Each time you prepare to book your trip and head to Walt Disney World, you’re faced with a simple decision. Where will you stay? The combined annual attendance at Disney’s four Orlando theme parks is 54 million. While part of that total comes from Orlando residents and a lot more comes from guests visiting multiple times at multiple parks, we’re still discussing tens of millions of tourists. Those out-of-towners have to stay somewhere.
Choosing the right place to stay during your trip comes down to a series of calculations. How many travelers are in your party? How long will you stay? What’s your lodging budget for the trip? Independent of your specific answer to each question, the ultimate goal is the same for every theme park tourist. Everyone wants to maximize their vacation money. To do that, you need to know your travel options and what you get from each one. Here’s a look at how to get the best bang for your buck when staying near Disney World.
The Disney options
The Walt Disney Company has had more than 40 years to construct hotels that cater to every traveler’s needs. Value Resorts have thousands of rooms, all in the $100 per night range. Disney’s Moderate Resort tier offers more amenities and better locations relative to the parks at a cost of $150-$250 per night.
The finest hotels at Disney are in the Deluxe Resort category. Those generally run at least $300 per night on the lower end and more than $500 per night for the best ones such as Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort and Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. Several of the entries in this tier reside on the monorail or, in the case of Disney’s Boardwalk Resort and Disney’s Beach Club Resort, within walking distance of Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Epcot. You’re paying for theme park convenience when you choose these high-priced resorts.
The non-Disney options
TripAdvisor lists 353 lodgings and 3,333 vacation rentals as viable options for Orlando tourists. That’s tens of thousands of rooms available. For the purpose of this article, I’ll only compare resorts, saving vacation rentals analysis for a different day.
The scary thought about Orlando rentals is that demand oftentimes meets supply, and the situation has grown more pronounced in recent years thanks to the ascension of the Universal Orlando Resort. Now, travelers have twice as many reasons to visit the greater Orlando area as they did back when Universal was the ugly duckling of city theme parks. For that reason, prices are increasing across the board, and accommodations are added each day to meet the heightened demand.
For our purposes, we’ll match tiers as much as possible. TripAdvisor lists the top 10 resorts in Orlando, which is obviously a hotly contested battle. With only 10 spots available, 343 other lodgings don’t make the cut. The hotels we’ll evaluate are all in the 97th percentile or higher, meaning that they have a glowing reputation for quality relative to price. Some of them also offer ridiculously low prices, but I’m making the arbitrary decision to eliminate anything that’s more than a few miles away from Walt Disney World. Orlando traffic will lead to regrets for guests who get too ambitious about their travels.
The five hotel options we’ll evaluate are the Hampton Inn Orlando/Lake Buena Vista. Tripadvisor lists its current rate at $135 per night and offers it their Certificate of Excellence, which is true of each option I’ve chosen. These are the best of the best in Orlando. Next is Floridays Resort Orlando, with a nightly rack rate of $152 per night. For the next tier, what Disney calls Moderate Resorts, the non-Disney equivalent is Embassy Suites by Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista Resort, with a rack rate of about $175, although I could find lower prices on several days.
Finally, the best comparison for Disney’s Deluxe Resorts is unmistakably Four Seasons Resort Orlando, which comes with a bit of sticker shock at $550 per night. The hotel is so great, however, that rumors abound that Disney has considered rebranding one of their storied resorts to better compete with the much newer property. I should add that a cheaper solution is available at about $350 per night for folks who want the patrician experience without the same cost. That’s the Villas of Grand Cypress, THE highest rated hotel in Orlando at the time of publication. It has the rarest of rare 5 out of 5 review rating on Tripadvisor after more than 1,300 reviews.
Here’s something that might surprise you about the Tripadvisor rankings. Disney resorts are eligible for this list. Somehow, none of them makes the top ten, although Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge finishes 11th. That means the other five hotels all win the reviews comparison by default since all but one of them are graded in the top 10 overall.
As I mentioned, the highest graded one is Villas of Grand Cypress. The Four Seasons finishes second overall, while Hampton Inn Orlando claims third. Floridays is fifth, and the Embassy Suites is the lowest comparison at 14th overall. Since the nightly rack rate at Animal Kingdom Lodge is around $300 per night, four of the hotels are better reviewed, and half of those also cost significantly less, a worrisome strike against Disney resorts.