Should you stay at a Disney resort for your next Walt Disney World vacation? Or does it make more sense to stay at a nearby hotel that’s not on Disney property?
The short answer:
It depends on what you value during your vacation. The answer was more clear a few years ago prior to Disney removing some resort perks. Currently, we believe there’s still enough value to stay at a Disney hotel if you’re willing to pay more for the experience.
The long answer:
We used to say that a stay at a Walt Disney World hotel made vacations easier and more convenient. However, the removal of the Disney Magical Express and other resort perks have made the conversation more difficult.
There is a premium to pay to stay at Disney, especially compared to other nearby options, but there are enough Disney resorts that should provide an option for most budgets. Just be aware you will definitely pay more to stay at Disney, sometimes by a significant margin.
Let’s expand on that below.
Note: COVID-19 may change or remove some of the perks below. Always check Walt Disney World’s website before your visit to see which perks may be unavailable during your stay.
The Disney Magical Express used to make resort stays a breeze. That perk ends on January 1, 2022 which makes arriving at Walt Disney World a bit more difficult and more expensive.
But, once you’ve arrived, getting around Disney World is free and easy. A combination of buses, boats, the Monorail and the Disney Skyliner move guests from the different resorts to the theme parks, water parks and Disney Springs. With bus times on the My Disney Experience app, it’s easy to get around Disney World.
Why drive a car around and deal with traffic when you can let Disney do the driving for you?
Early Theme Park Entry
Early Theme Park Entry allows guests staying at a Disney resort or a good neighbor resort to enter a theme park of their choice 30 minutes early. Guests can pick which theme park they want to enter early each day. Disney may increase this benefit to 60 minutes during peak times.
Select attractions, merchandise and food locations will be available during Early Theme Park Entry. Here is the full list of eligible resorts for Early Theme Park Entry perk.
Though it’s not as good of a perk as the old Extra Magic Hours offering, any opportunity to experience a Disney theme park with fewer people is an opportunity worth taking.
Extended Evening Theme Park Hours
Beginning in October 2021, guests staying at Disney Deluxe, Deluxe Villa Resorts and other select resorts will be able to enjoy Extended Evening Theme Park Hours on select nights at select theme parks. Click here to view resorts that are eligible for this benefit.
Initially, the extended hours will be offered twice a week, but that’s subject to change. Select attractions, merchandise and food locations will be available during Extended Evening Hours.
This perk actually feels like a genuine perk that’s worth your money. Since it’s limited to just deluxe resorts, crowds are extremely manageable. We got in a ton of attractions during Extended Evening Theme Park Hours at the Magic Kingdom.
Many rides were a walk-on or had a very minimal wait.
You can’t beat repeat rides on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad with nearly empty trains.
Lighting Lane Individual Attraction Purchases
Disney Genie is ushering in a new era of paid FastPass+ reservations. The system is a bit confusing, but it can be summarized as follows:
Disney Genie – Free planning service that shows wait times, dining availability, reservations and more.
Disney Genie+ – The paid spiritual successor to the FastPass+ system. Guests who buy this upcharge can enjoy a reduced wait by using the Lighting Lane at many Walt Disney World attractions. This will not include the most popular attractions such as Rise of the Resistance or Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. There’s no advantage to being a resort guest with Disney Genie+.
Individual Attractions – This is where Walt Disney World resort guests have a slight edge over everyone else. Disney is selling reduced waits individually for its most popular attractions. Guests can select up to two attractions each day at an additional varying fee. Resort guests can make these selections beginning at 7am while other guests must wait until park open.
The perk for Walt Disney World resort guests here is extremely small, and may not even qualify as a perk given it involves an additional fee.
Proximity to the Parks
A Disney vacation is all about maximizing your time. Staying close to the parks is a great way to cut down on the less fun parts of a vacation, such as transportation. The proximity of most Disney resorts allow for guests to come and go from the theme parks with ease, tailoring the trip to their specific interests.
One of our favorite strategies at Disney World is only possible by staying on property. We love to visit a park in the morning and then return back to the resort a little after lunch when the heat of the day and the crowds swell to become nearly unmanageable. Then, after either a nap or a swim in the pool, we’ll head back to the parks. That rejuvenating period is a must during our trips and it’s only possible by staying close.
Select deluxe resorts even give guests the option to walk directly to the theme parks. Disney’s Yacht & Beach Club Resorts have walking paths to both Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Few things beat a slow nighttime walk back to the resort after a magical day in the parks.
Disney resorts usually offer fun activities for their guests each day. Activities by the pool, movies under the stars, roasting marshmallows and other unique activities keep the fun going even after your time at the parks is over for the day. Make sure you check out what your resort offers before booking.
If swimming is your activity of choice, you’ll want to check out some of the incredible pools at Disney resorts. The giant pool shared by Disney’s Yacht & Beach Club Resorts is phenomenal and a big selling point for guests. Other pools around Walt Disney World offer quiet relaxation or unique theming.
Immersive and high quality theming can be found at many of Walt Disney World’s resorts. Guests can choose whether they want to stay along the peaceful river of Port Orleans: Riverside or if they want to wake up with views of giraffe and zebra at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. Maybe a Coney Island themed boardwalk is more your speed at Disney’s BoardWalk Inn?
Other resorts around Walt Disney World can offer better amenities at comparable or lower prices, but most are “resort” themed. A hotel like Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge is completely unique and an unforgettable experience. The premium guests pay at Disney partially goes to incredible theming, which we think holds a lot of value.
Staying in the Bubble
The Disney Bubble can be described as the overall feeling of staying and visiting Disney World without venturing off property. Also described as maintaining the magic, it’s the theming, awesome cast members and joy of removing yourself from the “real” world for the duration of your trip.
Walt Disney World’s cast members are the real stars of the show and can help guarantee a smooth vacation. We have countless examples over the years of cast members going out of their way to make our trip a special one. That little extra isn’t always guaranteed, but when it happens it’s hard not to feel the magic. It’s nice knowing that Disney will try their best to make things better even when something goes wrong.
We used to be loud champions for ‘Team Stay On Property’ prior to 2021. The Disney difference and perks helped justify the increased costs. But, as Disney has significantly reduced the benefits of staying on property, the decision is more difficult. Those missing perks make off-site hotels and their lower price points much more attractive.
The ‘Disney Difference’ is weakening all the time as perks are removed and new, bland resorts are built. Disney is counting on their modern designs (Gran Destino Tower, Riviera Resort) that resemble hotels outside of Disney will appeal to guests. Unfortunately, that’s a problem when the real versions of these hotels (your Hiltons and Marriotts) offer better amenities at a more affordable price.
Personally, we’ll keep a closer eye on deals than we used to and only stay on property when we want to maximize our time at Disney. We thoroughly enjoy staying at resorts where we can walk to the theme parks. That’s only possible at on-property hotels, which makes paying a premium for fewer perks a bit easier to stomach. We used to never really consider off-property hotels, but not it’s a necessity.
We recommend every guest should do their research and decide what makes sense for their vacation. If the goal is the Disney Bubble, unique theming, maximizing time at the parks and surrounding yourself with as much Disney as possible, then a stay on property makes a lot of sense. If you’re on a tight budget or if you’re looking to maximize amenities and perks, we’d recommend looking elsewhere at this time.