If you’ve ever booked a trip to Walt Disney World Resort, you’ve probably wondered if you should stay in an official Disney World hotel. You can find significantly cheaper hotels throughout the Orlando area, and if budget is your primary concern you won’t really be able to beat the prices you’ll find outside the resort. Staying in an official Disney resort offers a few advantages you won’t find off resort, though, beyond just the convenience of staying closer to the theme parks. I can’t say if they make the hotels worth the extra money—that’s a discussion you’ll have to have with your budget—but I can let you know what you’ll be getting for that money.
If you stay in a Disney World hotel, you’ll get more time in those Disney World parks, and presumably that’s why you’re there in the first place. They have a program called Extra Magic Hours where every day one of the four Disney World theme parks will open one or two hours early or stay open one or two hours late, and it’s exclusively for resort guests. An hour or two may not sound like much, but it greatly reduces the amount of people in the park during that time, which can have a huge impact on how long you’ll wait for the most popular rides. Extra Magic Hours are especially useful for cutting down the wait on the newest additions to the resort, like the Toy Story Land expansion at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. That park is opening an hour early every day through the end of August just for resort guests, which is probably the best chance you’ll get to ride the Slinky Dog Dash roller coaster without waiting for at least an hour. Regular Extra Magic Hours are still in effect at one of the other three parks every day, too, so for the next few weeks, at least, you’ll be able to enter Hollywood Studios early and stay at another park late.
Another benefit to staying on resort is Disney’s Magical Express, a shuttle bus service that picks you up at the Orlando airport and takes you straight to your hotel. If you checked a bag on your flight, you don’t even have to pick it up yourself—Disney will get it from the airport to your room. This is free for anybody staying on property in a Disney-owned hotel. All you have to do is add your flight information to your itinerary plans on Disney’s website and note that you’d like to take the Magical Express. It won’t be the fastest way to get to your hotel—there will almost definitely be a wait for your bus to leave the airport—and if you take it to the airport when you leave you’ll have to depart earlier than you might expect, with a pickup time four hours before your flight is scheduled to depart. Still, it’s cheaper than taking a cab or rideshare to the resort, which will set you back at least $30 (and usually a good bit more). It may not be the fastest line from your flight to your hotel room, but it’s the cheapest and involves the least amount of thought. You just follow the signs when you land at MCO and then once you get to the check-in desk Disney cast members will do the rest.
You also can book your FastPass+ reservations earlier if you’re staying in a Disney World hotel. If you’re off-site you can only pick your FastPass+ attractions 30 days before your day at the park. If you’re staying on resort, though, you can get those reservations locked twice as far in advance, with FastPass+ selections opening up 60 days before your trip. FastPasses for the newest and most in-demand rides (like Avatar Flight of Passage at Animal Kingdom, Seven Dwarves Mine Train at Magic Kingdom, or Frozen Ever After at Epcot) disappear fast, so those extra 30 days can be significant.
Despite these perks, the greatest advantage to staying at a Disney World hotel remains proximity. Most of the hotels are no more than a 15 or 20 minute bus ride from any of the theme parks, and some are close enough to walk. Three of them—the Contemporary, the Grand Floridian and the Polynesian—even have monorail stops inside the hotel. (Yes, those are the three most expensive hotels, usually.) Area hotels outside the resort often have shuttles, as well, but if you’re looking for the fastest and most convenient route from your room to the Magic Kingdom, you’ll have to spring for the extra expense of a Disney World resort hotel. If you’re traveling with kids, it’ll be especially convenient to get from the room to the park and back as quickly as possible.
The hotels themselves vary greatly in quality, and are split into Value, Moderate and Deluxe options. The All-Star family of hotels—All-Star Music, All-Star Movies and All-Star Sports—are the most affordable rooms on resort, and are functional if you just need a place to sleep and grab some quick meals. Two other Value options, Disney’s Pop Century and Disney’s Art of Animation, regularly cost more than the All-Stars, but are more attractively designed. Still, if you’re looking for hotels with the level of detail in their theming that you expect from a Disney park, you’ll have to pay more and spring for a stay at a Moderate or Deluxe resort. Prices fluctuate greatly by season, but you can expect those Moderate and Deluxe hotels to be significantly more expensive than comparable hotels outside the resort property. You’re paying a premium for the Disney-level theming of hotels like Disney’s Port Orleans – French Quarter, the extravagant swimming pool of the Yacht Club and Beach Club resorts, and, again, the perks and proximity of staying on resort.
It’s not an easy call. The price difference between a Disney World hotel and one off resort is usually substantial. Before I ever stayed at a resort hotel I didn’t see a point to paying Hilton prices for Ramada rooms, which is what the Value hotels at Disney World feel like, just so I could be closer to the theme parks. Now when I go to Disney World I tend to stay on resort for the convenience, but usually in one of the Value hotels, and most often in the off-season, when they’re most affordable. (Checking in the day of the Super Bowl is a good plan if you’re looking for one of the cheapest and least crowded times of the year for Disney World, if you don’t mind skipping football parties with your family and friends.) Over the last few years I’ve realized the best way to spend a day at a theme park is to get there right when it opens, knock out everything I’m most excited about doing or seeing as quickly as possible, and then head back to the hotel in the mid-afternoon, around 2 or 3 PM, to relax and refresh for an hour or two. Then I head back out to the park (or, at Disney, a different park) around 4 or 5 PM and spend the rest of the night there. That’s much easier to do when I’m staying on resort and can just hop on a bus whenever I need to get somewhere.
There’s also something to be said for the extreme immersion of staying at Walt Disney World Resort. If you’re looking to Disney World to help you escape, however briefly, from the stresses of the real world, staying on property can help a lot. It’s what I imagine a cruise feels like, that sense of being able to just relax as soon as it starts and not worry about anything other than having a good time. Once I get on that bus at the airport I immediately feel like I’m on vacation, whereas that usually doesn’t happen on a trip until I’m comfortably in my hotel room. Staying at a Disney World hotel isn’t necessarily “magical,” but in its seclusion it does feel like I’m taking a break from the real world in a way a hotel surrounded by other hotels and tourist traps on Orlando’s International Drive doesn’t.
In the end, though, the decision will come down to one thing: money. Just getting into the theme parks is expensive enough; adding a hotel room that isn’t priced competitively with other options in the same area is a luxury not everyone can (or will want) to afford. Even if the bonuses offered by staying on resort sound great, they may not justify paying more for a room that may not be as nice as cheaper hotels outside the resort. So, should you stay in a Disney World Resort hotel? That’s up for you and your bank account to decide.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He shares stories and photos from his Disney journeys on Instagram at @garrett_goes_to_disney. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.