The Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin are on-site hotels near Epcot that are Deluxe-caliber. This review features photos of a newly renovated room in the Dolphin, thoughts about the collective amenities at both hotels, and a general summary of the hotels’ value.
Reviewing the Swan and/or Dolphin is a tricky proposition for a few reasons. First, what exactly are they in terms of classification? They are operated by Starwood, but dubbed “Walt Disney World resorts” and their location plus certain amenities (Disney transportation, Extra Magic Hours, etc.) put them in line with other Disney Resorts. However, they lack other perks (Disney’s Magical Express, Disney Dining Plan, etc.) found at Disney-owned resorts, and have some policies inconsistent with Disney-owned resorts.
I’m going to dub them “official unofficial Disney Resorts” as I think that incoherent moniker accurately summarizes the arrangement here. There’s also the question of treating them as one single hotel or two distinct hotels. As best I can tell, they are akin to the Yacht & Beach Club, except without any significant thematic differences. As such, I feel it appropriate to lump them together for the purposes of this review (the infallible TripAdvisor seems to agree with this approach).
I won’t bore you with the history of how deals Michael Eisner made gave these hotels their murky status (you can read DisneyWar for that) or the contrived, now abandoned backstory of the design choices of the hotels (you can read this excellent Jim Korkis article for that). Suffice to say, the Swan & Dolphin are among the most historically interesting of all the hotels at Walt Disney World, and the size and scale of the hotels has made them controversial and divisive among Walt Disney World fans.
Style is largely in the eye of the beholder, but I have to admit that I am not much of a Michael Graves (the architect for the hotels) fan. To his credit, he has a very distinct and “conversation-worthy” approach that makes many of his buildings instantly identifiable, but I’ve always found them to have a cold, impersonal look. Today, I think most of his work for Disney looks straight out of the 1990s, but I can’t really put my finger on why. Then again, I’m not a critic of architecture and really have no idea what I’m talking about from the perspective of architecture as art–this is all merely my gut-level reaction to the design.
Regardless of all that, there are benefits of being official unofficial Disney Resorts. The two biggest of these are location and price. Aside from Shades of Green (also a hotel with an interesting history and murky status), no other hotel that isn’t Disney-owned has as good of a location as the Swan & Dolphin. Located on Crescent Lake alongside BoardWalk Inn and Yacht & Beach Club, the Swan & Dolphin are within walking distance of both Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. With this prime piece of real estate, the Swan & Dolphin actually have a better location (in my estimation) than half of the Disney-owned hotels at Walt Disney World.
Then there’s the price. At prices often right around $200/night (including the resort fee), these rooms are substantially cheaper than their counterparts at the BoardWalk Inn and Yacht & Beach Club. Even accounting for an excellent promotion, it would be difficult for those Disney-owned hotels to compete with the Swan & Dolphin in terms of pricing, save for maybe 4 adults staying in one room during the “Free Dining” promo. Even then, Swan & Dolphin might have the edge.
However, being that they are not Disney-owned hotels, there’s the unfortunate side of the pricing model used by the Swan & Dolphin. First, there is the non-optional resort fee. I’ll be blunt: this really grinds my gears. Originally a product of hotels in Vegas wanting to mislead consumers, many hotels there are now dropping it due to backlash. The FTC agrees that this practice is unfriendly to consumers, and has admonished some hotel owners for the practice.
In fairness to Starwood, their resort fees are clear so I doubt they were one of the companies cited by the FTC, but that doesn’t change my opinion that this is a shady practice. If a fee is non-optional, as is the case here, include it in the total cost of the room. Don’t draw people in with a lower rate or nickel and dime them. That isn’t right.
On the topic of nickel and diming guests, there’s the issue of parking. Swan & Dolphin charge guests for parking, which Disney-owned hotels do not. You may think, “no big deal, I take Disney’s Magical Express anyway, so it won’t effect me.” Remember, though, the Swan & Dolphin don’t participate in Disney’s Magical Express, so you’re either paying for a shuttle or for a rental car plus parking.
Judging by the parking lot during my stay, the vast majority of guests rent cars and drive, making this another de facto fee. Moreover, one thing touted about Walt Disney World is the “blessing of size.” Let’s be realistic: this is Central Florida, not Times Square. Space isn’t exactly at a premium, and I have no reason to believe that the Swan & Dolphin have any sort of crunch for space.
Still, even with these two irritating fees rolled into the actual “out the door” price at the Swan & Dolphin, it comes out to just over $200/night most days. (Now is a good time to disclose that portions of my stay were comped entirely and on other nights I had a discounted rate.)
Once you get inside those doors, getting past those domineering exteriors and frustrating pricing, there’s actually a lot to like about the Swan & Dolphin. For me, this starts with Starwood.
I am an SPG cardholder and I’ve had the pleasure of staying at other Starwood hotels, and I’ve found it to be a solid brand with quality service. I am a big fan of Disney, but I don’t think hotel management is one of the company’s strong suits. In this regard, I think Starwood has the edge.
Another area where the Swan & Dolphin are strong is dining. I have not eaten at every restaurant in both hotels, but the lineup is pretty staggering, and everywhere I have dined has been solid. From Shula’s Steakhouse to Il Mulino to Kimonos to Todd English’s bluezoo to Garden Grove and more, these hotels have some of the best dining on property. While some of these restaurants can be pricey, I feel like their value is usually slightly better than other on-site locations.
At one point, you could get $25 Restaurants.com gift certificates for $10 for some of these locations, but I don’t see that deal available now (check for yourself before you visit to see if this changes). Kimonos is a popular hangout of mine during the karaoke hours, although I never make sure to have “too much” fun by getting up and singing.
For all of my comments about the design choices in these hotels, I have to say that I don’t mind the interiors quite so much. They still are far from my favorite, but I generally think they are “fine.” It’s really only the exteriors that get me riled up, and even those do have some redeeming features. If you’re big on theme, these hotels probably aren’t going to be for you, unless you consider postmodern design an ample substitute.
In this regard, the Swan & Dolphin are sort of like the Contemporary–modern design but in settings and with locations that distinguish them from ordinary modern luxury hotels. Rather this is a benefit or drawback depends upon your perspective.
For those wondering, if they were eligible, they would have been #6 or #7 on my Walt Disney World Deluxe Resort Rankings, due to being comparable to the Contemporary in style and location, gaining points on value, but losing points on theme.
Then there are the rooms. What you think of these rooms will largely be dictated by when you last stayed. My first visit to one of the rooms in the Dolphin was two years ago, and it was dated and, frankly, in horrible condition. I was actually a bit taken aback, as I had heard this hotel recommended by many friends, and I started to wonder if said friends were actually blind.
In the midst of a $125 million refurbishment, the new look of the hotel rooms is radically different. This time, I stayed in a refurbished room at the Swan (all of which were finished at the time of my stay) and it was excellent.
Excuse the photo quality here; I made the mistake of opening my blinds when taking the photos, which really messed up the white balance. You might want to look at the room photos on the Swan & Dolphin website, as my shots manage to have too much blue and too much yellow/orange.
What they’ve done with the new rooms is really nice, from the style to the quality of the carpet, furniture, and bedding. Normally, I stay away from the PR copy that hotel websites use, but in this case, they hit the nail on the head with their description of the bedding: “Heavenly Bed, featuring a pillow-top mattress, a white goose-down comforter, and four overstuffed pillows. You don’t just sleep in it, you lose yourself in it!” Yeah, that’s about right. In my experience, this was hands down the best bed I’ve “lost myself in” thus far at Walt Disney World.
The bathrooms are also really nice, with great lighting in the mirrors, plus sinks both outside and inside the shower room. The shower is a nice walk-in with decent water pressure.
Beyond the guest rooms, there are a whole host of other amenities at the Swan & Dolphin, from the pools to health club, tennis courts, jogging trails, spa, game room, watercraft rentals, art gallery, and more.
Even by Deluxe Resort standards, it’s a pretty solid lineup, and when adding the excellent dining to the equation, the Swan & Dolphin are very competitive with other Deluxes in this regard.
Speaking of pools, if they are your thing, the Swan & Dolphin are for you. They have approximately 37 different pools (okay, 5) with everything from award-winning lap pools to a beautiful grotto pool with rockwork and a waterfall that overlooks a white sand beach. There are poolside restaurants, kiddie pools, whirlpools, and more.
I didn’t test any of the pools during my visit for this review, but I went back and was able to take a dip in the grotto pool during a more recent stay. Wow. I think this is by far the best of the bunch. The Swan & Dolphin are right up there with Yacht & Beach Club for the crown of best pools at Walt Disney World.
Oh, and remember the Swan Boats in the Magic Kingdom? Probably not unless you visited prior to 1983, but if you do, the closest you can get to taking a cruise in a swan boat at Walt Disney World these days is renting one at the Swan & Dolphin.
The Swan Boats in the Magic Kingdom are before my time, but during my next stay at the Swan or Dolphin, I’m definitely giving one of these a try. A neat novelty, for sure.
Overall, the Swan & Dolphin hotels are going to be serve a specific subset of Walt Disney World guests very well, and another subset not so well. If you are a conventioneer or someone who wants a respite from the non-stop inundation of Disney when you head back to your hotel–but without sacrificing location–these hotels are definitely for you. If you’re a family looking for something with an immersive theme or that will appeal to your kids, there are probably better options at Walt Disney World for you. I stop short of saying “definitely” there because the Swan & Dolphin still might be good options, especially if you’re looking for a luxury experience, excellent amenities, or close proximity to the parks at a lower price point (and who knows, maybe your kids will be drawn to the “pyramids” of these hotels–I was as a child!). While the resort fees do bug me, the fact remains that prices here are significantly better than comparable Disney-owned hotels even with added costs factored in, and the amenities give virtually every Disney-owned hotel a run for its money.
To book a room at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, visit their website.
Not sure which Walt Disney World hotel is right for you? Check out our Walt Disney World Hotel Reviews page, which offers quick-hit capsule reviews of the strengths and weaknesses of every Walt Disney World hotel, plus links to our reviews and photo pages for every hotel we have reviewed.
Looking for comprehensive Walt Disney World vacation tips? Make sure to read our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide.
Do you like the look of the Swan & Dolphin or are they not your style? Have you stayed the Swan or Dolphin post-refurbishment? Pre-refurbishment? Planning on staying here someday? Share your thoughts in the comments!