Is Disney World’s On-Site Advantage Disappearing?

For years, the benefits of staying on-site at Walt Disney World–Extra Magic Hours, ‘free’ transportation, expanded FastPass+ booking windows, and more–justified the higher price of hotels. In this post, we’ll take a fresh look at those perks and whether they’re worth the cost. (Updated September 17, 2020.)

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 the latest blows to the on-site advantage. Upon reopening, Walt Disney World temporarily suspended Extra Magic Hours, FastPass+, and the Disney Dining Plan. There are valid reasons for these changes, and they’re not simply arbitrary “cost cuts.” (To the contrary, Walt Disney World is losing money by eliminating the Disney Dining Plan.) That doesn’t change the fact that these cancellations further erode the on-site advantage.

Those extra hours and priority access to attractions were among the most compelling reasons to stay at Disney-owned resorts. For others, being able to purchase the Disney Dining Plan–or take advantage of Free Dining–was very important. Right now, the operative question is not whether on-site advantages are disappearing–it’s whether they are flat-out gone.

Additionally, Walt Disney World reduced transportation for the phased reopening. The EPCOT monorail line, FriendShip boats, and Sassagoula River Cruise are all not operating right now. Additionally, the buses have dramatically reduced capacity and the Skyliner has reduced hours.

Because of this, our “Temporary Abnormal” Walt Disney World Planning Guide strongly recommends that readers rent a car if visiting between now and Spring 2021. This is partly from a health safety perspective as it avoids sharing confined, indoor transportation with others. Equally as significant is convenience. With transportation options and their capacity reduced, getting around can be a hassle without your own car.

One new advantage is having access to Disney Park Pass theme park reservations for resort guests, which has superior availability to reservations for Annual Passholders. If you’re an AP, it thus can still make sense to stay on-site to give yourself the ability to book more than 3 reservations far in advance.

However, if you’re not an Annual Passholder, this is irrelevant. There’s also a separate bucket for theme park ticket holders, which has the same level of superior availability as the resort guest bucket. Meaning that if you buy single or multi-day tickets, it doesn’t really matter whether you stay off-site or on-site. Just be sure to buy tickets and make Disney Park Pass reservations in advance, as some more popular dates do book up ahead of time.

In the near term, these cancellations and changes obviate pretty much all 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 far prefer staying on-site in Disney-owned properties. It’s tough to fully articulate why.

However, 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 (temporarily) accelerated in the last few months. Suffice to say, if you’re considering a stay between now and around Spring 2021, it might be the best time ever to look off-site…

Accordingly, you might consider off-site accommodations or on-site third party hotels like the Swan & Dolphin, Four Seasons Orlando, etc. (See our List of the Best Third Party Hotels Near Walt Disney World.) 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.)

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). See our Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort Review and Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn & Suites Review. Those are our two favorite hotels on the budget end of the spectrum.

Now, for the normal pros & cons of staying on-site versus off-site, which will (hopefully!) once again apply for Walt Disney World trips in Summer 2021 and beyond…

First up, the currently-suspended Extra Magic Hours. 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.

About a decade ago, Extra Magic Hours were fantastic. There were ~17 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 parks were veritable ghost towns.

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.

We now mostly avoid Extra Magic Hours in Magic Kingdom due to the noticeable spike in crowds. Morning Extra Magic Hours are slightly better, but there’s still not nearly the advantage in Extra Magic Hours as there used to be. It sure seems like Walt Disney World wants to push guests towards the upcharge After Hours events.

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.

This is one of the big reasons we’re actually dreading the day that Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is added to FastPass+, as we anticipate it being fully booked about 65 days in advance, on average. The story will probably be similar for Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure.

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.

That brings us to Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, which was included in neither FastPass+ nor Extra Magic Hours prior to both being temporarily suspended. If you’ve followed our ongoing coverage of this attraction, you know that it’s incredibly popular and mind-blowing…when it works.

Unfortunately, it has been plagued by a variety of issues, and is using a novel boarding pass system as a result. We cover that in our Ride Guide & FAQ for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, which explains why this attraction does not offer FastPass+ nor does it have a traditional standby line and offers a variety of tips and strategy for maximizing your chances of being able to ride.

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 included transportation at Walt Disney World. The monorails, boats, and Disney’s Magical Express 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.

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’s only likely to get worse with 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!


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