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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.