Trip Planning 101: Choosing a Hotel

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This is the second of our Trip Planning 101 series. It follows last week’s article on deciding when to take your vacation. is experimenting with a scoresheet to help you rank your hotel choices. You will need a copy of the Unofficial Guide (for offsite reviews) or can just use the Hotel section of Download the PDF and let us know how you like it or if we need to include more instructions on how to use it.

The Polynesian, complete with palm tree

So you’re off to Disney World. What is there to say but “Yay!”?

Well, actually, a lot.

The first question (or possibly, the fourth, after “Will I meet Mickey Mouse?” “Is Dole Whip as good as they say?” and “How many more minutes until I can ride Splash Mountain?”) should be “Where will we stay?”

So to get you to the aforementioned Dole Whip, Mickey Mouse, Splash Mountain and the other reasons that you’re really going, here are some tips to get started.

The big question: On property or off? (Also known as onsite vs. offsite)

Our reviews of onsite Disney hotels are found here to help you out.

Why you SHOULD stay on property:

It’s wildly convenient in terms of transportation

You don’t need to worry about a car because the Disney transportation system will take you to all the Parks, as well as to places like Blizzard Beach and Downtown Disney. Disney buses are convenient, stop at your hotel and all Disney venues, and run relatively on time. That means you don’t need to worry about parking (or finding) your car after a long day. The buses will also deposit you pretty close to the action. If your hotel is on the monorail or has boat service, even better—your trip will be speedy and easily accessible. (However, if you do have a car, parking is free in the Parks.)

If you stay onsite, you can also take advantage of the Magical Express, a service for guests who arrive in Orlando by commercial flight. Disney will get your checked bags (now, that’s a yay) and take them to your hotel. Oh, yeah—they’ll also take YOU to your hotel–all for free. You can also check your bags at your hotel and get a boarding pass right there when you leave. How groovy is that?

It has fantastic amenities

Extra Magic Hours

Guests can take advantage of Extra Magic Hours, whereby you get access one hour earlier to different parks on different days than the general public, or can stay up to three hours after closing time.

Disney Dining Plan

Only Disney resort guests can purchase the Disney Dining Plan, which provides a set number of meals, snacks, and drinks for a fixed price per night. If you use it right, you can save some money. Plus, many love the peace of mind of having their food paid for before the trip starts, allowing them to ignore prices on the Disney menus while on vacation.

If this is Your Once-in-a-Lifetime Trip

Maybe it’s a big family reunion, or an anniversary, or a birthday, or you’ve saved your pennies for years and this is your shot. If this trip is your once-in-a lifetime, then you should definitely consider staying on property. You’re going to Disney World, and staying at a Disney resort is a HUGE part of the experience. If you’re already planning to stay on property, considering staying at a higher-level resort than you might normally consider, if you can swing it. Bottom line: If this is it, make it memorable and make it Disney, every second you’re there. You won’t regret it.

That Disney Magic (duh)!

Seriously, staying on property extends the thrill you get from being in the Parks. When you leave Typhoon Lagoon and go back to you’re hotel, you’ll still be in Disney World. When you wake up and look out your window, you’ll still be in Disney World. When you…OK, you get the idea. It’s a fantastic feeling. And the theming at the Disney hotels is incredible, from the decor to the pools to the gift shops. Staying on property means you don’t have to leave that Disney magic behind when you leave Epcot at the end of the day. And seriously, there’s so much to do at many of the hotels that you may choose to spend part or all of a day just taking advantage of everything offered there.
And that, as they say, is priceless.

First-Time Visitors

For first-time visitors, the above factors make staying on property a serious consideration. The ease of being picked up at the airport, booking your meals ahead of time, the Disney transportation system, extra magic hours, and so forth will ensure that your first time there is really special–and that you’ll want to return.

Value vs. Deluxe: The Disney Hotel Classification System

But wait—even after you’ve decided to stay on property, you still have some work to do. Disney has a somewhat complicated ranking system of its properties, one that you’ll need to decipher before you can book your stay.

Deluxe resorts, are, as you can probably guess, the nicest. They offer the most space, the nicest accommodations, the most to do at the resort itself, and a wider range of dining options. They’re often close to the monorail or boat transportation, and offer fewer guests and thus more efficient service. (The Grand Floridian is a good example.) Disney Deluxe villas (or vacation club resorts) have full suites, sometimes with kitchens, and are often attached to these resorts (like Disney’s Beach Club Villas).

A level down you’ll find the moderate resorts (such as Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside resort). They’ll still offer nice theming, but they’re bigger, the rooms are smaller, and you’ll have fewer dining and transportations options.

The value resorts (All-Star Music, the soon-to-be-unveiled Art of Animation) have the most rooms but also the smallest, and each hosts large numbers of people; they also don’t offer many dining or transportation options. However, you can also opt for family suites. At the Art of Animation (opening next year) the suites will be twice the size of standard rooms and offer theming from such classics as Finding Nemo and The Lion King; they can accommodate up to six guests. (That being said, some folks who can stay pretty much anywhere they want opt for a value resort because they love the theming.)

And finally, you can also check out the Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground for campsites or fully equipped cabins. (For the real scoop, and more details, check out our Disney World Hotels page.)

Another option is to split your stay. Speaking from personal experience, it’s a hassle, but can be well worth it if you want to stay at a particular resort or level of resort but can’t afford it for the whole trip. You might stay at a value resort and move to a deluxe for a night or two; or even stay off property, see the sights outside of Disney World, and then move to a moderate resort for your last few nights. If you want real luxury, you could splurge on the Ritz-Carlton, for instance, and then move to a less pricey hotel in Disney World. This brings us to…

Why you might consider staying off property


Even though the value resorts are, well, good values, and you can usually get discounts for many of them, there’s no question that staying off property is less expensive. If that’s a huge consideration for you, it might be worth it.


While many Disney rooms are a decent size, if you’re going with large group, a condo or vacation villa might offer more space than you get on property.


For some families, having a pool, washer/dryer, or kitchen might be an important factor. You can more easily choose certain elements that are important to you if you stay offsite.


Many offsite properties have kitchens; preparing your own meals can cut down on eating costs.

Spending Time Outside of Disney World

(Yes, some people actually do that…) If Disney World is only one of your destinations, it could make sense to be located someplace where you will have easy access to a number of different attractions.

Planning the Trip

So, now let’s take a theoretical family and help plan its dream Disney vacation.

Mom, Dad, Grandma and three kids are flying to Disney World over spring break. Let’s meet our protagonists.

  • Dad: Wants his family to have a great top-of-the-line experience but can’t justify paying for the six entire nights at a deluxe resort. Doesn’t want to see the inside of a car for the whole trip. Convenience is paramount. Embarrassed at how much he wants to try Toy Story Mania!
  • Grandma: Game as all get out but has trouble walking long distances. Has wanted a hat with Mickey Mouse ears for 37 years.
  • Mom: Has a secret pin-trading obsession; needs to be somewhere she can do her daily run.
  • Bobby, 16: Severe Star Wars obsession. Rumored to have come out of the womb wielding a light saber. Happy to show up for the occasional ride like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, but also wants to stay at the hotel and watch the Final Four Basketball Tournament.
  • Babs, 11: Mostly wants to ride Pirates of the Caribbean as many times as is humanly possible. Wants access to a fantastic pool. Is desperate to eat at the 50s Prime Time Cafe in Hollywood Studios.
  • Bitsy, 6: Making her first appearance at Disney World. Completely enamored of Lilo and Stitch. Frightened by loud noises and dark spaces.

How can this family with different interests and goals have its best Disney vacation?

We recommend booking on site, all the way. The family can fly down and take the Magical Express bus, then rely on Disney transportation so Dad doesn’t have to be car bound. They might start at a family suite at a value resort like All-Star Music for two or three nights to save some money, then move to the Polynesian, where Bitsy can enjoy all things Lilo and Stitch, including merchandise and the ‘Ohana restaurant, as well as the terrific Volcano Pool. Mom can run on the path to the Grand Floridian; the hotel also offers pin-trading sessions, or she can hop on the bus to Downtown Disney. The Polynesian allows easy access to the parks and other hotels, which also means less walking for Grandma. If she feels like staying at the hotel one day, there’s plenty to do, including checking out different Mickey Mouse hats. It also means that Bobby can stay at the hotel to watch basketball and hop on the monorail with quick access to a number of hotels and parks. If Bitsy wants to duck out early to avoid nighttime fireworks at the Magic Kingdom, someone can take her back easily on the Monorail. They have easy access to the Magic Kingdom, where a lot of their interests lie, and can also access Hollywood Studios without too much trouble.

So there you have it.

What are your thoughts about staying choosing your hotel? Let us know!

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Evan Levy

Evan Levy likes baking cupcakes, hanging out with her family, and all things Disney.

10 thoughts on “Trip Planning 101: Choosing a Hotel

  • October 9, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    You don’t have to be on a dining plan to make advanced dining

    As says:

    “Anyone can make an Advance Reservation. At one time, it was for Disney Resort guests only, but that is no longer the case.”

    “Most dining reservations are now made 180 days in advance. Guests staying at Disney-owned resorts may make reservations for their whole vacation (up to 10 days) on the 180th day. This latter privilege is not extended to guests of the Swan, Dolphin, Shades of Green or any of the Plaza resorts.”

    • October 9, 2011 at 8:23 pm

      Yes, you’re correct that anyone can make a dining reservation at Walt Disney World. Thanks! We have updated this post so that it does not mislead folks.

  • October 9, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    Oops. that’s, not

  • October 9, 2011 at 11:09 pm

    This isn’t a balanced, objective piece giving the pros and cons of staying onsite versus offsite. Even the sections headings – “Why you SHOULD stay on property,” caps yours, versus “Why you might consider staying off property” make it obvious which you prefer. If your goal is to convince people to stay onsite, job well done. But if you really want to help people make an informed decision, you can do better than this.

    • October 10, 2011 at 4:54 am

      We have no goal other than helping our readers have a good vacation – promise. The truth is our reader survey data support staying onsite instead of offsite. But your comment on the wording is well-taken.

      • October 11, 2011 at 11:17 am

        Well, sure, staying onsite is awesome. No argument there. I’m certainly not suggesting that you try to talk people out of staying onsite.

        But in the interest of full disclosure, you might mention that while Disney transportation is great if you don’t want to drive or if your travelling party likes to split up and go different places, if you’ll all stay together and your primary goal is getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible, you’re better off driving. Even the Unofficial Guide backs this up. Plus, if Star Wars-obsessed Bobby is also a space nut in general and really wants to see Kennedy Space Center, you’ll want that car.

        And you might mention that the Disney Dining Plan isn’t for everyone – if you qualify for the quick-service dining plan but like table-service meals, or if you have the full dining plan but prefer more quick-service meals so you can spend more time touring, or if you’re a light eater and don’t want the full meals offered on either plan, you might be better off without the plan.

        You could also mention that some off-site hotels and resorts are as close or closer to some parks than on-site resorts are (see the Unofficial Guide for details), and that many of them also offer free transportation – it won’t be nearly as convenient as Disney transportation, but it might suffice for your needs.

        And you could mention that you can potentially save A LOT of cash staying off-site, especially if you also eat breakfast and dinner at the less expensive restaurants and fast-food joints outside Disney World and enjoy a quick-service lunch inside the parks.

        Then there’s those Extra Magic Hours – great if you’ll use them. But if your kids are very young and need an early bedtime today to avoid a meltdown tomorrow, or if you’re a party of older adults who find touring during regular park hours is all you can handle, access to EMH might not be a factor in your choice of where to stay.

        Finally, there’s our reason for staying offsite on our upcoming trip – travelling with sister and her family. We’re Disney fans, but they’re big Harry Potter geeks who want to spend the whole trip at Universal. So we picked a resort on the I-4 corridor that’s convenient to both destinations.

      • October 11, 2011 at 4:16 pm

        Oops, just did a little research on the Disney site – was under the impression that value resort guests were locked into the quick service dining plan. So there’s more flexibility than I realized with the dining plan.

  • October 11, 2011 at 10:16 pm

    Like Jan, I am really surprised by the huge list of reasons to stay on property and the barely there reasons you might choose to go off property. The Unofficial Guide frequently suggests taking a mid day break for a nap/pool time and says that it is faster to drive your own car than to rely on Disney transportation to do so. After reading the guide, we decided to stay offsite at the Sheraton Vistana Resorts. It has great ratings and short driving times to the parks. We will stay in a 2 bedroom villa with a full kitchen, DR, and living area with pull out sofa. Both bedrooms have their own bath. The second room has 2 double beds so each of my kids can sleep in their own bed. Groceries can be delivered to your room. The cost is about half the cost of a 1 bedroom villa at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Offsite you get a LOT more for your money. (Not to mention the beautiful pools and other amenities at the resort.)

    Not too long ago there was a post comparing the sizes of Disney property rooms. I think some concrete comparisons are in order here so folks can better understand the relative benefits of both options. Maybe compare the sizes, features, and prices of suites both on and off property at comparable resorts. It is easy to get wrapped up in wanting the “complete Disney experience” but it comes with a much larger price tag. My family can’t wait to go to our offsite resort. I am sure it will be “magical” in its own way.

    As far as what we considered when deciding to stay off property: the biggest factor for us was having a separate bedroom for us so we don’t have to watch the tv in the dark on mute when the kids go to bed at 8pm. (We don’t want to go on a week-long vacation with no privacy, either.) The cost of having a suite onsite was prohibitive. The second most important factor was a way to make quick inexpensive meals for breakfast and some other meals/snacks. A microwave and refrigerator were the bare minimum for us. A full kitchen was preferred.

    We made our decision before the Disney Dining Plan was offered for free with a booked package. But that required paying regular price for the onsite room and Disney park tickets. We saved a lot of money NOT buying our park tickets from Disney–we used Undercover Tourist. For us paying for the Dining Plan was not at all attractive. Our children barely eat in restaurants. They always order hamburgers and then don’t eat much because they are so interested in what is happening all around them. A whole week of hamburgers is too many hamburgers. We don’t usually order appetizers or desserts or even soft drinks, for that matter. Finally, our children need a lot of sleep. I would rather feed them quickly and save more time for rides and attractions and, Sleep!

    I have stayed onsite before when I was in college and traveling with my family. It was wonderful–Dad was paying, for one thing. The four kids in the family ranged from middle school aged to 20 years old. No one was napping during the day, but we did split up and it was great to have the transportation system bring us back to our villa. I do remember it taking a long time before we finally got back to our room, however.

    I know this is long. I hope I have helped someone make a more informed decision. Happy travels, everyone!

    • October 11, 2011 at 10:37 pm

      For the week we are going to Disney, A 1 Br villa at Jambo House with a standard view is $510 a night. A 2 Br villa at the Sheraton Vistana is $139. Both are without tax and fees. 8 nights at Jambo $4080. 8 nights at Vistana $1112. Adding an intermediate SUV from Budget adds $252 total. So, it would cost us $2716 more to stay onsite in a smaller room. Avoiding the inside of a car for a week is not worth that much to us.

  • October 14, 2011 at 11:20 am

    Our family enjoys staying on site because it makes the vacation feel longer to us. Sure we still have to drive to all of the parks or take the buses, but there IS something about staying inside of the Disney magic the whole time that makes it more enjoyable. 🙂 I think the biggest issue for Disney right now is not having much choice for families of five or more as far as rooms. It will be nice to have AOA open next spring, but it would be even better to get a good moderate hotel (aside from Ft. Wilderness and Port Orleans Riverside) that sleeps five or more. I love the idea of staying at AOA, but I’m not completely sold on staying at a value resort again. This year we opted for the Polynesian, mostly for its location on the monorail but also because there weren’t any other resorts that could fit our family that we liked. I can totally see why some families would prefer to stay offsite with larger families. And if you’re on a tight budget offsite may be a better option too. The Unofficial Guide definitely goes into more detail on both staying on and offsite. 🙂


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