Is Disney World’s On-Site Advantage Disappearing?

For years, we’ve stressed the perks of staying on-site at Walt Disney World, citing things like Extra Magic Hours, ‘free’ transportation to the parks and airport, expanded FastPass+ booking windows, and more. In this post, we’ll take a fresh look at the advantages of those perks and whether they’re worth the cost.

I’ll preface this by saying that while we’ve done stays at many third party hotels, we still strongly favor being on property at Walt Disney World. In our On-Site v. Off-Site at Walt Disney World article we attempt to be balanced, but concede that “for Disney addicts like us, rational analysis of pros & cons often goes out the window, and we’re drawn to Disney’s hotels by nostalgia, theme, and being in that bubble.”

The pros and cons of staying off-site versus on-site are pretty well known (if you’re new to Walt Disney World, refer to the post above), so we’re not going to rehash them all here. What we are going to do is ask and attempt to answer an important question: what if the selling points of staying on-site are no longer as valuable as conventional WDW planning wisdom suggests?

Let’s start with Extra Magic Hours, as that was the original inspiration for this post. In the last couple of years, a variety of third party hotels at Walt Disney World have started offering both the expanded FastPass+ booking window and Extra Magic Hours. This isn’t totally unprecedented, as there’s always been a handful of non-Disney hotels that offer this perk.

The crux of the problem here is that the pool of Extra Magic Hours-eligible guests continues to increase, both from Walt Disney World cutting deals with third party hotels, but also from Disney building new DVC properties and its own hotels. A higher occupancy rate also doesn’t help.

I remember doing evening Extra Magic Hours about 7 years ago, and the experience was incredible. There were about 12 fewer hotels that were eligible, resort occupancy wasn’t near what it was now, and the experience was 3 hours instead of 2. In that third hour, many attractions had 5-10 minute waits, and the experience was pretty comparable to what’s now sold as “Disney After Hours.”

Flash forward to today. Regular park hours have been cut back as more paid hard ticket events have been added, and evening Extra Magic Hours are usually more crowded than their normal evening counterparts. Not only are more guests eligible, but with higher prices, there’s a greater desire to squeeze every last drop of value from every experience by guests so more people hop to the park with EMH. It’s gotten to the point that we now mostly avoid evening Extra Magic Hours in Magic Kingdom due to the noticeable spike in crowds.

How this changes when Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens remains to be seen. For a few months following the debuts of both Pandora – World of Avatar and Toy Story Land, Walt Disney World offered earlier-than-normal morning Extra Magic Hours, with unannounced opening times even earlier than what was published.

We documented our experience of the Toy Story Land early opening here, and were pleased with how much we got done during that timeframe. Whether Walt Disney World does something similar for Star Wars land, or if they simply try to increase the growing number of upcharge offerings for that blockbuster land, remains to be seen. That’d definitely be a huge check in the staying on-site column, though.

For the expanded FastPass+ booking window, the story is largely the same. The pool of guests all vying for the same highly-coveted attractions has increased dramatically in the last few years. New marquee attractions–some of which have lower ride capacity–have made this competitiveness even more pronounced.

With that said, you can still score the FastPass+ reservations you want for the most part if you’re up early at the 60-day mark to make your reservations. (That is, assuming My Disney Experience is working.) As with all things Walt Disney World, there are no guarantees, but you’re highly likely to get what you want.

By contrast, at the 30-day mark, you can forget about Slinky Dog Dash, Frozen Ever After, Avatar Flight of Passage, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and several other attractions that regularly have standby waits of over an hour. Your chances of scoring these FastPass+ reservations when the off-site window opens is close to zero.

This doesn’t mean you can’t still obtain these elusive FastPasses–we regularly don’t plan 60 days in advance and still get them–it’s just far more of a hassle. You have to play the refresh game or stalk the My Disney Experience app, hoping for more inventory to be dumped. Either way, you’re at a definite advantage when staying at a Disney hotel when it comes to FastPass+ reservations.

However, taking advantage of this advantageous perk doesn’t require staying at a Disney hotel. It’s worth noting that several on-site third party hotels offer 60 day booking window, most notably all of the Disney Springs Resort Area Hotels. So you could book the Best Western for ~$70 and still have this.

Next, Walt Disney World’s resorts are still meticulously themed, with a ton of charm, detail, and transportive environments you won’t find off-site. This has long been a big selling point, as your resort stay feels like an extension of the theme parks. However, this applies mostly to the exterior grounds and interior common areas.

With almost every recent room refurbishment, the sense of theme inside Walt Disney World’s hotel rooms has been diminished. We’ve been highly critical of this because themed environments are what defines Disney, and are in the wheelhouse of Imagineers.

Many of the new rooms seem to be striving more towards crowd-pleasing styles, with generic modern designs, clean and crisp aesthetics, and generally elegant luxury (the last one only applies to Deluxe Resorts). The problem here is that Disney went from a realm with almost no real competition to placing itself in direct competition with real-world hotel brands.

This not only makes for an easier head-to-head comparison in terms of guest rooms, but it’s also a comparison that’s often not favorable to Disney. I love a lot of things about Walt Disney World, but do not view it as one of the world’s great operators of hotels.

Actual luxury hoteliers such as Hyatt, Ritz-Carlton, Waldorf Astoria, and Four Seasons have high end properties near Walt Disney World, and they generally surpass even Walt Disney World’s flagship hotel on a luxury front.

It’s arguable that even the Marriott, Hilton, and Wyndham hotels give Deluxe Resorts at Walt Disney World a run for their money–and those are often priced below Moderate levels!

On the other hand, there’s transportation. This is the one bright spot, and something that I think is better than it was 5 or so years ago. (Monorail reliability aside, which hasn’t really gotten better or worse in that span.) Technology has improved resource allocation and deployment in terms of the buses, meaning it’s far less common to see 5 buses for Animal Kingdom in the span of seeing 0 for Magic Kingdom.

Also helping with this are bus wait times, which show up both on digital boards at the bus stops and in the My Disney Experience app. We reviewed the bus wait times app feature last fall, and had a generally positive experience with it then. Since, our results have been a bit more mixed, but it’s still better than nothing. My guess is that this system is still a work-in-progress, but I’d love to see it expanded to include departure times from the parks.

Walt Disney World’s bus system is still not perfect, and you’ll still hear horror stories of people who had really bad luck with transportation on their trips. I don’t doubt any of those, but as someone who has taken Walt Disney World buses almost every single month at a variety of resorts for the last decade, I think I’ve experienced a sufficiently large sample size to assert that, generally speaking, the bus system at Walt Disney World is more reliable now than in the past.

Soon, several more resorts will have non-bus transportation to the parks via the Disney Skyliner gondolas. This system should help ease congestion on the roads (thanks to reduced bus routes from those resorts) and also provide another predictable and relatively novel mode of transportation.

It’s premature to review the Disney Skyliner gondolas and give them a glowing endorsement–but not because of the normal fears about air-conditioning and lightning. Rather, operational capacity versus demand remains a wild card. There’s a massive inventory of rooms along the gondola lines, and we don’t yet know what guest demand will be (despite the complaints “high” is my guess) nor do we know how efficient Disney will be in loading them.

I also won’t include Minnie Vans, as there’s a pricey surcharge for those, and we don’t generally recommend them. Plus, if you’re willing to use Disney’s Minnie Vans, you might as well be willing to use Lyft or Uber, which have become ubiquitous in Central Florida. Those services are actually a big check in the ‘staying off-site’ column.

Lyft and Uber have been a game-changer for transportation at and around Walt Disney World. No longer do you have to rent a car if you stay off-site or depend upon notoriously overpriced and unreliable Mears taxis, which have a monopoly on the Walt Disney World and Orlando cab market. At this point, you can pretty much allocate $30-40 per day for Lyft or Uber, factor that into your accommodations budget, and have a superior transportation experience while still spending far less per night on non-Disney hotels.

The final consideration is cost, which has always been the primary selling point for staying off-site. It’s worth reiterating here because the cost difference between off-site and on-site accommodations has become much more pronounced in the last few years. That’s only likely to get worse with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary on the horizon.

If you last weighed the pros and cons of staying off-site and on-site several years ago, and determined on-site was a better fit for you, there’s a decent chance you’ve become habituated to staying on-site. You’ve felt the increase in prices over the years, but the pull to stay on-site at Walt Disney World is strong. Perhaps you not have reweighed these pros and cons–especially the growing cost disparity.

To be honest with you, that describes our dilemma with accommodations at and around Walt Disney World. The rational side of my mind knows that staying off-site provides significantly better value for money and that the perks we receive from Walt Disney World hotels aren’t as valuable as they once were.

We do now have a lower price ceiling for most Walt Disney World resorts (except Pop Century, Caribbean Beach, and All Star Movies, which are all a bit higher for us now), which can be a challenge given that room rates have been increasing. However, there are still ways to find good discounts, and failing that we can either use DVC points or look at the on-site third party options like Swan & Dolphin, Disney Springs, and Bonnet Creek.

In the rare instances when none of that works, there’s a burgeoning vacation home rental industry, cheap Airbnbs, and robust slate of new off-site hotels near the parks. We should be further investigating all of that, as some great deals abound. The Central Florida accommodations market is incredibly competitive outside the Disney bubble, and that’s reflected in pricing and amenities.

Then there’s the emotional side. We have nostalgic attachments to certain resorts at Walt Disney World, and enjoy their lush grounds, dining, and amenities. We love being able to stay late in the parks, even if they’re crowded and all we’re doing is wandering around. We are fine with slightly less efficient bus transportation if it means avoiding the potential for an awkward conversation about politics with an Uber driver. (Why do so many of them think politics is suitable for light discourse?!) We enjoy the seamless experience of going from the parks to our resort, feeling a temporary reprieve from the real world.

It’s difficult to put a price on all of that. While we “value” it below the cost difference between comparable third party hotels, we often jump through hoops to find ways to justify staying at Walt Disney World hotels. I’m not suggesting this is the right (or wrong) approach. I know part of this is Disney’s emotional power, and we fall for it hook, line, and sinker a lot. I’m not making a judgment either way–it simply is what it is.

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, 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 clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

Your Thoughts

What do you think…are the perks of staying on-site as valuable to you as they once were, or are you getting less value for your money staying at Walt Disney World hotels? Will you continue to stay on-site despite this all? Have you already moved off-site? Other thoughts on this? 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!

233 Responses to “Is Disney World’s On-Site Advantage Disappearing?”
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