Staying off-site when visiting Walt Disney World definitely has advantages (e.g., lower cost, larger rooms, enhanced luxury, etc…), but it also leaves you at the mercy of external forces that can be difficult to control. In my time staying off-site I’ve started to identify the things that help me wrangle those external forces (the most nefarious of which is, of course, traffic).
In this article, I’ll provide you with four Must Have items when staying off-site, as well as some additional Nice to Have things, that will help you make the most of your Walt Disney World vacation.
If you are staying off-site during your Walt Disney World visit, you definitely want the following:
MUST HAVE #1 – Car
The thought of not having to worry about providing your own transportation while on vacation is probably appealing to some. After all, why worry about the hassle of navigating Orlando, parking, finding gas stations, etc… when you can simply take advantage of the complimentary shuttle service offered by local hotels?
There is a simple answer to that question: more flexible scheduling options.
As I’ve discussed before, rope-dropping is especially important for off-site guests. Unfortunately, if you’re at the mercy of your hotel’s shuttle schedule it will be difficult, if not impossible, to arrive 45 minutes before a park opens. I know of at least one especially “helpful” hotel shuttle that only travels to Epcot, thereby requiring you to take Disney transportation to any other location on property from there. If you used that shuttle, you definitely wouldn’t be able to rope-drop any of the other parks. Off-site hotel shuttle schedules also make it substantially more difficult to take afternoon breaks (and then make the associated return to Walt Disney World), and the shuttles almost totally eliminate the option to briefly travel off-property to take advantage of lower priced dining options.
To avoid severely limiting your scheduling options, you must have a car with you. If you drove to Walt Disney World, you’re all set. If you flew to Orlando, then you’re looking at a rental. Thankfully, the Unofficial Guide has an excellent section on how to rent a car, including a recommendation on how to use Zalyn in order to find the best rate for your trip.
MUST HAVE #2 – Navigation System that Evaluates Current Traffic
My wife and I usually take an early-to-mid-afternoon break from the parks: some pool-time, maybe a nap, and an opportunity to avoid the hottest, most crowded part of the day. If you utilize this strategy, it means driving back and forth between Walt Disney World and your hotel at least twice a day, which means four driving segments during which you’re subject to the whims of Orlando traffic.
Unless you’re a local, or a very seasoned veteran, you’ll probably need navigation to get around Orlando. Your hotel’s staff likely provides standard route advice, but oftentimes that route will not be the fastest to your destination or the one free from traffic. Having a way to evaluate alternate routes, and possibly even re-route yourself if there’s excessive congestion or an accident, will make your travel to and from your hotel so much simpler. Thankfully, some modern navigation systems incorporate these live traffic, congestion, and accident information into their route suggestions.
Though you could invest in a dedicated GPS system to fulfill this need, many people prefer to use a navigation app on their smartphone. In the navigation-plus-traffic space, the two best options are Google Maps (available for iOS and Android), and Waze (available for iOS, Android and Windows Phone). The Unofficial Guide recommends Waze, but I actually prefer Google Maps. Ultimately, this is really a matter of personal preference, as are most smartphone related choices. I like Google Maps’ interface and route selection options, but I encourage you to download both to compare.
NOTE: Waze is actually owned by Google and Waze’s traffic information is integrated into Google Maps
Relatedly, if you are using a smartphone for GPS, I recommend investing in a quality windshield/dash mount for your phone. I have used the RAM X-Mount (picture above) for years and have been extremely happy with it (I even bring one with me when I fly so I can use it in the rental car).
MUST HAVE #3 – Sunpass Transponder
Taking advantage of the alternate routes to and from Walt Disney World may require traveling on some toll highways. The toll booths on these highways are designed to heavily incentivize the use of Florida’s automated toll collection system, Sunpass, by requiring non-Sunpass users to exit the highway (and often make exact change toll payments) while almost always allowing Sunpass users to travel past/through the toll plaza without even reducing their speed.
NOTE: There are actually two signs you will see for tolls: Sunpass and EZ Pass. A Sunpass device will work for both types of these tolls. Also, please take note of the difference between Florida’s “EZ Pass” and the “E-Z Pass” system that is commonly used through most of the East Coast. An E-Z Pass transponder will not work in Florida.
If you are renting a car for your trip to Walt Disney World, your rental agency might already participate in a Sunpass program, leaving no action required on your part. (Ed. – you will pay extra for this convenience though. My last rental car had this option for $17 plus the cost of tolls – a hard sell when the tolls themselves for my driving were less than $8 total.) If you are traveling to Walt Disney World in your own car, however, you should purchase a Sunpass transponder. These are available at various locations on Florida’s Turnpike, at various stores in Florida, and directly from Sunpass.com. Make sure you pay attention to what type of transponder you purchase (sticker v. hard case, etc…), since the various transponders have different restrictions (e.g., the hard case transponders can be moved between multiple cars, while the stickers cannot).
NOTE: If you are looking for “one transponder to rule them all”, then you might want to investigate the NC Quick Pass. The hard case version of the NC Quick Pass is the rare transponder that works for both the Florida Sunpass system and the east coast’s E-Z Pass system. Way to go, Tar Heels!
MUST HAVE #4 – Extra Smartphone Power
As Disney increases the power and functionality of the My Disney Experience app, it is also increasing the daily power requirements of your smartphone. When you combine that with the basic problem of the increased power required to acquire and maintain a cellphone signal in an area with such a high concentration of people, you’ll realize that Walt Disney World wreaks havoc on your phone battery. If you depend on your phone for navigation, as described above, you’ll need some way to recharge your phone during the day. Even if you aren’t using it for GPS, it would be terrible for your phone battery to die when you’re trying to check the TouringPlans Lines App.
If you are like me, then you’ve seen people sitting on bathroom floors and climbing under booths at restaurants to plug their phones in for some extra juice. There are outlets scattered around Walt Disney World, and some people choose to depend on those. I, however, would recommend an external phone battery instead. As with the navigation apps, the type of battery device that you choose to use with your phone is largely an issue of personal preference. Some people prefer a phone case that contains an additional battery, but I carry an external battery pack in my satchel (What? I want to be like Flynn Rider). This allows me to charge multiple devices at once when I stop for a bite to eat, including my camera, without adding any bulk to my phone itself.
Additionally, if you are going to be driving back and forth between Walt Disney World and your hotel, you might as well take advantage of that time with a car-based phone charger. Though more and more cars are being built with USB outlets in the car itself, it’s still worth tossing a dedicated charger into your suitcase in case you get stuck with a car model that does not have integrated charging.
NOTE: Though slightly outside the scope of this article, a multi-port USB charger for your hotel room is a nice item to add to your travel kit. Personally, I like the Monoprice 4-Port Wall Charger, but many people think the Anker 5-Port USB Charger is the best available.
With all these different charging devices, you’ll need some extra charging cables. As I would with any cable-related purchase, I recommend picking some up at Monoprice (which has an extensive collection of lightning and micro-usb cables.)
Though not as critical as the Must Haves listed above, the following things will make your off-site stay just a little bit smoother.
Strategy for Handling Parking
It costs $17 per day to park a vehicle at Walt Disney World. Though you have almost certainly figured that additional cost into your on-site v. off-site decision, there may be ways to reduce that cost and that’s certainly worth investigation. For example, is it worth it for someone in your party to purchase an Annual Pass?
Knowledge of the Closest Grocery Store
One of the advantages of staying offsite is the ability to purchase food and other necessaries at “real world” prices, instead of Walt Disney World prices (e.g., bottles of water, snacks, sunscreen etc…). Doing a little research prior to your arrival to determine the closest Publix or Walgreens will make your shopping a little bit simpler.
Cooler with Drinks and Snacks
If you are traveling with children (or someone in your party that occasionally gets “hangry”) it might be worth keeping a small cooler in your car that has some of your drinks and snacks handy for consumption on the commute between Walt Disney World and your hotel or for transfer to your touring bag.
Staying off-site when visiting Walt Disney World increases the number of external forces that can negatively impact your trip, but I hope these tips will help to minimize that risk, and thereby help maximize your enjoyment of your Walt Disney World vacation.
Are there items that you never travel without? Please let us know in the comments.