When trip planning, guests must ask where to stay at Disneyland. Off-site or on-site? In the Disneyland Hotel, Paradise Pier Hotel, Grand Californian Hotel, or one of the cheaper hotels on Harbor Boulevard? The reasons to stay on or off-site at Disneyland are quite different than the reasons for choosing a hotel at Walt Disney World, but much like the Florida Disney resort, there are compelling reasons for staying in Disney-owned hotels and for staying in off-site hotels.
Perks – Most of the perks offered to Disneyland guests are not dependent upon staying in a Disney-owned hotel, but instead are dependent upon booking a package with the Walt Disney Travel Company. These packages can be booked for either a Disney-owned hotel or a third-party “Good Neighbor” Hotel.
However, there is one very big exception to this. As of Summer 2012, guests staying in a Disney-owned hotel can enter Disneyland or Disney California Adventure one-hour early for each day of their stay to enjoy the Extra Magic Hour. This is important, because even in 2013, Radiator Springs Racers (photos) still has quite long lines (often exceeding two hours) and FastPasses for it run out within an hour of official park opening. The Extra Magic Hour really makes experiencing Radiator Springs Racers multiple times much easier. If there is one perk that tips the scale in favor of staying in a Disney-owned hotel, this should probably be it.
Environment – As compared to Walt Disney World, there are few reasons to stay in a Disney-owned hotel at Disneyland. The most compelling reason is, easily, that staying in a Disney-owned hotel keeps you fully immersed in that “magic” Disney environment. Many people discuss liking to be inside the “Disney Bubble” when on vacation, and at Disneyland, that’s really only possible at the Disney-owned hotels. They each have their own restaurants, Disney details, and can generally be accessed without seeing the rest of the “real” world. You won’t see Denny’s or Coldstone Ice Cream as you head directly from the Grand Californian Hotel right into its theme park entrance. You won’t find theming to an arts & crafts movement-era National Park lodge or a monorail pool at the off-site hotels, either!
For some people, this is a big deal. The real world encroaching on the Disney experience snaps you back to reality pretty quickly. Others don’t mind seeing bits of the real world, and actually like having Denny’s by their hotel, as it’s a much cheaper place to eat than Disney’s restaurants. While I tend to side with those who want to be as entrenched in the Disney Bubble as much as possible, for the reasons below, we stay off-site at Disneyland in the hotels right across from Disneyland Resort on Harbor Boulevard.
Distance to the Parks – The most compelling reason is that you can typically find an off-site hotel that is closer to Disneyland Resort than an on-site hotel. Sort of makes the terms off-site and on-site misnomers, right? Although Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa is the closest hotel to Disneyland Resort, there are several hotels directly across the street from Disneyland Resort’s Esplanade (the open area between the two parks) that are a five minute walk to the turnstiles.
Even if you’re hotel does happen to be further from the Esplanade than Disneyland Hotel or Paradise Pier Hotel (which are both around 10-15 minutes away), there’s still a good chance your hotel will be within walking distance. You can–and should–easily be able to book a hotel within walking distance from Disneyland. Even if for some reason you book a hotel that isn’t within walking distance, chances are you can cheaply get to it via a hotel shuttle that it offers, or the Anaheim Resort Transit.
You’ll likely notice that because Disneyland Resort only has three hotels of its own, and it certainly can’t meet all of the needs of guests with these three hotels, Disneyland has a better working relationship with the “Good Neighbor Hotels” in the area. They’re obviously still competition to Disneyland in some regards, but they’re not direct competition like the cheap hotels at Walt Disney World are to the off-site hotels. You can book packages through Disney that include stays at the Good Neighbor Hotels, and these include some of the same perks that are included with on-site packages.
Cost – Disneyland doesn’t have Value Resorts. Rack rates start at over $200 per night for both Disneyland Hotel and Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel. Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa is crazy-expensive (think of it as the sister resort of Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa). Prices there range from around $300 to $500 per night. There are frequently Annual Passholder discounts for these hotels and sometimes public discounts, but these hotels are all still well over $150 per night even with the discounts. And that’s the value-season, non-weekend, price. During the busiest times of the year at Disneyland, rooms in these hotels can cost much more.
By contrast, there is a surplus of hotel rooms near Disneyland, so you can book them for bargain prices. One that used to be a favorite of ours, the Anaheim Desert Inn & Suites is right across the Esplanade and used to be cheap, has gone up in price since Cars Land opened, but others are still a steal.
If you aren’t particular with regard to which hotel you get, we recommend Hotwire’s “best rate” feature. It’s not unheard of to book off-site hotels near Disneyland $49 or $59/night via Hotwire. Unfortunately, many times these hotels are not within walking distance, which we consider a huge downside. You usually won’t get one of the hotels right across the street from the Esplanade, but it’s easy to score a close hotel.
Some “across the street” hotels at which we’ve stayed include the aforementioned Desert Inn, Anaheim Fairfield Inn by Marriott, and Del Sol Inn – Anaheim Resort, and all have been fine (although none are the height of luxury–you’re paying for the location). There are a lot of cheap walking-distance hotels, and they vary greatly in quality–stay tuned for a future article reviewing some of our favorites. These three hotels (and others) are closer to Disneyland than both Paradise Pier Hotel and Disneyland Hotel! The rooms are okay–certainly not as gorgeous as the newly refurbished rooms in Disneyland Hotel–but there’s a substantial difference in price. If you’re traveling on a budget, choosing one of these across the street hotels over one of the Disney-owned hotels is an easy decision. If even these hotels are too expensive, an option we like is Alpine Inn on Katella. It’s still within walking distance and is normally relatively inexpensive.
Few On-Site Benefits – With the exception of the Disney theming in the hotel and the Extra Magic Hours benefit discussed above (which is really only helpful for Radiator Springs Racers, unless you’re visiting during a peak time of year), the only real benefits of staying in a Disney-owned hotel are Magic Morning Early Admission and Mickey’s Toontown Morning Madness. Both of these perks are also available to guests who book packages to stay in Good Neighbor Hotels or buy 3-day tickets.
I’ve heard very positive things about Extra Magic Hours, which is a great way to experience a lot of attractions in the morning before crowds appear during peak season. Magic Mornings (which function similarly to Extra Magic Hour, except are open to anyone with a qualifying ticket) are useful, especially for Fantasyland. With the condensed layout of Disneyland’s Fantasyland, it certainly seems conceivable to accomplish 10 or more attractions in that first hour if you play your cards right with either Extra Magic Hour or Magic Mornings.
If these options confuse you, don’t feel bad. Disneyland’s website explains the differences and when each is offered.
By contrast, the reviews for Toontown Morning Madness are mediocre, at best. Toontown Morning Madness allows guests who booked a package through Disney to enter Toontown, which normally opens after the rest of the park, an hour earlier on select days if they present a voucher. Meet & Greet characters are out, and guests can ride Gadget’s Go-Coaster and Roger Rabbit’s Cartoon Spin. The general consensus seems to be that, since so many people receive these vouchers, Toontown is actually more busy during Morning Madness than it normally is, because guests are disproportionately driven there. These Character Meet & Greets are unique to Morning Madness and meeting characters can be a lot of fun, but long lines for rides is never fun. Just like the name suggests, expect “madness” with this one.
If you’re a Walt Disney World regular who stays on site there for the perks offered there to on-site guests, don’t expect anything comparable at Disneyland. There are no evening Extra Magic Hours. There is no Disney’s Magical Express. Walking is the best way to get to Disneyland, so the transportation system at Disneyland isn’t as important. The Disney Dining Plan that you can book when staying at Walt Disney Word isn’t offered at Disneyland; instead, there’s the lackluster Disneyland Dining in the Magic package.
Off-site hotels are cheaper, can be just as close to the parks, and offer most of the same perks as on-site Disney-owned hotels with the very big exception of early access to Cars Land. Beyond that, the biggest reason to stay in a Disney-owned hotel at Disneyland is if you want the Disney theming and environment. For some, myself included, this is a big part of the experience of visiting the Disney theme parks. However, when that aspect of the experience is so costly, we’ll usually stay off-site unless we visit during one of the busiest seasons. While we always stay on-site at Walt Disney World, the off-site accessibility to Disneyland and the comparative lack of perks for staying on-site makes staying on-site at Disneyland less appealing to us.
For Disneyland trip planning tips and comprehensive advice, make sure to read our Disneyland Trip Planning Guide and related articles.
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Do you normally stay on-site or in a nearby off-site hotel at Disneyland Resort? Has your opinion on off-site v. on-site changed since Cars Land opened in Disney California Adventure? Share your thoughts in the comments!