I still remember the first time I heard a scary story about Walt Disney World. I was a kid, maybe around 10 years old, and my parents were talking with a family that was staying at the new on-site budget motels. I don’t recall their laundry list of complaints, but the one has stuck with me for years since: the toilet exploded.
Stupid as it sounds, I imagined something like the Hollywood Tower Hotel, but with exploding toilets. Everything I envisioned was almost certainly untrue, but I was a kid with a vivid imagination. What’s particularly aggravating (at least for me) is that I still remember this silly conversation, but yet I have zero memories of Horizons. Memories can be cruel.
This isn’t the only horror story about Walt Disney World’s budget motels I’ve heard over the years. When Sarah and I started returning as adults, there were plenty more tales we were told about the overcrowded, dirty, poorly-maintained, low-quality motels. We even had our own unpleasant experiences during Pop Warner and another youth sporting event. It’s not just us. I’ve read reports and seen questions on social media and online forums that essentially ask: are Disney’s All Star Resorts “good enough” for a family on a tight budget traveling to Walt Disney World?
Yes. That’s the answer to the titular question. Disney’s All Star Resorts are perfectly adequate, at bare minimum. I’m not going to bury the lede, make insinuations, or lead you to question whether the All Stars are sufficient, safe, scary, subpar, and so forth. The point of this post actually isn’t to cast doubt about the All Stars, but rather, debunk some of those ‘horror’ stories, and recast Walt Disney World’s “budget motels” in a different light. In other words, we’ll explain why the All Stars aren’t just “good enough,” but rather, are actually good.
As background, we’ve stayed at every single one of the All Stars (Movies, Sports, and Music) multiple times in both the old and new rooms at each of the resorts. This includes three stays in the last year (family suite once; standard rooms twice), with one more reservation on the books going forward and probably another this year after that. Bluntly, I would not keep booking a particular hotel if it regularly (or even occasionally) had exploding toilet incidents.
With that in mind, let’s take this point by point and discuss the potential problem points that Disney’s All Star Resorts do not actually have…
Maintenance & Upkeep – There was a time from the aughts right up until the room overhaul began that the All Stars were in rough shape. Faded decor all around, woefully outdated posters, and details that had not aged well and were in need of outright replacement.
As someone who has actually stayed in shady motels around Orlando and Anaheim, I would stop well short of calling the All Stars that, even at their lowest point. Truly sketchy motels have an unsafe and unsettling quality to them; the All Stars never had that. They just were not up to Disney’s standards.
That has changed in the last 5 or so years, and even more so in the last year. Along with the room overhaul, common areas were refreshed, oversized icons were thoroughly cleaned and given a fresh coat of paint, and everything looks crisper and nicer as a result. There are still elements of the hotels that are dated, but they’re little things–small cues that the hotels were built in a different era, and not major components of the properties.
In short, maintenance and upkeep are now every bit as good at the All Star Resorts as other hotels at Walt Disney World. There are no noteworthy cleanliness issue, and to the extent that anything is dated, the same type of thing exists pretty much every at Walt Disney World. One person’s dated detail is another’s nostalgia.
The oversized icons, exterior hallways, and general thematic style of the All Stars are certainly not for everyone, but “not to my tastes” is certainly not the same as “poorly maintained.” In my view, the upkeep is no better or worse at the All Stars on average than other hotels at Walt Disney World.
Quality – Monorail loop and Crescent Lake area resorts are higher quality than the Value Resorts. Regardless of thematic tastes, it’s fair to say those are a rung or two above the Value Resorts. Those being more luxurious or having a greater sense of immersion isn’t really in question. They also have a better set of amenities, indoor hallways, table service restaurants, and objective features that are absent from the All Stars.
So this isn’t really about that. When questioned about the quality of the Value Resorts, the focus (it seems to me, at least) is less about the checklist of amenities and more about the subjective side of things. In particular, the most common query I’ve heard is whether the rooms are decent.
There was a while that my answer would’ve been something along the lines of “it depends.” They were cramped, dark, dreary, outdated–like Motel 6 but with a few Disney decorations affixed to the walls. Those original rooms were in keeping with what you’d find at real-world motels, but Disneyfied.
All of these new rooms at the All Stars are a huge upgrade from the previous design, which was more minor leagues than all-star caliber. The functional improvements are tremendous, with a variety of space-saving upgrades that make the rooms feel larger. They also look bright and airy, which is a sharp contrast to the old style.
With that said, we’ve found some diehard fans who have complained about the new rooms, and others who call them sterile and hospital-like. Respectfully, we think that’s mostly the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. To that point, I chatted with a manager at All Star Sports about the resort refurbishment during a recent stay. She told me that with only one (1) exception, the feedback from actual guests on the new rooms at All Star Sports has been universally positive. Across the board at the All Stars, guest satisfaction is up and Cast Members prefer the new rooms, too.
Crowds – Another common past complaint about the All Star Resorts is the crowds. Packed pools, overstuffed food courts during peak hours, tons of people loitering around the common areas, chaotic lobbies, and huge lines for the buses. We’ve experienced all of these things ourselves, so I know they actually happened and weren’t exaggerated.
That has not been our experience since the All Stars reopened. In fact, it also wasn’t our experience in the year-plus pre-closure, but we also always stayed while the room reimaginings were happening, which necessarily reduced the overall resort capacity and, by extension, cut down on overcrowding.
With that said, I’m hesitant to draw any premature conclusions here. I know at least two of the All Stars have been operating at reduced capacity due to staffing shortages and/or room refurbishments in the last year. With the former starting to be resolved and the latter ending, occupancy could spike again. I’m still skeptical that will be a frequent issue, though. (The worst we ever experienced was during Pop Warner, and that’s now hosted at Universal.)
Food – The food courts at the All Stars are nothing special. Suggesting otherwise would strain credulity and cast my credibility into doubt. With that said, they’ve all been refreshed in the last 5 years or so, and generally are more pleasant than they once were.
I cannot speak to breakfast, as it’s been years since I’ve wasted my money on powdered eggs and rubber bacon at a Walt Disney World food court. (Aside from ‘special’ breakfasts, we do grocery delivery and focus on fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods for our morning meal.)
However, I do think dinner has improved. In addition to the stereotypical fare, these food courts also serve up seared salmon, braised beef, pork loin, stir fry, and fried chicken. That’s better than I remember the options being a decade ago, but still hardly the pinnacle of WDW’s dining scene.
Transportation – There was a time when we built in the cost of two to three taxi trips with each stay at the All Stars, as bus lines over a certain length meant the waits would be unbearably long. That was about a decade ago–before Uber and Lyft came onto the scene. This was also at a time when shared transportation among all three All Stars was common, even during busier times.
We have not had this issue of late with bus transportation anywhere (Coronado Springs is the worst due to the addition of Gran Destino, and even that is not bad by 2007 to 2015 standards) at Walt Disney World. During our most recent stays at the All Stars, buses were frequent and efficient, and the only reason pickup times were ever inaccurate was when third-party Academy buses were dispatched (those aren’t connected to the wait times system), which was more like a “bonus bus” as opposed to an actual issue.
We’ve had zero problems making Early Entry or waiting in long lines when leaving the parks. Likewise, midday waits have been bearable, with no lengthy gaps or inconsistencies. The only caveat I’d offer here is that we’ve never left during the morning rope drop rush–our trips are always to arrive for Early Entry or later in the morning. Likewise, we never leave during the post-fireworks mass exodus. I’d imagine buses are still packed during those peak times, just like always.
Another caveat is that frame of reference matters. I’m comparing transportation at the All Stars today to how it was in the past; my perception is that it has improved as Disney has contracted with third party bus companies while also relieving strain on the system thanks to the Skyliner. If you’re comparing the All Stars of today to Pop Century of today, your perception will be very different.
Guests – Few things drive me crazier than guests passing judgment or casting aspersions on their fellow guests at Walt Disney World. There’s a belief among certain people that they are “too good” for a Value Resort or want to stay at a more expensive hotel not for any substantive reasons, but so they aren’t around “lower class” guests. This type of sentiment or the idea that Walt Disney World should be even more expensive to price out “undesirable” guests (these are all air quotes, by the way) is absolute nonsense at best, and downright offensive at worst.
Money does not buy class. The opposite is also true: an absence of money does not mean an absence of class. Bad behavior transcends income levels, and if anything, there’s a straight line between higher prices and more entitled guests. Beyond that, whose place is it to pass judgment on the working class family that skimped and saved to afford a rite of passage trip for their kids to Walt Disney World, but could only afford the All Stars? Are they any more or less ‘worthy’ than the middle class parents who maxed out their credit cards to stay at the Grand Floridian?
This whole conversation makes me uncomfortable, but it’s nevertheless worth addressing because I’ve heard plenty of derogatory terms to describe the All Stars and their supposed clientele. It’s all BS. There is no material difference in the nature of guests at any of the resorts. I’ve witnessed obnoxious and drunken behavior out of business people at the Yacht Club and Gran Destino Tower, and have enjoyed perfectly peaceful stays at the All Stars. To be sure, the decibel level is higher when these hotels are hosting youth events, but it’s possible to get lucky or unlucky with guests behaving badly at any of the resorts. People are alike all over.
Value – This is another one where frame of reference matters. If you’re a large party pricing out vacation home rentals as an alternative and you’ll be renting a car regardless as part of a Central Florida vacation, your perspective will differ dramatically from a smaller party that would not rent a car and is staying exclusively within the Disney bubble.
If you’re comparing an off-property vacation home rental, it’s always going to come out ahead relative to on-site Walt Disney World hotels. Those homes are great for larger parties, offering tons of space and private amenities. If you’d otherwise need multiple standard hotel rooms or a multi-room unit at Walt Disney World, you will pay less off-site. There’s no two ways of slicing it–and that’s not a comparison unique to the All Stars.
A scenario we’ve now experienced multiple times, which is actually what prompted this whole post, closely resembles the latter circumstances as a smaller party. We’re taking a trip in late spring that will be focused on Walt Disney World and have already determined that it’s more cost-effective for us to not rent a car. In pricing out hotel options, the least-expensive hotels in the Flamingo Crossings or Disney Springs areas are $115/night, with the suites we like all costing over $150/night. Decent off-site accommodations are at least $100/night. To be sure, there are cheaper options, but nowhere we want to stay.
By contrast, All Star Movies has an average rate of $121/night with an Annual Passholder discount. Obviously, the average tourist is not an Annual Passholder, so let’s use the general public offer instead, which increases the cost to $128/night. That’s still only a $13/night surcharge over the options at Flamingo Crossings or Disney Springs, where we’d be using Uber or Lyft twice per day at an average cost of around $15 per trip (we leave early and stay late, so surge pricing would be unlikely to apply).
That alone makes the All Stars more reasonable, and it’s before even accounting for Early Entry or other perks. I’d also add the whimsical resort grounds and fun pools as strengths of the All Stars. Even more subjective and perhaps controversial, but I also prefer the new standard rooms at the All Stars to most of those at Disney Springs or Flamingo Crossings, and I’d also rather use the Disney buses rather than Uber or Lyft (especially from Flamingo Crossings, where pickup times are often lengthy).
To be fair, this glosses over a lot offered by third party hotels. This includes everything from table service dining options to hotel loyalty rewards to free breakfasts and probably much more. Nevertheless, if the cost of a standard room at a third party hotel is $30 or less per night than the cheapest Value Resort, I’m booking one of the All Stars every single time. The cost of transportation makes them equal, and all else considered, I’ll take the All Stars on balance. That’s just me, though.
The other comparison, and where things get trickier for me, is when comparing the All Stars to Pop Century. The price gap between these can vary, but I’ve frequently found it to be about $30 to $50 per night after discounts. For the same dates as the above comparison, it’s a $40/night difference.
For us, the key difference between the All Stars and Pop Century is the Skyliner. The gondolas are a game-changer for us, and we’ve previously gone as far as to say that we prefer the Skyliner to the monorails (outside of storm season). Value is in the eye of the beholder, but having Skyliner access to EPCOT and Disney’s Hollywood Studios is absolutely worth $40/night to us. The Skyliner makes Early Entry easier and more predictable (at the two parks where I think it’s most valuable), facilitates midday breaks (from the one park where they’re most valuable), and makes it simple to do a nice breakfast or dinner at several different resorts.
Honestly, I think Walt Disney World fans take for granted just how impressive and unprecedented it is for Value Resorts to have access to such a streamlined transportation option. Gondolas are still a rarity in the United States, and even where they’re more common, they are pricey to use. Are there any other budget-friendly hotels that offer novel transportation?
Heck, just look at Walt Disney World before the Skyliner was added. The only resorts with non-bus transportation to the parks were all Deluxes, and the surcharge for monorail access was at least $100 night (the cheapest monorail loop rooms v. Wilderness Lodge, which is also a Magic Kingdom area resort; an imperfect comparison, but the best we can do). In light of that, $40 for the Skyliner seems perfectly fair. Beyond that, there are other minor reasons I’d prefer Pop Century to the All Stars, but they’re all significantly overshadowed by the Skyliner.
Ultimately, the answer to the titular question is an emphatic yes…as established by the fourth paragraph of the post and reinforced with the concrete and tangible examples of how the All Star Resorts have improved. Bus transportation, rooms, maintenance, and more have all improved by leaps and bounds in the last several years at the All Stars.
That sets the stage for what’s almost an entirely separate question, which is whether the All Star Resorts are competitive in terms of bang for buck. Despite their prices having gone up considerably from the halcyon days during the Great Recession when rooms were frequently under $80/night (I swear they were $49 at one point), so too have pretty much all hotels around Central Florida.
Given that and the improved quality of the rooms, transportation, on-site guest perks, and overall experience at the All Stars, I think a compelling case can be made for many parties to choose the All Stars over off-site accommodations. That’s without even addressing the emotional and subjective side of things–that emotional pull to be inside the Disney Bubble.
Finally, there’s the comparison to Pop Century, that other (regular) Value Resort at Walt Disney World. This is the point at which the comparison turns less favorable, and where I think Pop Century’s premium pricing is justified. Of course, reasonable minds may differ on the value added by the Skyliner (or any of the various variables discussed–or even overlooked–here).
With all of that said, we come full circle to the question of the title. If you’re a frugal traveler wanting to get the “full” Walt Disney World experience but unable to splurge or spend extra on Pop Century or another higher-tier resort, the cheapest hotels on-site are actually good. They’re not my first or even fifteenth choice among on-site accommodations I’d choose at Walt Disney World if money were no issue, but I don’t find myself regularly winning the lottery, so value does matter to me. I also don’t feel like I’m compromising on the quality of my overall experience when staying at the All Stars. If I did, I wouldn’t keep booking them!
Have you stayed at any of the All Star Resorts since their room reimaginings? What did you think of the room quality? What about the hotel(s) as a whole? How do you think these options compare to third party or off-site accommodations? What about relative to Pop Century or higher-tier hotels at Walt Disney World? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment that the All Stars are actually good hotel options for those wanting to be in the Disney bubble? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!