This is the 3rd in my series about saving for a trip to see the new Star Wars attractions now open in both Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida. It’s time to discuss where to stay and why. I am not a Disney expert by any means but here are my thoughts and opinions on the subject of choosing accommodation.
The decision on where to stay for a trip to Disneyland is relatively straightforward so I’ll get that one out of the way first.
Off-site or On-site?
If you’re going to Disneyland in Anaheim, you don’t really need to consider staying “on property” because the advantages are minimal. There are currently only three on-site hotels and all of them are expensive.
In contrast to Orlando, many off-site hotels are actually within walking distance to the park entrance. Other hotels are close to Disney parking lots where you can board a bus for the short drive to the parks.
Shell out the cash for an on-site hotel only if you really want the full Disney experience and are willing to pay for it.
There are many chain hotels near Disneyland. If you have Marriott, IHG, Hilton, Wyndham, Best Western or Choice points you can do the math to see what value you can get by booking your stay with points.
I once stayed at the Candlewood Suites on an IHG PointBreak booking. It was within walking distance but still quite a hike (about 20 minutes if I recall). For a future stay I’d prefer something closer. However, at 25,000 points, considering it’s a new hotel and the rooms have kitchens, I wouldn’t hesitate to book it if cash rates are high.
If you’re going to pay to stay at a chain hotel, be sure to check all the promotions offered by the various loyalty programs. Decide if maybe it’s worth even doing some hotel hopping to take advantage of a stay-based promo. Either way, don’t leave any points on the table by booking through an online travel agency unless you’re definitely getting a lower rate.
If you’re not going to be staying at a chain hotel, consider using the Hotels.com rewards program or see if sites like Rocketmiles, Kaligo or Pointshound have a good promo. Check the Air Miles Travel Hub as well.
Discounts and Promotions
Monitor websites like Mousesavers for discounts. One popular hotel near Disneyland is the Howard Johnson and they have an email sign-up for discount alerts and there are likely others that do as well.
WALT DISNEY WORLD
Choosing accommodation for a Walt Disney World trip in Orlando is a lot more complicated.
Off-site or On-site?
Unlike with Disneyland, this is a real dilemma. I’ll try to weigh the pros and cons of each option.
Pros of On-site Disney Resorts
Staying at a Disney resort puts you right in the bubble. They are highly themed properties and come with a variety of perks including the Magical Express (free transportation to and from the airport) and the ability to make FastPass+ reservations 60 days in advance, whereas off-site guests get only 30 days. You can charge purchases in the parks to the room and have items sent to the resort for pick-up. Also, when staying at a Disney hotel you’ll receive a Magic Band which is a wrist band that acts as your room key and park ticket.
I don’t believe one can get fastpasses for the popular Star Wars attractions at the moment, but once they enter the system having that extra time to book them will be a nice benefit.
I’ve stayed on-site on three occasions – at the Fort Wilderness Cabins, Port Orleans Riverside and Pop Century. Although it can cost more and you can’t earn loyalty points, it would still be my preference at Walt Disney World due to the perks and convenience.
The frequent transportation from your resort to the four parks is the key factor for me. Now, with the addition of the Skyliner gondolas to some hotels, there is another reason to stay on-site. That said, some guests choose to rent a car and drive to the parks themselves.
If you want to get a sense of what the rooms are like, there are a plethora of reviews and room tours on YouTube.
Cons of On-site Disney Resorts
The biggest con is the price tag. Even the “Value” category hotels are relatively expensive for what you get. You are paying for proximity, theming and perks. For the amount of money you’d pay for a basic hotel room at Disney, you could potentially rent an entire vacation home or get a suite at a nicer hotel.
Another disadvantage is that if you don’t have a rental car, you’ll have the added cost of using a service like Lyft or Uber to access off-site shopping and dining. Or you might end up not venturing off Disney property at all and instead pay more for food and shopping.
Swan and Dolphin – Marriott Bonvoy
These hotels are on Disney property but aren’t owned by Disney. They are actually Westin and Sheraton hotels (Category 6). They do not have the amped up Disney theming that other on-site resorts have and you don’t get to use the Magical Express free transportation to and from the airport. However, you do get the 60 day FastPass+ window.
At these hotels you can earn and redeem Marriott Bonvoy points and take advantage of any status benefits to which you may be entitled, but beware the resort fee.
Disney Springs Hotels
There are a number of hotels close to the Disney Springs shopping and entertainment area. These belong to a variety of chains like Hilton, IHG, Wyndham etc. The rates are typically much better than the on-site resorts and you still get the 60 day FastPass+ window by arrangement with Disney. Transport to the parks will not be as frequent as the actual Disney buses, but it will be better than what’s provided by the majority of off-site hotels.
If you find on-site hotels a bit too expensive, the Disney Springs properties are a great middle ground. My only stay in this area predates the establishment of the Disney Springs complex so I don’t have any personal experience. But if staying on-site is not in the cards, I would definitely opt for one of these hotels and earn or redeem some loyalty points.
There are a wide range of lodging options if you’re staying off-site: vacation homes, timeshare rentals, deluxe hotels, midscale hotels, budget hotels, cheap motels and really cheap motels.
Many hotels will offer free transportation to Disney but it’s usually very limited in frequency and only goes to one or two of the four parks. If you’re staying off-site, I’d be prepared to rent a vehicle or make use of Uber or Lyft to get to the parks.
One time I scored a crazy low rate at a highly regarded resort property on International Drive. In hindsight, I wish we had skipped Disney entirely that trip and just enjoyed a relaxing stay in Orlando. We relied on the resort’s transportation to the parks and it was infrequent and unreliable.
If your Orlando vacation includes more activities than just Disney, consider staying at a Disney hotel just for those days where you’ll be visiting the parks and then move on to different accommodation elsewhere. I know some people are heavy packers and there is a hassle factor when switching hotels but sometimes it can make sense both logistically and economically.
Particularly if you want to visit the Universal Orlando parks, consider staying right nearby or at one of the Universal on-site hotels. In my opinion, Disney and Universal should ideally be the focus of separate trips. Doing both will be theme park overload for some and budget overload for many.
Maybe even consider a split-stay on Disney property. Bookend a few nights at the Swan or Dolphin with a couple of stays at Value resorts. I’d probably do something weird like that.
The Search for Deals
If you’re going to book a Disney resort, be sure to monitor websites like Mousesavers or the Disboards forum where all manner of discounts will be discussed in detail. Compare the room-only rate to a package with room and tickets combined.
It is occasionally possible to book Disney resorts by redeeming Dream miles. Whether you are satisfied with the value for your miles is a personal decision.
You can also book paid stays at Disney hotels through the Travel Hub to earn Air Miles and hopefully take advantage of an Air Miles promotion. Currently, there’s a promo where you earn up to 400 bonus miles on your first hotel booking.
Alternatively, if you collect miles in the Cash category, you can redeem them for groceries then turn around and buy Disney gift cards. You can then use those to pay your Disney hotel bill and thus avoid the foreign exchange fee imposed by your credit card. Try to buy those gift cards with a credit card that has a good multiplier bonus like the Scotiabank Amex Gold or Amex Cobalt.
If you book Disney resorts through Hotels.com, you can collect nights toward your free night as part of its rewards program. You can pay with Hotels.com gift cards as well. Watch for a bonus to convert your RBC Rewards points to Hotels.com gift cards if you have no other use in mind for them. I’ve read that you’ll need to contact Hotels.com to get the confirmation number in order to log into My Disney Experience to make your FastPass+ reservations.
Renting DVC Points
If you’d like to stay at one of the Disney Vacation Club resorts, consider renting points from an owner. A good website to use for this is a Canadian one: David’s Vacation Club Rentals. I have never rented points but I occasionally take a glance at the Dedicated Reservations For Rent section just for curiosity.
Due to the high cost of park tickets (prices increased again today), I’d want my choice of accommodation to help me get maximum value for my Disney trip. In Anaheim, that would mean booking a hotel within walking distance to the parks. In Florida, although I’m susceptible to being enticed by an off-site deal, I really would prefer to stay at an on-site hotel.
I’m fortunate, I guess, that my standards for lodging are relatively low, so any of the Value category properties would suit me fine. My first choice, however, would be one of the hotels in close proximity to Hollywood Studios where Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge is located. I’m sure crowd levels would necessitate being at “rope drop” to maximize one’s time.
A Disney trip (especially to Walt Disney World) is an expensive adventure that requires a lot of planning. It’s important to consider all the options very carefully and figure out what will work best for you. For me, it’s a situation where the desire to save money has to be tempered by the realities of a Disney vacation. Being excessively frugal, whether it be with points or money, can come at too high a cost in terms of overall enjoyment.