The Basics: Where to Stay at Walt Disney World
By Dave Shute
There are two basic decisions to make about where to stay on your Disney World visit: what level of amenities (and thus price) you looking are for, and whether or not you stay in a Disney-owned resort.
The decisions are interrelated because at any amenity level you will pay more—at the higher amenity levels often much more—to stay in a Disney-owned resort.
WHY YOU SHOULD STAY IN A DISNEY-OWNED RESORT
There are some key perks that often make staying at a Disney-owned resort the better choice—especially for first-time visitors. I strongly recommend that first-timers stay in a Disney-owned resort.
The most important of the perks for staying in a Disney-owned resort are these:
- Being able to book FastPass+ 60 days from your arrival date, helping you get the most popular rides at the best times
- Being able to use Disney’s Magical Express, potentially saving you $150+
- Reliable park transportation with proper hours.
- Slightly earlier access to the most popular dining reservations
- Access to the Disney Dining Plan which can save some families a bit, and lets others control their budgets.
- Free parking, and no resort fees.
- Access to extra time in the parks that most other guests can’t use.
- Fun theming and good convenience
MORE DETAILS ON THE PERKS THAT COME FROM DISNEY-OWNED HOTELS
Being able to book FastPass+ 60 days from your arrival date, helping you get the most popular rides at the best times. FastPass+ is Disney’s new program that lets you book appointments for rides weeks ahead of time so that you’ll see short waits for them, and is a critical tool for reducing your waits in the parks. The non-Disney owned Swan and Dolphin also offer FastPass+ at 60 days. All other lodging options get no special treatment, so if you stay in one of them your FastPass+ is available only 30 days in advance. Thus those staying in a Disney-owned resort (or the Swan or Dolphin) are more likely to be able to book the most popular rides at the most convenient times.
Being able to use Disney’s Magical Express, potentially saving you $150+. Disney’s Magical Express is a bus service that provides free transport to and from the main Orlando airport, Orlando International Airport (MCO) (but not the similarly named but much more distant Orlando Sanford International Airport, SFB) and your Disney-owned hotel. This lets you avoid cab fare or rental car costs.
Reliable park transportation with proper hours. The Disney-owned resorts (and the Swan and Dolphin) have frequent transportation to the parks that starts well before the parks open and extends to well after they close. Non-Disney hotels, if they have transportation, all too commonly offer it too infrequently, begin it too late, and/or end it too soon. (A rental car will fix this, but add costs.)
Slightly earlier access to the most popular dining reservations. Disney World dining reservations open to most people 180 days before the planned dining date, and the most popular venues like Be Our Guest book up quickly. For those staying at a Disney-owned resort, however, once 180 days from their check in day hits, they can book dining not only for that day but also for the next ten days as well. This ten day head start on the latter part of your visit helps with getting access to the most popular dining venues.
Access to the Disney Dining Plan which can save some families a bit, and lets others control their budgets. The various Disney Dining Plans, available only to guests staying in a Disney-owned resort, are a way of pre-paying for some of your meals. While they are not as good a deal as they used to be, the regular dining plan may save families with kids aged 3-9 who plan a lot of one credit character meals some money. Other families may take comfort in being able to pre-budget much of their dining costs, even if they lose a little money compared to buying the same meals for cash.
Free parking, and no resort fees. Parking at the Disney-owned hotels is free; parking at other hotels may or may not be. Similarly, Disney-owned hotels don’t charge “resort fees”—a mandatory surcharge that some non-Disney hotels charge that frankly oughta be rolled into room prices. Disney’s parks also charge for auto parking–$20/day right now. Guests at Disney-owned hotels don’t pay this charge.
Access to extra time in the parks that most other guests can’t use. Disney’s Extra Magic Hour (EMH) program allows guests staying at a Disney-owned hotel (and also the Swan, Dolphin, and Shades of Green) to enter a park an hour earlier than everyone else, or to stay two hours later. Most of the year I don’t particularly recommend parks on their EMH days (because they draw extra crowds from the 25,000+ rooms that are eligible), but the extra morning hour in particular can be a godsend the most crowded weeks of the year, especially for families that have also bought the Park Hopper ticket add-on and thus can hop away later in the day to a less crowded park.
Fun theming and good convenience. Most of the Disney-owned hotels have wonderful theming (although some don’t), and most are more convenient to most of the Disney theme parks than non-Disney owned hotels. My resort rankings for first-time visitors are based first on kid-friendly visual theming, and second on convenience in carrying out this site’s itineraries.
For all these Disney-owned hotel perks you will pay more—in some cases quite a bit more—for the same quality of room at a Disney-owned resort than at alternatives.
Disney-owned resorts can be grouped into five classes (click the various links below to learn more, or for links to detailed extensive reviews of each hotel, see this.)
DISNEY WORLD VALUE RESORTS
Value resorts have the lowest prices, tiniest rooms, fewest amenities, and offer no table service restaurants or character meals.
Standard rooms sleep four on two full beds. (Value resort “Family Suite” rooms, available at Art of Animation and All-Star Music, sleep six in a space about twice the size of a standard room, but cost more than twice as much.)
The value resorts have great visual kid appeal, but many parents find them garish.
There’s five value resorts that offer standard rooms:
And two that offer family suites:
Room rates among the Disney-owned resorts vary tremendously by night of the week, time of the year, and views, and also among hotels within the same price class. That said, prices for the lowest priced four person value resort room types and views range from around $100 to a little over $200 per night. Family suites are more than twice as expensive.
For first timers who may never return, based on criteria of visual kid appeal and convenience, I particularly recommend Art of Animation and Pop Century among the values.
DISNEY WORLD MODERATE RESORTS
Moderate resorts have (for Disney) middle-of-the-road prices, room sizes, and amenities.
Most standard rooms sleep four on two queens (Pirate rooms at Caribbean Beach have full beds). Some rooms at Caribbean Beach and Port Orleans Riverside have fifth sleeping spot large enough for a child. The Cabins at Fort Wilderness sleep 6, two on bunk beds suitable for children.
The bedroom portion of the traditional moderates is comparable in size to the bedroom area at many Disney-owned deluxe resorts. All moderates offer table service restaurants except Port Orleans French Quarter. None but the Cabins at Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground offer character meals.
Most of the moderates are sprawling (Port Orleans French Quarter is an exception) and while kids love them all, none shouts with kid appeal the way the value resorts do.
There’s four “traditional” moderates with comparable rooms:
And among the traditional moderates, there’s also two groups of special room types.
- Pirate rooms at Caribbean Beach and Royal Rooms at Port Orleans Riverside have extra and special theming, but are overly expensive and inconvenient compared to other rooms at the same resorts
- While most standard traditional moderate rooms sleep four on two queens (fulls in the Pirate rooms) a fifth sleeping spot on a short fold-down bed is available in the Alligator Bayou section of Port Orleans Riverside and in most areas of Caribbean Beach (except the Pirate room area in Trinidad South).
Also classed as a moderate are the quite different Cabins at Fort Wilderness, which sleep six in two rooms and have a full kitchen (with a limited oven).
I don’t particularly recommend these Cabins for first timers, as they combine bland theming with substantial inconvenience.
Personally I love these cute little cabins… but for returning visitors I’d recommend them only for those who need to sleep six, who need a full kitchen, and who have a rental car.
The least expensive rooms at the traditional moderates cost little less than $200 to around $300 depending on the resort and the time of year.
I’m not keen on the moderates for first timers who may never return, as they are short on kid appeal and convenience compared to other options you have.
For returning visitors, the mix of pros and cons among the traditional moderates is more muddied than that of any other resort class. Caribbean Beach stands out for its kid appeal, and Coronado Springs for its overall suite of amenities. Riverside is the best-loved, and French Quarter the most compact and convenient.
DISNEY WORLD DELUXE RESORTS
Deluxe resorts. While there is more variety among the deluxes than any other Disney price class, in general they have the highest prices, largest rooms, most amenities, best pools, and plentiful dining, including both “date night” quality dining and also family friendly and/or character meals at or near most of them.
Standard rooms sleep at least four on two queens, and all the deluxes except the Wilderness Lodge and Animal Kingdom Lodge offer many rooms with a fifth sleeping spot large enough for an adult.
Some deluxe resorts—especially the Wilderness Lodge, Animal Kingdom Lodge, and Polynesian Village Resort—have terrific visual kid appeal, and some don’t. Wilderness Lodge appeal is somewhat moderated into 2017 from construction going on there.
There are 8 deluxe resorts:
- Animal Kingdom Lodge
- Beach Club
- BoardWalk Inn
- Grand Floridian
- Polynesian Village
- Wilderness Lodge
- Yacht Club
At the deluxes—where prices among hotels in the same class vary the most—the least expensive rooms run from a little more than $300 to almost $900 per night depending on hotel and time of the year. See Mousesavers.com for more specifics on room rates by date and by view.
For first timers, among the deluxes I particularly recommend the Polynesian.
DISNEY WORLD DISNEY VACATION CLUB RESORTS
Disney Vacation Club Resorts. At the Disney Vacation Club (“DVC”) offerings (which regular people can book—you don’t have to be a Disney Vacation Club member to book these) there are multiple deluxe level room types: “Studios” are similar to deluxe rooms; “Villas” are larger and have full kitchens, and, at the two-bedroom and larger sizes, sleep eight people plus.
There are officially nine DVC resorts at Disney World, but I count them as eleven because of some sharply distinguished areas at the Animal Kingdom Lodge and Saratoga Springs that Disney lumps together.
- Animal Kingdom Lodge Villas–Jambo House
- Animal Kingdom Lodge Villas–Kidani Village
- Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort
- Beach Club Villas
- BoardWalk Villas
- Villas at Disney’s Grand Floridian
- Old Key West Resort
- Villas and Bungalows at Disney’s Polynesian Village
- Saratoga Springs–Main Resort
- Saratoga Springs–Treehouse Villas
- Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge
I don’t particularly recommend the DVC Villa options for first timers, as their distinguishing features—extra space and full kitchens—are of little use on a first visit where most time is spent in the parks, not in the rooms.
These features, however, can make them a delight for returning visitors.
THE CAMPSITES AT DISNEY’S FORT WILDERNESS RESORT
The Campsites at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort. Campsites for up to ten tent and RV campers (the Cabins at Fort Wilderness are grouped in the moderate class).
I don’t recommend the campsites for first time visitors, nor for inexperienced tent campers. The campground is blandly themed and suffers from inconvenient transport arrangements.
For returning visitors in RVs or who are expert tent campers, Fort Wilderness is one of America’s great campgrounds.
MORE ON THE DISNEY-OWNED RESORTS
To all the room occupancy figures you can add one child younger than three sleeping in a crib. Except at the campground and the DVC resorts, prices assume one or two folks 18 or over. More than two people over eighteen will face a surcharge.
The table below shows more on what you can expect to find in the standard rooms of the three principal price classes—values, moderates and deluxes.
Returning visitors, or first-timers who are able to return, can have a great visit at any Disney-owned resort. I have stayed in more than 135 different Disney-owned rooms, suites, studios, villas, cabins and campsites. Detailed reviews of them all based on those stays are here.
Deals are often available for the Disney-owned resorts. Current Disney World deals are here.
STAYING IN A HOTEL THAT DISNEY DOES NOT OWN
The best reason to stay in a non-Disney hotel is to save money.
Four non-Disney hotels are in the heart of Disney World, and offer deluxe-quality rooms and amenities for typically less than the Disney deluxes (at Shades of Green, much less).
All these but the Four Seasons participate in Disney’s Extra Magic Hours program.
The Swan and Dolphin in addition use Disney’s transportation system and have access to FastPass+ 60 days in advance, not 30.
I’m not keen on any of these four for first timers.
- None has any distinctive Disney theming–you could be anywhere.
- Shades and the Four Seasons have less than great transportation, and only can access FastPass+ at 30 days.
- The Swan and Dolphin have transportation comparable to the Disney-owned resorts, and get FastPass+ at 60 days, but are inconveniently located for a Magic-Kingdom-centered trip–which most first visits are.
They can each be great choices for returning trips–Shades of Green for its prices, The Swan in particular for a lower-priced way to be close to Epcot, and the Four Seasons for its stunning amenities, and in particular its pool complex, the best at Disney World.
Another group of hotels on Hotel Plaza Boulevard are on Disney property but isolated from the main attractions at Disney World.
There are literally hundreds of other hotels and thousands of condos/villas/homes for rent off the property. The condos/villas/homes for rent will particularly save money for larger families or groups.
Be careful in your price comparisons to include added rental car costs, hotel parking, resort fees, theme park parking.
For more on saving money on lodging at Disney World, see this.