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A sign of a strong journalist is the ability to write objectively on a topic about which the writer feels passionately. We invited distinguished journalists from all around the world to write an article on this topic. Unfortunately, none of them showed up. So instead, I’d like to introduce you to the guy who’s going to write this article: me.
Because so many share this type of strong feelings on the topic, staying on-site versus off-site is oft-debated in the Disney community. Understandably so. Nothing about a Disney vacation is simple, and in terms of complication, choosing a place to stay is right up there with determining whether you should buy the Disney Dining Plan. Luckily, in this case, the math is not so complex as to require a professional statistician. (So those of you who were starting to dial Fred Hazelton, you can hang up the phones.) Instead, the variables here are less quantifiable, and more dependent upon your party’s personal touring habits, budget, and expectations. Here are some things to consider when making the decision:
There is little question that Walt Disney World Resorts cost more than off-site hotels for comparable rooms and amenities. When comparing hotels, it is important not to take the rack rate for each. Many hotels, Disney’s especially, have incredibly inflated rack rates that few people actually pay. Instead, consider the best price you can actually get for each hotel. If considering a Disney package, break it up by element to consider the room-only portion of the total. Also add any costs to the price of the off-site room that you wouldn’t be paying as a Disney guest, if applicable (such as parking).
Enumerating the various amenities at each hotel and/or resort would be downright impossible, but as a general rule, off-site hotels often provide breakfast that is built-into the cost of the room (some may call this free) and rooms that can sleep a greater number of people than the standard Disney rooms. Off-site hotels often also have full-size refrigerators, which can help save costs on dining. Standard amenities, such as fitness areas, pools, tennis courts, and play areas are typically offered at both Disney resorts and off-site resorts, albeit with wide ranges in quality of said amenities among the hotels. Although probably not properly considered an amenity, the exquisite theming found at most Disney resorts is not often replicated off-site. If considering an off-site condo or vacation home, there are even more amenities available that Disney does not typically offer.
Although very similar to amenities, I would distinguish the two as amenities being a characteristic or offering of the particular hotel itself, whereas perks are benefits that flow to one as a result of choosing a particular hotel. While Disney resorts may be losing the battles up until this point, here, if anywhere, is where they potentially win the war. Disney resort guests have the benefit of Extra Magic Hours, complimentary transportation to and from the parks, Disney’s Magical Express, the ability to purchase the Disney Dining Plan, free package delivery, room key charging, and better access to the Disney theme parks. All of these perks are considerable advantages to those valuing these benefits that should not be overlooked. Extra Magic Hours are among the most noteworthy of these benefits, and can add valuable hours to the day, especially in off-peak seasons. Many off-site hotels do offer transportation to other theme parks in addition to Disney’s theme parks, an advantage to the off-site hotels. Off-site hotels also typically provide faster access to the other Orlando attractions, dining, and shopping.
These are often the intangibles. For instance, it’s difficult to put a price for a young family on being able to walk downstairs or hop aboard a monorail and have breakfast at Chef Mickey’s. Likewise, it’s difficult to value the excitement your son will have after finding Nemo on his bed’s comforter. Alternatively, the ability to swim in a private pool at an off-site vacation home may be priceless for your family. As evidenced by the preceding examples, these are subjective factors that will vary party-to-party.
Now that I’ve objectively set forth some considerations, here’s my heavily biased opinion. Remember, this is just what I feel is right for my wife and me; I’m not contending everyone, or anyone, else must agree.
We will never stay off-site. Well, at least not any time in the foreseeable future. For us, a Disney vacation is an escape from reality, and staying off-site substantially erodes that escape. Although we’re frugal, we’ve never found staying on property to be a bad value. As I made clear in a previous article, we don’t mind the value resorts, and after PIN codes and AP discounts, you can often book a Value Resort for around $60-80/night. Yes, I realize a comparably priced off-site hotel would undoubtedly offer greater size and amenities, but there is one thing that it can’t offer, and this is the outcome-determinative factor for us. It can’t offer that cocoon of Disney “Magic.” It can’t offer the escape from reality.
It also can’t offer Disney’s Magical Express, Disney Transportation, or Extra Magic Hours, all of which are of the utmost importance to us. Disney’s Magical Express kick starts every vacation for us, so much so that we’ve even memorized some of the lines from the “Welcome” video that plays during the drive from the airport to the resorts. We enjoy Disney’s Magical Express so much that we book-ended our December stay at Shades of Green (due to their proximity to the parks and their history, I consider Shades of Green and the Swan & Dolphin as on-site resorts) with days at All Star Music at the beginning and end of our trip just so that we could use Magical Express.
Once our vacation begins, the biggest perk is Extra Magic Hours. We place a high value on our vacation time (seemingly a contradiction as we utilize the inefficient Disney transportation system instead of getting a rental car) and the few hours of added time in the parks each day thanks to Extra Magic Hours adds considerable value to staying on-site.
Due to that same desire to escape reality discussed above, we don’t rent a car, so Disney transportation is also integral for us. If you think relying on Disney transportation to avoid reality is crazy, you might also find not watching any television besides the “Must Do” channel, not going online save for the occasional Gowalla check-in, and not checking email to be utterly absurd. In our defense, I never contended that our vacationing style was the most rational. Just that it’s what we enjoy. For us, it’s all about that intangible Disney “magic,” and to have that, we have to stay on-site.
Are you like us, only staying on property, or do you think our need to stay on property is loony? Share your thoughts in the comments, and your rationale for whether you typically stay on or off property!