I just returned from Walt Disney World so I thought it’ll be a good time for a few posts on planning a trip to Disney. I don’t really hide the fact that I’ve been a huge Walt Disney World fan despite my age. It’s something that I’ve always done as a kid, beginning with Tokyo Disneyland, California Disneyland, and then Disney World in Orlando, FL, and I’ve always loved every single trip, so I didn’t see why I should stop just because I’m an adult (kid at heart)!
For Steve and I, Disney World was our very first trip together…this was back in 2003 and before we started going every year. We stayed off-property and rented a car. We had so much fun that I wanted to return as often as possible! We returned in 2005, 2007 and then followed with multiple trips to Disneyland when we were planning our California wedding. However, it wasn’t until 2009 that we kicked off our once-a-year tradition going to Disney World and staying on-property at an official Disney World resort, which I believe makes all the difference between a good vacation and a great one.
I’ve been enough times to be able to write a mini-guide of how to plan an adult-friendly trip without getting bogged down in too many details. Reading websites and blogs like allears and wdwinfo are great, as they provide plenty of useful resources, but there is A LOT of information out there…and reading it all can be both fun but make planning stressful.
The key is, if you plan your vacation as far in advance as possible, the time when you’re actually there will be much more pleasant and enjoyable. I’ll try to keep this simple in a 3-part series to focus on the following key points: Lodging, Dining, and Fastpass+
PART 1 – Lodging
I would try as much as possible to stay ON PROPERTY. Not only is the transportation to parks much easier and more frequent, the window for making reservations for Dining and Rides (Fastpass+) will be a lot greater for resort guests, thereby ensuring you get to eat at a park/resort restaurant, meeting the most sought-after characters (ahem, Anna and Elsa), and skipping the line at the most popular rides. Lodging ranges from the fun value-oriented Art of Animation, to the deluxe Polynesian, where we stayed at this year. A list of all resorts which are on Disney property is here on the Walt Disney World website. You also get to take advantage of Extra Magic Hours which is where resort-guests can enter parks earlier or stay later than non-resort guests and take advantage of lesser waits and pretty much having the park to yourself at 2am! You can check the Disney Parks Calendar for specific times as it changes frequently. Booking at a Disney Resort allows you to make Fastpass+ reservations before the rest of the public do, ensuring you get to ride prime attractions and meet popular characters during your trip. I will cover this more in a later post on Fastpass+.
The TIME OF THE YEAR that you go also dictates how much you can save while staying on property. The rule is, if kids are in school, Disney resorts will be cheaper (off peak). When kids are not in school (summer vacation, spring breaks), then the prices go up. Since we don’t have any kids, we are pretty flexible so always opt for something off-peak. Some of you may be limited as to when you can go – but off-peak seasons will have more discounts such as room-only discounts, free dining, and discounted park plus lodging packages (usually called Magic Your Way packages). But regardless of whether your vacation is in peak or off-peak season, plan your Disney vacation well in advance to avoid the disappointment of not getting the resort you want, or the dining experience you’d been looking forward to. The nice thing about staying on Disney property is that there are plenty of Disney travel agents out there. The booking process is usually very easy, and there is only a 200 deposit required upfront when you book.
Booking your Package:
In terms of booking your package, I have actually had great success with booking with authorized Disney Travel Agents. They usually are able to get the the best prices, and it beats having to piece together a package on the Walt Disney World website, which can oftentimes not give me the best quote. I’ve booked with the following three companies so far, and I recommend them all. Just ask for a free quote and work from there!
In terms of the types of onsite resorts, I’ll give a little overview to the places we have stayed at on previous trips for each level: Value, Moderate, and Deluxe.
Value: Value is the cheapest option. Value Resorts are: All Star Music, All Star Sports, All Star Movies, Pop Century, and the Art of Animation.
Some would say the Value resorts are pretty basic and no-frills, but they are still very colorful and fun. Some value resorts are undergoing renovations to update the decor and common areas. The Art of Animation is the newest value resort and most of the pricing is on par with other value resorts on property. What sets them apart is the addition of family suites, with 1-BR, 2 pull out beds, 2 bathrooms and a kitchenette. These go for about the same per night as a room in a Deluxe resort, but you get SO MUCH MORE SPACE. The main pool at the Art of Animation resort is also wonderful because there is music piped underwater, which is just really really cool.
OK so we didn’t exactly stay in a regular-sized “value” room – just the more expensive suite, but we all still shared the same amenities and transportation as the regular rooms. The only downsides to the value resorts are probably the sheer size of them…there are a lot of units and lots of people, and they don’t really have a restaurant on site (just food courts). Note that some resorts will be so massive, that there will be more than one bus stop for pick up and drop off to the parks. If that doesn’t really bother you, the value resorts are a great way to experience the benefits of staying on site on a budget. In all honestly, we weren’t bothered by the crowds at the Art of Animation resort (but we went in off-peak season). I would stay there again in a family suit. The Finding Nemo section is the closest one to the main pool as well as the food court, plus transportation to and from the parks. There is also a Lion King family suite, Cars family suite, as well as Little Mermaid regular rooms at this resort, each with it’s own unique theme.
Moderate: Moderate resorts are a nice blend between value and deluxe. Moderates are: Caribbean Beach Resort, Port Orleans – Riverside, Port Orleans – French Quarter, Coronado Springs, and the Cabins at Fort Wilderness.
Moderates provide more amenities than value, but do not have the luxury features of Deluxes. Our favorite Moderate resort is the Port Orleans French Quarter. This resort is at the top of my Moderate list because it is the SMALLEST of all Disney resorts therefore has a somewhat intimate, uncrowded feeling, despite being in a theme park. It’s beautiful grounds and buildings are designed in a New Orleans style, and they are the only place on Disney property to have delicious beignets served in their food court. Moderates provide a little more features than values, they usually have one on-site restaurant, double sinks in their rooms, and are just a little more elegant in terms of decor.
What we also really liked at the Port Orleans French Quarter were the transportation options. In addition to the buses that take you to the parks, there is also a ferry service (at select times) to Downtown Disney. This was actually a fun, relaxing boat ride and a convenient way to get directly from the Port Orleans resorts to Downtown Disney without having to wait for the bus.
Deluxe: Deluxe resorts have amazing themes and beautiful details all over the property. Deluxe resorts are: Contemporary Resort, The Grand Floridian, The Polynesian Village, The Wilderness Lodge and Villas, Boardwalk, Beach Club, Yacht Club, and Animal Kingdom Lodge and Villas.
All the Deluxe hotels provide distinct themes, more luxurious amenities, multiple on-site restaurants, large pool complexes, and most of them have more than one transportation option, including the super convenient monorail to Magic Kingdom/Epcot for the Contemporary, Polynesian and Grand Floridian resorts. Most other Deluxe resorts such as the Wilderness Lodge, Beach and Yacht Clubs, and the Boardwalk, will have boat/ferry service to some parks. I believe Animal Kingdom Lodge and Villas is the only deluxe resort without another mode of transport other than bus service. The Animal Kingdom Lodge (AKL) was where Steve, myself and my sister stayed at in 2013, and it was wonderful! The AKL is a little further removed from the parks (other than Animal Kingdom, naturally), but it made up for that with some amazing scenery – the animals roam pretty much freely on several “savannahs” on-property. Definitely get a savannah-view room in order to view the wildlife right from your balcony! It was so much fun to wake up to.
The thing about most Disney resorts is that all the rooms themselves are pretty standard-sized hotel rooms, even in Deluxe resorts. You may get an extra sink and enclosed closets, and a nicer bathroom and better “decor” in the Deluxes, but they are all pretty much similar in size unless you reserve a suite. What you’re really paying for are the themes/decor, facilities, and service. These things really set the Deluxe resorts apart from the rest, and they are all fantastic places to visit and dine at even if you’re not staying there.
Deluxe resorts also have multiple restaurants which provide a wide-range of dining options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We all enjoyed the fresh options at Boma, AKL’s buffet restaurant.
We recently stayed at the Polynesian Village, and being on a monorail resort was unbeatable for it’s convenience to the Magic Kingdom. You will appreciate this benefit when the park closes and thousands of people are exiting the park and the lines for buses can be quite long. The monorail can fit more than 330 people in one trip so it’s a very convenient way to get to Magic Kingdom. The monorail also goes to Epcot, however you have to switch monorails at the Ticket and Transportation Center.
Overall, I am a big advocate of staying at the Deluxe resorts if you can afford it. The themes and decor all transport you to a different world. Do spend time exploring the grounds and all the resort has to offer. Even if you don’t stay at a Deluxe resort, it’s worth it to visit the grounds and have a meal at one of the many restaurants onsite! Some food items (such as the beignets at the French Quarter) are exclusive to a particular resort.
On our next trip, I want to stay at the Beach Club, Yacht Club, or Boardwalk Deluxe resorts (if they have a decent rate), as they are within walking distance to my favorite parks, Epcot and Hollywood Studios!
Disney’s Magical Express
One of the perks of buying a Magic Your Way package and staying ON PROPERTY is the added bonus of Magical Express. This is a service provided to on-site guests who are arriving on a flight at Orlando International Airport (MCO). It allows you to check your bag at your home airport, and have it “magically” appear in your room a couple of hours after you arrive! You don’t need to go to baggage claim to get your luggage which saves a ton of time. Magical Express also includes transportation to your Disney resort on a nice air-conditioned bus. They play little videos on the bus with Disney characters which get you into vacation mode right away!
Some things to note for Magical Express:
– If your flight arrives after 10pm, the baggage claim service is NOT available. You will have to collect your bags and then head to the Magical Express bus. However, it is not guaranteed that after midnight you will get an actual Disney bus. We’ve arrived close to midnight one night a few years ago and we got a nondescript commuter van. However, every other time we’ve arrived earlier we’ve gotten an actual Magical Express bus.
– It may take a few hours after you arrive at the resort for your luggage to make it’s way to your room. In most cases this wouldn’t be an issue but if you intend on immediately using the pool or if you want to take a nap or shower, it would make sense to carry-on some essentials (swimsuit/flipflops and an extra change of clothes) just in case. I’ve used Magical Express 4 times now, and they have never lost my suitcase, however on occasion it has taken more than 3 hours after we’ve arrived at the resort to get our bags. If you arrive really late at night, then it will make sense to just collect your own bags so you can unpack and go to bed right away!
– Magical Express transportation to/from the airport is both ways, and now select airlines offer Resort check-in so that you can bypass the check-in counter when departing Orlando International Airport! You get your boarding pass and check your bag right at the resort, so you can go off and enjoy the parks one last time before you leave. Click here for information on this service. It’s always nice to not have to deal with heavy luggage when traveling to the airport!
– I really do enjoy Magical Express as it allows us all to get into the Disney spirit right at the airport! Remember that this included service is only good if you’re staying at a Walt Disney World hotel. Some hotels which are on Disney property but are not official Disney resorts (such as the Swan or Dolphin which are owned and operated by Starwood) – do not offer this service and you will have to provide your own transport to and from the airport if the resort doesn’t have it’s own shuttle.
– If you’re using Magical Express to return to Orlando airport for your flight home, just note that they will usually pick you up about 3 hours before your flight, so it kind of cuts your last day a bit short, especially if you have an early flight. I usually fly one of the nighttime flights back to NYC so that I can still go to the parks for one last magical (half) day! If I take a 7pm flight, they will pick you up at around 4:00pm. This is because Magical Express usually picks up from several other resorts as well so they want to provide ample time to get to the airport.
Disney Vacation Club (DVC)
Another type of lodging can be had via Disney’s timeshare resorts, called Disney Vacation Club – these are usually suites with 1 or more bedroom, kitchens, washer dryer, and many of the conveniences of a condo-resort. The following are DVC villa resorts in Walt Disney World: Old Key West, Saratoga Springs, Animal Kingdom Villas, Bay Lake Tower at the Contemporary, Villas at Wilderness Lodge, Boardwalk Villas, Beach Club Villas, Grand Floridian Villas, and they are constantly building more!
Instead of purchasing a DVC contract outright, you can stay at one of these deluxe villas by “renting” points from an owner in order to stay at a DVC resort. The DVC works on a “points” system. Each owner gets a number of points a year, and if they are unable to use it, they can “rent” the points out to others. I’ve done this once when I stayed at the amazing Aulani resort in Oahu. The standard resort rooms were about 399 a night. We rented points from a DVC owner to get a 1-BR suite with 2 TVs, a giant bathroom with soaking tub and separate shower, plus a full kitchen and washer dryer, all for under 300 per night. It was a little more work to do this but it was a great deal. Read more about the Aulani here.
I would only go the DVC “renting points” route if you have a lot of time to do some research. You have to contact individual owners to see how much they are selling their points for and they have to see if the resort you want is available for your dates. There is a DVC points calculator that will tell you how many points you need depending on the resort and time of year.
The following Disney Discussion board thread has owners advertising points for rent: DVC Points for Rent Thread
Since renting points is pretty much an agreement between you and the DVC owner, there is a certain level of trust that has to be maintained. I would make sure the owners email you the confirmation number after they book the resort for you, and you can call the resort directly to confirm your dates. It also will be a good idea to pay via paypal or some sort of electronic format so that it is traceable.
The following rental website does the hard work for you, but you will usually pay a little more for their services and peace of mind: DVC Rental Store
Overall, I think renting points is a good option for families who want larger space and more conveniences when staying on property, provided you are willing to invest the time and research. Some resorts also include massive 2 and 3-BR suites which is great for large groups. They don’t come cheap though! Staying at a DVC resort entitles you to the same benefits as all onsite guests including Extra Magic Hours. What it may not include are any sort of Disney Package discounts, such as free-dining, and park tickets, so those may have to be purchased separately.
This concludes Part 1: Lodging of my series in planning a sane Disney Trip! In a nutshell here are my tips:
1) Plan as far out as you can, remember that the earlier you plan your trip, the better chances are of getting the resort, dining, and activities you want for less!
2) Stay at an on-site Disney Resort for extra perks like Extra Magic Hours.
3) Decide what time of year is good for you for the best discounts (or if there is a particular event that you want to see, like Star Wars Weekends in the spring, or Epcot Food and Wine Festival in the fall)
4) Decide on what level of resort is best for you (Value, Moderate, Deluxe) or see if a DVC point rental for a condo-style room is an option.
5) Book via a registered Disney Travel Agent (they will usually let you know of the best discounts during your vacation time frame)
5) Enjoy your trip! Move on to Part 2 for reserving Dining!
If you’re a regular a Disney, what are some of your lodging tips?