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–have 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 March 3, 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 two newest and most hyped attractions at Walt Disney World, both of which are at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Neither Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance or Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway are included in Extra Magic Hours. Having access to these incredibly popular attractions during Extra Magic Hours would’ve been huge for many onsite guests.

While Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is another story entirely, we think it’s inexcusable that Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway won’t be included in Extra Magic Hours. It’s going to draw huge lines and have long wait times for the foreseeable future, and due to the new FastPass+ tiers at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, it’ll be difficult to experience for many guests without waiting in those long standby lines.

Unlike Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, there are not the same concerns about reliability, uptime, overnight maintenance, or ongoing test & adjust on Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway. It should hit the ground running like a normal attraction, which is why it’s offering both FastPass+ and standby, rather than using a novel virtual queue system. Suffice to say, we hope Runaway Railway is added to the Extra Magic Hours lineup sometime in Summer 2020.

That brings us to Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, which is also not included in Extra Magic Hours–and likely won’t at any point in 2020. 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.

While we are advocates of this virtual queue and boarding pass system for numerous factors behind the scope of this post, there is one glaring downside. There’s absolutely zero advantage to Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance for on-site resort guests. There’s no boarding pass priority, no FastPass+ booking advantage, and the attraction does not operate during Extra Magic Hours.

To add insult to injury, on-site guests wanting to experience Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance should probably use Uber or Lyft rather than Walt Disney World transportation. Bus service is simply not reliable enough that early in the morning, unless you’re willing to gamble on arriving late. (It doesn’t help that the Skyliner doesn’t start operating until after Disney’s Hollywood Studios is open most mornings.)

Next up, 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.

I remember doing evening Extra Magic Hours about 7 years ago, and the experience was incredible. There were about 15 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. Morning Extra Magic Hours are slightly better (and last fall’s Extra, Extra Magic Hours were exceptional!), 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 (although not quite as pronounced) 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.

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!


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