Disney Resorts 101
Updated: Apr 27, 2021
One of the most common questions I get from potential clients is whether it's better to stay off-property or on-property when visiting Walt Disney World. My answer is the same every time: it depends! Every family's needs and desires are different, so it really is a matter of looking at your individual situation to find the best fit for you. But, if the "on-property or off-property" question is one that you've found yourself asking, let me give you a crash course on Disney resorts that might help you better weigh your options for accommodations. Let's dive into Disney Resorts 101!
Disney Hotel Perks
The first thing you need to know about Disney resorts is that there are perks that come with staying at a Disney property. The first and most important perk for me personally, and the reason that I continue to book onsite hotel stays for my family, is convenience. I think that many travelers often undervalue the importance of convenience when booking their trip. But, Walt Disney World is HUGE: twice the size of Manhattan. You do A LOT of walking in the Disney theme parks and it's so nice to be able to quickly and easily get back to your hotel room when your time in the parks is finished (or if you need a mid-day break). I've stayed both onsite and offsite for my Disney vacations, and I personally think that the convenience of staying onsite helps you make the most of the time you have at Disney World; you aren't having to worry about traffic, parking, or other potential time wasters.
Staying at a Disney hotel also allows you to take advantage of Disney's free transportation system. The specific options available vary by hotel, but every Disney hotel offers free transportation to the theme parks, water parks, and Disney Springs. You can literally park your car the day you arrive and not get in it again until the day you leave! Or, if you're flying into Orlando International Airport, you don't have to get in a car at all, as transportation to and from the airport (Disney's Magical Express) is complimentary for Disney hotel guests through the end of 2021.
Another perk of staying on-property at Disney World is that, starting in late 2021, Disney hotel guests will get to take advantage of Early Park Entry. Early Park Entry will allow onsite guests to enter the park of their choice 30 minutes before it opens to offsite hotel guests. This special access lets you do more in the parks since it puts you ahead in line for the most popular attractions.
Disney hotel guests also get to book their dining reservations earlier than offsite hotel guests. Guests staying at a Disney hotel can book their dining reservations 60 days out from their date of check-in, whereas those staying off-property have to book their dining one day at a time 60 days out from each day of their vacation. Not only does that mean waking up early for several days in a row to book dining reservations (unless you have a travel agent who will do this for you), but it also means that many of the high-demand dining reservations might be gone by the time your booking window opens. To help this make sense, let me give you a hypothetical scenario. Family 1 is going to Disney World and staying off-property. They are staying for 5 days and on their 5th day they want to book Cinderella's Royal Table: the most in-demand dining reservation at Walt Disney World. They have to book their dining reservations a day at a time 60 days out for each day of their vacation. So, they can't try for that Cinderella's Royal Table reservation until 60 days out from the 5th day of their vacation. Family 2 is going to be at Disney World the same time as Family 1, but they are staying on-property at a Disney resort hotel. They also want to book Cinderella's Royal Table for the 5th day of their vacation. Since they get to book dining 60 days out from their date of check-in, they can actually try for that Cinderella's Royal Table reservation 65 days in advance. For a highly-coveted reservation like Cinderella's Royal Table, those extra 5 days might be the difference between having that iconic dining experience inside Cinderella Castle, and missing out.
Lastly, staying on-property allows you the option to book a Disney vacation package. Disney vacation packages come with great extras such a complimentary activities, discounts at select dining and shopping locations, and the option to add the Disney Dining Plan when it returns. They also have generous cancellation and change policies that aren't available if you stay offsite and book your tickets separately. And, if you book your vacation package through me, I will continuously monitor for new package promotions to apply!
Disney Hotel Categories
Now that we've discussed the perks that come with staying on-property, let's talk about the options that you have when it comes to price and amenities at Disney World resort hotels. Disney resorts are divided into three categories: value, moderate, and deluxe. There are also villas available at most deluxe resorts.
Value resorts are the least expensive hotel option and they are fairly basic in terms of amenities, but they are elaborately themed and offer conveniences such as onsite food courts, themed pools, guest laundry facilities, games and activities for kids, and other Disney touches you can't get off-property. There are 5 value resorts to choose from: All Star Sports, All Star Movies, All Star Music, Pop Century, and Art of Animation. Art of Animation and All Star Music both offer the option of family suites which sleep up to 6 and have a kitchenette, 2 bathrooms, and 2 sleeping areas. Of the value resorts, my favorite is Pop Century because I enjoy the retro 20th century theme. However, many people report Art of Animation as being their favorite because it is themed after popular Disney movies such as Cars, The Lion King, Finding Nemo, and The Little Mermaid. The good thing about Art of Animation and Pop Century is that they are actually within walking distance of each other, so staying at one of them means that you can still walk over and check out the other. Also, these two resorts have the added benefit of being part of the Disney Skyliner system, offering another transportation option to Epcot and Hollywood Studios.
Moderate resorts are a nice middle ground between value and deluxe resorts. The value resorts typically only feature double beds (some resorts have a queen option) and they only offer one sink in the bathroom. Moderate resorts come standard with queen-size beds (with the exception of pirate rooms at Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort and the Cabins at Fort Wilderness) and double sinks in the bathrooms. Some moderate resorts have rooms with pull-down beds that allow them to sleep 5 people. Moderate resorts are also a bit more sophisticated in terms of theming. The value resorts are eye-catching and playful, whereas the moderates are more subtle and immersive. Also, some of the moderate resorts have table-service restaurants onsite verses the values which have only quick-service options. Disney currently has 5 moderate resorts: Coronado Springs, Caribbean Beach Resort, Port Orleans Riverside, Port Orleans French Quarter, and the Cabins at Fort Wilderness. My favorite moderate resort is Coronado Springs. I love the sophisticated Spanish style architecture and the rooms were recently renovated. My favorite place to stay at Coronado Springs is the Gran Destino Tower, which feels more like a deluxe resort than a moderate resort!
Deluxe Resorts and Villas
Deluxe resorts are the most expensive Disney hotels, but along with that higher price tag come the best amenities and the best locations. Several deluxe resorts are within walking distance to at least one of the theme parks. The Epcot area resorts, comprised of Yacht Club, Beach Club, and the BoardWalk Inn, are within walking distance to both Epcot and Hollywood Studios (the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin are deluxe resorts in this area as well, but are not owned by Disney even though they get some of the same on-property perks). The Magic Kingdom area deluxe resorts with the exception of Wilderness Lodge are on the monorail line with direct access to Magic Kingdom (and Wilderness Lodge has boat access to Magic Kingdom). The deluxe resorts also have absolutely amazing theming. From the sophisticated Victorian style of the Grand Floridian, to the relaxed island vibe of the Polynesian Village Resort, to the vibrant Contemporary Resort, these resorts are a destination unto themselves. Many of the deluxe resorts also have marinas onsite where guests can rent boats and other water sport equipment, and many of them also offer character meals onsite. Animal Kingdom Lodge even has its own savanna with exotic animals that can be seen from the resort grounds and even some of the rooms and restaurants. Most of the deluxe resorts offer the option of villa style accommodations with a full kitchen, living area, and the ability to sleep larger parties. Three resorts--Old Key West, Saratoga Springs, and Riviera Resort--feature exclusively studio and villa-style accommodation. It's hard for me to pick a favorite of the deluxe resorts because they are all so beautiful, but I'm going to go with the Riviera as my favorite deluxe resort: actually I think the Riviera is my favorite resort overall. Just walking on the property relaxes me, the rooms are beautiful, and it is home to a great character meal. These hotels definitely offer great amenities for the higher price tag.
On-Property or Off-Property?
Having learned about all the great things about staying on-property at Disney World, you might wonder why anyone would ever choose not to. But, in all honesty, staying on-property isn't for everyone. If you are wanting to explore more of Orlando than just Disney World, then staying in the Disney bubble may not be as important to you. Or, if you are staying with a very large party, you might prefer renting a house offsite rather than staying in separate hotel rooms on-property. As I said earlier, every family's needs and wishes are different and you have to weigh the options to see what is best for you. The good news is that, as a travel agent specializing in Disney destinations, I can help you plan your Disney vacation whether you stay on-property or off-property. I work with multiple vendors and can book everything from a Disney value resort, to a Disney villa, to hotels and houses off-site. I tailor my recommendations to your specific situation and work with you to plan the vacation that you want: and I do all of this for FREE!