Last week I spewed a lot of crazy talk about resort choice decision making. To briefly recap, in order to decide where to stay, you must first choose which resort characteristic you value the most. There is no right answer. Depending on your needs, you might decide to prioritize low price, good view, variety of dining options, or any of a number of other possibilities.
Can where you stay influence how much time you can spend in the parks?
Here I’ll be discussing how to decide which resort is right for you if your number one priority (or value criterion) is reducing time spent in transit. In other words, where should you stay if you want to spend the least amount of time in a bus/boat/monorail/car during your precious vacation?
Lucky for me, wacky Uncle Len Testa has already provided a handy-dandy analysis of Walt Disney World travel times on pages 388-389 of the 2012 Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. Thanks Len!
In performing my analysis, I’ll be running the numbers twice: the UG’s AVERAGE travel time using Disney’s free transportation, and the UG’s AVERAGE travel time driving yourself in a car. Yes, those are just averages; your actual experience may be slightly better or worse, but we’ve got to start somewhere.
To evaluate which resort necessitates the least amount of travel time, you must determine to where you’ll be traveling. Thus, your first step will be to create a trip itinerary. Let’s take my hypothetical Smith family. These imaginary guests will be at Walt Disney World for a seven day visit with Park Hopper tickets. Because they’re sensible souls, they often heed the common-sense rule to take a mid-day nap/swim break. Their imaginary travels will take them to each of the four theme parks at least once, Downtown Disney, a water park, and two evening meals at resorts. In other words, a typically busy Disney visit.
Here’s their sample itinerary:
- Day 1: Arrive at WDW mid-day. To Magic Kingdom. To Chef Mickey’s for dinner. Back to resort.
- 3 transportation moves: Resort to MK, MK to Contemporary, Contemporary to Resort.
- Day 2: Resort to Epcot. Back to Resort for nap. To Magic Kingdom for fireworks. Back to Resort.
- 4 transportation moves: Resort to Epcot, Epcot to Resort, Resort to MK, MK to Resort.
- Day 3: Resort to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. DHS to Resort for nap. Back to DHS for Fantasmic. Back to Resort.
- 4 transportation moves: Resort to DHS, DHS to Resort, Resort to DHS, DHS to Resort.
- Day 4: To Blizzard Beach. Back to Resort for nap. To Downtown Disney for dinner/shopping. Back to Resort.
- 4 transportation moves: Resort to BB, BB to Resort, Resort to DD, DD to Resort.
- Day 5: To Animal Kingdom. Back to Resort for nap. To Epcot for Illuminations and dinner. Back to Resort.
- 4 transportation moves: Resort to AK, AK to Resort, Resort to Epcot, Epcot to Resort.
- Day 6: To Downtown Disney (forgot to buy a gift for grandma). To Magic Kingdom. To Hoop Dee Doo Revue for Dinner. Back to Resort.
- Variable transportation moves: Resort to DD, DD to MK, MK to FW, FW to Resort.
This is the trickiest day. There is no direct free Disney transportation from DD the theme parks. Therefore, in order for the Smiths to get from DD to the MK using Disney transport, they’ll need to make a transfer. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the first logical bus that arrives at DD is heading to the Grand Floridian. The Smiths will take the bus from DD to the GF and then transfer to the monorail to get to the MK. At the end of the day, the trip back to the resort may have more than one leg depending on the hotel we’re considering. This is noted on the spreadsheet footnotes.
- Day 7: To Disney’s Hollywood Studios for another spin on Toy Story. Back to Resort. Depart.
- 2 transportation moves: Resort to DHS. DHS to Resort.
Obviously this is exactly not what your family’s itinerary will look like, but my guess is that will be similarly messy, with pockets of sanity (scheduling the Hoop Dee Doo on a Magic Kingdom day) and pockets of insanity (was that extra trip to Downtown Disney really necessary?).
How much time will you really save by renting a car?
And just so we get this out of the way, I’m also assuming that the Smiths are relatively new to Disney travel and are in “see it all” mode. A frequent Disney visitor might be able to optimize the travel time factor by concentrating their touring based on attraction proximity to resort. For example, personally, when I’m staying at the Contemporary, I spend most of my time at the nearby Magic Kingdom, and when I stay at the Beach Club, I spend the bulk of my time at nearby Epcot. The Smiths are more conventional guests.
Crunching the Numbers
With all their transportation moves in place, I’ve created spreadsheets of the Smiths’ time spent in transit during their vacation depending on where they stay. The first analysis looks at vacation travel time assuming that the Smiths decided not to rent a car and are using only Disney’s free transportation.
Vacation Time Spent in Transit During Sample Vacation, Using Free Disney Transportation
When I looked at the results, I was shocked. Like many Disney veterans, I’ve had firmly rooted opinions about the transportation situation. There were some hotels that I was 100% were the “good” hotels with the best transportation, and others that I’ve avoided because of perceived transportation insufficiencies. My preconceived notions were wrong.
Looking at the “Using Disney Transportation Only” chart, you’ll see that the time spent on internal Disney transportation, given this sample itinerary, ranges from a high of 14.8 hours to a low of 7.6 hours. That’s a difference of 7.2 hours – nearly an entire day’s worth of park time you’ll forfeit in travel depending on where you stay.
The transportation situation here isn't obvious.
The “loser” was Fort Wilderness where, given this sample itinerary, the hypothetical Smiths will spend 14.8 hours on transportation getting from place to place. Not far behind was the Wilderness Lodge, with an average of 14.4 hours spent in transit.
The Wilderness Lodge is my DVC home resort. I’ve stayed there many times. Never in a million years would have said it was one of the worst for transportation. It’s in the Magic Kingdom area; it’s got to be good. Right?
Um, sorry, not right at all. Clearly, when you’re measuring time spent in transit, there is a significant difference between boat and monorail access to the Magic Kingdom. For example, the Contemporary clocked in with about 4 hours less time spent in transit than the Wilderness Lodge. When following a good touring plan, that could mean you’ll have time to see as many as a dozen fewer attractions if you stay at the Wilderness Lodge instead of the Contemporary.
And who was the big transportation time winner? That’s a resort that I would never have guessed – Saratoga Springs. On the sample itinerary, the Smiths would spend only 7.6 hours of their vacation time getting from place to place. I, for one, am going to take a much closer look at Saratoga Springs when I make my next Disney travel plans.
On average, the majority of the other resorts clocked in somewhere between 9.5 and 11.5 hours of travel time per vacation. Depending on what your issues are, that may or may not be enough time to influence your choice of resort. Is a sacrifice or gain of two hours worth compromising on based on other resort advantages or disadvantages?
Let’s See if the Transportation Picture Changes if You’re Renting a Car
Vacation Time Spent in Transit During Sample Vacation, Using A Car
With access to a vehicle, the three monorail resorts come out as clear winners. Guests at the Contemporary, Polynesian and Grand Floridian can take advantage of the quick monorail access to the Magic Kingdom and can also use their cars for efficient access to the other parks. Of monorail hotels, the Polynesian comes out the winner by a nose, with the guests on our sample itinerary spending just 6.6 hours in transit during their vacation.
On the high end, guests with a car would spend the most time in transit at the Pop Century and the similarly-located, soon-to-be-opened Art of Animation resorts. My big takeaway from the with-car analysis is that having a vehicle is the great equalizer in terms of time spent in transit. While there was more than a seven hour difference between the high and low resorts for guests using only Disney transportation, there was just over a three hour difference for guests with a car. If you have a car, transportation time is more of a non-factor.
Making Your Decision If Reducing Travel Time is Your #1 Priority
Based on the sample itinerary and analysis, I’ve come to the conclusion that my previous assumptions about travel time were not valid. If you had asked me a week ago, I would have said that the Polynesian has a much better transportation situation than the Pop Century. The numbers show that if you’re only using Disney transport, you may be better off at the Pop, from a transportation time standpoint. It would take some real creative thinking to justify the significantly higher cost of the Poly over the Pop based on a Disney transportation argument. (Remember that the Poly has other advantages – view, dining, room size, etc. We’re only talking transportation here.)
These numbers have also made me revisit the ever-popular no-car/car topic. With this itinerary, guests will save, on average, about two hours of travel time if they rent a car versus if they don’t, no matter where they stay. You can change the argument if you dine off site or visit other area attractions, but if you’re not going off-campus, you’ll have to do some real thinking about whether a possible savings of two hours is worth however many hundreds of dollars the rental car will cost. The answer will vary from guest to guest.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the Saratoga Springs anomaly again. This was the only resort where, using this itinerary, the guest was better off using only Disney transportation rather than making use of a car. I’ll leave it to a braver soul than I to run more sample vacation schedules to see if this holds true with other itineraries. Let me know how it goes if you choose to run your own numbers.
One of my most vivid memories was the first night of an impromptu family trip to Walt Disney World. It was about 9:00 p.m. After a full day of park touring we were exhausted and ready to snuggle in for a night of rest in our room at the Contemporary Resort. Hubby and I were winding down, reading the newspaper on one bed. My then 6-year-old twins were cuddled in the other bed. And their nine-year-old sister was camped out on the daybed. I was overcome by a feeling of peace and warmth. We were a family. Together. Safe and sound and peaceful.
Needless to say, this moment of zen was short-lived. Hubby started complaining that he wanted to sleep and my light was bothering him. The twins, not used to sharing a bed, began kicking each other and making cover-hog accusations. My older daughter screamed that she wanted the noise to stop. After several rounds of musical beds, trips to the bathroom, a call to housekeeping for extra blankets, and many threats of no-Space-Mountain-tomorrow-if-you-don’t-quiet-down-RIGHT-NOW, I think we finally settled down around 11:00 p.m. So much for togetherness.
Although our room was lovely, it wasn’t the best set-up for us getting the rest we needed. Disney may say that a particular hotel room sleeps four or five (or more) people, but how do you make sure that many people can actually, well, sleep in that room?
Get the Right Size Room
When choosing a Walt Disney World hotel, most people consider price, location, and room capacity to be the key data points. However, beyond simply the number of people allowed to stay in the room, you should also consider how many separate sleep surfaces are there. For example, there are rooms sized for four people at the Wilderness Lodge which are furnished with two queen-size beds. Other rooms at the same hotel have a queen-sized bed plus two bunk beds – three distinct sleep surfaces instead of two. For a family with children of different genders, or a blended family, the extra sleep surface could greatly improve the quality of their vacation. Additional sleep surfaces may also be important for unrelated adults or multigenerational families traveling together. Make sure you reserve the version that works for you.
Standard rooms at the Grand Floridian sleep five, on three surfaces
A family of five (two adults plus three children), could have each of the kids on a separate sleep surface at the Fort Wilderness cabins or the All Star Music Family Suites. The same result could be achieved by getting two rooms with a connecting door. Connecting rooms are available at all WDW hotels (this must be requested in advance). In my family of five, we can technically stay in one room at the deluxe resorts, many of which are equipped with two queen-sized beds plus a single daybed, but we’ve learned through hard experience that we’ll all be better rested if each of the three kids has her own sleep area. Maximizing sleep surfaces cost effectively may mean making concessions in other amenities. For example, getting two rooms at a value resort (four sleep surfaces) may be comparable in cost to one room at a deluxe resort (with three sleep surfaces). You’re trading monorail access and water slides for better sleep and access to two bathrooms. Different families will find each of these options more or less appealing.
Before booking your trip, take an honest assessment of your family’s sleep needs. Does one child go to sleep much earlier than the other? Do the parents want a door between them and the sleeping children? Can siblings share a bed without fighting? Do different family members have vastly different sleep environment needs for noise, light, or temperature level? Each of these factors may influence your room requirements.
For those with nonstandard needs, there are a number of unique room types at Walt Disney World: rooms with trundle beds at Port Orleans Riverside, junior and deluxe suites at many of the hotels, units with substantial outdoor space, and multi-room villas. It can be a challenge to figure out the exact configuration of each room type on the Walt Disney World website, sometimes picking up the phone and speaking with a reservationist be a quicker route to booking for guests with specific needs. Rooms can be booked by calling 407-W-DISNEY or through a travel agent.
Modify Your Space
You may sleep easier if you make some minor modifications to your room. All Walt Disney World hotel rooms contain at least one table and two chairs. During your stay, it may make sense to rearrange these items. For example, when my kids were small, they often had difficulty falling asleep if they could see me and tell that I was still awake. If this is your situation, try positioning a chair to block you child’s sight line to you. You can also move a chair into the bathroom for similar effect. I’ve done many a crossword puzzle on a chair in a hotel bathroom while I waited for a child to fall asleep. At the value and moderate resorts, it is also possible to move a chair just outside your room door to sit there while your children are dozing. In this situation, remember to keep your room key with you at all times and be courteous to guests in neighboring rooms.
Call housekeeping if you need extra blankets or pillows
Disney does not advertise the availability of rollaway beds, but there are a very limited number of them for use in rooms that are large enough to accommodate their size. This means that you won’t be able to get a rollaway in a value resort room – there simply isn’t enough square footage – but if you need one in a deluxe room, this might be possible. While you shouldn’t count on having a rollaway, it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask.
If a room with an extra bed isn’t available or isn’t in the budget, it may make sense to bring your own “furniture” in the form of a sleeping bag. My oldest daughter would much rather sleep on the floor than with either of her squirmy sisters. Most airlines will allow you bring an extra bag for less than $25. This fee is substantially less than any room upgrade would be. Just be sure to straighten up in the morning so that housekeeping can do their work. Also, safety dictates that you not use items such as sleeping bags to circumvent the fire code maximum number of persons per room.
Even the most minor of room modifications can help. Disney housekeeping is happy to provide extra pillows or blankets for your room. When my children have shared a bed, we’ve made good use of this service by creating a pillow “wall” between the kids and giving them each their own blanket. We’ve had more success getting them to sleep in a timely manner when they don’t have to struggle for control over the covers.
Ask for the Right Room Location and Configuration
I’ve often been asked which is the best room location at various WDW hotels. The answer to this varies greatly depending on your goals. If you want to save walk time, then being close to the food court, bus stop or pool may make sense. If you want to sleep soundly, then you may have more luck being away from the hotel’s amenities. My husband always requests a room far away from the elevator banks so that we are not disturbed by other guests speaking in the halls on their way to the parks.
You can sit right outside your hotel room door while baby falls asleep. Bring a monitor.
If you are traveling in warmer months, try asking for a room on the first floor with patio space or on an upper floor with a balcony. These outdoor areas can serve as a parental retreat while the children settle down for the evening.
Special Considerations for Babies
All Walt Disney World resort hotels allow an additional guest in each room if that guest is a child under the age of three sleeping in a Pack ‘n Play crib. Disney provides these cribs and associated bedding free of charge. However, my experience is that the younger the child, the more sensitive he or she is to variation in the sleep environment. Bringing a familiar crib sheet and blanket from home may provide an extra measure of comfort for a little one.
Many guests with crib-age children find that they can create a makeshift private room for baby in the moderate resorts. Many rooms at this price level have a feature which allows the vanity area near the bath to be enclosed via a sliding door or curtain. Setting up the crib behind the curtain may prevent the baby from being awakened by light or noise in the rest of the room. This can be especially helpful when attempting to get children to nap during the day.
Use Technology to Your Advantage
There are a number of small electronics that may improve your sleep experience in any hotel room:
- Nightlight: Children who are wary of unfamiliar surroundings or afraid of the dark may sleep better with a nightlight on.
- Booklight: Allows adults to stay up and read while children are falling asleep.
- Baby monitor: If you’re planning to sit on your room’s patio or balcony while your children fall asleep, a baby monitor can keep you fully apprised of their activity level.
- iPad, iPod, or other smart device: Download a noise machine app (I like Ambiance) to muffle ambient room sounds. Watching a stored movie on the iPad keeps the room light level lower than turning on the TV.
Explore Off-Site Alternatives
I am a strong proponent of staying inside the Disney bubble when on vacation. However, families with complicated sleep needs will likely find more varied room configurations offsite. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World includes extensive reviews of and recommendations for offsite hotels.
What’s Your Best Tip?
Is your family always able to sleep well together in one hotel room? What strategies have you used to make everyone’s nighttime routine more relaxing? Let me know in the comments below.