One of the best parts about the Disney parks is outside the gates, at the resort hotels that extend the sense of immersive theme and offering uniquely compelling experiences of their own. We’ve stayed at nearly every hotel at Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disneyland, Hong Kong Disneyland, and Shanghai Disneyland (and the four we haven’t stayed at we’ve visited) to bring you this list.
This list is weighted almost entirely towards theme and design–it’s really more a list of Imagineering’s best work than it is the best hotels in the traditional sense of how those are review. Room quality, dining, and other amenities are factored in to only a very minor degree. Basically, I’m focusing on what I think most defines a Disney resort, and choosing the resorts that best exemplify those qualities.
This post has been a long time in the making, as I believe I first teased it nearly two years ago. It’s been in draft for a while now, with many additions and removals during that time. My resort preferences frequently change, and my hope was to get something close to ‘concrete’ with this list.
There’s almost no chance of that happening. At their core, there are so many Disney resorts that are thematically excellent. While I may not like the recent moves to strip away theming from guest rooms, this is only a trend at Walt Disney World. Even there, the practice has (thankfully) not been extended to common areas.
Anyway, here’s the list. You might notice a “few” more hotels than seven have made the cut…
Port Orleans – While most guests staying at Riverside and French Quarter are unlikely to visit the other, these sister properties are a short boat ride or walk from one another. This might be starting the list off with a controversial pick, especially since the Port Orleans Resorts make the cut at the exclusion of the likes of Grand Floridian, Contemporary, BoardWalk, and others.
However, we feel there’s something to be said for a resort doing more with less, and these resorts are far more immersive and romantic than you’d expect from Moderates. The quiet pathways that criss-cross Port Orleans Riverside make it a great place to take a romantic stroll late at night. These grounds are interesting and engaging, with rich wilderness in the bayou and perfectly manicured gardens around the mansions.
French Quarter is likewise charming thematically, and its idealized presentation of New Orleans is fun. It’s not quite on par with Riverside, which benefits from the larger layout, but it manages to distill and convey an idealized version of New Orleans. We’ve long recommended these two resorts as solid budget options for an adults-only or honeymoon trip.
Yacht & Beach Club – Another case of sister resorts, and despite this pair being physically connected to one another, they arguably have less in common than the two Port Orleans Resorts. The theme and tone of each ‘Club’ resort is dramatically different, and that these connected resorts manage to convey two similar yet contrasting themes is a big part of their appeal.
Beach Club is themed to evoke the seaside resort cottages scattered around New England in the early 20th Century. It’s very laid back; both in the substance of the theme, and the styles used. There are a lot of light colors and pastels, and this makes for a relaxing environment. In some ways, Beach Club shares more with BoardWalk Inn in terms of theme and atmosphere than it does with Yacht Club.
The tone changes considerably as the resort transitions to Yacht Club, which feels like an actual high-society yachting club set in turn of the century New England. The color scheme is muted and darker, and there’s also an abundance of deep woods, nautically-themed antiques, and rich furniture throughout the resort. The stately environment could pass for a place where the Kennedys and other elites might have met for liquid lunches and made power plays.
Aulani – Disney’s three stand-alone resorts have arguably been failures from a financial perspective, but they’re definitely successes from a thematic perspective. Aulani is the definite champ among these resorts, which have the unique challenge of providing enough “Disney” without nearby theme parks. Aulani also interestingly flips the script on themed Hawaiian resorts, having a lot in common with the next entry on our list in that regard.
One of Aulani’s great strengths is that it manages to balance luxury and theme exceptionally well. Aulani doesn’t stop there. By virtue of no theme park being near it, the resort’s programming also needs to deliver–and it does. From the resort’s impressive Hawaiian art collection to the sprawling Waikolohe Valley pool area to the daily events and activities that emphasize authentic cultural experiences, there is more to do, see, and enjoy at Aulani than any other Disney resort in the world.
Animal Kingdom Lodge – On our various Walt Disney World hotel rankings over the years, Animal Kingdom Lodge has been #1. From the meticulous design that mirrors the eponymous theme park to the art collection on display through common areas and guest hallways, Animal Kingdom Lodge is a hotel that really rewards those guests who are willing to spend the time drinking in its details.
Then there are the living, breathing animals that graze on the 4 savannas outside of the hotel. This expansive savanna outside the resort, where 30 species of animals roam and are visible from many guest room balconies is perhaps the most unique and impressive “amenity” at any Disney resort in the world.
While Animal Kingdom Lodge draws obvious comparisons to Wilderness Lodge, we’d offer a different one: EPCOT. Animal Kingdom Lodge is essentially an “eduresort” thanks to its unrivaled level of cultural authenticity, impressive collection of art, plus animal observation and education offerings. There’s more to Animal Kingdom Lodge than immersive theming–you are actually inspired and educated by the resort.
Disneyland Hotel – All of them. Originally, I was debating whether the honor should go to the dissimilar Anaheim and Paris resorts, but the somewhat similar Disneyland Hotels in Hong Kong and Tokyo, as well as Shanghai’s twist on the concept, all of which also excel in their own regards.
This is as much a cop out as an realization that each of the Disneyland Hotels do certain things really well, and other things only okay. In its ideal or conceptual form, the Paris version is my favorite. However, maintenance and tired rooms drag it down. Tokyo’s has impressive grandiosity and sophistication, but lacks warmth and a lived-in sensibility. Anaheim’s offers a lovely, self-referential tribute, but lacks organic theme. Shanghai is regal, but feels as if corners were cut.
Same with Hong Kong, which is arguably superior to the Grand Floridian in all regards other than the lackluster lobby. Speaking of Grand Floridian, it’s a “Disneyland Hotel” by another name. Grand Floridian deserves praise for its extravagance, but criticism for a number of dated and puzzling design choices.
Hotel MiraCosta – For most who have stayed here, Hotel Miracosta is probably #1. It oozes opulence, and is unquestionably the most ornate and detailed Disney hotel in the world. Themed to Portofino and Venice, it provides the perfect backdrop to Mediterranean Harbor, thanks to its location inside Tokyo DisneySea.
That alone earns it significant praise, and there’s something to be said for gazing at Mount Prometheus, the Venetian Gondolas, or even Aquasphere Plaza from your room. The common areas of the hotel epitomize high-end luxury, and it does an excellent job with the lavish design without ever devolving into ostentatious or tacky territory.
Wilderness Lodge – This list is about tough choices, and I’m making a difficult one here by putting Wilderness Lodge above Hotel MiraCosta, but I think it deserves the honor. Hotel MiraCosta is worthy of every superlative tossed its direction, but Wilderness Lodge really earns this spot because it threads a more delicate needle: exquisitely themed spaces in a rustic setting that still manages to impart a sense of luxury and grandiosity.
Wilderness Lodge also feels worlds away from Walt Disney World (honorable mention here to Fort Wilderness, about which the same can be said). That a hotel in Florida can evoke the spirit of the Christmas season so well factors in heavily here, too. From my perspective, it’s this superlative themed design, suspension of disbelief, and transportive place that makes Wilderness Lodge the pinnacle of hotel Imagineering.
Due to their similarities, I’m also including Wilderness Lodge at the exclusion of the Grand Californian and Sequoia Lodge, both of which appear similar at first blush, but are quite different. It pains me to do this, as both are to my personal tastes and would be very deserving of spots on this list even if they weren’t.
All three draw liberally from United States National Park Lodges, but Grand Californian famously is influenced by Craftsman architecture found throughout America’s greatest state, whereas Sequoia Lodge borrows from Frank Lloyd Wright’s modern Prairie Style. All three have their own highlights and each could individually make this list, but Wilderness Lodge is most deserving of a spot.
That covers it in terms of the best Disney resort hotels in the world. Even with several entries here including multiple hotels, there are still a number of resorts we snubbed entirely. The most notable of these are Explorers Lodge, BoardWalk Inn, Polynesian, Ambassador Hotel, and Vero Beach.
Which Disney hotels are your favorites? Any we didn’t include that you think deserve to make the cut? Agree or disagree with our selections? Any questions? We love hearing from readers, so please share any other thoughts or questions you have in the comments below!