When your Walt Disney World trip planning starts, one of your first decisions may be to choose between staying at one of the Disney World On Site Resort Hotels or an off site hotel. We’ll take a look at the pros and cons to both the on-site and off-site options, some things to think about to help you make your decision, as well as our personal opinion and experiences.
Note that there are several hotels on Disney World property that are not actually owned and operated by Disney. For this discussion, an on-site Disney World hotel is one that is owned and operated by Disney. Everything else is considered an off-site hotel.
For most, the primary factor in deciding between an off-site hotel and on-site Disney World hotels is likely the cost. Disney World’s Resort Hotels are generally more expensive for similar accommodations, or smaller for the same price. Whether or not that extra expense is worth it for you and your family can only be decided by you. However, when strictly comparing costs, be sure to take all the factors into account.
Transportation, including transport between the Orlando Airport and your Disney Resort, as well as between your resort and the Disney Theme Parks, Disney Water Parks, and Downtown Disney are all included when staying on-site at Walt Disney World. (The free shuttle service from the Orlando International Airport to your Disney World Resort is called Disney’s Magical Express.) Note that some off site resorts offer an airport shuttle service as well but may or may not be included. Many off-site resorts offer shuttle service to the Orlando area parks, but may or may not be free. A typical rate would be $4 per person per trip so this could rack up depending on the number of people and if you want to take breaks back at your hotel.
When staying on site, Disney World Resort guests are also entitled to free parking at the theme parks, which is currently $17 a day. If you have made the decision to drive regardless of whether you will be staying off-site or on-site, be sure to take this extra expense into account in your off-site vs. on-site decision. Note that if you are park hopping, parking is per day, good for all the theme parks that day, so be sure to hold onto your pass. If you are an Annual Passholder, you probably already know you get free parking at the theme parks.
Speaking of parking, note that none of the Disney owned and operated hotels have a daily fee for parking. (The Swan and Dolphin Resorts are not owned and operated by Disney) Some off-site hotels, including The Swan and Dolphin, do charge a fee for daily self parking so make sure you take that into account if you know you will be driving.
As of early 2012, all on-site Walt Disney World resorts offer free wifi covering the rooms as well as most common areas. Many off-site hotels charge for wifi access, with rates running $8-$17 per day. Be careful when comparing prices because their web site may say that their “rooms have high-speed wireless Internet”, however the word “free” may be missing.
In addition to the above mentioned “hidden costs” that may not be included in the nightly rates for off site hotels, make sure to watch out for the dreaded “Resort Fee”, which is almost never included in published rates but is mandatory. Not all, but many off site resorts charge this fee, however on-site Disney Resorts do not charge this fee. An extreme example of this hidden resort fee is the Nickelodeon Suites at $35 a day, however most range between $10 and $20 per day.
Although there are several expenses that may not be included in the published rates, there still may be significant savings available by staying at an off site hotel especially if you are a member of a rewards program at one of those hotels. The point here is to make sure you take into account all the costs when making your comparison. What looks like a $100 a night difference based on published rates may end up being much less, tipping the scales back to favor Disney’s on-site offerings.
Probably the most important perk of staying at an on site resort is the convenience of the Walt Disney World Transportation System. You never need a car if you stay on property, and even if you are flying into the Orlando Airport, Magical Express has you covered there as well. The pros and cons of the Disney transportation system is a hotly debated topic, but if you do not want to drive, the Disney Transportation System will serve you better than any transport options provided by off site resorts. Not only do some off site resorts charge for the service, but many run on specific schedules with only a few trips per day.
If you are driving you may find that some off site hotels are actually closer to your preferred park than some of the on site hotels. On site hotels that are closest to the parks may break the budget since many of them are in the deluxe category.
Staying at an off site hotel for a Disney World vacation could put you within walking distance to grocery stores and restaurants. This could also factor into the cost savings. Stocking your room with inexpensive snacks from the grocery store or eating some meals at nearby non-Disney restaurants will provide significant savings.
Oddly, on-site Disney offerings are somewhat limiting for a typical family of two adults and two (or more) older children. At least for us, we really need three separate sleeping surfaces. Unless you are willing to pay for a deluxe with bunk beds or a family suite in a value resort your options are fairly limited. Some resorts in the moderate category have a third sleeping surface like the “Bunk Size pull down bed” offered at Port Orleans Resort – Riverside, but it may not be ideal. The Family Suites at Disney’s Art of Animation or All-Star Music offer the best option for this size family but they start in the low to mid $200 range and get up well over $300 depending on season. If you are a family of four and can comfortably sleep in two double beds you can get away with any on site Disney hotel. For us, once the two kids got into their mid-teens we needed to look to an off site resort for comfortable sub $200 a night accommodations. However, if cost is not an issue Disney can certainly accommodate most any size family in their Suites and Villas.
On-site Disney Hotels offer packages that include park admission and the option of purchasing the Disney Dining Plan, which is only available at Disney’s on site hotels when booked with at least one day of park admission. If you want the Disney Dining Plan you must stay on-site at Disney World. Off-site resorts in the Disney World area usually have a ticket broker in the lobby offering slightly discounted admission to all the Orlando area attractions, but nothing that you can add admission for the family at the same time you book the resort so you lose a bit of convenience in this case.
Anyone can make reservations at a Disney restaurant up to 180 days in advance. Disney Resort guests get a slight advantage when planning their dining reservations in that they can make reservations for each day of their stay starting 180 days before they arrive. So for example, if you have a 10 day stay at a Disney resort you can make reservations for your 10th day 190 days in advance.
In addition to dining reservations, Disney resort guests are able to make FastPASS+ reservations for their whole trip at the 60 day mark. Everyone else gets 30 days. Note that you MUST have admission in order to make FastPASS+ reservations. So, when staying off site, you must separately purchase your tickets in advance if you wish to set up FastPASS+ in advance.
The “Disney Bubble”
The Disney Bubble is the state of mind you enter when you arrive at your Walt Disney World Resort. It is an alternate reality in which the “real world” does not exist, the mental high that Disney addicts are addicted to, what makes us go back time and time again to get our fix. Being inside that bubble with other guests with the same mindset is something many people find worth paying a premium for. Staying at an off site resort breaks that bubble but living in the Disney Bubble may not be for everyone. If you know you do not want to spend 24 hours a day in this alternate reality for the length of your vacation you may want to consider staying at an off site resort.
What We Do
Staying at an on-site Disney Value Resort is our preference. We just don’t spend enough time in the room to warrant spending the money on a moderate or deluxe resort. However we still enjoy some luxury, so we sometimes go for the split stay. When the (now teenage) kids join us, Disney’s Value Resorts, with just two double beds, are no longer an option, and Family Suites at the values are priced at near Deluxe rates. So our most recent trip with the kids ended up being a split stay with the first three nights off-site at Buena Vista Suites and the last three on-site at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge in a Pool View room with bunk beds. The off-site resort was perfectly fine but we were definitely happy to get back into that Disney Bubble at Animal Kingdom Lodge.
Do you usually stay on-site at a Disney Resort, or off-site? What do you think about when making that decision? Share your thoughts in the comments below…