Off-Site Hotels v. On-Site Resorts At Walt Disney World

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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.

BoardWalk Villas Night Shot

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:

Price:

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).

Amenities:

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.

Perks:
Fort Wilderness Directory

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.

Other:

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.

 

The Perfect Conclusion to Her First Full Day as Mrs. Bricker

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.

The Engine Idles as the Beautiful Day Awaits

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!

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Posted on March 18, 2011

58 Responses to “Off-Site Hotels v. On-Site Resorts At Walt Disney World”

  • We’ve compared prices for on-site and off-site and when we go during the Value Season & also p/u a nice deal like Kids Stay & Play Free, then the only logical decision is for us to stay on-site. We get a value hotel suite and also choose the dining plan–it is Magical & easy & total heaven! Basically, we are paying for me & my husband & the kids go for free–who could beat that? It’s hard to top the excitement of children finding Mickey Mouse towels on their beds or Mickey Mouse soap in the shower…not to mention the character-themed swimming pools! We can not wait to go in September!

  • A big advantage for staying on site is that the Disney transport allows your family to split up if need be. When my youngest child needed to go back to the room for a nap, my older child could stay in the park with me for more touring. If you’re tied to one rental car or the infrequent bus service that typical of off site hotels, you don’t have that option.

  • For me the biggest reason is Magical Express. When you factor in the cost of a rental car for a week along with gas it is just too much. To know that once you land you don’t need to worry how you will get around is a great perk. Plus staying at the parks well past closing and getting on an empty bus back to the hotel is nice.

    • So they let you have the bus all to yourself?! ;-)

    • While I am not a “fan” of Maqical Express, I know it’s there and have taken advantage of it. If your flight gets canceled, like mine did in January, you can get a “free” ride out to your hotel. That was something I could use to turn a bag of lemons into some darn tasty lemonade–an extra day at WDW! ;-)

  • by Scott Ladewig on March 18, 2011, at 10:14 am EDT

    I agree completely. If we’re going to Disney World, we’re going to stay onsite. To me the point of the trip is to be completely enveloped in the Disney experience, and staying offsite doesn’t achieve that.

  • I have never stayed onsite, but usually stay at BVP (DTD hotel that offers free transportation to the parks). I am looking forward to staying onsite some day in the near future. But the Extra Magic Hours as a ‘plus’ always confuses me…b/c the park with EMH is usually listed as a park to avoid…so how is that an actual perk? Do many of you take advantage of the EMH in spite of the recommendation to ‘stay away?’

    • Regardless of which park is the park to avoid, we ALWAYS end up at the park that is open the latest at the end of the night. Most of the time (DAK being the exception) this is the park with EMH. I know everyone is different, but my wife and I can stay in the parks until 4 am (the photo of her on an empty bus was taken shortly after 4 am) and be up the next morning ready to go again. For us, nothing compares to being in the parks during uncrowded Evening EMH. As for the park to avoid status, if you’re heading to the Evening EMH park after the others are closed, that’s sort of irrelevant (because at that point, given that no other parks are open, there’s no park to compare it to). The Evening EMH park tends to attract more guests over the course of the entire day, and that’s the rationale for avoiding it. If “hopping” to that park, you’re fine.

      Does that help explain it?

      • The explains it very well…and we are ‘hoppers’ so that extra time in the evening would be a nice option (especially as our kids get older and can stay out later). I appreciate the add’l info…always enjoy the posts!!

    • I think Extra Magic Hours go hand in hand with park hopping. Sometimes our group starts out at a early morning park and just tour for the first hour or two. Then we head over to a ‘less crowded’ park. Mostly for us its the evening hours though. When you go in the off season, many parks are closed by 7pm with one park open until 10pm or midnight, if you’re lucky. We spend all day in a ‘best park’ and then hop over to the EMH park in the evening. Yes, it might be more crowded, but the other option is sitting in our hotel? We will always choose more park time. This way during the value season you’re getting around 12+ hours in the parks instead of the 10 you would get if you were staying offsite.

  • I agree with everyone above, for me its the ease of transportation. Knowing that once I land in Orlando its going to be a week before I even have to think about driving again is awesome. Also, if my husband and I want to indulge in some adult beverage fun in Epcot, neither of us has to be DD. Plus as a ‘commando’ tourer, I cannot imagine not having the Extra Magic Hours. Especially in the off season when many of the parks are closed by 7pm!

    I could see how off-site could appeal to families who wish for a larger space for a more relaxing vacation. But for this party of 2 adults, on-site is a must!

  • Good overview. I don’t think I could have an objective conversation about staying onsite vs. offsite. For us, it just doesn’t feel like a Disney vacation unless we’re on property. Disney buildings, buses, being surrounded by Disney castmembers, all of it just feels ‘different’ than being offsite. We try to be as frugal as we can when doing Disney trips, but I think I’d still pay a hefty premium for simply being ‘in the World’. That rationale is unlikely to convince anyone that’s skeptical of the value of the ‘Disney Magic’ of simply being onsite, but it seems to be such a common phenomena that the sole recommendation I’d make to anyone is to try the onsite premium once, and see if that intangible ‘Disney Magic’ does become just a little more tangible.

  • We have done both and prefer to stay off-site. We have two preschool age kids and everyone NEEDS their own room. It’s the only way anyone gets any sleep at all. It’s also a huge plus to have a full kitchen. We have always found a 3-BR condo for less than a Value room, usually just minutes away from the parks. We always drive to Orlando so we have our car anyway and it’s much more comfortable for the kids and much faster than Disney transportation. With as much stuff as we have for two small kids and their double stroller, using Disney transportation was a huge pain anyway. Since we are pass holders, parking is free. We do miss the beauty and magic of the resorts and the Extra Magic Hours but not enough to deal with tiny rooms and no kitchens. When the kids are older, we will probably stay at some of my favorite resorts, namely Animal Kingdom Lodge and the Wilderness Lodge, and take advantage of the resort amenities, the Extra Magic Hours and the Dining Plan but I still wouldn’t consider Disney transportation over driving myself.

  • We have never stayed off-site. This time we are going for my daughter’s 18th birthday which just happens to fall during her spring break and is the day before Easter. Her aunt, cousin, grandmother, great-aunt and best friend are also coming so I needed to find something affordable where I could get 2 rooms (with all those females we NEEDED 2 bathrooms). We are staying at the Buena Vista Resort (Best Western) in DTD. Still, with the hotel transportation and only being 1/2 mile from DTD, hopefully, we will never see the inside of our car. We do get a fridge and will be having breakfast and snacks in the room. We are close enough to have a mid-day break at the pool. If anyone has stayed at this hotel, please share your thoughts. Thanks :)

  • I’m not really objective in this discussion either. We may never stay on-site. We have access to a relative’s time-share and can get free lodging. With a full kitchen, we can then bring or buy quite a bit of food to further cut costs. All of this allows us to go more often than if we stayed on-site. Also, I’m a Disney fan, but my husband is not. He needs time away from the “Disney magic” in order to enjoy himself. Since we always have a car, we take a day off and drive to Cocoa. This keeps everyone happy. My sister and I are planning a trip for my 40th birthday, though, and we will definitely stay on-site that time! :)

  • Tom wrote: “We will never stay off-site”

    I presume that also means “…and we never have.” That’s a perfectly reasonable position to take. But, if that’s your position, it’s not really a “comparison” between the two, is it? At least, I don’t think it is, any more than I think someone who has never stayed onsite can compare them.

    We’ve done both—about half of our visits have been onsite, half off. However, we *never* stay in “just a hotel room”. We either stay in a DVC villa, or we stay offsite in a condo, townhome, or pool home. Having separate sleeping spaces for the children and the adults is an absolute iron-clad requirement in our household.

    *If the cost is comparable*, we do slightly prefer staying onsite. But, the “premium” we are willing to pay for that experience is modest, because we don’t personally find the experience all that different. That’s especially so at some place like Wyndham’s Bonnet Creek. It’s an all-condo property that is “inside the gates” (though not technically on RCID property), is right next to CBR, and some units overlook a good chunk of Epcot, with Wishes visible in the distance. What’s more, the Bonnet Creek units are larger than most of the DVC rooms—OKW being a notable exception.

    Today, we are able to stay at DVC properties through the exchange of our (non-Disney) timeshares. That keeps the cost of the two options roughly similar. If tomorrow that was no longer possible, and I was forced to choose between a DVC villa or an offsite stay at market rates, I would stay offsite and never think twice about it. Even renting from an owner or purchasing an inexpensive resale deed, it would cost us several thousand dollars more to stay in a DVC 2BR for a week than it does to stay someplace like Bonnet Creek. The difference pays for our theme park tickets and the airfare to get there. The bus transportation is nice, but it’s not that nice, and if we really want that second (or third) margarita at La Cava, we can take a cab to Epcot and back for a lot less.

    Others would choose differently, though, and as long as enough people are willing to pay market price for those rooms, Disney will sell them. More power to ‘em.

    • You are correct in that we’ve never stayed off-site. However, I have researched other resorts in contemplation of staying elsewhere, stayed at other hotels on non-Disney trips, and generally feel I have a good frame of reference for the topic. As I said, I am definitely biased on the matter, but I don’t think never having stayed off-site precludes me from writing a quality post on the topic.

      To be sure, there is something to be said for first-hand knowledge, but most of what’s here (at least the cliff-note comparisons) don’t really require it.

  • We will never consider staying off-site. We find the Disney transportation great. Not having a car is a great perk for us. We don’t use the Magical Express even when available. We’ve done it once and found that we are too excited to wait for the bus and all the other drop offs. We need to get to our resort, change and start having fun. EMH are a must. We absolutely love the parks after dark. On a side note, it seems half of the families we know that have done the condo, rental car, and tickets to everywhere packages get home and somehow with all the driving and trying to cram everything in have arrived home more disappointed than happy. Anyone else notice this?

  • Since I am another one of those “will never stay off-site bc staying on-site is a necessary part of Disney experience” …my favorite part of this post was the opening paragraph shout-out to the Muppets!! Thanks for slipping that in :)

  • We have friends who always stayed off-site. That is until we convinced them to stay at a Disney resort when both our families were going to be there at the same time. They always stay on-site now!

  • I don’t know how anyone could go to WDW and not stay on-site. Trust me, I’ll never stay off-site again. Did it twice. Magical Express, EMH’s, and getting totally into the Disney experiance makes it a no brainer. Also, how about taking the kids back to the room for a 2 hour rest? Try doing that off-site. I have been to WDW 30 times and with the savings of AP and Tables in Woderland, I can stay on-site and enjoy the whole WDW that I love.

    • Actually, we always go back to the condo for a nap, and it was much faster doing it when we were off-site. Most of the places we have stayed off-site were just minutes from the parks, so no wait for Disney transportation and a more direct route straight out to the condo means we get to the room faster than we ever did on a bus. In fact, we have “raced” back to our on-site rooms, Disney transportation v. the car. The car has always won. And with the car there is no stopping, no waiting, no cramming in and all the kids’ toys are there for them in the comfort of their own carseats and complete control over the thermostat.

  • We’re on-site people too. We’ve stayed off-site a few times in the past, at Marriott timeshares in the area and also at the Hilton near DTD. All great properties, and we had great vacations those times, but we really love the total-immersion feeling of staying on-site. At one time we always rented a car, but a few years ago we tested the waters of relying totally on Disney transportation, and it went so well that we haven’t rented a car for a WDW visit since. At this point, my husband doesn’t even want to consider any off-site hotels. I still take a look because I love a good deal… but I’m coming to learn that for us, a good deal on-site beats a great deal off-site.

  • Love staying on-site. Just wish there were more options for families of 5.

  • by Amy from KC on March 18, 2011, at 4:12 pm EDT

    We have stayed at the Sheraton Vistana in a 2br suite quite happily. With my mother and now 5 year-old, it works best to have 2 bedrooms and a kitchen. We like having breakfast in our villa, with everyone cycling through the kitchen as they get ready to go. (I take the longest to get ready, so inevitably I end up drinking my coffee in the villa and eating my breakfast in the car on the way to rope drop.) We always rent a car no matter where we stay, and with AP’s the parking is included, so there are no savings there. The Vistana is very close to the gates, so we feel as if we aren’t really losing any commute time, either. (It is certainly as quick to drive from there as it is from AKL!) I can see the appeal of evening EMH and the ability to split up and send some people back on the bus, but at this point those benefits don’t really help us. We take the mid-day break, and the 5 year-old…and 72 year-old, come to think of it…aren’t able to do extra late nights in the parks. The latest we stay is the 2nd parade, show, end of hard-ticket party nights, etc. Maybe as the little one gets older our needs will change, but until then staying at the Vistana is perfect for us. I don’t really have a problem keeping the magic alive while staying off-site. I feel the magic no matter where we stay. I think that we will probably end up back on property one of these days, but I think that choosing which option works best is a very individualized decision.

    And as far as the Vistana goes, we have family that own 5 weeks there, and have been very generous in letting us rent their weeks at their cost. In early December 2010 my mom, aunt, husband, 5 year-old son and I stayed 9 nights in a beautiful 2br villa for $1000. We had a great time, and never once felt the magic ebb.

  • I always enjoy reading your articles. You always feed me new ways to explain to non-Disney friends how a 48 year old couple with grown children and no grandchildren can spend 2 or 3 weeks a year immersing ourselves in the cocoon of Disney magic.

    For us, it is ALL about staying onsite. I lived within 2 hours of Disney for many years of my life. I had my first 10 Disney experiences between 1974 and 1980 as day trips. Until 2 years ago, all but one of my trips were day trips, living close by or visiting relatives. But we didn’t become Disney addicts until we stayed at Port Orleans French Quarter for a week. Now we are hooked. We like to plan at least one extra day of our trip just to visit resorts.

    We have never had a problem with Disney bus transportation. I believe that is because we have the luxury of going to Disney during the slowest times of the year and also our priority of picking smaller Disney resorts with only one bus stop. We are only 400 miles away so we always travel by car to get to WDW, but my husband absolutely refuses to get in the car again until the day we leave to drive home.

    The most wonderful thing about WDW is that it offers millions of different ways to make millions of people happy. I am thrilled that so many people prefer to stay off-site so that there are plenty of Disney resort rooms for me to choose from.

  • We just visited in February 2011. We did two nights on site (Pop Century) then 6 nights off site at a condo. My parents belong to a vacation club, so we had access to a fabulous condo at a great rate. It was a hoot to stay on site, BUT even the kids (8&6) were THRILLED when they saw the condo! They had their own bedroom and bathroom, we love having a kitchen and laundry, etc. For us, we would never go without a rental car … we’re from Canada, so when we are in Florida, we want to shop! It is even fun to go to the grocery store, because so much stuff is still different. It took us about 7 minutes longer than from Pop … so that part was ok too.

  • With Universal providing a good reason to leave WDW for a couple of days, the incentive to stay at the Disney property for a whole stay without a rental car is less appealing now. This would be especially true for families that have teenage kids.

    Taking that into consideration, one option that seems to be missing from your article is the Swan & Dolphin, which is not a Disney resort, but it provides a lot of the same perks. The rooms look pretty nice, and the cost is comparable. This is a good alternative to a monorail resort.

    Another alternative is to split time between the Universal Resorts and the Disney Resort. I can see a lot of people taking this approach as well. Of course, both parks are going to provide as much incentive (cheaper per night costs, cheaper per day park passes, free airport transportation) as possible to maximize staying time. Likewise, the Universal resorts provide perks just like the Disney resorts provide perks. Figuring out how maximize perks between both parks is far more challenging than deciding upon the “free” dining plan.

    At the end of the day, it’s tough to avoid a rental car and depend on Disney’s transportation 100%. Likewise, it’s tough to stay only at WDW given that Universal is doing such a good job now.

    • I mentioned that I consider Shades of Green and Swan & Dolphin on-site resorts despite Disney not owning them, but no, I didn’t recommend them directly as an alternative (space constraints really prevent elaborating on all options). While I love the S&D, one thing that does rub me the wrong way about those resorts is the fees they tack on at the end. I understand that the end price is still usually better than Disney Deluxe Resorts, but the idea of the hidden fees just rubs me the wrong way.

      It’s sort of like inflated shipping fees on eBay. I know I should just subtract that amount from the TOTAL I’m willing to pay for an item, and bid accordingly, but it just irritates me on principle. But I digress…

  • Something else that I always tell people deciding where to stay is that Walt created Walt Disney World because he realized that he didn’t think big enough at DL and he had lost control of the guest experience. He WANTED to immerse you in the magic. That’s the whole point of WDW. If you want to stay off property just go the the CA parks! People who miss out on staying at a Disney Resort miss the whole point of WDW and don’t really get Walt’s vision in my opinion…

    • by Amy from KC on March 19, 2011, at 5:47 pm EDT

      I really don’t feel that there is a wrong way to visit WDW, as long as you are happy with your visit. There are as many different needs as there are different families. The wonderful thing about Walt Disney World is that there is something for everyone. I believe that Walt’s dream is inclusive, not exclusive. I am happy for everyone who gets to go to WDW and have a lovely vacation on their terms. I respect your opinion about always wanting to stay on property, and am happy for you that you are so passionate about your vacations there. I would hope to receive the same respect for my overall delight and passion for the way my family, or any other family for that matter, chooses to vacation. On-site, off-site…if you are happy where you are staying and have a wonderful visit, then that is the important part. That would be my wish for every visitor to Walt Disney World, no matter where he or she might choose to stay.

  • I also enjoy and MUST have the magic of staying on property. I also have never stayed off site but that’s because I choose not too. It has nothing to do with pricing and/or perks. I want the whole shebang! Usually do values with me and my daughter but this year going solo and upgrading to Port Orleans French Quarter for a bit of Disney Pampering!

    Thanks for the great article Tom!

  • We’ve stayed on-site and off. For us it’s a no brainer, off-site all the way. We always get a better deal when we stay off-site.
    We just went the 1st week of March. It was cheaper for us to stay off site, buy tickets through Disney’s website, and round trip air from Newark for 4 people, than it would have to get the same room at Disney All Star Music with park tickets.
    We always get a rental car either way. The freedom of not having to rely on public transportaion or just not wanting stay in Disney all the time is huge for us. Sometime we like to go have dinner somewhere else, maybe check out Sea World and in the future Universal. Also having a real size fridge with two kids is a huge advantage. The dining plan with the way my kids eat is not worthwhile.
    We don’t park hop and Extra Magic Hours really aren’t that big of deal for us.

  • I think Amy from KC above hit the nail on the head. Well said, Amy.

    I am by no means a seasoned WDW visitor. I have been to WDW 3 times, each time for a short visit (2-3 days). I have stayed on-site(with hubby and 2 year old, but we rented our own car, took buses only to get to/from MK), at the Dolphin (by myself many years ago for a work-related trip, I didn’t choose the hotel), and off-site (across from DTD at the Buena Vista Palace, just hubby and me). I had a great time on each visit, including when we stayed on-site, but I was not blown away with “magic.”

    I really think the answer to the on-site vs. off-site question is very personal and depends entirely on the traveling party’s makeup, preferences, budget, etc. Our little family of 4 (hubby, me, 5 yo and 11 month old) will be taking a week-long vacation to Orlando this May and will be staying in a 3BR/3BA condo close to WDW. At this point in our family’s life, I truly couldn’t imagine all of us cramming into one hotel room, on-site or off-site. That would not be my idea of a vacation AT ALL. When you have little ones, adequate rest for everyone is a necessity, and that requires (at least in our family) 2 bedrooms, preferably 3. The cost of an on-site villa last time I checked was just outrageous. We simply could not go to WDW at all if that was the only option. I suppose we could try to get 2 adjoining rooms at a value resort or something, but I think a condo sounds so much more comfortable and home-y, even if I have to drive a bit, pay for parking, and miss out on some “magic.” Home-y (read: kitchen, laundry, ample bedrooms) is really, really important when you are traveling with small children and, in my opinion, trumps the “magic” factor completely. Do I really want to be washing bottles, sippy cups and binkys in a bathroom sink at the Pop (or any of the moderate or deluxe resorts for that matter) and leave them to dry on the small bathroom counter? Or put them in a dishwasher at the end of the day so that they are sanitized and ready to go in the morning? Do I really want to try to wash out one of my 11-month old’s outfits in the sink (or walk half-way to Miami to the resort laundry room) if she has a diaper “blow-out,” or pop the outfit in the washing machine in our condo? I also love that hubby and I will be able to relax and watch TV or take a dip in our private splash pool after our kiddos go to bed, and that the baby will have her own bedroom, just like at home. We put our kids to bed very early, and, while I certainly think the whole point of being on vacation is to bend the rules and have fun, I also know that being able to maintain more of a regular routine during our trip will help everyone enjoy themselves as much as possible.

    I know many seem to really like the concept of not having to driver during their vacation, but I can’t imagine being without my own means of transportation while on vacation, again, especially with small children. Maybe I’m just paranoid, but I like knowing that, if my little one wakes in the middle of the night with a fever or throwing up or whatever, I can get right in the car and go to the nearest 24 hour pharmacy or urgent care center if needed.

    The point is, everyone’s circumstances are very, very different, and there is just no right or wrong way to visit WDW. Assuming for the sake of argument that there really is “magic” to be missed by not staying on-site, I’m not going to know that I missed any “magic” on this upcoming trip. I will be having a great time and experience plenty of magic where I’m at. I will have planned my trip well and be prepared to make the most out of our time in the parks and in Orlando, and we will make fabulous family memories during the time we spend on WDW property AND the time that we are off WDW property. We may well decide to stay on-site again when our kids are older, but, right now, off-site is the only way I think we will be going to WDW for now.

    • Your scenario with the bottles in the sink and wringing out dirty clothes in the bathroom-I’ve done it. It stinks and really kills the “magic.” As a Mom I get zero time off from that job, so I need vacations to be somewhat relaxing. It’s my only chance for a break. All 4 of us in a small room, with no kitchen, no laundry and no room for our stuff makes everything feel hectic. You’re always trying to make do and never feel really prepared for the day, and I think any Mom will tell you that being as prepared as possible is the only way to really be relaxed on a vacation.

    • Very well put. I am always hesitant towards invoking the desires of Walt when referring to anything Disney-related, and I think it might be a bit of a stretch to say that he would have wanted everyone who visited to stay on-site. (Well, he probably would have, actually, since he was also a business-man, and he would have had a vested interest in people staying on-site!) Sure, there is that oft-quoted “blessing of size” line of Walt’s, but I don’t think that necessarily has something to do with hotel-arrangements.

      For us, personally, the low of our first trip to Disneyland was that it’s not “walled off” from the outside world. We vowed that next time, we’d stay at the Grand Californian to create the same sense of escape that we have at WDW. That is, until we saw the prices at the Grand Californian. We now have a room booked at the Desert Inn (so I guess even we do stay off-site, just not at WDW).

      We each have our own rationale for vacationing the way we do, and I think it’s difficult to say there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to do it. I may say today that I’d “never” rent a car or stay off-site, but if we have a trip filled with hour-long waits at the bus stops, or have kids and start having to deal with some of the on-site inconveniences, I might change my tune awfully quickly.

      • Do you not like Paradise Pier or Disneyland Hotel? The renovated rooms at Disneyland Hotel look amazing.

        • We plan on staying at Disneyland Hotel once all of the work there is done. Unfortunately, given their locations, even staying at those two hotels doesn’t isolate you from the real world (in fact, Desert Inn is closer to DLR than both of them!). The only hotel that truly isolates is Grand Californian, due to its proximity to the parks.

  • My husband would not even consider Disney until our youngest was 3–even though I begged and begged for a trip every year! However, there is NO way I would have stayed on-site with babies…having their own rooms & a functional kitchen was a must for our family when our kids were smaller. Our kids are now 4, 5, & 7 so staying in hotels and on-site Disney is very do-able and the only way we will go to Disney as long as the resort deals keep the cost low (and comparable to if we stayed off-site).

  • I agree onsite all the way. I do not drive, so the Magical Express and Disney buses make it a no brainer. Add on general public/AP discounts on hotels, and they aren’t THAT much more expensive than off-site. I am on a mission to stay at every onsite hotel, and making disgustingly good progress. Your comment about being around the “magic” 24/7 is exactly what I think. However, I can see how some people either don’t like this, or need additional space (like some of the comments above).

  • I love staying on site, and it really takes unusual circumstances to get me into an ordinary hotel off-property. If we only went to WDW once a year and it was for a proper vacation, i.e., a week or so, I would never even consider staying off property.

    We tend to prefer a rental car to Magical Express–just for the convenience and to mitigate any anxiety about transportation when we dine very late at resort restaurants. (I do not like the taxi services available at WDW, at all. Especially when I’m traveling solo!)

    Lately, though, we’ve been running down for last-minute, long weekends in the park, that are add-ons for other reasons to be in Central Florida. On those trips, we have been staying at the Sheraton Vistana Villages in a 1-bedroom apartment–which we were able to book for around $100/night. It’s like staying in a 1-bedroom DVC resort, but for about 25% of the rack rate.

    If I’m on my own, tacking a WDW visit onto the end of a business trip, I always stay on-site and manage to find some sort of last minute deal at a moderate resort that works for me.

    For our, now traditional, week at Food and Wine, there is nothing like staying at one of the resorts on Crescent Lake. The ability to stroll back to the hotel after a late evening at Epcot is priceless!

  • We stayed off-site in fall 2009 at a lovely house with a pool, and the kids (then 2 and 4) enjoyed it. Have always wanted to stay on site, and will have the chance this Oct (3 days at All Star Sports before departing on the Dream for 4 days).
    I agree with the post about being a Mom and on vacation – I want someone else to do the cooking and cleaning, but I also want to be comfortable and this stay at a value, even though only 3 days, will help me decide if we want to stay on site in the future.
    This was the first opportunity to use a pin code for a discount on the rooms!!!

  • We’ve done both and definitely love the on-site experience. If we we had a bigger budget for our trips, we’d probably stay at a mod or deluxe every time. It’s true that the value resorts offer a very affordable option to stay on-site. But with a larger family, requiring more than one room, even the values start to get expensive compared to some off-site options.
    We are a family of 7 now, so unless we end up being able to go when there is a great discount, like free dining, we will probably be staying off-site for most of our future trips.
    Our next trip is in June and in addition to our 7, we have 3 more family members joining us. For our party of 10, staying off-site is saving us a TON of money. We are renting a 5 bedroom home with a pool for less than $150/night. It’s less than 10 minutes from the Disney World gates. We’ve never stayed in a rental home before, but our kids are all super excited about having so much space and their own pool.

  • My son and I will be going to Florida the middle of this Oct. We plan to spend 8 nights. We will be driving down so transportation is no problem. Since we plan on being at Universal for two days and spend on day touring all the disney resorts, we thought to book our on property for 5 nights and 3 off property. Whats your thoughts?

    • I would check to see if there are any special offers through Disney. I would also look into Universal hotels for a night or two if you are certain that you will spend 2 days there. There are special line-jumping perks that on-site guests receive. (As far as I know NOT for Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but don’t quote me on that!) Unofficial Guide to Orlando has the most details about Universal Studios, and I would recommend the most current version of it. We loved WDW in October 2009 in spite of the unseasonal heat wave we encountered. We really enjoyed Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party…that parade was one of our most favorite WDW attractions ever! And Food & Wine was awesome. I hope your trip is marvelous!

    • It has occurred to me that you were probably asking for Tom’s thoughts, and he definitely knows a LOT more than I do, but I couldn’t resist putting in my 2 cents! :)

  • I totally prefer on site resorts for many reasons, but the biggest one would be the Disney Dining Plan. I love the Disney Dining plan for my family and you can only get it if you stay on site. I also love all the Disney themes and being so close to all parks. I have never used the transportation system, we usually rent a car to avoid having to wait for the buses to arrive, but I like that they are there in the event that on one of our Disney vacations we may decide not to rent a car. When I was younger, my parents never stayed on site so I missed out on dining at Disney restaurants, my parents refused to pay so much for a meal, LOL, and I missed out on the beautifully themed resorts. So now, I refuse to have my kids miss out on all of this. I love Disney & lots of friends ask for my opinion and I always recommend staying on site….it really is the best!

  • We have been to WDW 4 times since 2007. We’re going back again in September (so excited!!!!!!!!!!). We have stayed on property each time. We fly in, then take the Magical Express annd rely on Disney transportation. I have considered staying off property for the savings, but we would have to pay the parking fee each day at the parks. Does that negate the savings, especially if you stay in a value room on property?

    Btw, there really is something to the magical spell of staying on property and being wrapped in the Disney cocoon. My family did not enjoy our trip to Disneyland in 2010 as much as we thought we would, because we could not fall into the spell. It broke every time we had to leave the parks and face the reality of city life.

  • by David Davies on March 22, 2011, at 9:59 pm EDT

    These comments are great! I never considered staying off-site until I moved within driving distance and had an annual pass. This meant that I always had a car and always had free parking, so things like free bus transit didn’t matter. This expanded my options greatly. And I also started taking shorter park-focused trips, which made the place where I slept each night less important.

    I currently don’t need extra space, and I’m going off-site, I’m doing it for price and not for amenities–you won’t find me at Gaylord Palms, the DTD Hilton, or the Waldorf; if I’m off-site, I’m slumming it on Hotwire because I want to save some cash.

    There are two scenarios where I’ve found off-site makes a lot of sense for me:

    1. When I’m traveling alone. I don’t care as much about my environment when I’m alone, and it’s difficult to justify even $75+ per night just for me where there are decent places for $40/night with easy access to cheap food and perhaps free breakfast. I also don’t eat table service meals while alone, so the allure of in-resort dining disappears.

    2. When WDW rooms are crazy expensive. I have priced out rooms around July 4, Marathon Weekend (which used to be cheap!), and various other crowded times, and I can’t stomach paying $125+ for a value resort room with an AP discount. So I don’t. If Disney provides a more reasonable AP discount during peak times, I’ll take them up on it.

    I know plenty of people will only stay on-site because they want to stay in the Disney bubble, etc. I get that, and I enjoy my Disney hotel stays by playing in the nice pools, eating Dole Whips, etc. when I stay on property. Taking advantage of the your WDW resort offerings is a create way to get value out of an expensive on-site room.

    However, I think a lot of bad myths propagate about off-site places. There are plenty of nice places, and many of them are CLOSER than the Disney hotels to certain theme parks . In particular, I’ve stayed at a bunch of places on 192 there were 5 minutes (parking spot to parking spot) to Animal Kingdom. Leaving for a nap is definitely doable.

    Off-site provides a different sort of Disney trip, but it’s by no means a bad one if you know what to expect, adjust your expectations appropriately, and take advantage of the off-site advantages in terms of space, food, and/or sheer cheapness.

    Not surprisingly, TouringPlans.com lays out some pros and cons quite well at http://touringplans.com/walt-disney-world/staying-onsite-or-offsite.

  • We have always been off-site people. For our first trip in 1996, our travel agent talked us into staying offsite at a discount hotel because, “What are you doing but sleeping there?”… and she was right. For the past few years, we have rented a vacation home. We are taking an 8 night trip starting Easter weekend and have booked a 4 BR, 3BA pool house in Indian River subdivision for $840. That includes tax and cleaning fee. That’s $2300 less than it would have cost our family of five at an All Star family suite. Where else can you get that kind of room for 2 adults, 2 teen girls, and 10 year old boy fopr that price. That’s why we like to stay off-site.

  • Don’t forget about free parking at the parks as a real, quantifiable perk of staying on-site. That is $12 (I think) that must be added to the daily cost of an off-site room (since I think most off-site folks will be driving to the parks).

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