The cost of a Walt Disney World (WDW) vacation has increased exponentially over the years. Although “being in the Disney bubble” and staying at a Disney-owned hotel on property is preferable, if not downright mandatory for some, for others it means taking a long, hard look at all the circumstances, including finances.
Before Joe and I moved to Orlando, we were visiting WDW upwards of 6 times a year. Most of those were just long weekends, and some were trips where we stayed on property, and for others, we’d stay off-site. We rented a car whether we stayed on or off property, because we found it faster and more convenient than using Disney’s bus system (heads up this was before the advent of Disney’s Magical Express, Minnie Vans, or ride-sharing). But whatever the case, we can definitely say we experienced both sides of the on/off property coin. Even since moving to Orlando in 2002, we’ve spoken to dozens of friends over the years, some who’ve stayed on-site, some who’ve stayed off property, and some who, like we used to do, have done one sometimes and the other at other times. So besides our own, admittedly older experiences, we have drawn from the more recent experiences of our friends. Here are our thoughts…
Some Background Information
There are two concepts in terms of the “value” of staying on or off WDW property:
- Actual financial value
- Perceived value
Actual financial value is simple – how much something costs. Your hotel room. Your rental car, if you get one. Your food. Simply put how much money you spend on things.
Perceived value is more subjective because it (A) has no monetary value, (B) is what you think something is worth, and (C) is usually intangible. It’s a “perk” or a “benefit.” And, because everyone is different, the value you place on a perk or a benefit something may not be the same value someone else places on the same thing.
WDW is the master of offering things that have a relatively high perceived value. A perfect example is their system of FastPass+ reservations. Fastpass+ (FP+) is a way to make a reservation for a specific attraction during a specified date and time, so you don’t have to stand on a long queue to experience the attraction – you just go during the window of your FP+ reservation and your wait will be minimal. Guests staying at WDW Resort hotels can make their FP+ reservations up to 60 days in advance of their hotel check-in. People not staying at a WDW Resort hotel, once they have their tickets, can make reservations up to 30 days in advance. That puts people staying on property at an advantage, especially when trying to get reservations for more popular attractions. Therefore, there’s a perceived value in staying on property because if you do, you can make your reservations ahead of other people, thereby giving you a better chance of getting the reservations that you want. FP+ has no financial value and costs WDW little more than maintaining the system, but they have a very high perceived value.
Pros and Cons of Staying at a WDW Resort Hotel
- PRO: May be willing to rely on WDW-provided transportation, thereby saving money on renting a car
- PRO: Ability to take part in Disney’s Dining Plan. This pre-paid meal plan feature isn’t available to off-property guests, and cost varies, depending on the plan. It MAY make financial sense for your visit (Or it may not. Your Mileage May Vary), so we’re including it in the “PRO” section.
- CON: Actual hotel cost is generally more expensive than a similarly-rated room off property
- PRO: You’re in “the Disney bubble” and are surrounded by “all things Disney”
- PRO: Ability to book FP+ earlier than those not staying on property
- PRO: Ability to book dining reservations a few days earlier than those not staying on property (this makes the most difference for popular restaurants, or if you want to eat at a popular time)
- PRO: Ability to participate in Extra Magic Hours. Each day, guests staying at select Walt Disney World Resort hotels have the opportunity to enjoy select attractions in at least one of WDW’s 4 theme parks, before or after regular operating hours.
- PRO: Convenience of the above-mentioned Disney’s Dining Plan. Your food is already paid for.
- PRO: Ability to utilize Disney’s Magical Express (a bus operated by Mears Transportation) to travel between MCO and WDW (Transporting you to/from property is also less motivation to visit other theme parks, sites, and restaurants off Disney property [WDW will consider that to be a PRO)]).
- PRO: If you buy something at WDW, it can be delivered directly to your WDW Resort hotel
- PRO: Disney gives complimentary Magic Bands (they’re sort of a waterproof electronic bracelet) to guests staying on property, and with those you can access purchases, the photos that have been taken of you via Disney’ PhotoPass system, keep track of your FP+ & dining reservations, open the door of your hotel room, etc. Off-property guests can use Magic Bands too, but they have to purchase theirs (or use old ones from past trips) and not all aspects are available (i.e. you can’t connect your Magic Band to a credit card for easy purchases, nor can you use your Magic Band to open your door at the Red Lion Hotel or Embassy Suites).
Pros and Cons of Staying Off Disney Property
- PRO: Off-site hotels (even local luxury hotels) and privately-owned villas are generally cheaper than similarly-rated hotels on WDW property (even when you take extra fees that Disney doesn’t charge into consideration). Those with points may even be able to stay on or near WDW property, for free, with their IHG, Hyatt, Marriott, etc. points.
- PRO: Staying off-site encourages eating off-site, which is generally cheaper than similarly-rated WDW-owned restaurants
- CON: Possibly paying for daily hotel/villa shuttle or renting a car
- PRO: More choices in terms of hotels/villas, with less chance of them being fully booked (unless it’s a very popular time of year)
- PRO (for villa only): Less chance of noisy neighbors
- PRO/CON: You can’t use Disney’s Magical Express, but some off-site hotels/villas have their own shuttle to/from MCO or Sanford Int’l Airport (which you may or may not have to pay for)
- CON: Can’t take part in earlier FP+ reservations
- CON: Can only make advanced dining reservations 180 days out, which is less than those staying on property
- CON: You don’t have access to Extra Magic Hours
- CON: You’re not eligible to participate in Disney’s Dining Plan (although some off-property hotels have access to this different type of Disney Dining Plan)
- CON: If you use your off-site hotel or villa’s shuttle system you are bound by their schedule.
Is Staying On Disney Property Worth It?
As you can see from the above (which I know is not all-encompassing), staying on WDW property wins in terms of perceived value and staying offsite wins when it comes to financial value.
The “worth” of anything, especially something with perceived value, is very subjective. For example, having access to Disney’s Magical Express is great…unless you plan on renting a car anyway, and then DME has no perceived value to you. Being able to have your souvenirs shipped back to your hotel so you don’t have to carry them is awesome for those who buy a lot of stuff. But if all you collect are magnets and key chains, then the value of this service is much less than it would be to someone who’s planning on buying a complete WDW train set.
Now, don’t get me wrong – most (not all) people who come to Central FL would rather stay on property, and that’s understandable, considering the perceived value of all of the things Disney offers. The main issue of whether or not to stay on property really comes to finances, which can include SO many things – it can be based on how many people are coming, how old they are, how long you’re staying, where you’re from (people from the UK are offered better travel plans than those in the U.S.), how much you want to spend for the whole vacation, if the finances of renting a car and possibly paying for parking are options, off-property hotel fees and incidentals, where you want to eat and how much that will cost, if the price difference of staying at a Disney Value Resort vs. a Holiday Inn Express will “make you or break you,” etc.
Whether or not staying on-site is “worth it” is 100% up to you.
So Which Is Right For You?
So which is better? On-site or off property? Honestly, the only person who can tell you which is best for you, is you. Grab a pencil, pull up Google, and start comparing. Once you have an idea of actual costs and financial value, you can compare it to perceived value, and then be an educated consumer based on what’s most important to you. This one is definitely a matter of Your Mileage May Vary.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary