One of the biggest expenses in a trip to Walt Disney World is your resort room. Fortunately, it’s also the area where you have the most control over how much you pay. This makes it especially important to try to save as much as you can here.
Undoubtedly, the way to save the most on your vacation room is to stay off-site. There are a plethora of hotels, motels, condos, and vacation homes available in the Orlando area. Because Disney seems to gear its rooms mostly to families of four or smaller, staying off-site can be particularly beneficial for families of five or more. Staying off-site is also good if you’re planning on seeing some of the other attractions in the Orlando area. (But who would want to do that?)
One potential problem with staying off-site, that you generally never have to worry about if staying on Disney property, is the quality of room. It could really ruin your vacation to end up in a high-crime neighborhood in a flea-ridden motel that looked really nice in the pictures on the website. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World has a list of “The Top 30 Best Deals” in off-site rooms that allows you to find a good room in your price range. All of these rooms have been tested by Unofficial Guide researchers and the quality (and corresponding price) ranges from two and a half stars up to five stars, with prices from under $50 per night to just over $100.
Another option to consider in off-site lodging is a vacation home or condo. Here, you literally get all the comforts of home, including multiple private bedrooms, multiple baths, and a kitchen. Many also have private pools. I’ve heard nothing but good things about All Star Vacation Homes (www.allstarvacationhomes.com), but there are other companies that rent vacation homes. I’ve had friends stay at the Armed Forces Vacation Club (www.afvclub.com) homes and they’ve enjoyed their digs.
In addition to saving on the basic cost of your room by staying off-site, you can also saving considerably on food. If staying in a vacation home or condo, you can cook if you’re so inclined. Many off-site hotels and motels offer a free continental breakfast to get you started in the morning. No matter where you stay off-site, though, you can eat cheaper by eating off-site than at the Disney restaurants.
The down side of staying off-site is the lack of theming. My family, personally, is willing to pay a little more in order to be surrounded by the Disney magic 24/7. By staying off-site, you also lose access to other perks only for Disney resort guests, mainly Extra Magic Hours, Disney park transportation, and the Magical Express bus service from the Orlando airport. Another thing to keep in mind when comparing the relative costs of staying off-site with on-site is the increased transportation costs involved with staying off-site. You’ll have to pay for parking at the park every day that you’re there (unless you have an annual pass), plus the increased gas costs of driving back and forth from your room to the parks.
One way of saving money, while still enjoying some of the on-site perks, is to stay at what I refer to as the “other” on-site hotels. These include the Swan and Dolphin, Shades of Green, and the resorts of the Downtown Disney Resort area. You’ll pay far less for any of these resorts than for a comparable “true-Disney” room, but all of them are on Disney property.
The Swan and Dolphin are both deluxe hotels conveniently located at the Boardwalk, within walking distance to both Epcot and Hollywood Studios. They’re not run by Disney (they’re run by Starwood and Westin), but enjoy some Disney perks, such as Extra Magic Hours and use of Disney park transportation. Both of these resorts offer substantial discounts for nurses, teachers, military, fire and police. I’ve not stayed at either, but they’re high on my list. They look really nice from the outside, and from pictures I’ve seen online, they’re nice inside, too. They seem like a great way to get a deluxe room in the Epcot area at a moderate price.
Shades of Green is an armed forces recreation center on Disney property, very close to the Polynesian. It formerly was a deluxe Disney property (the Disney Golf Resort, then the Disney Inn) before the Disney company sold it to the Department of Defense. You must be a current or retired member of the armed forces or a Department of Defense civilian to stay at the Shades of Green. Its room rates are based on your rank, but in even the most expensive category, they are comparable to that of a Disney moderate resort. The room quality, however, is deluxe. According to my friends at The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, Shades of Green’s rooms are the largest of any on Disney property. I’ve personally stayed here and can assure you that these are nice rooms. The resort also has several restaurants. When we stayed in 2006, one had a breakfast buffet for $8.95 that we went to every morning. There’s also a small exchange (a military version of Wal-Mart), with “normal” prices for souvenirs, water, snacks, sunscreen and the like. The downsides of Shades of Green are a lack of Disney theming (although there is a Mickey-shaped pool and a large Mickey photo prop in the lobby) and lack of Disney transportation. The resort runs its own bus service to the parks, however, and it’s not too bad of a walk to the Ticket and Transportation Center.
The resorts of the Downtown Disney Resort Area, as the name implies, are located on Disney property near Downtown Disney. Like the Swan and Dolphin, these are not run by Disney, but are run by various hotel chains, such as Holiday Inn and Hilton. These are generally top-quality resorts that often offer tremendous discounts. They are within walking distance of Downtown Disney (where you could then catch Disney transportation to the parks, if desired) and also offer their own shuttle to the parks. These resorts have their own website at www.downtowndisneyhotels.com. The Downtown Disney Resorts, like the Shades of Green and Swan and Dolphin, are not eligible for Disney’s Magical Express Service. And unlike the Swan and Dolphin and Shades of Green, these resorts do not qualify for Extra Magic Hours.
By staying off-site, you can definitely save a substantial amount of money. This could make an otherwise unaffordable trip possible, or could allow you to stay longer than you had planned. However, you can still stay cheaply while being surrounded by Disney. Next time, I’ll discuss ways to save on the Disney-owned resorts.
Contributed by: Mark (NDD #102). Mark is our resident “how to save money while living the Disney Driven Life” expert.