Off-Site vs. On-Site Hotels at Disney World

Whether to stay in an on-site or off-site hotel is a big, important decision when planning your Walt Disney World vacation. This weighs the pros & cons, with an unbiased look at third party accommodations, Universal v. Disney resorts, and other options near the parks around Orlando, Florida. (Updated December 29, 2023.)

We stress the “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” 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 on a tighter 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 to stay on-site, and those with large vacation budgets might be better served by staying off-site.

We’ve stayed at numerous off-site and third party hotels near Walt Disney World, including every single Bonnet Creek, Disney Springs, and Universal Orlando Resorts–among many others. 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.

When it comes to this topic, a lot has changed in the last 3 years. The biggest blow to the on-site advantage at Walt Disney World was the retirement the ending Disney’s Magical Express, the airport shuttle service between MCO and Walt Disney World resorts that was an included perk for guests saying on-site. Guests now need to find their own ground transportation from the airport to their hotel–we cover the range of options in our Guide to Airport Transportation for Walt Disney World.

We have used Uber and Lyft on a number of occasions in the last year-plus for getting between Walt Disney World and MCO. These services are our recommendation for anyone who values their time and doesn’t want to break the bank with a private transfer. The other upside is that you can use them to get from MCO to any hotel in Central Florida. For an easy but less efficient option, Mears Connect is the shared shuttle services that is the spiritual successor to Disney’s Magical Express.

The good news is that aside from Disney’s Magical Express, most of the on-site perks are back or will return at some point in 2024 at Walt Disney World…

Benefits of Staying On-Site

Ride Reservation Booking Windows – There has been a lot of outrage about the paid Genie+ line-skipping service, which is Walt Disney World’s paid replacement to free FastPass+. (See our Guide to Genie+ at Walt Disney World & Lightning Lane FAQ for everything you need to know.) This is particularly understandable among on-site guests, who no longer have a material advantage when making ride reservations.

Well, that’s about to change–again. In response to guest feedback, advance booking of Lightning Lanes is coming to Walt Disney World in 2024. While the date this will happen is presently unknown, our expectation is that the new system will launch in Spring 2024. Our guess is that the goal is to have this ready for Spring Break, which would mean it debuts no later than early March 2024. So if you’re visiting before then, this is not relevant to you.

Pretty much everything else is also unknown about advance booking of Lightning Lanes, including what advantage will be offered to on-site guests. Previously, it was a 60 day window for on-site and 30 day for off-site. Our expectation is that it’ll be a much shorter timeframe than the old FastPass+ system, but far enough in advance that people with weeklong trips can book Lightning Lanes for the duration of their trips ahead of traveling. If we had to guess, it’d be 14 days vs. 7, or perhaps 30 vs. 14. (It’ll almost certainly be a month or less.)

Regardless of the exact number, this will be a huge advantage for on-site guests. Suffice to say, if you want Slinky Dog Dash, Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, Frozen Ever After, and other popular Lightning Lanes…you’ll pretty much need to be staying on-site!

Disney Dining Plan – The Quick-Service Disney Dining Plan (QSDDP) and standard or regular Disney Dining Plan (DDP) are now bookable for 2024 Walt Disney World vacations. For now, the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan (DxDDP) and Disney Dining Plan Plus (DDP+) remain unavailable. See our Ultimate Guide to the 2024 Disney Dining Plan for everything you need to know about the DDP, including whether it’s likely to be worth the money for you.

Although it’s very much a love-it-or-hate-it thing, the Disney Dining Plan is neither inherently good nor bad. It can be a great tool or a terrible waste of money depending upon how it’s used. For some people, the Disney Dining Plan is great. For others, it’s awful. Like so many things at Walt Disney World and in life, it’s not one-size-fits-all.

Regardless, the 2024 Disney Dining Plan is only available if you stay on-site and a lot of guests absolutely love it. Although we’re hardly DDP diehards, we’re glad to see the Disney Dining Plan returning. Our major hope is that this leads to even more normalcy on the food front, as it’s one of the few areas at Walt Disney World that is still far from firing on all cylinders as compared to pre-closure.

Bottom Dollar All-In Price – Value proposition is discussed below as a strength of off-site hotels, and it’s fairly undeniable that if you’re looking at larger or luxury accommodations, you will get way more bang for your buck off-site. At the high-end, Walt Disney World resorts are incredibly expensive, costing far more than almost all of their real world counterparts. (Excepting some of the fancy suites at the Four Seasons.)

That’s not necessarily the case at the lower end, though. Although a lot of longtime fans complain about price increases at the Value Resorts, these are fairly commensurate with Central Florida budget hotels that are safe and modern (important caveat there–if you don’t care about quality, there’s no shortage of sketchy hotels in Orlando!). This is something we cover at length in Are Walt Disney World’s Cheapest Hotels Actually Good? 

Our answer is yes. After discounts, you can routinely score rooms at the All Stars for under $125 per night. That’s still more expensive than off-site alternatives, but the big difference is that transportation, parking, Early Entry, etc. are all included. Once you start factoring in the cost or value of all those things, it more than bridges the gap. Obviously, individual circumstances will vary, but we’ve crunched the numbers repeatedly, and it’s rare for us to come out ahead staying off-site in budget accommodations. Totally different ballgame at the higher end of the spectrum, though.


Location & Convenience – 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.

Park Transportation – Once on property at Walt Disney World, guests can use a provided transportation between hotels, theme parks, and other locations on property. All of this transportation is complimentary (or built into the price of their room).

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 at Walt Disney World, as we find it much more convenient to just hop on a bus, monorail, boat, Skyliner gondola, 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.

Transportation is a huge advantage that can tip the scales in favor of staying on-site, as it can obviate the need for a rental car, which means not paying for that or parking at a hotel and at the theme parks. It’s worth doing the math before booking your hotel.

Free Resort Parking – One way Walt Disney World once again differentiates its hotels from real world alternatives in Orlando is by not charging for overnight self-parking. This actually returned recently–complimentary resort parking was an on-site perk until several years ago, until Disney followed the trend of other Orlando hotels and started charging for it.

At the time, the introduction of the parking fee was the most controversial change we had ever seen made by Walt Disney World. Not only did our post garner over 300 angry comments, but Walt Disney World got hit hard by negative reviews on crowdsourced travel sites like TripAdvisor and Google. I had never seen fans so mad–although backlash to the subsequent elimination of free FastPass and Disney’s Magical Express did exceed that response.

Free Parking at Theme Parks – In addition to overnight hotel self-parking, Walt Disney World resort hotel guests also receive complimentary standard parking at Walt Disney World theme parks, which is another plus.

In tandem, these two things take some of the sting out of the elimination of Disney’s Magical Express–at least for the guests who opt to rent a car while staying on-site. (That number will only grow, as Universal Orlando continues to expand and turn itself into an equally-compelling theme park destination.)

60+10 Rule – Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs) for Walt Disney World table service restaurants are currently available up to 60 days in advance for everyone. However, on-site guests can make ADRs for the duration of their trip (up to 10 days) up to 60 days prior to their resort check-in date.

This makes it easier to book all of your ADRs all at once rather than day-by-day. More importantly, the head start can be hugely advantageous in booking the most difficult-to-score Advance Dining Reservations, such as Chef Mickey’s, Story Book Dining at Artist Point, Cinderella’s Royal Table, Space 220, Topolino’s Terrace (breakfast), California Grill, and Akershus. By the time the 60 day mark rolls around, many of those will already be gone!

See our Guide to Booking Difficult Advance Dining Reservations at Walt Disney World, for how to best leverage this “60+10” ADR window, which is often misunderstood. (Admittedly, it being the “60+10” rule rather than simply the 70-day booking window is confusing, but there’s a reason for the distinction!) This rule can be a huge head-start for popular table service restaurants or larger parties, especially during busier travel dates. If character dining or highly themed restaurants are important to you, this is essential.

Individual Lightning Lane Priority – While there is no priority booking window for Genie+ Lightning Lane selections, the same is not true for the most popular attraction in each park. Paid line skipping for each of those can be purchased on an a la carte basis via Individual Lightning Lanes. (Confused yet?! If so, consult our Guide to Individual Lightning Lanes, which covers everything you need to know, including how to avoid paying extra for these by beating long lines with alternative strategies.)

When it comes to Individual Lightning Lanes, guests staying at a Walt Disney World resort hotel are able to purchase and schedule their ride reservations at 7 am, ahead of off-site guests, who can to do so when each park opens. Both Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance book up fast. 

If you’re not staying on-site, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to book either of those. When peak travel weeks–like those around Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Presidents’ Day, Easter–other rides might also sell out fast.

Early Theme Park Entry – This replaces morning Extra Magic Hours, or rather, is a spiritual successor to that on-site guest benefit. Whereas morning Extra Magic Hours were offered on select days and at select parks, Early Entry is offered at all 4 theme parks every single day. That makes it unavoidable for off-site guests who like to rope drop the parks.

The other big difference is that Extra Magic Hours lasted for an hour. By contrast, this is 30-minute access to any Walt Disney World theme park. That may not seem like much of a head start, but it can be huge. (Also, it usually ends up being more than 30 minutes in 2 parks.) As discussed in our Best Time-Saving Strategies for Walt Disney World, this is usually the top option in each park–with the notable exception of Magic Kingdom.

For strategy & info about how beneficial this perk can be, check out our Guide to Early Theme Park Entry at Walt Disney World.

Extended Evening Hours – This has a smaller pool of eligibility and occurs less frequently than Early Entry. It’s exclusively for guests staying at Deluxe Resorts, Deluxe Villas (Disney Vacation Club units), or other select hotels (only the Swan & Dolphin and Shades of Green). So Extended Evening Hours is not a “pure” on-site benefit.

Extended Evening Theme Park Hours occur two nights per week in total and are usually held at EPCOT and Magic Kingdom. Guests staying at Value or Moderate Resorts are not eligible for Extended Evening Hours. (Again, those guests are eligible for Early Theme Park Entry.) We’ve had some great no crowds experiences with Extended Evening Hours at Magic Kingdom and Epcot. See our Guide to Extended Evening Hours at Walt Disney World for strategy and other info.

Walt Disney World has confirmed that both Early Entry and Extended Evening Hours will continue throughout 2024.

Resort Fees – Hidden fees have proliferated in recent years at off-site Orlando hotels. We cannot stand these resort fees and recommend you fight back against the incredibly consumer-unfriendly practice. Thankfully, Walt Disney World has not reduced itself to tacking on a resort fee.

Some third-party hotels are known to charge non-optional resort fees for “wellness packages” (their term, not ours) including things like internet, newspaper, and bottled water. 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.

Vacation Packages – Many guests also find the convenience of booking a vacation package that covers all aspects of their trip preferable, and those packages necessarily include hotel accommodations. (We suggest buying your park tickets from sources other than Disney to save money.) However, there is something to be said for simply calling up Walt Disney World and buying your park tickets, room, dining, and transportation all in one fell swoop.

The biggest and best component of package bookings is the Disney Dining Plan, which is temporarily unavailable (see above). While we often rally against the illusory convenience of the Disney Dining Plan here, many people do find it more convenient than paying a la carte. More importantly, when the Free Disney Dining Plan promotion is offered, the only hotels at which it can be booked are the Disney-owned ones.

Disney Themed Design – Another benefit of staying on-site is that your hotel is an extension of the Walt Disney World 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 many people traveling to Walt Disney World, being insulated from the real world is appealing. From the moment you cross through those gateways that mark each entrance to Walt Disney World property until ending your trip, exhausted, and heading back to the airport, you’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

Value Proposition – 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.

If you want luxury accommodations, your best bet is to look elsewhere, such as the Four Seasons (which is actually on Walt Disney World property), the Waldorf Astoria, Ritz-Carlton, Hyatt Regency, etc. Even the Swan & Dolphin offer superior bedding and other amenities than any Walt Disney World resort hotels, and usually these can be booked for about the price of a Walt Disney World Moderate-tier hotel.

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.

Disney is somewhat insulated from 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 less appealing. Walt Disney World knows they have those advantages, and price their hotels accordingly.

A luxury hotel that might cost over $500+ per night on-site at Walt Disney World may have an analogue off-site for around $250/night. Whether this premium pricing for being in the Disney bubble (“location, location, location!”) is worth it to you is a personal question.

Loyalty Rewards – 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.

Other Perks & Amenities – This one is a very broad, but potentially very important catch-all. Many off-site hotels offer free continental breakfast. Some are pet friendly with minimal fees for that. Others have impressive pools that surpass anything at Walt Disney World. The off-site hotel might have an airport shuttle and shuttle service to the parks–and not just the Disney parks.

The specifics obviously vary by hotel, and with thousands of properties in Central Florida, it’s impossible to list them all here. If there’s something you want from a hotel, you can probably find it somewhere within a ~20 minute drive of Walt Disney World.

Tailored Accommodations – Generally speaking, staying off-site affords greater latitude in booking accommodations perfectly-suited 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.

For instance, it’s much easier to rent a vacation home 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.

Straightforward Design – 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.

Location – 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.

This is important to know because it undermines some of the location advantages touted by Disney-owned resorts. For example, the Swan & Dolphin are walking distance to Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Likewise, the third party hotels at Disney Springs and Bonnet Creek are closer to the parks than some Disney-owned resorts.

Universal Hotel Benefits – We save the best for last, as the biggest off-site perks are those offered by Universal Orlando’s resorts. All Universal hotels offer Early Park Admission one hour before the theme parks open to the general public.

Guests staying at Universal’s Premier Hotels get free Unlimited Express Pass to skip the regular lines at most popular attractions in Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. This is Universal’s equivalent of FastPass/Lightning Lanes, but better–and it normally costs a lot more money.

While it’s beyond the scope of this article, Universal Orlando resorts offer many of the same advantages of Walt Disney World hotels. Universal’s hotels also feature great themed design, transportation to the parks, and a great location–most are within walking distance of Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure.

If you’re debating between resorts at the two main theme park complexes, see our comprehensive breakdown: Universal Orlando v. Walt Disney World Hotels. That should help you determine which is the better option for your vacation–or if a split stay might be best!

Arguably the biggest beneficiary of Walt Disney World eliminating so many on-site guest perks is Universal Orlando. If I were planning on visiting both theme park complexes and had a decent budget for accommodations, I’d have less hesitation that I were “missing out” on something by not staying on-site at Walt Disney World.

While I’d still lean in favor of a split stay, another compelling option would be booking a Premier Hotel at Universal as my home base to take advantage of the unlimited Express Pass that’s included with my stay there. On my Walt Disney World days, I’d commute to those parks using Uber or Lyft. Obviously, that’s not going to make sense or be ideal for everyone, but it’s just one way Universal has gained significant ground on Disney in the last year-plus.

Universal’s hotels offer better value for money and they’ve maintained their benefits, two things that cannot be said for Walt Disney World resorts. Notably, Universal has excellent budget hotels that cost around—or sometimes under—$100 per night. Even Universal’s Premier Hotels with included Unlimited Express Pass are almost always significantly cheaper than Deluxe Resorts at Walt Disney World.

Consequently, our opinion is that Universal is beating Disney when it comes to the pros & cons of their respective hotels. If you’ll be spending equal (or close to it) time at Universal and Walt Disney World during your Orlando, Florida vacation in 2024, give serious thought to staying at Universal instead of Disney. For insight into the various options at Universal, their pros & cons, and how they compare and contrast with one another, see our Universal Orlando Hotel Rankings & Reviews.

If you’re exclusively visiting Walt Disney World, obviously this advice is irrelevant.

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, different families might make very different decisions based upon what matters most to them. There’s really no right or wrong answer, it’s more what you want out of your vacation and how you weigh the pros and cons.

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.

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? If you’re interested in learning more about hotels, our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page is a good place to start. For where to eat, try out our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews page. If you want to save money on tickets or determine which type you should get, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at unconventional things you should take on your trip. Once you arrive at the parks, our Walt Disney World “Ride Guides” are great for determining what to do and when to do it. For overviews of all of these topics and so much more, the best place to start is our comprehensive Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide to make the most of your experience!

Your Thoughts

Do you generally stay on-site or off-site? Why? What are your key considerations when determining where you stay? Thoughts on Universal Orlando v. Walt Disney World hotels? Are you a fan of renting a vacation home or using Airbnb when booking a Central Florida vacation? Any specific off-site or third party hotel you recommend? Do you agree or disagree with our advice? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

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