This is the second of our Trip Planning 101 series. It follows last week’s article on deciding when to take your vacation. TouringPlans.com is experimenting with a scoresheet to help you rank your hotel choices. You will need a copy of the Unofficial Guide (for offsite reviews) or can just use the Hotel section of TouringPlans.com. Download the PDF and let us know how you like it or if we need to include more instructions on how to use it.
So you’re off to Disney World. What is there to say but “Yay!”?
Well, actually, a lot.
The first question (or possibly, the fourth, after “Will I meet Mickey Mouse?” “Is Dole Whip as good as they say?” and “How many more minutes until I can ride Splash Mountain?”) should be “Where will we stay?”
So to get you to the aforementioned Dole Whip, Mickey Mouse, Splash Mountain and the other reasons that you’re really going, here are some tips to get started.
The big question: On property or off? (Also known as onsite vs. offsite)
Our reviews of onsite Disney hotels are found here to help you out.
Why you SHOULD stay on property:
It’s wildly convenient in terms of transportation
You don’t need to worry about a car because the Disney transportation system will take you to all the Parks, as well as to places like Blizzard Beach and Downtown Disney. Disney buses are convenient, stop at your hotel and all Disney venues, and run relatively on time. That means you don’t need to worry about parking (or finding) your car after a long day. The buses will also deposit you pretty close to the action. If your hotel is on the monorail or has boat service, even better—your trip will be speedy and easily accessible. (However, if you do have a car, parking is free in the Parks.)
If you stay onsite, you can also take advantage of the Magical Express, a service for guests who arrive in Orlando by commercial flight. Disney will get your checked bags (now, that’s a yay) and take them to your hotel. Oh, yeah—they’ll also take YOU to your hotel–all for free. You can also check your bags at your hotel and get a boarding pass right there when you leave. How groovy is that?
It has fantastic amenities
Extra Magic Hours
Guests can take advantage of Extra Magic Hours, whereby you get access one hour earlier to different parks on different days than the general public, or can stay up to three hours after closing time.
Disney Dining Plan
Only Disney resort guests can purchase the Disney Dining Plan, which provides a set number of meals, snacks, and drinks for a fixed price per night. If you use it right, you can save some money. Plus, many love the peace of mind of having their food paid for before the trip starts, allowing them to ignore prices on the Disney menus while on vacation.
If this is Your Once-in-a-Lifetime Trip
Maybe it’s a big family reunion, or an anniversary, or a birthday, or you’ve saved your pennies for years and this is your shot. If this trip is your once-in-a lifetime, then you should definitely consider staying on property. You’re going to Disney World, and staying at a Disney resort is a HUGE part of the experience. If you’re already planning to stay on property, considering staying at a higher-level resort than you might normally consider, if you can swing it. Bottom line: If this is it, make it memorable and make it Disney, every second you’re there. You won’t regret it.
That Disney Magic (duh)!
Seriously, staying on property extends the thrill you get from being in the Parks. When you leave Typhoon Lagoon and go back to you’re hotel, you’ll still be in Disney World. When you wake up and look out your window, you’ll still be in Disney World. When you…OK, you get the idea. It’s a fantastic feeling. And the theming at the Disney hotels is incredible, from the decor to the pools to the gift shops. Staying on property means you don’t have to leave that Disney magic behind when you leave Epcot at the end of the day. And seriously, there’s so much to do at many of the hotels that you may choose to spend part or all of a day just taking advantage of everything offered there.
And that, as they say, is priceless.
For first-time visitors, the above factors make staying on property a serious consideration. The ease of being picked up at the airport, booking your meals ahead of time, the Disney transportation system, extra magic hours, and so forth will ensure that your first time there is really special–and that you’ll want to return.
Value vs. Deluxe: The Disney Hotel Classification System
But wait—even after you’ve decided to stay on property, you still have some work to do. Disney has a somewhat complicated ranking system of its properties, one that you’ll need to decipher before you can book your stay.
Deluxe resorts, are, as you can probably guess, the nicest. They offer the most space, the nicest accommodations, the most to do at the resort itself, and a wider range of dining options. They’re often close to the monorail or boat transportation, and offer fewer guests and thus more efficient service. (The Grand Floridian is a good example.) Disney Deluxe villas (or vacation club resorts) have full suites, sometimes with kitchens, and are often attached to these resorts (like Disney’s Beach Club Villas).
A level down you’ll find the moderate resorts (such as Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside resort). They’ll still offer nice theming, but they’re bigger, the rooms are smaller, and you’ll have fewer dining and transportations options.
The value resorts (All-Star Music, the soon-to-be-unveiled Art of Animation) have the most rooms but also the smallest, and each hosts large numbers of people; they also don’t offer many dining or transportation options. However, you can also opt for family suites. At the Art of Animation (opening next year) the suites will be twice the size of standard rooms and offer theming from such classics as Finding Nemo and The Lion King; they can accommodate up to six guests. (That being said, some folks who can stay pretty much anywhere they want opt for a value resort because they love the theming.)
Another option is to split your stay. Speaking from personal experience, it’s a hassle, but can be well worth it if you want to stay at a particular resort or level of resort but can’t afford it for the whole trip. You might stay at a value resort and move to a deluxe for a night or two; or even stay off property, see the sights outside of Disney World, and then move to a moderate resort for your last few nights. If you want real luxury, you could splurge on the Ritz-Carlton, for instance, and then move to a less pricey hotel in Disney World. This brings us to…
Why you might consider staying off property
Even though the value resorts are, well, good values, and you can usually get discounts for many of them, there’s no question that staying off property is less expensive. If that’s a huge consideration for you, it might be worth it.
While many Disney rooms are a decent size, if you’re going with large group, a condo or vacation villa might offer more space than you get on property.
For some families, having a pool, washer/dryer, or kitchen might be an important factor. You can more easily choose certain elements that are important to you if you stay offsite.
Many offsite properties have kitchens; preparing your own meals can cut down on eating costs.
Spending Time Outside of Disney World
(Yes, some people actually do that…) If Disney World is only one of your destinations, it could make sense to be located someplace where you will have easy access to a number of different attractions.
Planning the Trip
So, now let’s take a theoretical family and help plan its dream Disney vacation.
Mom, Dad, Grandma and three kids are flying to Disney World over spring break. Let’s meet our protagonists.
- Dad: Wants his family to have a great top-of-the-line experience but can’t justify paying for the six entire nights at a deluxe resort. Doesn’t want to see the inside of a car for the whole trip. Convenience is paramount. Embarrassed at how much he wants to try Toy Story Mania!
- Grandma: Game as all get out but has trouble walking long distances. Has wanted a hat with Mickey Mouse ears for 37 years.
- Mom: Has a secret pin-trading obsession; needs to be somewhere she can do her daily run.
- Bobby, 16: Severe Star Wars obsession. Rumored to have come out of the womb wielding a light saber. Happy to show up for the occasional ride like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, but also wants to stay at the hotel and watch the Final Four Basketball Tournament.
- Babs, 11: Mostly wants to ride Pirates of the Caribbean as many times as is humanly possible. Wants access to a fantastic pool. Is desperate to eat at the 50s Prime Time Cafe in Hollywood Studios.
- Bitsy, 6: Making her first appearance at Disney World. Completely enamored of Lilo and Stitch. Frightened by loud noises and dark spaces.
How can this family with different interests and goals have its best Disney vacation?
We recommend booking on site, all the way. The family can fly down and take the Magical Express bus, then rely on Disney transportation so Dad doesn’t have to be car bound. They might start at a family suite at a value resort like All-Star Music for two or three nights to save some money, then move to the Polynesian, where Bitsy can enjoy all things Lilo and Stitch, including merchandise and the ‘Ohana restaurant, as well as the terrific Volcano Pool. Mom can run on the path to the Grand Floridian; the hotel also offers pin-trading sessions, or she can hop on the bus to Downtown Disney. The Polynesian allows easy access to the parks and other hotels, which also means less walking for Grandma. If she feels like staying at the hotel one day, there’s plenty to do, including checking out different Mickey Mouse hats. It also means that Bobby can stay at the hotel to watch basketball and hop on the monorail with quick access to a number of hotels and parks. If Bitsy wants to duck out early to avoid nighttime fireworks at the Magic Kingdom, someone can take her back easily on the Monorail. They have easy access to the Magic Kingdom, where a lot of their interests lie, and can also access Hollywood Studios without too much trouble.
So there you have it.
What are your thoughts about staying choosing your hotel? Let us know!