Many people visiting for the second, third, or tenth time may include a Disney day in their vacation itinerary; but otherwise, they plan to see other things in Orlando. Off-site hotels can be less expensive and offer easier access to non-Disney destinations – and Orlando boasts a mind-boggling number of them.
Major Hotel Areas “Outside the World”
US 192 runs east to west, intersecting I-4 on the south side of Walt Disney World. World Drive, the main artery running north/south into Walt Disney World, begins as an exit off US 192. Twenty-five years ago, when the Magic Kingdom was Disney’s only theme park, the US 192 entrance served all traffic and was referred to as Disney’s “maingate.” This “maingate” designation, while historically accurate, misleads first-timers when a hotel sells itself by saying it’s close to the maingate or sticking maingate into its name, as in “Days Inn Maingate West.” Disney now has a lot of access roads, such as an I-4 exit leading directly to Epcot. The maingate is just one of them.
In general, US 192 commute times to Disney World property are reasonable if the hotel is west of the town of Kissimmee. If the hotel is in, or east of, Kissimmee, plan to face some congestion and red lights.
Lake Buena Vista
Abutting the north side of Disney property, the Lake Buena Vista (LBV) hotels offer easy access to Downtown Disney and Typhoon Lagoon. Located across the street (US 535) from the on-site Village Resorts, hearty guests can even walk to Downtown Disney from selected hotels. However, it’s a long haul, and trying to cross busy US 535 makes the task too challenging to consider it an asset.
Lake Buena Vista is not as close to the major Disney parks as some US 192 hotels, though most LBV hotels offer complimentary shuttle buses to the Disney parks. A benefit: The LBV area is not a major entrance to Disney, nor a main artery that other tourists pass through, nor home to any minor Orlando attractions. For those reasons, it’s less congested and cleaner than some other off-site hotel areas.
The Lake Buena Vista designation is confusing because it’s not only an area, it’s a town. To the US Postal Service, Walt Disney World’s mailing address, regardless of resort, is Lake Buena Vista. But even though the Grand Floridian and the Comfort Inn share a Lake Buena Vista address, don’t assume that you can walk from one to the other, or that they’re both Disney-owned. For the purposes here, Lake Buena Vista refers only to the off-site area to the north of US 535 directly adjacent to Disney property.
Running parallel to I-4, International Drive (referred to as “I-Drive” by locals) has a heavy hotel concentration and a few non-Disney attractions, including outlet malls, Wet ‘N Wild, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, and an array of dinner shows. Located at the southern end of International Drive (by the Beachline Expressway – State Road 528 – that connects I-4 to the Orlando International Airport) is the Orange County Convention Center. A few blocks farther south is Sea World.
International Drive is difficult to navigate during slow seasons and downright impossible during busy ones. Thanks to thousands of driveways leading into the hotels and attractions, cars constantly exit and enter the highway. Add to that a number of traffic lights and people who “don’t really know where they’re going,” and you may want to avoid this area. On the plus side, International Drive has good hotels, including some all-suite resorts as well as mammoth budget hotels with inexpensive rooms. The closeness of the hotels and shops, while a visual plague, allows you to walk to dinner and shopping.
In general, hotels on south International drive have less congestion unless there’s a big convention in town. Ask about both before you book.
As a medium-sized city, Orlando has a number of downtown hotels. While “Orlando” and “Walt Disney World” are synonymous to many people, they’re actually 15 miles apart. Downtown hotels can be a good choice for tapping into city restaurants and bars, but a bad choice if planning to visit theme parks every day. Traffic in downtown Orlando, while no match for New York City, can be thick over rush hour.
Orange Blossom Trail
This Orlando road runs north to south and connects to US 192 east of Walt Disney World. The few hotels here offer good rates year-round because they’re located in what can euphemistically be called Orlando’s red-light district. Hotels tend to be fenced-in and many have 24-hour security. It’s not as bad as it sounds – but it’s not great either. Note also that Orange Blossom Trail is long, and the iffy areas only cover a small part of it.