The Dolphin at Walt Disney World

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I recently made a last minute trip in order to attend the festivities taking place during the first weekend of October at Walt Disney World.  My buddy, Doug, suggested we stay at the Dolphin for at least a portion of the weekend so we could be close to the action at Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival.  Since I am a sucker for the Epcot Resort Area, and since the Dolphin and its sister hotel, the Swan, are the most affordable way to stay there, I agreed to give it a shot.  Before you jump on this bandwagon, I wanted to offer readers a few thoughts on my stay.

A very important fact to keep in mind is that the Swan and Dolphin are not Disney-run hotels.  Despite their location on Disney property, there is an agreement that allows Starwood Hotels to operate these properties. The result is a different experience from what you find at Disney resorts.  Some of the perks of staying on site are the same, such as the use of Disney transportation and access to Extra Magic Hours, but some are different. For example, you will not be able to charge in-park purchases to your room key.  But you may have your purchases delivered to the resort for you to pick up.

In the same vein, something that has kept me from staying here on past trips is the lack of Disney’s Magical Express (DME), the free bus transportation that Disney provides from Orlando International Airport to Disney-run resorts.  Since the Swan and Dolphin are not operated by Disney, the bus does not run to these properties.  This problem was solved for me this time since I stayed at the All Star Movies Resort my first night, moved to the Dolphin for my next two nights, and had a friend drive me to the airport for my trip home.  If you are willing to spring for a taxi, or if you have someone who can transport you to and from the airport, these resorts instantly become more viable options.

The Swan and Dolphin's Dock

Speaking of having your own car, if you are considering either the Swan or Dolphin it should be noted parking is not free at these resorts.  Guests must pay $12 per day to park in the general lot or $18 per day for valet parking.

Although Magical Express is not available, transportation within Disney property is complimentary.  Like at all of the other Disney resorts, buses whisk guests to and from the parks and Downtown Disney every twenty minutes or so.  Additionally, the friendship boats traveling between Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios make stops at a shared dock between the Swan and Dolphin.  These buses and boats are often on the same route that stops at Disney’s Boardwalk, Yacht Club, and Beach Club Resorts. Guests can also walk to either Epcot or Hollywood Studios fairly easily although it may not sound appealing after a day in the parks.

When you arrive at the Dolphin in your own car or a taxi, you can’t help but notice its architectural design.  It features several lower wings with a huge 27-story triangle that can be spotted from several areas within Walt Disney World.  Also prominently displayed are two 56-foot tall dolphin fish statues on the roof of the building.  The terra cotta and green color scheme is a bit strange since it almost appears that the building is painted in a camouflage motif.  The resort, along with its neighbor the Swan, was designed by famed architect Michael Graves.

Inside, the lobby welcomes guests with a large fountain featuring dolphin fish similar to those on the roof. The lobby is actually quite lovely, with several seating areas and lots of natural light.  There are several shops nearby to grab anything you may have forgotten or would like to bring home.  The layout beyond the lobby confused me quite a bit.  I couldn’t quite grasp the use of the east elevators vs. the west elevators and so on.  The whole place seemed like a maze to me.

Once we figured out how to get there, our room was a decent size and had a “water view,” which basically meant we could see the small bit of water between the Swan and Dolphin.  Yay?  The space was equipped with two double beds, a desk/bureau combination, a flat screen TV, a chair, and night table.  The bathroom was separated into an open area with a sink and a large vanity and a closed-off section with the shower and toilet.  There was also a small mini bar area equipped with a coffee maker and a small refrigerator.  I found the finishes to be sort of dated, but they also don’t fit in with my personal style, so I may be biased.  I had heard great things about the beds and they were, indeed, comfortable, so the Dolphin gets credit there.  A nice feature of the rooms here is that they include in-room internet access, two bottles of water, 60 minutes of local phone calls, 20 minutes of calls within the US, and gym access.  However, these perks come at a cost of $12 per day (a “resort charge” not included in advertised prices).

I do have to report on a housekeeping problem we had in our room.  When we walked in everything looked good, but used wash clothes had been left in the bathroom.  The issue was not the end of the world, but it was annoying to have to call and have someone retrieve them at a “deluxe” resort.  I waited to call since I wanted to take a nap and didn’t want to disturb it with a knock on our door.  When I woke up I discovered a mysterious (and gross) stain on my duvet cover after I had already slept in the bed.  So I called for both issues at once, and then we headed out for the night.  When we returned at approximately 1:00am,the duvet had been replaced, but the used cloth was still hanging in our bathroom.  I had to call back again and wait a short while for someone to come get it before I could crash for the night.  I think I just expected more from a resort with a good reputation.

While I may have been disappointed in the housekeeping, it would be impossible to be disappointed with the number of restaurants at the Dolphin.  I had breakfast at Picabu, which a hybrid of a counter service and table service eatery and is open 24 hours per day.  The food was decent, but best of all it had real coffee!  Any Disney nut knows the coffee on property is generally pretty terrible, but Picabu serves Starbucks coffee each morning.  It is also available at Fresh Mediterranean Market and The Fountain.  Fresh is another great place to have a morning buffet breakfast (it also serves lunch).  The Fountain is a casual place to pop into for a burger or ice cream.  I’ve heard great things about Shula’s Steakhouse, which is also located here and open for dinner.  Todd English’s Bluezoo specializes in seafood.  And for folks who’d like a bite to eat while they lay by the pool, head to The Cabana Bar and Beach Club.  Since these are not Disney hotels, they are also not Disney restaurants.  These restaurants do not participate in the Disney Dining Plan (nor can you add the Disney Dining Plan to a Swan or Dolphin resort stay), but many of them do accept the Tables in Wonderland discount card.

The pool complex is huge with several pools, a sandy beach complete with a volleyball net, a bar and restaurant, and plenty of lounge chairs.  There are two lap pool and a the main pool called the Grotto that has a slide, waterfalls, and little alcoves.  There is also a kiddie pool with toys available to rent.  The area is shared with the Swan so it sits between them.  Towels are available in the area for guest use.  Nearby, guests can rent swan boats, play in the sand, or enjoy the tennis courts.  Kids can also burn off some energy on the playground.


Overall, I thought the Dolphin was just okay.  I think I would rather stay at one of Disney’s moderate resorts than here in the future.  The price is about the same, if not cheaper, and I would get the full Disney experience I’ve become so used to.  The saving grace for this resort was its proximity to Epcot’s International Gateway.  I love being able to walk to my favorite park.  Otherwise, the confusing layout, service charges, lack of DME, so-so housekeeping, etc., do not have me signing up for another stay here any time soon.

It appears the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World readers agree with my thoughts on the resort!  They gave an overall grade of a C-.  Have you stayed at the Dolphin?  Let me know about your experiences in the comments!


Kristen Helmstetter

Kristen Helmstetter is an Unofficial Guide researcher who will share her 20-something perspective of all things Walt Disney World with blog readers. Kristen’s email address is You can also follow her on Twitter: @khelmstetter.

19 thoughts on “The Dolphin at Walt Disney World

  • October 12, 2011 at 10:05 am

    I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in a hotel room that fit with “my personal style”! 😉 Hotel décor is pretty much designed to hide wear and tear.

    • October 12, 2011 at 10:17 am

      But see I love the decor at places like Boardwalk. Sure the furniture at Pop Century isn’t that exciting, but it also doesn’t claim to be a luxury resort. It wasn’t a huge complaint in the grand scheme of things, the furniture just struck me as sort of meh.

  • October 12, 2011 at 10:14 am

    In the room my friends and I had during my first stay at the Dolphin…if you stuck your face against the window, looked left and strained a little, you could totally see Spaceship Earth. I was so excited!

    But yeah, you certainly won’t get the full Disney experience if you stay at the Swan/Dolphin…but that can be good if you’re traveling with people who aren’t Disney nerds and/or kids at heart. Those people might need a break from the full Disney experience.

    Either way, as you mentioned, you definitely can’t beat the location…especially for the price. Not only do you have easy access to Epcot and DHS but you’re also super close to the Boardwalk and the awesome Jellyrolls. Oh and the hotel staff (in my experience) is really nice.

    ps Swan/Dolphin guests don’t have to pay the parking fee daily…just the one time covers your whole stay.

    • October 12, 2011 at 10:21 am

      Ha! I like the “if you stuck your face against the window and strained” description. I wonder if they consider that a “theme park view” for billing purposes.

      That is a good point for folks who might not want to over do the Disney magic. And yes, the staff was nice.

      Interesting about the parking. I thought it was daily, but I’ll check into it. Thanks for the tip!

  • October 12, 2011 at 10:23 am

    I feel like the unbeatable location in the Epcot Resort Area makes up for any lack of “Disney” feeling in a non-Disney resort. That being said, even with the teacher discount I would be eligible for at the Swan/Dolphin, when I factor in the cost of a rental car, the parking cost, etc, it never makes sense for me to stay here over another Disney resort. I would rather stay at Pop and spend the extra $ on food or another long weekend trip, or spring for the Beach Club and enjoy everything that entails.

    When I was a kid my family stayed at the Swan on my dad’s Westin points, and at the Dolphin when my dad had a convention. We had a great time, and especially loved the pools, but I think because of the fees and lack of ME, these hotels really cater to people who can stay on points, and/or conventioneers.

    Thanks for the review 🙂

    • October 12, 2011 at 6:55 pm

      For sure the location makes this resort. I’m just a sucker for the Epcot area! The factors you listed have often kept me away as well. I’m glad you had a good stay when you were a kid though! Thanks for your thoughts

  • October 12, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    My daughter and I stayed at the Dolphin last December, after spending two nights at Animal Kingdom Lodge, concierge level. While the Dolphin felt like a bit of a let down after AKL, we loved the location.

    We also had some housekeeping issues so we ended up taking the ‘no housekeeping option’ and received $5/night on a gift card. That paid for a nice lunch at Picabu.

    Our ‘face smashed against the window view’ included the edge of Illuminations. A couple of nights, when my daughter was too tired to stay out late, I turned off all the lights in the room and enjoyed watching part of the fireworks!

    Given the price, I would definitely stay at the Dolphin again.

    • October 12, 2011 at 6:57 pm

      How cool that you could see Illuminations! I can definitely understand being underwhelmed after a stay at the AKL with its rich theming. I’m sure I’ll wind up there or the Swan at some point again too, but I’m just not in any big rush. Thanks for the comment!

  • October 12, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    I have stayed many times at the Dolphin. It is the price performer, as you point out, but it is NOT the Beach Club, Yacht Club, or Boardwalk. I like it for quick, last minute, weekend trips that involve something at Epcot or the Studios.

    I agree. The restaurants in the hotel are great! My favorite dinner and drinks place is blue zoo. Been a fan for ages!

    The biggest difference between the Swan and the Dolphin is that standard rooms at the Swan have Queen beds and the beds at the Dolphin are Full. A King at both, and at most WDW hotels, is a premium. Makes a big difference if you are sharing bed space.

    • October 12, 2011 at 6:58 pm

      This was exactly what this trip was: a quick last minute trip where I wanted to spend time in Epcot. I haven’t been to Bluezoo yet so I’ll have to give it a shot. Thanks!

  • October 12, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Thanks for the review, Kristen! We stay at the Dolphin (or Swan) frequently since we have the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card. You can’t beat free nights on points, especially at a resort that’s so convenient to Epcot.

    I agree with you that the Swan/Dolphin are missing a bit of the Disney magic. I tend to feel a little bit less like I’m at WDW than I do when I stay at a Disney owned resort. But as I said, since we typically stay for free, you can’t beat the price. 😉

    FYI, you are correct about the parking fee. Overnight parking is $11 per night plus tax for a total of $11.72 per night (looking at my last bill for the exact prices). This is true for all guests, regardless of their Starwood Preferred Guest reward level.

    Also, I have heard (though I have no proof), that the beds at the Dolphin are actually slightly larger than standard full size beds. I don’t know for sure if this is true or not, but they do seem a bit larger than your typical full size bed.

    I’m sorry to hear about the housekeeping issue! That’s a bummer for sure.

    • October 12, 2011 at 2:05 pm

      i said the wrong thing in my comment above. as Kristen and Elisabeth pointed out, ests DO have to pay for parking every day…but not every time you enter and exit the lot, as the signs make it appear when you drive up.


    • October 12, 2011 at 6:59 pm

      You certainly can’t beat free! I think the beds are described as something like deluxe doubles or something indicating they are slightly larger. Thanks for the comments!

  • October 12, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    I have always stayed at the Dolphin for my trips to WDW as my Mother works for the company and can get great deals on the rooms so, I have nothing to compare to for on-site hotels.

    What I can tell you is that the Dolphins on the Dolphin are not Dolphin fish, but actual Dolphins based on old nautical versions. That Fact seems to get lost a lot, like the myth that the Swans and Dolphins are switched.

    Also, and way more importantly than the mascot issue is that you CAN get packages delivered to the hotel from the parks and from DTD. I just did it last week and many trips prior. They go to the hotel gift shop, just like elsewhere.

    • October 12, 2011 at 7:01 pm

      Ahhh yes the dolphin does get lost in translation thanks for letting me know about that. Oh! sorry about the mix up with package delivery. I read that it couldn’t be done in my research but I’ll be sure to correct it. Thanks for the insight!

  • October 13, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    Missing Disney magic? I disagree. You can’t take a friendship to DHS or walk to EPCOT from any of the Disney moderates.
    I also think the overall feel of the Swolphin is more deluxe and let’s face it, the Disney moderates are still only motels.

  • October 15, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    We recently stayed at the Dolphin for the first time over the 40th anniversary weekend and were surprised by how much we loved it! We had a corner room overlooking the giant fountain, the Swan, Tower of Terror & EPCOT in the distance. Our balcony was huge & private, obscured by a few palm trees. We loved the white noise the fountain provided 24 hrs.

    We were afraid we’d miss out on Disney magic since we are DVC members & there was no availablity that weekend resortwide, but we were wrong. We would not hesitate to stay at the Dolphin again.

  • October 15, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    We stayed at the Dolphin for a week this past May and absolutely loved it. We got a great rate (about 1/2 of the price at the Yacht/Beach club at the same time), and had a room that overlooked the pool and we could clearly see Tower of Terror, pretty good for a “standard” room. Our room was great, no housekeeping issues at all. We didn’t really miss having our hotel “Disney” themed, since we were in the parks all day. The location is simply outstanding – such a quick walk to the Boardwalk, or a nice medium-length walk to Epcot.

    I’d recommend the Dolphin to anyone who was headed to WDW, and I pretty strongly disagree with the C- in the Unofficial Guide.

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