Staying in an on-site or off-site hotel is one of the most important decisions you’ll make when booking your trip to Disneyland. This weighs the pros & cons, with an unbiased look at third party accommodations, official resort perks, value for money, and other aspects of deciding where to stay for your Southern California vacation.
We stress the “unbiased” aspect because it seems like there’s a stigma around off-site hotels for many Disneyland fans. One of the selling points of the Disney brand is safety, and there’s the misconception that hotels outside Disneyland Resort are unclean and even unsafe. While there are certainly some sketchy spots in Anaheim, which we’ll cover in this post, hotels along Harbor Boulevard and elsewhere in Southern California are typically good.
To that point, we’ve stayed in over 60 hotels near Disneyland (as covered in our very comprehensive Disneyland/Anaheim Hotel Review & Rankingslist) and have only had a handful of very bad experiences. That’s not to say there aren’t more bad options, but they’re easy enough to avoid without paying an extra few hundred dollars per night for a Disney-branded hotel. (Speaking of which, that list should also address whether we’re credible to weigh the pros & cons of hotels near Disneyland. The two of us have probably stayed at more hotels in Anaheim than anyone!)
What this post will do is fairly address the benefits and downsides to Disneyland on-site and off-site hotels because there are both upsides and downsides. Disneyland Resort hotels have some benefits and are a compelling choice for many guests, but there are dozens of local hotels offering equally compelling reasons as to why guests should stay off-site.
For many people considering where to stay in Southern California, price will be the determining factor. It will always (ALWAYS!) be cheaper to do Disneyland on a tighter budget while staying off-site. Unlike Walt Disney World, there are no Value Resorts at Disneyland, meaning that the on-site hotels all start at over $300 per night, and can easily eclipse $1,000 per night. Even at the lower end of the spectrum, the cheapest Disney-owned hotel is at least double the cost of a comparable off-site hotel.
With all of that out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks and compare off-site and on-site hotels at or near Disneyland…
Benefits of Staying On-Site
Location & Entrances – The greatest amenity of Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel is undoubtedly its proximity to Disneyland and entrance directly into Grizzly Peak at Disney California Adventure, across from the iconic rafting bear, who currently ranks #4 on the Official Disney Parks Bears Power Rankings (just behind Big Al, Pooh, and Duffy). This entrance makes it the closest hotel to any Disney theme park in the United States.
It’s also an incredibly short walk to Disneyland (either through Disney California Adventure or Downtown Disney). This is a huge benefit, especially when coupled with Early Entry, which is great for fast access to Avengers Campus or Pixar Pier.
It’s a similar story with the recently-revived private entrance from Paradise Pier Hotel into Disney California Adventure. This one isn’t quite as convenient, with a long private corridor leading from the hotel into Paradise Pier. This is likewise great for taking advantage of Early Entry for fast access to the Marvel or Pixar lands.
Then there’s Disneyland Hotel, which does not have any theme park entrances but does abutt the back of Downtown Disney. This makes it about a 10 minute walk to both Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, or a few-minute walk to the monorail station that drops guests off in Tomorrowland.
The biggest upside to all of these entrances is that they offer continuity from the theme parks to the hotels. While not every on-site hotel at Disneyland Resort is closer to the parks than the nearest off-site alternatives, they are the only 3 hotels that keep guests within the Disney bubble, to the extent that there is one in California.
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 Disneyland Resort is the top or sole priority. With so much to see and do in sunny Southern California, we do not recommend this, but to each their own.
Early Theme Park Entry – This replaces morning Extra Magic Hours and Magic Mornings, or rather, is a spiritual successor to that guest benefit. Whereas two confusingly named perks were offered on select days and at select parks, Early Entry is offered at both theme parks every single day. That makes it unavoidable for off-site guests who like to rope drop the parks.
Some 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.
Safety – Up top, we indicated that the perception of safety is part of the Disney brand. Many Americans visit the Disney theme parks because they’re insulated from the real world and offer a veil of fantasy and escapism. The parks are predictable, clean, and safe in ways that differ from most other vacation destinations. This is something that sociologists and psychologists no doubt study.
Many Americans have also likely seen caricatures of California as a dystopian wasteland of lawlessness and crime. That’s hyperbole at best and deliberate disingenuousness at worst. Nevertheless, Anaheim is the largest city in Orange County, and it’s part of the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
Although part of the Los Angeles metro area, Anaheim is totally unlike LA. Nevertheless, there is both crime and homelessness in Anaheim, and you will absolutely see the latter if staying in an off-site hotel and walking to the parks. Depending upon where you stay, you also might have to cross interstate on/off ramps.
None of this bothers us, at least from a safety perspective. (California’s homelessness crisis is heartbreaking and unsettling, so it does “bother” us in that regard.) However, if you’re from a small or suburban town, you may find the city streets jarring and experience a bit of culture shock. (If that describes you, the best thing you can do is fly into SNA rather than LAX. Not because LAX is unsafe, but because it’s totally chaotic and nothing like your home airport.)
Disneyfied Setting – Another benefit of staying on-site is that your hotel is an extension of the theme park experience at Disneyland Resort. Each hotel has its own distinct design and may not always scream “Disney” with characters, but the on-site Hotels of Disneyland Resort feel very similar to the parks.
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, each of the Disney-owned hotels can generally be accessed without stepping foot in the “real” world. While there’s definitely not a “bubble” like Walt Disney World, there is still a sense of removal from Anaheim. You won’t find theming to a lavishly-designed arts & crafts style lodge or a monorail pool at the off-site hotels, either.
You also won’t see Panera or McDonald’s as you head directly from the Grand Californian Hotel right into the Disney California Adventure entrance. (Is this supposed to be a pro or con?! Joking aside, it can be both–inexpensive fast food, groceries, and sundries are definitely a selling point for the Harbor hotels.)
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.
While we tend to side with those who want to be immersed in the Disney Bubble as much as possible, that is not practical for us. Due to the high cost of the three official Disneyland hotels, we usually stay off-site at Disneyland in the hotels right across from Disneyland Resort on Harbor Boulevard.
If there was less of a price gap or Disney hotels offered more perks, that might tip the scales for us, but it’s so hard to justify paying an extra $300+ per night to stay in a Disney hotel just for the bubble. Your mileage may vary on that, though.
Benefits of Staying Off-Site
Cost – Disneyland doesn’t have Value Resorts and it shows…in price points. Rack rates start at around $300 per night for both Disneyland Hotel and Paradise Pier Hotel and can exceed $600/night. Then there’s the flagship Grand Californian Hotel and Spa is crazy-expensive, exceeding $800/night during many times of the year.
During the busiest times of the year at Disneyland, rooms in these hotels can cost much more. Just check out the rates for a summer weekend. Those are starting rates for a standard room. If you want a suite or something special, you’re paying even more! With only 3 official hotels, Disneyland has a serious shortage of on-site hotel rooms during peak tourist seasons, so prices are often in exorbitant territory.
By contrast, off-site hotel rooms near Disneyland, are not nearly as expensive–in large part because there’s a surplus of hotel inventory when there are not events at the Anaheim Convention Center. (The city went from having a shortage of hotel rooms to arguably overbuilding in the span of ~5 years.) Hotels in the Anaheim Resort District can be priced at or around $150/night, making them ‘value’ options, of sorts.
Note that off-site hotel pricing is highly variable. Whether there’s a hotel room shortage or surplus is truly date-dependent. If it’s tourist seasons (think any time school is out of session) or there’s a major event at the Anaheim Convention Center, there still aren’t enough rooms to satisfy demand. By contrast, if school is in session or there are no events in town, prices plummet.
For this reason, we recommend booking a hotel near Disneyland far in advance most of the time. (Exceptions to this are the off-season, such as late August through early October and January through early March–last minute bargains can be found then.)
Distance to the Parks – The most compelling reason is that you can typically find an off-site hotel that is closer to Disneyland Resort than an on-site hotel. Sort of makes the terms off-site and on-site misnomers, right? Although Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa is the closest hotel to Disneyland Resort, there are several hotels directly across the street from Disneyland Resort’s Esplanade (the open area between the two parks) that are a five minute walk to the turnstiles.
Even if you’re hotel does happen to be further from the Esplanade than Disneyland Hotel or Paradise Pier Hotel (which are both around 10-15 minutes away), there’s still a good chance your hotel will be within walking distance. You can–and should–easily be able to book a hotel within walking distance from Disneyland. Even if for some reason you book a hotel that isn’t within walking distance, chances are you can cheaply get to it via a hotel shuttle that it offers, or the Anaheim Resort Transit.
Since Disneyland can’t meet all of the needs of guests with its three hotels, Disneyland has a better working relationship with many “Good Neighbor Hotels” in the area. Due to the difference in pricing, Disneyland Resort does not even consider the off-site hotels competition–most people are not choosing between a $800/night room at the Grand Californian and a $125/night room at Candy Cane Inn!
This is unlike the Value Resorts at Walt Disney World, which are direct competition to the off-site hotels in Florida. Because of this, Disneyland tries to work with off-site hotels instead of competing with them.
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.
Breakfast & Other Amenities – Many off-site hotels offer free continental breakfast. Some are pet friendly with minimal fees for that. Others have pools that are like mini water parks (although this is far less common in Anaheim, where most pools are minimalist).
The specifics obviously vary by hotel, with the biggest being breakfast. The newer ‘big box’ family suites and extended stay hotels that have become ubiquitous in Anaheim do this exceedingly well, with quality meals that can power you through the morning and allow for a late lunch, potentially saving a lot of money on sky-high food costs in the parks. (At the very least, you can grab a free coffee on your way out the door and avoid waiting in line at Starbucks on Main or Buena Vista Streets.)
Off-Site v. On-Site Non-Issues
Lightning Lane (Paid FastPass) Booking Windows – There has been a lot of outrage about the paid Genie+ line-skipping service, which is Disneyland’s replacement for free FastPass and paid digital MaxPass. (See our Guide to Genie+ at Disneyland & Lightning Lane FAQfor everything you need to know.)
Unlike the Florida parks, there is no on-site advantage for booking Lightning Lanes. There, on-site guests have a head start on the a la carte version of those. In California, everyone can book upon entering the park. (In theory, this gives guests staying on-site a jumpstart during Early Entry, but that doesn’t make any practical difference.)
Parking Fees – One way Disney used to differentiate its hotels from real world alternatives was by not charging parking or resort fees. Thankfully, Disney hasn’t embraced the consumer-unfriendly and deceiving practice of charging resort fees, but it does now charge for parking at its hotels.
With that said, Disneyland Resort’s on-site hotels generally charge more than off-site hotels for parking. Self-parking is $35 and valet is $65 per night, whereas plenty of their off-site counterparts charge around $20 per night. (A few still even offer free parking, which does make this a difference.)
If you’re a Walt Disney World regular who stays on site there for the perks offered there to on-site guests, don’t expect anything comparable at Disneyland. There’s also no priority booking window for restaurants (yet) and the Disney Dining Plan is not a thing in California (it’s temporarily suspended at Walt Disney World, but will return at some point).
The upside to the lack of perks for on-site hotels at Disneyland Resort is that they are not really needed in the first place. The entire Anaheim Resort District (which includes Disneyland Resort and the off-site hotels) is far more compact than Walt Disney World, and is fairly easy to navigate entirely by foot. Moreover, Disneyland has that laid back “Californian” atmosphere, and requires far less planning, in general.
Ultimately, there’s a lot to consider when determining whether you want to stay off-site or on-site when visiting Disneyland Resort. There’s truly no one size fits all answer as to which is “better” as it really varies based on what matters most to your family. There’s really no right or wrong approach, 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 objective considerations and some wildcards for you to weigh and make the decision for yourself. Personally, I’d always stay at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel if money were no issue…but I’m pretty quickly disabused of that notion (most of the time) once I price out hotel options. Your mileage may vary, though!
Do you generally stay on-site or off-site? Why? What are your key considerations when determining where you stay? Thoughts on the best & worst hotel options in Southern California? Any specific off-site or third party hotel in or around Anaheim that 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!