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I recently made a last minute trip in order to attend the festivities taking place during the first weekend of October at Walt Disney World. My buddy, Doug, suggested we stay at the Dolphin for at least a portion of the weekend so we could be close to the action at Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival. Since I am a sucker for the Epcot Resort Area, and since the Dolphin and its sister hotel, the Swan, are the most affordable way to stay there, I agreed to give it a shot. Before you jump on this bandwagon, I wanted to offer readers a few thoughts on my stay.
A very important fact to keep in mind is that the Swan and Dolphin are not Disney-run hotels. Despite their location on Disney property, there is an agreement that allows Starwood Hotels to operate these properties. The result is a different experience from what you find at Disney resorts. Some of the perks of staying on site are the same, such as the use of Disney transportation and access to Extra Magic Hours, but some are different. For example, you will not be able to charge in-park purchases to your room key. But you may have your purchases delivered to the resort for you to pick up.
In the same vein, something that has kept me from staying here on past trips is the lack of Disney’s Magical Express (DME), the free bus transportation that Disney provides from Orlando International Airport to Disney-run resorts. Since the Swan and Dolphin are not operated by Disney, the bus does not run to these properties. This problem was solved for me this time since I stayed at the All Star Movies Resort my first night, moved to the Dolphin for my next two nights, and had a friend drive me to the airport for my trip home. If you are willing to spring for a taxi, or if you have someone who can transport you to and from the airport, these resorts instantly become more viable options.
Speaking of having your own car, if you are considering either the Swan or Dolphin it should be noted parking is not free at these resorts. Guests must pay $12 per day to park in the general lot or $18 per day for valet parking.
Although Magical Express is not available, transportation within Disney property is complimentary. Like at all of the other Disney resorts, buses whisk guests to and from the parks and Downtown Disney every twenty minutes or so. Additionally, the friendship boats traveling between Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios make stops at a shared dock between the Swan and Dolphin. These buses and boats are often on the same route that stops at Disney’s Boardwalk, Yacht Club, and Beach Club Resorts. Guests can also walk to either Epcot or Hollywood Studios fairly easily although it may not sound appealing after a day in the parks.
When you arrive at the Dolphin in your own car or a taxi, you can’t help but notice its architectural design. It features several lower wings with a huge 27-story triangle that can be spotted from several areas within Walt Disney World. Also prominently displayed are two 56-foot tall dolphin fish statues on the roof of the building. The terra cotta and green color scheme is a bit strange since it almost appears that the building is painted in a camouflage motif. The resort, along with its neighbor the Swan, was designed by famed architect Michael Graves.
Inside, the lobby welcomes guests with a large fountain featuring dolphin fish similar to those on the roof. The lobby is actually quite lovely, with several seating areas and lots of natural light. There are several shops nearby to grab anything you may have forgotten or would like to bring home. The layout beyond the lobby confused me quite a bit. I couldn’t quite grasp the use of the east elevators vs. the west elevators and so on. The whole place seemed like a maze to me.
Once we figured out how to get there, our room was a decent size and had a “water view,” which basically meant we could see the small bit of water between the Swan and Dolphin. Yay? The space was equipped with two double beds, a desk/bureau combination, a flat screen TV, a chair, and night table. The bathroom was separated into an open area with a sink and a large vanity and a closed-off section with the shower and toilet. There was also a small mini bar area equipped with a coffee maker and a small refrigerator. I found the finishes to be sort of dated, but they also don’t fit in with my personal style, so I may be biased. I had heard great things about the beds and they were, indeed, comfortable, so the Dolphin gets credit there. A nice feature of the rooms here is that they include in-room internet access, two bottles of water, 60 minutes of local phone calls, 20 minutes of calls within the US, and gym access. However, these perks come at a cost of $12 per day (a “resort charge” not included in advertised prices).
I do have to report on a housekeeping problem we had in our room. When we walked in everything looked good, but used wash clothes had been left in the bathroom. The issue was not the end of the world, but it was annoying to have to call and have someone retrieve them at a “deluxe” resort. I waited to call since I wanted to take a nap and didn’t want to disturb it with a knock on our door. When I woke up I discovered a mysterious (and gross) stain on my duvet cover after I had already slept in the bed. So I called for both issues at once, and then we headed out for the night. When we returned at approximately 1:00am,the duvet had been replaced, but the used cloth was still hanging in our bathroom. I had to call back again and wait a short while for someone to come get it before I could crash for the night. I think I just expected more from a resort with a good reputation.
While I may have been disappointed in the housekeeping, it would be impossible to be disappointed with the number of restaurants at the Dolphin. I had breakfast at Picabu, which a hybrid of a counter service and table service eatery and is open 24 hours per day. The food was decent, but best of all it had real coffee! Any Disney nut knows the coffee on property is generally pretty terrible, but Picabu serves Starbucks coffee each morning. It is also available at Fresh Mediterranean Market and The Fountain. Fresh is another great place to have a morning buffet breakfast (it also serves lunch). The Fountain is a casual place to pop into for a burger or ice cream. I’ve heard great things about Shula’s Steakhouse, which is also located here and open for dinner. Todd English’s Bluezoo specializes in seafood. And for folks who’d like a bite to eat while they lay by the pool, head to The Cabana Bar and Beach Club. Since these are not Disney hotels, they are also not Disney restaurants. These restaurants do not participate in the Disney Dining Plan (nor can you add the Disney Dining Plan to a Swan or Dolphin resort stay), but many of them do accept the Tables in Wonderland discount card.
The pool complex is huge with several pools, a sandy beach complete with a volleyball net, a bar and restaurant, and plenty of lounge chairs. There are two lap pool and a the main pool called the Grotto that has a slide, waterfalls, and little alcoves. There is also a kiddie pool with toys available to rent. The area is shared with the Swan so it sits between them. Towels are available in the area for guest use. Nearby, guests can rent swan boats, play in the sand, or enjoy the tennis courts. Kids can also burn off some energy on the playground.
Overall, I thought the Dolphin was just okay. I think I would rather stay at one of Disney’s moderate resorts than here in the future. The price is about the same, if not cheaper, and I would get the full Disney experience I’ve become so used to. The saving grace for this resort was its proximity to Epcot’s International Gateway. I love being able to walk to my favorite park. Otherwise, the confusing layout, service charges, lack of DME, so-so housekeeping, etc., do not have me signing up for another stay here any time soon.
It appears the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World readers agree with my thoughts on the resort! They gave an overall grade of a C-. Have you stayed at the Dolphin? Let me know about your experiences in the comments!