For years, there were big benefits of staying on-site at Walt Disney World: free transportation, better FastPass options, extra hours, and more that justified the higher prices. In this post, we’ll take a new look at the elimination of perks and whether Disney hotels are still worth the cost. (Updated September 12, 2021.)
I’ll preface this by saying that we used to be diehard advocates of staying in the Walt Disney World “bubble.” In our On-Site v. Off-Site at Walt Disney World article we attempt to be balanced, but concede that we’re drawn to being inside the Walt Disney World “bubble,” which offers advantages in terms of location, convenience, and the feeling of an all-encompassing vacation destination.
However, that’s no longer the case. We still love a lot of Walt Disney World hotels and do on-site stays, but no longer strongly recommend them for everyone. Accordingly, 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?
This is a question we originally posed a few years ago as Walt Disney World hotel prices began to soar and the advantages offered by on-site perks were less noteworthy. Since reopening, we’ve revisited this topic a couple of times for different reasons.
Last year, that was because Walt Disney World “temporarily” suspended Extra Magic Hours, FastPass+, and the Disney Dining Plan. (Those are air quotes around temporary because we know now that two of them are permanent changes.)
One added advantage was having access to Disney Park Pass theme park reservations for resort guests, which had superior availability to reservations for Annual Passholders for much of the last year. If you’re an AP, it thus can still make sense to stay on-site to give yourself the ability to book length of stay park reservations far in advance.
However, the Park Pass calendar is largely green since capacity caps have been lifted. Going forward, this benefit will thus be irrelevant to everyone except those visiting during peak season (e.g. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Easter, etc.)
For now, the Disney Dining Plan is still on temporary hiatus. We are still expecting Walt Disney World to bring it back this year, as covered in When Will the Disney Dining Plan Return? For many planners, being able to purchase the Disney Dining Plan–or take advantage of Free Dining–was very important.
In addition to the Disney Dining Plan being gone, there’s no on-site advantage when it comes to booking Advance Dining Reservations. Now, everyone can book table service restaurants at the same time.
At present, extended hours and on-site line skipping access are also non-existent. However, both of these things will change in the near future. In October 2021, Walt Disney World will launch two replacements for Extra Magic Hours: Early Entry and Extended Evening Hours.
Early Theme Park Entry will allow all on-site resort guests and those staying at select third party hotels to enjoy 30-minute access to any Walt Disney World theme park, every day before normal operating hours begin. This means that Magic Kingdom or Disney’s Hollywood Studios will soon open daily to resort guests at 8:30 am and 9 am to off-site guests. This is essentially a 1-2 ride headstart for on-site guests.
Next, there’s Extended Evening Theme Park Hours. This benefit is exclusively for guests staying at Deluxe Resorts, Deluxe Villas (Disney Vacation Club units), or other select hotels (currently Swan & Dolphin and Shades of Green). Guests staying at Value or Moderate Resorts are not eligible for Extended Evening Hours.
Extended Evening Theme Park Hours occur starting on October 4 only two nights per week in total: Mondays at Epcot from 10:00 PM to midnight and Wednesdays at Magic Kingdom from 9 pm until 11 pm. Two hours should allow eligible guests to accomplish more, but this is only a perk for those who book more expensive hotels (or the Swan & Dolphin, which are often priced on par with Value or Moderate Resorts).
Also in October, the new paid Disney Genie system launches (see our Guide to Lightning Lane and Genie+ at Walt Disney World for full details), replacing the free FastPass+ ride reservation program.
Ostensibly, this offers on-site guests the “benefit” of being able to purchase individual Lightning Lane access at 7 am instead of park opening time, which is when everyone else can buy access. We expect this to be illusory–it’s unlikely most of the individual attraction selections will sell out at all, let alone before park opening time.
It would be beneficial if on-site guests could book Genie+ ride selections early, but Walt Disney World has indicated that will not happen. Everyone will be able to book those at 7 am. That could always change down the road, but for now, that’s how the system will work.
Accordingly, this is a significant blow to the on-site advantage at Walt Disney World. Having the expanded FastPass+ booking window was huge, and allowed on-site guests to scoop up most of the best ride reservations before their trip. The Lightning Lane equivalent is almost akin to giving on-site guests “priority” access to Beauty and the Beast Sing-Along. Totally pointless and mildly insulting.
But wait, there’s more! Walt Disney World has also announced that the Magical Express airport shuttle service is ending in January 2022.
This means that Disney’s Magical Express buses between MCO and resort hotels will no longer be offered starting with arrivals January 1, 2022. From that point on, visitors will need to rent a car, use Uber/Lyft, or arrange for an alternative shuttle service like Mears Connect. That last one is the “spiritual successor” to Disney’s Magical Express–but it’ll cost you.
The totality of these cutbacks is enormous, and obviate most of the advantages offered by on-site Walt Disney World resorts, save for theme and location. It’s definitely still nice to stay in a resort with an immersive design, attention to details, and various Disney touches. It’s also nice to be able to walk to the parks, or be part of the Disney bubble.
For many people, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of this. There’s a certain x-factor that the Disney resorts offer that elevates the overall experience into something more special. This is true for us, and even with all of the complaints here, we still prefer staying on-site in Disney-owned properties. However, the gap is closing and that’s doubly true when comparing prices and other amenities.
That feeling of immersion and being part of the Disney bubble comes at a very significant surcharge without most of the normal perks. From an objective perspective, we know we should feel differently and opt to stay off-site. (Perhaps we’re suckers?)
The gradual erosion of on-site advantages is something we’ve previously discussed at length (including below) but it really has been accelerated in the last year. And it hasn’t helped that prices are higher than ever, and discounts are becoming less frequent due to the kickoff of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. Suffice to say, if you’re considering a stay between now and 2022, it might be the best time ever to look off-site…
In our view, the real sweet spot is on-site third party hotels like the Swan & Dolphin, Four Seasons Orlando, and Bonnet Creek Resorts. (See our List of the Best Third Party Hotels Near Walt Disney World.)
Several of these have locations that are as good or better than Disney-owned and operated hotels, and are less expensive. Many also offer the same perks as Disney hotels. Swan & Dolphin, for example, offer Extended Evening Hours whereas Disney Value and Moderate Resorts won’t have access to those.
You also might consider renting a vacation home, both for the sake of privacy and isolation. (See our Best Vacation Home Rentals Near Walt Disney World.)
These are especially great for larger parties, and you can literally rent an entire house for the cost of a mid-tier Walt Disney World hotel room. Some of these contain themed kids rooms, in-home theaters, game rooms, private pools, plus everything else you’d expect from a house.
Another great option right now is staying at Universal Orlando, which still does offer most of its on-site advantages and its own sense of immersion and being inside of a “Universal bubble” (albeit to a lesser extent).
If you want to go all-out with Universal’s nicest hotels that are in walking distance of the parks and include unlimited line-skipping at attractions via Express Pass, see our Hard Rock Hotel Review and Portofino Bay Hotel Review. Even though these are Universal Orlando’s more expensive hotels, they’re still priced about on par with Moderate Resorts at Walt Disney World.
For those wanting to stay on a tight budget, see our Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort Review and Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn & Suites Review.
To their credit, Walt Disney World’s resorts are still meticulously themed, with a ton of charm, detail, and transportive environments you mostly 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 included transportation at Walt Disney World. The monorails and boats are more or less the same. However, as a whole we view Walt Disney World transportation as better today than it was 5 years ago.
The big thing here is the Skyliner, which we view as the best transportation option at Walt Disney World. When there is a line, it’s constantly moving and usually a short wait. Since the opening couple of months, the Skyliner gondola system has been incredibly reliable. We’re huge fans and strongly favor the Skyliner resorts now.
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. There’s still a ton of room for improvement here, and there have been hotel stays when we’ve noticed overcrowded and inconsistent bus service.
I won’t include Minnie Vans as a transportation “improvement” since 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. (Minnie Vans are also temporarily suspended.)
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. We’ve gone that route several times and had smooth trips.
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 has only gotten worse with Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary.
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.
There’s also Universal Orlando, and we absolutely love several of those hotels. Universal can hold its own with many of Walt Disney World’s hotels from a thematic perspective, and many of the amenities at Universal are actually superior to Disney. Plus, the perks of staying on-site are far superior and nightly room rates are far lower.
Beyond that, 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.
With all of that said, 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 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. However, we find it happening less and less with Walt Disney World continuing to raise prices and cut offerings–that makes staying off-site a much easier decision!
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!
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!