In years gone by, this decision was simple. If you wanted the total Disney experience, convenient access to parks and entertainment, and all resort amenities, you stayed at a Disney hotel. If you wanted to save money – a lot of it – you stayed somewhere else. (Note: Disney doesn’t have hotels. They have “resorts,” at least in Disney jargon. But they call the entire complex the “Walt Disney World Resort” and then refer to each “hotel” as a resort. If the entire shebang is a resort, shouldn’t each hotel be a mini-resort? Or a sub-resort? Or a secondary resort?
With the opening of Disney’s All-Star Resort in 1994, Disney added a budget hotel option, and that changed the dynamics. With on-site rates starting at $82 before tax, Disney’s lowest nightly price comes close to off-site rates. In addition, the resort amenities afforded all on-site guests — a major perk — are still part of the All-Star Resort’s package. In other words, the choice of accommodation is more than a simple comparison of costs.
Of course, “you get what you pay for.” At Disney’s Grand Floridian, a top-of-the-line resort, guests receive everything from Mickey toothbrushes to concierge service. The massive hotel lobby is decorated with wrought-iron birdcages and a baby grand piano. At the entrance to the hotel, a Disney cast member greets new arrivals, his only job to say “hello” or “good-bye” and make sure everyone is happy.
At an All-Star resort, rooms have two double beds, one dresser, and a small table. The hotel lobby is basic, the floor plain tile, and the decor based more on colorful line drawings than interesting architecture. But a room at the All-Star Resort costs about $150 less per night than a room at the Yacht and Beach Club.
You get what you pay for.
Advantages to staying within Walt Disney World:
- Atmosphere. The nicest off-site hotels still feel like nice hotels. On-site hotels are themed, which gives the vacation a fantasy feel.
- Transportation. On-site guests enjoy unlimited use of the Disney transportation system, meaning buses, boats, and monorails. It’s possible to stay an entire week without ever driving a car or hailing a cab.
- Parking. Those who choose to drive their car from a resort to a Disney theme park don’t have to pay the parking fee, which as I write is a $12 daily savings.
- Preferred golf tee times.
- Convenience. As a resort guest, every purchase – except for a few fast food locations – can be charged to one master account. Merchandise bought in the parks, other hotels, or Downtown Disney will be shipped, free of charge, directly to your hotel room.
- Guaranteed park admission. Even on days when a park is so full that they cut off admission, resort guests will be allowed to enter. (However, if the park is that full, you don’t want to go.)
- Early/late park admission. On selected days, each park has extended hour(s) for on-site guests only.
- Safety. While crime knows no boundaries, Disney has its own security force. The lack of on-site crime is also a simple matter of logistics – it would take a thief a half hour to run to a car and drive off property, with ample opportunities for capture.
Staying off-site advantages:
- Finances. Off-site hotels always have discounted hotel rooms, most notably in the slow season. It’s possible to find decent accommodations cheaper than even Disney’s All-Star resorts if you know where to look and what to ask; and it’s possible to get top-flight hotel discounts. Many people stay off-site for free using reward points garnered from hotels, airlines, or credit cards.
- Food. In general, food costs less off-site. While Disney-owned establishments offer a range of prices and products, McDonalds still serves a cheaper hamburger.
- Accessibility. Staying off-site is less convenient for touring the Disney theme parks, but decidedly better if you plan to spend another day or two visiting non-Disney attractions.
- Style. Some people love a majestic hotel, such as the Hyatt Grand Cypress. While Disney’s Grand Floridian is a majestic hotel — it ties the Hyatt in Zagat surveys — the Grand Floridian cannot shake its roots: its view of Cinderella’s Castle and the “outsiders” that wander in by way of the Disney transportation system. Expect to have one-star people in shorts and tank tops nearby even if eating at a four-star restaurant. People oblivious to the Disney magic may prefer to stay elsewhere.