Home » How Much More Do You REALLY Pay To Stay at a Disney Resort?

How Much More Do You REALLY Pay To Stay at a Disney Resort?

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

Image: DisneyThe 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

Image: DisneyTripAdvisor 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.

Image: DisneyThe 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. 

Reviews comparison

Image: DisneyHere’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.

Pricing comparison

Image: DisneyThe tidy aspect of Tripadvisor’s rankings is that one to one comparisons between the various tiers are possible. At $135 per night, Hampton Inn has a similar cost to the Value Resort hotels Disney has onsite. It is slightly higher, and that’s important since Disney offers special benefits to guests who stay at one of their hotels. From my perspective, any hotel charging more than a person can get for a Disney room is asking for trouble. It’s a disadvantageous starting position.

Disney hotels also have a con. The company has moved toward tiered pricing, a model that fluctuates depending on the time of the year when a person visits. A quick glance at Disney’s All-Star Music Resort shows that a nightly rental can cost as little as $106, but it can also be more than $200 on Easter and Christmas week. While I’m sure Hampton Inn increases its prices as well, Disney is openly mercenary with their room rates. When they charge more, a better reviewed hotel room offers more value.

Image: DisneyThese complexities exist across the tiers. Disney’s prices are almost universally higher relative to offsite options, as you would expect. The trick is that the company frequently runs discounts where a guest can save 20 percent off the cost of Value and Moderate Resort properties and 30 percent off of Deluxe Resort hotels. That means their rack rate isn’t really their nightly rate, at least not for savvy consumers who shop for deals.

I’ve adjusted my calculations to reflect these discrepancies, but the reality is that offsite hotels are almost always at least slightly cheaper.  That’s by design. Hotels want to remain competitive with Disney. They know that the only way to do so is by having lower nightly rates. The lone exception on the list is the Four Seasons Resort Orlando, where the price is the price and if you can’t pay it, you’re a lowly serf anyway.

Amenities comparison

Image: DisneySince Disney isn’t winning either reviews or pricing, this subject is the crux of the discussion. Theme park tourists who don’t care about amenities have already made up their minds. Staying offsite will save these travelers money while offering high-quality lodgings, and that’s enough for many during a Disney trip. Mouse magic will take care of the rest.

The Disney Dining Plan

Image: DisneyGuests who are still on the fence on the subject have a more difficult evaluation ahead. The advantages of an onsite stay at Disney are a bit more subtle. Also, some of them aren’t ones that a person has to use. For example, all guests at Disney resorts have the opportunity to purchase the Disney Dining Plan (DDP), and that’s one of the most divisive topics among theme park tourists.

I’m a staunch supporter of the program and have used the Deluxe Dining Plan during my most recent visits. Others have differing opinions of the DDP. So, if you’re someone who doesn’t use it, the DDP clearly wouldn’t influence your resort decision any. If you’re a fan like me, the ability to add one of the plans or stay with a free dining plan package, something Disney offers a few times each year, is a huge asset.

The DDP is something you can’t get while staying offsite. Disney makes the program exclusive to their hotel guests. Its actual value as a tangible benefit depends on your evaluation of it. When planned well, the DDP on its own will save a traveler enough money to compensate for the additional cost of staying onsite.

Extra Magic Hours

Image: DisneySimilarly, Extra Magic Hours are a benefit whose value is in the eye of the beholder. Do you enjoy waking up at the break of dawn to get an early start at Walt Disney World? Do you wish that one of the parks stayed open later on a given night? If either or both of these assertions is/are true, Extra Magic Hours is a huge value.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, Disney either opens one of their parks an hour earlier or closes it an hour (or two) later on a given day. The only people admitted to this park are guests of Disney resorts. The current setup requires a guest to show their Magic Band to verify admittance to an attraction, and I should note that not all attractions are open during Extra Magic Hours, with the evening version generally offering more options than the morning.

Image: DisneyIn my experience, I can generally ride four or five shorter attractions (ones that only take three of four minutes) during an Extra Magic Hour. Since Disney projects that the average guest will ride nine attractions during a given park visit, tremendous value is available to people willing to get up earlier or stay later. The catch is that you have to alter your morning/late evening plans to utilize Extra Magic Hours. Also, tardiness will undo a lot of the good. A person who misses 30 minutes of an early morning session will not get much value, and if you’re anything like my family, it’s easy to run a half-hour late, especially first thing in the morning.

So, the utility of Extra Magic Hours depends on how disciplined you are in using them. Anyone who does will maximize their park time each day, which means they have tremendous value for purposeful guests. To some theme park tourists, Extra Magic Hours offer no tangible benefits. To others, it’s the most valuable advantage of staying onsite.

Location location location

Image: DisneyThe final advantages of a stay onsite are ones that apply to everyone. While Disney does allow third party hotels onsite or near enough that the distinction doesn’t matter, their properties are closest to the action. All of the Tripadvisor-favored properties above are within three miles of a Disney theme park. Each of them claims a transportation time of 15 minutes or less. That’s not significantly worse than Disney’s transportation amenities. Still, differences exist.

For example, Villas of Grand Cypress Orlando does offer transportation to and from the various Disney theme parks. A paying guest must book a reservation for their bus ride, though, and their service isn’t constant the way that Disney is. Even the Four Seasons only offers transportation to Magic Kingdom each half hour, and that statement’s still a bit misleading. The bus takes guests to the Ticket & Transportation Center, where a person must ride the monorail to the park. Buses to the other three parks are only hourly, although once someone arrives at Disney, they can rely on internal Disney transportation for the rest.

Image: DisneyThe issue here is obvious. Someone staying offsite is pot-committed to spending huge swaths of time inside the parks during each visit. For many travelers, that’s fine. For those who visit Walt Disney World a lot, the art of moving in and out of the parks is what elevates the vacation. Not having to stay in the crowds is a huge benefit. Similarly, any time spent away from Disney transportation is generally a positive due to the mercurial nature of that process. So, if folks would prefer to avoid Disney’s bus and boat options as much as possible, what does that say about the outside solutions from third party hotels?

Most important, Disney offers the most tangible benefit of all with its closest lodgings, many of which are in the Deluxe Resort category. These properties are oftentimes either within walking distance of a theme park or, in the case of Disney’s most famous hotels, a monorail ride away from the action. This reduction in transportation stress has a value beyond measure to a lot of guests, me included.

Image: DisneyI will note that a new factor has changed this calculus a bit. Uber and Lyft, popular ride-sharing services, empower tourists to save time, money, and aggravation by taking greater control of the travel process. Now, a person can enter and leave a park on their schedule, which reduces the value of the average Disney resort’s transportation and proximity advantages. Still, Disney knows that their quicker, easier routes are a huge advantage in keeping their occupancy rates high. That’s why that amazing, shocking gondola rumor makes too much sense to dismiss. 

In weighing all the advantages above relative to the average savings of a non-Disney resort, which seems to be about $25 a night for a similar property, I skew strongly toward Disney. Whether you agree largely depends on three factors. The first is whether you’d use the Disney Dining Plan if it were an option. The second is how much you’d capitalize on Extra Magic Hours when they’re available. The third and most important one is how much weight you give to location and travel convenience.

Image: Disney

I guess there’s technically a fourth option, which is whether $25 per night or $150 over the course of a week has a huge impact on your travel budget. Remember all the considerations above the next time you book a trip and please remember to weigh in with your thoughts once you’ve confirmed your room. I’d love to know which factors mattered the most to you.