Just to add my two cents worth for overseas visitors, we like to split our accommodation when visiting Orlando. We’re from Australia – so going for less than two weeks and only to see Walt Disney World is less of an option as we go sparsely and want to see everything Orlando has to offer. That being said, we love the perks of staying on Disney property and the beautiful themeing of the resorts, even the value one’s. So we usually split our stay in 6 nights on Disney property and 9 nights off property. This gives you the ability to have a hire car while off Disney property and use transportation while on Disney property, you can also save a bit of money this way – though of course, probably not as much as staying off property the whole time, but I think some of the perks of staying on property make it worth it…Then in the off property part of your trip you can do and see more and enjoy Orlando as a whole. I really think it’s the best way to get the best of both worlds!