Finding Luxury at Disney World Resorts
To stay at Disney World resorts or stay off-site is one of the first questions to consider when planning your Disney vacation, and everyone has an opinion. I love Disney World. I can’t say I love Disney World resorts, though they are improving all of the time.
I provide this information for families seeking a more luxury experience at Disney World, whose expectations and standards are set by the luxury hotels and resorts from their travels. And I am not out to yuck anyone’s yum. We still stay onsite on occasion and appreciate why it works for many families.
I will always give Disney credit where its due, but I consider myself a pretty knowledgeable consumer of the hospitality industry, and there are some sacrifices when staying on property that I want Luxe Recess readers to know before choosing their accommodations. I simply want every family to enjoy their Disney World vacation.
There is so much content on the internet written by those incredibly passionate about Disney World, and those sites are so helpful when planning a vacation to offer advice. But I don’t see a lot of objective assessment of resorts with the intention of being a guidebook. I stay at several different resorts each time I visit Disney World with the purpose of knowing how each property rates within the Orlando market. This year I will have stayed at nearly 30!
Disney World Resorts: The Myth of convenience
A lot of marketing and money has gone into making everyone think that staying on property is more convenient. I thought that made sense, too, until I experienced it first hand. I have already stayed at twenty-three different hotels in Orlando, six on-site Disney resorts and 17 off-site in the last three years researching our Disney section for readers. These hotel stays in a compressed amount of time have given me a unique perspective to understand how every place stacks up against each other.
Park Transportation: Disney Resort Buses
Buses to the parks really don’t differ. Disney World resort buses run “continuously” but that doesn’t mean you can’t wait a good thirty minutes or more for your bus. To Disney’s credit, after waiting more than 30 minutes for a bus at the Grand Floridian, a staff member came out to do hat tricks to entertain us until a bus arrived. If you are using the Four Seasons or Waldorf Astoria buses, though, their departure times are set and easy to coordinate. The Waldorf Astoria even has a fantastic website with departure times to each park.
But honestly, Uber and Lyft are so easy to use, I am not sure why people suffer with bus wait times unless they face issues with needing more than two car seats. Disney has caught on and will be launching their own car for hire program in red Minnie Mouse cars called Minnie Vans that guests can request for door-to-door service.
In the future there will be a new method of transportation: the Disney Skyliner, a gondola system that connects a the newest Disney Riviera Resort (a new DVC property), the Art of Animation, and Pop Century with Epcot and Hollywood Studios.
Early Magic Hours aren’t all that magic
When you choose the park that has the morning hours, you are choosing the park most popular that day for every Disney World resort guest. All park crowd calendars suggest avoiding those parks on those days for a good reason. Is that extra hour in the morning worth a much heavier crowd for the whole day?
I certainly bought into the hype our first few visits but have since learned it’s not, for us, a true benefit. One exception may be for days the forecast is really hot and humid where an extra hour before the brutal heat and humidity can make a difference. But as a rule, if some friend is trying to tell you that the Early Magic Hours are a great perk, take what they say with a grain of salt.
Magical Express vs. Renting a Car vs. Hiring a Car Service
If you stay on Disney property, Magical Express is a free bus service from the airport to your Disney resort. This is a great perk for travelers who don’t mind the extra walking, waiting, and schlepping.
But for luxury travelers, they will likely choose a car service or rent a car. If you care about eating well, a rental car or Uber is key in reaching the many great restaurants in Disney World and beyond the resort area. If you are a foodie family who also tries to avoid junk food, here’s our list of favorites.
Join the Luxury Disney World Facebook group if we can answer your questions when planning your next Disney vacation.
And speaking of restaurants at the Disney World resorts
The food at Disney World’s resorts is very limiting for foodies and the health conscious, and this element, besides pretty drab hotel rooms, are what keep us looking off site. But it IS getting better. All of the newer restaurants are significantly better than many of the existing offers.
Each deluxe resort has a signature restaurant for dinner that is typically great, but breakfast and lunch will fall short. Outside of those signature restaurants with $45 entrées, it is hard to eat well at the resorts if you don’t eat pizza, burgers, processed food, and those addictive Mickey bars. Here’s our list of favorite Disney park and resort restaurants.
The exception to this is the food court at the Art of Animation resort (check dates & rates), whose Landscape of Flavors is as excellent as cafeteria food can be, with options like saag paneer, roasted fish, freshly baked naan breads, and vegan cupcakes.
I have observed the food offerings improving over the last few years, particularly with healthier children’s menu options, but good food, not junk food, at Disney World will cost you.
I do want to give Disney World credit for being outstanding to those with food allergies. Their policies are typically ironclad, and Disney World has rightly earned the loyalties of families with special dietary needs.
But Orlando-area luxury resorts are used to guests having these allergies, too, and when notified, can be equally accommodating and serve much better tasting food for the same or lower cost.
Disney World resorts offer neither value nor luxury
I’ll say it a different way: Deluxe Disney World resorts are not worth their premium price compared to the luxury hotels in the area. They are very expensive; the Mouse gets a very big commission on a hotel room that will feel like a chain business hotel room with a few not-so-hidden Mickeys in the décor.
Let’s take a long weekend at the beginning of November. As of today, the Waldorf Astoria lists $256 per night, the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes $359, the Four Seasons $425 per night, and one can reserve a two-bedroom villa with full kitchen at the Villas at Grand Cypress for $603 per night. The better Disney resorts range from $486, The Beach Club, up to $714 at the Contemporary Resort. Three days of savings will cover private car services for airport transfers as well as a few spa treatments.
Join the Luxury Disney World Facebook Group where I can try and answer any questions about hotels, spas, and restaurants.
Conference rates at the Disney Resorts run from $199 to $299, and I find that, at that price, the value and experiences offered are well aligned.
If you feel there is not enough Disney magic without being on site for your kids, you can order a welcome gift of stuffed Disney characters and balloons through Disney Floral & Gifts.
I can also tell you your food and room will be exponentially better offsite at those luxury resorts compared to the deluxe Disney World resorts.
So why stay on Disney property at all?
The most profitable strategy Disney World resorts has capitalized on is nostalgia. If you grew up staying at the Polynesian, you probably still place great value on staying there still. If you didn’t grow up going to Disney, they even themed an entire resort for a stroll down Memory Lane called the Pop Century Resort.
With memorabilia from the 1950’s to the 1990’s every adult guest can enjoy the iconography of their childhood. People stay at Disney hotels because it is what they did before, and the trip just won’t feel the same unless they stay on site every time.
Don’t change what is working for you.
The New Club Level Fast Passes
In 2018, Disney World is now offering club level fast passes for those who stay three nights or longer with 3-day or longer tickets. Club level guests of the Polynesian, Grand Floridian, Beach & Yacht Club, Animal Kingdom Lodge, Boardwalk Inn, Wilderness Lodge, and Contemporary are eligible for this new VIP Fast Pass offer. Also guests of the luxury DVC units like the Polynesian Bungalows, the Copper Creek Canyon Cabins, too.
These guests can book 3 extra Fast Passes that work for any park at the 90-day window. This means that in addition to the traditional 3 Fast Passes available to all, these extra VIP Fast Passes can confirm you can book the new hot rides like Pandora or Toy Story Land in the summer of 2018. The cost is $50 per person per day.
The Star Wars Resort Experience
And speaking of nostalgia, Disney World will likely announce (at least I hope) a Star Wars-themed resort experience at the Disney World resorts to tie in with the planned Star Wars Land expansion of Hollywood studios for 2019.
This will probably be the game-changer in how Disney World creates immersive guest experiences.
Parents will probably be able to choose Star Wars-themed rooms and pretend it is for their kids’ enjoyment. (Guilty I will be!)
The rumors around this multi-day experience sounds like a cruise style experience, in that it will be all-inclusive about a Star Wars ship hotel, and guests check in for a two night experience that follows a sequence of experiences like flight training, character interaction and more.
This Star Wars Resort will possibly have a pool area, a cantina, and robotic butler droids. Rumors are pricing this two night all inclusive experience about about $1,000 per person.
The benefits of Disney World Resorts
The biggest perks to staying on site is to take full advantage of their very fancy technology like online check-in, Magic Bands, and an early Fast Pass window before the public (the ride reservation system). Disney World boasts one of the most technologically advanced guest experiences while offering, ironically, some of the least reliable WiFi service.
Guests at Disney World resorts may check in at home and even choose their preferred room. I found this feature pretty cool, but unless you have been to the resort before, it is hard to know what to choose. Guests may also elect to receive a text notification that their room is ready, which can even include the room number.
This worked for us at the first resort we tried the service, and we dragged our bags straight to our room. We left the property without ever once interacting with the front desk. Some people may like this efficiency. I felt it was kind of strange and impersonal.
2 ways Disney World resort guests benefit:
Disney World mails Magic Bands in advance to resort guests in a beautifully designed packages with the same Incredibles theme that the resort confirmation uses. It is a gleeful box to open. Not quite like a Tiffany’s robin egg blue box, but close.
Both the bands and their inscription of each family member’s name are included with the cost of the stay. They can be customized by color and are inscribed underneath the Mickey. They are used as a park ticket, charge account, and room key. They are incredibly convenient. I’m a huge fan. Even when my son lost his on our last trip, we merely had to go to the guest services window at the park entrance to pick up a replacement.
Guests at non-Disney resorts can purchase Magic Bands from the Disney store web site or once on site and load their park ticket and Fast Pass information on them, but they won’t work as charge cards or room keys.
Standard magic bands that are included free for Disney guests run about $12, while the character-themed designs cost about $20.
The Four Seasons has a Disney relations stand opposite their concierge service, and I have found these cast members to be some of the bet I have ever consulted with questions, even before checking in.
The Hilton Bonnet Creek has an on site Disney store of its guests and the Waldorf guests to link purchased Magic Bands with their tickets, too. (Though this can be done online in your My Disney Experience account, too).
Fast Pass Windows
Guests of the Walt Disney World resorts (and the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin resorts*) can choose their Fast Passes sixty days before while off-site guests may do so thirty days before arrival.
This matters in terms of reserving the most coveted Fast Pass options like the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, the new Frozen Ever After ride at Epcot, an Anna and Elsa meet and greet, or the new Pandora Avatar experience, but most options are still available at thirty days.
Plans change, so if you check the My Disney Experience website regularly, especially the week of your trip, you’ll find that cancelations open up.
*Swan and Dolphin guests will not receive magic bands by mail and must purchase them separately and link them to their park tickets in their My Disney Experience accounts.
The Disney Magic
I think Disney can lose sight of the fact that not everyone taking their children to Disney World places value on the total immersion of Disney characters. Clearly if that is appealing to you, then the choice is quite obvious.
When someone starts referring to a hotel’s theming, I know they are best suited to a Disney World resort.
When I tried room service for breakfast on a recent visit at a Disney deluxe resort, called “private dining” in Disney speak, I was shocked that the cast member chirped, “That will be 60 minutes.”
Most hotels live by the 30-minute rule, so an hour for breakfast with hungry children was irksome to me. The room service tray arrived with napkins covered in Mickey Mouse stickers. That will either thrill you or annoy you. Your reaction tells you where you belong. No judgement.
Where should you stay at Disney World?
I don’t know! There are so many options. I can tell you what we do. We always stay at more than one property while visiting Disney World. If we are visiting a park, we can’t take advantage of the resort amenities we are paying for. We like to start at a Disney resort and finish off property where we can relax and rest up after tiring park days.
I think the best Disney resort for the money and experience is the Art of Animation resort (check dates & rates). You can’t be more immersed in Disney than those themed family suites with Cars, Little Mermaid, Lion King, or Little Nemo movie characters. Walking around the property and seeing the life-sized characters is a treat. Their food court is edible, and the suites are spacious. It is, at heart, still a motel with few amenities and little service, though, but if you are at the parks all day, who cares?
For those who claim they really want the immersive Disney experience, you can’t top the Art of Animation.
For those who want to be at the deluxe Disney World resorts, I encourage you to consider renting points to book on the the Disney Vacation Club villas at the Grand Floridian (check dates & rates), Polynesian (check dates & rates), or Contemporary (check dates & rates).
But to save save money we have repeatedly used David’s DVC Rentals (check your dates using their point calculator) with great satisfaction, giving us a discounted price at the nicest, newest rooms on Disney property. When I am paying closer to $300 per deluxe villa studio per night, the whole equation of value and luxury of the onsite properties works very well for me.
After our park days, there are many great choices of luxury resorts. My daughter’s favorite is the Villas at Grand Cypress. She loved the spacious villas and the mellow vibe where we could ride bikes and golf carts around the acres of property.
I couldn’t choose a favorite between the big three: the Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, or Waldorf Astoria. They are all great; it just depends on how much you want to spend, how close you want to be to the parks, and what childcare options you seek.
The Four Seasons kids’ club is included in the price, the Ritz-Carlton offers two free hours per day, and the Waldorf’s is by appointment only. They all have spectacular pools, rooms, service, and restaurant options. The Ritz-Carlton is the furthest away from Disney World but well situated to visit Universal Studios, too.
If you are still confused, or seeking Disney World advice, join my Luxury Disney World Facebook Group where I can try and answer any questions about hotels, spas, and restaurants.
Headed to Disneyland? Here’s an expert assessment on deciding between off-Property hotels at Disneyland is completely different.