One of the most difficult decisions when planning for a Walt Disney World vacations can be whether you should stay on-site or off-site. This post weighs the pros and cons of each option, and presents an unbiased look at hotels that are not Disney hotels. (Last updated April 1, 2019.)
We stress this “unbiased” aspect because it seems like there’s a stigma around off-site hotels for many Disney fans. The mental picture of non-Disney hotels is shady dives that are unclean and even unsafe. While there are certainly some sketchy places in Orlando where we’d never consider staying, there are also some exceptional, 5-star hotels. In fact, it’s arguable that the top 5 hotels in Central Florida do not have “Disney’s” in the name.
To that end, we’ll try to fairly address the benefits and downsides to each option. Walt Disney World resort hotels have a lot of great benefits and are a compelling choice for many guests, but the hundreds of local off-site hotels offer many equally compelling reasons as to why guests should stay off-site. If you already know whether you want to stay on-site or off-site, you should skip this article and go directly to our Walt Disney World Hotel Reviews index page to determine which hotel is right for you…
For many people considering where to stay at Walt Disney World, price will be the determining factor, as it can be cheaper to do a Walt Disney World Trip on a Budget while staying off-site. However, this isn’t always the case, and there are other factors to consider before booking. Those with small vacation budgets might be surprised to find that, in some circumstances, it’s better for them to stay on-site, and those with large vacation budgets might be better served by staying off-site.
When this post was originally written, we had never stayed off-site at Walt Disney World, but I aimed at writing an article that objectively looked at all of the pros and cons of both staying off-site and staying on-site. At that point, we only had limited experience staying off-site, as our personal preference was (and still is, admittedly) staying on-site at Walt Disney World, for reasons we’ll discuss below.
Since then, we’ve stayed at numerous off-site hotels near Walt Disney World on several occasions, many of which have been for the sake of research. We’ve revised this post several times to reflect how those off-site stays have changed our perspective. In the process, we’ve also added some specific off-site hotel recommendations.
Let’s get started with the pros and cons of staying off-site versus on-site at Walt Disney World…
Benefits of Staying On-Site
The biggest benefit of staying at an on-site Walt Disney World resort hotel is convenience. To one degree or another, just about every “pro” radiates out from here. The hotels are generally closer to the parks, which in some cases can mean it’s as simple as walking or taking a monorail or boat from the hotel to the park.
This short and simple commute can enable parties to split up more easily or go back to the hotel for a midday nap without killing a large chunk of the day. This convenience can make the day more efficient and enable your party to accomplish more. This is primarily a benefit if Walt Disney World is the top or sole priority on vacation–as other non-Disney parks continue to add more compelling attractions, this is becoming less important to many guests.
The efficiency of the transportation provided to Walt Disney World resort hotel guests is hotly disputed, but it is a nice perk. Our perspective is that the included transportation is “good enough” and in the rare cases when there’s a problem, we will simply use Uber or Lyft to supplement Disney transportation.
We seldom rent a car on our trips to Walt Disney World, as we find it much more convenient to just hop on a bus, monorail, boat, or even walk from our hotel to the parks than have to hassle with navigating the roads, parking, and trams. We have the “pleasure” of dealing with all of that junk (minus the trams) in our daily lives–it’s nice not to deal with it on vacation.
Extra Magic Hours are a convenient way to do more in the parks. On different days, certain parks at Walt Disney World open early or stay open late only for Walt Disney World resort hotel guests. For early risers or night owls, this is a great way to “extend” the operational day at Walt Disney World and get more done.
One thing to note with Extra Magic Hours is that it has been expanded for each of the last two years to include the third party hotels. Last year, the Disney Springs Resort Area Hotels were added. For 2019, the Bonnet Creek Resorts have been added to the Extra Magic Hours lineup.
In part, these hotels have started offering Extra Magic Hours due to decreased availability at Walt Disney World resorts, which are also being built at a record pace. Demand for Walt Disney World hotels is only going to increase later this year with the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. The point here, though, is that the guest pool for Extra Magic Hours is ever-growing.
Theming is another benefit of staying on-site, in that your hotel is an extension of the theme park experience. It has its own distinct design and may not always scream “Disney” with icons from animated films, but the on-site Walt Disney World resort hotels feel very similar to the parks in terms of thematic yarns.
For the most part, they don’t feel like ordinary hotels any more than the Disney theme parks feel like ordinary amusement parks. They have an additional layer of detail and storytelling to “transport” guests to a different time and place. In simple terms of luxury, Disney hotels don’t always surpass their real world counterparts, but they almost always have better theme.
Along those same lines, one of the biggest benefits for us of staying at an on-site Walt Disney World hotel is being immersed in the “Disney bubble.” This isn’t one you’ll find on an amenities list, and it’s where our otherwise attempt at an objective comparison fails. For us and many people traveling to Walt Disney World, being insulated from the real world is appealing. From the moment we step onto the Disney’s Magical Express bus until we step back off of it at the airport, we’re encapsulated in the Walt Disney World experience.
Of course, there are some intrusions, but for the most part, it’s an escape from reality to a fantasyland of sorts. A lot of people won’t understand this or simply won’t care for it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you fall in that category, an off-site hotel is more likely to appeal to you. You simply cannot get this experience while staying at an off-site hotel.
Benefits of Staying Off-Site
Many Disney fans are going to recommend everyone stay at a Disney-owned on-site hotel for their trip. As you can see from the section above, there are a lot of advantages to doing this. However, it’s important for us fans to remember that not everyone is nuts about being immersed in the “Disney experience,” and off-site hotels can offer great advantages for other guests.
The biggest advantage to off-site hotels is bang for buck. This is usually expressed as off-site hotels being “cheaper,” but that’s not all it is. Even if you want luxury accommodations that aren’t going to be cheaper than all on-site hotels, you will find that they offer better value off-site. In other words, you’re not paying Disney’s premium for its name, reputation, and location. There’s more competition among off-site hotels, keeping prices low.
Even if you aren’t necessarily looking for a bargain basement price on a hotel, you’ll typically get more value out of non-Disney hotels. In addition to this, although Disney does many things well, their best hotels simply do not compete with the best real world hotels in terms of luxury.
We have a list of the Top 10 Off-Site Hotels Near Walt Disney World, which primarily focuses on the luxurious options. The list also includes a couple of villa/vacation home style resorts that are large enough to accommodate families of 5 or more, and are competitively-priced.
By contrast, Disney is somewhat insulated from being concerned with off-site competition. For visitors who want the on-site location, a seamless ‘bubble’ experience from their resort to the theme parks, or rooms with specific Disney themes, off-site is far less appealing.
Disney is also great at pushing its vacation packages, which are essentially Disney’s version of an all-inclusive deal, and many people prefer that as there’s less stress and hassle. And then there are Disney “addicts” like us, to whom Walt Disney World hotel rooms sell themselves. Suffice to say, Disney has what would otherwise be above-market demand for its rooms that allow it to price those rooms higher than comparable rooms off-site.
This means that a budget or value hotel that might cost $120/night at Walt Disney World might have a comparable equivalent off-site for around $40/night. A luxury hotel that might cost over $400/night on-site at Walt Disney World may have an analogue off-site for around $150/night. Whether this premium pricing for being in the Disney bubble (“location, location, location!”) is worth it to you is a personal question.
It’s worth noting that these prices for on-site Walt Disney World hotels are ballpark numbers assuming modest discounts. There are certain times of year–namely October–when discounts are scarce to non-existent. During these peak travel dates, WDW hotels might cost considerably more. The resort occupancy rate at Walt Disney is really high during some stretches, and this is a problem that’ll only be exacerbated once Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens in August 2019.
Besides saving money, which is the biggest advantage to staying off-site, there are some other minor benefits. Although we mention Disney theming as an advantage of staying on-site in that section above, it may be a disadvantage to you. After a long day in the parks, you might be having sensory overload at the end of the day and just wanting to get away from all things Disney. If you’re not a huge Disney fan, staying off-site might be a nice reprieve during your trip.
Along those same lines, due to work or other travel, you might have loyalty to a specific chain of hotels. If you have status or points at one of those chains and want to take advantage of it, you have an obvious advantage in staying at those hotels. We are Hyatt Gold Passport Platinum members, entitling us to a variety of perks there, so whenever we travel to non-Disney locations, we try to stay at a Hyatt. For a lot of people, the familiarity and known quality of a major chain like this is very appealing, even if they have no points to use.
Much like on-site hotels, it’s important to remember that not all off-site hotels are created equal. In this article, we are sort of using the terms “off-site” and “non-Disney” interchangeably, but there are many non-Disney hotels that are located on Walt Disney World property. While none of these offer all of the benefits of Disney-owned hotels, some of the hotels do offer certain perks.
For example, the Swan & Dolphin are walking distance to Epcot. Other non-Disney hotels have character meals. Amenities vary widely from hotel to hotel, but at off-site hotels, you might also be able to get free continental breakfast to help sweeten the deal (and save more money).
The flip side to this is that you might find “hidden” fees at various off-site hotels. We cannot stand these “resort fees” as they are incredibly consumer-unfriendly. Some are known to charge non-optional resort fees for “wellness packages” (their term, not ours) including things like internet, newspaper, and bottled water. Others charge for parking, which could be an issue if you have a rental car. It’s important to factor in all fees when comparison shopping hotel pricing, as that “great deal” might not be nearly as good of an option once you tack on all of those non-optional fees.
Another benefit to staying off-site is the ability to get accommodations that are better tailored to your family size and needs. Outside of Walt Disney World property, vacation homes, suites, and all sorts of varying sized accommodations all can be found at a multitude of price points. It’s much easier to find accommodations with individual rooms for everyone, a kitchen, activities room, or whatever you might want for your vacation if you stay off-site. These rooms do exist on-property, but most of the time their pricing puts them firmly in the Deluxe tier, making them cost prohibitive for many groups.
There are a few other advantages to staying off-site. You may not care about the perks Disney offers to on-site Walt Disney World guests, or you may feel the off-site perks are better. For example, an off-site hotel offering free continental breakfast or that is pet friendly may be better for your family than Extra Magic Hours that you’d never use anyway. The off-site hotel might have an airport shuttle and shuttle service to the parks–and not just the Disney parks! Every hotel is different in this regard, and the perks offered at your hotel of choice might be superior to the perks offered to on-site Walt Disney World resort hotel guests.
Let’s illustrate all of the above through a couple of examples. Meet the fictional Costanza family from New York. The Costanza family has 2 kids (they also have 7 pet hamsters, none of which will be joining them on this trip). The parents enjoy luxury hotels and the kids like Disney. They like the location of the Epcot-area hotels, but location isn’t a deal-breaker since they’ll be visiting Universal Orlando and SeaWorld, too.
The Costanza family wants to visit Orlando for a last-minute holiday from July 7 until July 14. If they book their entire stay at Disney’s BoardWalk Inn, the hotel will cost them $3,213 after taxes and fees. If they stay at the Gaylord Palms Resort (a Marriot hotel, so they might even be able to earn/use rewards there), it will cost them $1,622.22 after taxes and resort fees.
Neither hotel has anything in the way of discounts for them. While they’d prefer the location of Disney’s BoardWalk Inn, the Gaylord Palms is arguably the superior hotel in terms of quality, and has DreamWorks characters for the kids, making the hotels more or less equal.
None of the Walt Disney World on-site perks matter to them: they will rent a car regardless, never stay past the fireworks when visiting Walt Disney World, and cannot fathom eating all of the food the Disney Dining Plan provides. They save a huge amount of money without giving up anything they really want.
Contrast them with the not-so-fictional Bricker family; they also want to visit for a last-minute vacation from July 7 until 14. These folks are so nuts about Disney that even though they don’t have kids, they write a blog about traveling to different Disney parks! (TALK ABOUT CRAZY! ;))
They take advantage of most on-site Walt Disney World perks, all of which are a fairly big deal to them. Although they are on the frugal side, they are willing to pay a premium to stay on-site because location and being immersed in a Disney environment are important to them. They also enjoy Epcot-area hotels, and will only be visiting Walt Disney World, so will be renting a car or using Uber/Lyft if they stay off-site but won’t rent a car if they stay on-site.
On an average trip, they can rent a car for the duration of their trip for ~$20/day before taxes. Let’s call that $30/day after taxes and gas. Uber or Lyft twice per day (to and from the parks) would be roughly the same cost, and a better option if they would otherwise have to pay for parking. (They are Annual Passholders, so it’s free for them, regardless of where they stay.)
For them, convenience of not having to worry about transportation and Extra Magic Hours has a lot of value. Plus, there’s the incalculable “x-factor” of staying on-site immersed in the Walt Disney World “bubble” making it worth the extra cost. They spend extra on the hotel, but to them, it’s worth the money.
In reality, the Brickers would plan better to avoid paying rack rate–or they’d downgrade to a cheaper Walt Disney World hotel and pay the same or less than the Costanza family staying at the Gaylord Palms (albeit for lesser accommodations). In this post covering the actual cost of a Walt Disney World vacation, you can see ways they might “downgrade” to cover the price difference.
While the rental car and parking costs don’t quite tip the scales if comparing the Gaylord Palms to a Deluxe Walt Disney World hotel, the scales are tipped if you move down in resort tiers. The cost of a rental car and parking remain the same, but the total dollar difference between an off-site budget hotel and an on-site Value Resort is significantly lower, meaning that rental car and parking costs–or lack thereof–can bridge the gap if you wouldn’t rent a car when staying on-site.
In short, the cheapest inclusive off-site option is more expensive than the cheapest inclusive on-site option. That means sacrificing hotel quality, but for some people, absolute cost or the perks and ambiance offered by a lower tier on-site hotel will be more important than the star-level of the hotel.
I know that’s a lot to digest, so hopefully it makes sense. The bolded part of the above is really the most important takeaway here.
Overall, there’s a lot to consider when determining whether you want to stay off-site or on-site at Walt Disney World, and there’s no one size fits all answer as to which is “better.” As you can see, even when faced with the same math, it’s easy for two different groups to make very different decisions. The subjective factors are almost always going to be the overriding ones, and savings that seem to make staying off-site a no-brainer slam dunk for some guests may be insufficient to lure others off-site. Whether the on-site premium is “worth it” to you is largely a matter of personal preference, but hopefully this post presented some objective considerations for you to weigh and make the decision for yourself.