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Planning your theme park vacation: Step 5 - Consider on-site hotel benefits

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Published: December 18, 2008 at 11:36 AM

A hotel room reservation can give you much more than use of a couple of beds and a bathroom for a night. When you book a room at many U.S. theme parks, you might also get special admission to the park itself, which can help you bypass long waits for some popular attractions.

Almost every theme park has introduced a system that allows some of its visitors to bypass lines. Many of you might be familiar with Disney's FastPass. FastPass is a ride reservation system that assigns you a return time later in the day to an attraction. Show up at your assigned time, and you can enter without having to wait in the regular, stand-by line.

In addition to ride reservation systems, there are two other types of systems that theme parks use to allow certain guests to bypass the regular queues:

  • Priority boarding: These systems allows you to skip the line (or, at least, most of it) whenever you want to board. There's no need to wait until an assigned return time.
  • Exclusive admission: This allows designated guests entrance to a restricted ride, show or section of the park, either before it opens or after it closes to the rest of the guests.
  • Hotels at many major theme park reports offer one of these three line-bypass options to their overnight guests. If you are thinking about a family vacation visit to one of these parks, you should consider the value of these perks when deciding whether to stay in a participating hotel before automatically deciding on a cheaper hotel nearby.

    Unfortunately, some of the line-bypass options offered by these hotels are not sold to non-hotel guests at an additional price. That makes it difficult to assign a fixed dollar value to the benefit of the line-bypass perk. So you'll have to make that judgment on your own.

    Here's my advice, though: Of the three, priority boarding systems give you the most benefit with the greatest flexibility. You can get on the rides you want right away, without having to wait for a return time.

    The value of an exclusive admission depends entirely on just how "exclusive" it is. If 5,000 hotel guests are trying to get on to the same five rides, that isn't much of a perk.

    At this point, no theme park is offering a ride reservation system exclusively to its hotel guests, so you don't need to consider that option when deciding where to stay. In a future column, we'll take a look at the ride reservation systems offered at various parks, though, because that might affect your decision about which park to visit.

    So what is the best deal for theme park guests who want to skip theme park lines?

    Without a doubt, I give that award to Universal Orlando, which offers unlimited priority boarding privileges to guests at its three on-site hotels. Your room key is a front-of-the-line pass that allows you to skip the wait at all but one attraction in the resort's two theme parks, Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure. (The one attraction, BTW, is the extremely low capacity Pteranodon Flyers ride at IOA.)

    I wrote last summer about how Universal's front of the line pass affected the way my family approached its theme park vacation. We've never had a more relaxing trip than we did with the Universal Orlando pass.

    Of course, this benefit is only a deal if your family wants to go to Universal Orlando. If those theme parks aren't something you would want to see, then a no-wait ticket isn't worth your time, even if it were free. If there's any budget lesson I hope that you learn from reading this site, it is this: You shouldn't spend any money to visit someplace you don't want to go, no matter how short the waits or low the price.

    But if you haven't looked at Universal Orlando as a vacation option before, do. Universal's online ticket deals, coupled with the front of the line pass for hotel guests can make this an extremely attraction budget option for a high quality Orlando theme park vacation.

    Other options

    No other theme park offers the unlimited priority boarding pass that Universal Orlando does. But several do offer exclusive admission for their hotel guests. Here are the major ones:

    Walt Disney World: Disney offers "Extra Magic Hours" to its on-site hotel guests, where one of its theme parks is opened an hour early, or kept open a few hours later for hotel guests only. Not every attraction is opened by Extra Magic Hours, and crowds can be large, as Disney has room for tens of thousands of hotel guests on its property.

    But typically, many folks do not take advantage of Extra Magic Hours and the wait times for participating attractions are shorter than they would be during peak times the rest of the day. Here's my advice: Take advantage of the Extra Magic Hours, then spend the rest of the day at one of the other parks (if you have a park-hopper ticket). The parks not offering Extra Magic Hours tend to be less crowded than the one which does on that day.

    One the better perks at Disney World, however, might be Disney's Magic Express, a free shuttle to and from the Orlando airport and your Disney hotel. Disney even handles your checked bags for you, so you needn't bother with baggage claim. Of course, using Magical Express, you won't be able to rent a car, which will keep you "on property" for the duration of your vacation. But if you were going to do that anyway, Disney's Magical Express allows you skip rental car expenses and airport hassle.

    Disneyland: Disneyland opens Fantasyland early on selected mornings to guests who book hotel reservations through Disney's website or telephone operators. On certain mornings, Toontown is restricted to these guests for its first hour in the morning, too. Disneyland's plan is notable because it is not restricted to people who stay in one of Disneyland's three on-site hotels; it's open to anyone who stays at one of its participating "Good Neighbor" hotels, provided that they booked through Disney.

    This perk can be worthwhile for families with young kids looking to avoid what can become nasty mid-day waits for Dumbo and other low-capacity Fantasyland rides. But if your family loves Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones Adventure and other Disneyland classics, getting into Fantasyland early won't help you any. In fact, you'd get those rides earlier by waiting with the rest of the early-morning crowd at the top of Main Street than being stuck back in Fantasyland.

    Cedar Point: The Sandusky, Ohio park allows its on-site hotel guests to enter the park early to ride popular roller coasters Maverick, Millennium Force, Iron Dragon, Skyhawk and Raptor, as well as the rides in the new Planet Snoopy kids' area. Cedar Point's coasters can have nasty waits later in the day, so this can be a great option for visitors who want a head start on bagging coasters.

    Hersheypark: The Pennsylvania theme park offers what it calls "Sweet Start," early admission to selected rides in the park for guests staying at the Hotel Hershey. In addition, Hersheypark offers its hotel guests the opportunity to buy Sweet Access Pass VIP tour, which gives you priority boarding on several Hersheypark rides during the day, in addition to other perks. According to Herhseypark's website, this pass is not available for purchase by visitors who do not stay at the hotel.

    I haven't visited Hersheypark, so I will defer to any Theme Park Insider readers who wish to comment on the value of either the Sweet Start or Sweet Acccess Pass.

    Once again, if you have any questions about theme park vacation planning, please e-mail me at themeparkinsider -at- gmail.com. Previous vacation budget planning columns.

    Readers' Opinions

    From Deidre Dennis on December 18, 2008 at 3:57 PM
    By far the biggest reason for us staying at an on-site hotel is the proximity to the parks and safety. The front of the line and extra magic hours are a bonus, but I like the feeling of being so close to the parks. Particularly when you go to Disneyland or Disney World, everywhere you look you are surrounded by reminders, great and small, of Disney. We've always stayed at the Disneyland Hotel and while pricey, it was nice to catch the monorail back to Downtown Disney knowing our hotel was a few feet away. The same at Disney World. I'm sure we could save a lot by staying off site, but being on site is the best.
    From James Rao on December 18, 2008 at 6:39 PM
    Robert, I second your vote for staying on property at Universal Orlando. Their three hotels are up to Disney Deluxe standards and the Universal Express pass just adds so much value to the package that there is nothing else quite like it at any other theme park. I cannot stress enough just how relaxing our Universal vacation was when we stayed on property. Furthermore, the fact that Universal no longer has a free version of Express Pass (for good or for ill) means that the Express Pass lines are almost always guaranteed to be a huge time saver.

    As much as I love Disney, I just don't feel the need to stay on property unless the deal is too good to pass up (like when they offer free dining as part of the package). But at Universal, the convenience of staying within walking distance of City Walk and both Universal parks, combined with the automatic Universal Express Pass granted to hotel guests, makes staying on property the ONLY way to go!

    From M. Ryan Traylor on December 18, 2008 at 7:42 PM
    In September '07 I vacationed to DisneyWorld. The perks we enjoyed of staying on-site was the close proximity to the theme parks. The extra-magic hours. The wait times were so short that on the night we arrived we rode everything on our to-do list at the Magic Kingdom. Also, the promotion during the value season is free dining, which by far was the best perk of the whole trip.
    From Anthony Murphy on December 18, 2008 at 7:53 PM
    Disney also provides transportation to its parks and I acually have never had problems with Magical Hours. Every time I have used them, the parks have been pretty empty. EPCOT's Magical Hours are my favorites.


    I do agree, it is better in the long run to stay on site hotels at Disney or Universal


    Oh, and you can send stuff back to your room or charge to your room at Disney. I am guessing Universal is the same.

    From James Rao on December 18, 2008 at 8:08 PM
    Disney no longer sends packages to your hotel room. They will however send them to the gift shop in your hotel and you can pick them up there. It's still a nice perk, but not as nice as it used to be.

    Universal still offers room delivery at their three on site resorts.

    From Deidre Dennis on December 18, 2008 at 8:49 PM
    I forgot about buying things in the park and sending it to your hotel. We did this on our entire trip and it was so nice. We'd go to the gift shop the day after buying our stuff and never had a problem. It was so nice not having to carry all that stuff around.

    The Extra Magic Hours, just like the Fast Pass, are awesome if you know how to work with them.

    From Anthony Murphy on December 20, 2008 at 10:38 PM
    Sorry, I meant to your hotel giftshop. I never remember them bringing it to room though that would rock. You can also check in your bags for your flight at your hotel and enjoy that very last day! The Disney Magical Express is pretty good too!
    From Robert Niles on December 21, 2008 at 9:05 PM
    Thanks, Anthony. Added Magic Express to story. (Slaps forehead.)

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