What's the best place to stay in Orlando, when you want to get around easily?
Where should you stay when you visit the Orlando theme parks? Let's focus today on one of the many important elements you will want to consider in making your decision — transportation. Where can you stay that will make it as convenient and inexpensive as possible to get around to see everything you want to see in Central Florida?
You can avoid a great deal of the Orlando area's transportation hassle by selecting the right "home base" for your theme park vacation. Where the right place is for you, though, will depend upon what you most want to see and experience when you visit.
Orlando's theme parks sprawl over hundreds of square miles. The drive from Disney's Animal Kingdom to Universal Studios Florida is about 14 miles — much of it on Florida's traffic-choked Interstate 4. The trip can take anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes, one-way, in normal traffic, and that's not counting time spent waiting to get out of and into the parking lots.
Speaking of... parking costs $20 a day at the major Orlando area theme parks. Parking is free at Walt Disney World's on-site hotels, but you'll have to pay to park at Universal's hotels and some hotels near the Orange County Convention Center. Public transportation in the area is highly segmented — you can find convenient options within specific resorts and commercial districts, but getting from one to another can be difficult, if not impossible, via public transit.
Rental cars and ride-sharing services, such as Lyft and Uber, are abundantly available. But if you're planning to catch an Uber out of the Magic Kingdom at park close be aware that surge pricing is a thing, and that you won't be the only ones in the park with that idea.
If you're interested in visiting only one of Orlando's theme park resorts — Disney, or Universal, or SeaWorld, and not more than just the one — then your choice gets relatively easy. Stay at that resort, or as close to it as you can afford. But if you want to hit up more than one resort, then you will need to start weighing several factors.
In addition to which parks you want to visit, you should consider how you will be getting to Orlando. Will you drive or fly? If you are driving, you will have that car to get you around in the area, so your decision should come down to minimizing drive time and parking costs. (And which one is more important for you to minimize will greatly affect your decision.) If you are flying into Orlando, you will need to consider not just options for getting to and from the airport, but how to get around town without a car, if you don't opt to rent one.
Disney and Universal both make it absurdly easy to stay at their resorts without a car, and SeaWorld only slightly less so. Disney gives its on-site hotel guests free transportation to and from the Orlando airport, as well as between all parks and hotels on property. Universal doesn't offer that free ride, but its theme parks are located within walking distance of each other, negating any need for a car while at its resort, unlike at the sprawling, exurban Disney World. SeaWorld is located in between Disney and Universal, making it a convenient home base for visiting all three resorts, but it has no on-site hotels, so you'll have to take shuttle buses to get to and from the parks.
Stay off-site, and your hotel might have shuttles to the parks, but you will need a ride share or rental car to get around anywhere else, including to and from the airport. Depending upon where you stay, there might be restaurants and convenience stores within walking distance, but that selection will be limited.
Uber or Lyft between the parks costs from $10-20 a trip (in my experience), plus more if the dreaded surge pricing is in effect. Figure about the same to get to and from a hotel, timeshare, or AirBnB, assuming you are staying within or near one of the resort areas. Rental car rates can start as low as $25-30 a day, but not only do you have to drive, you're also on the hook for all parking fees and tolls.
If you are driving your car to Orlando:
- Consider staying at a Walt Disney World hotel, or an off site hotel, rather than at Universal Orlando, in order to avoid the nightly parking fee. Only stay at Universal Orlando with a car if you will be staying at the Portofino Bay, Hard Rock, or Royal Pacific hotels, which give their guests free Universal Express Unlimited line-skipping passes. Those are well worth the extra parking fees!
- Walt Disney World hotel guests also get free parking at the theme parks, as well as at their hotel.
- Staying near SeaWorld puts you in between Disney and Universal, and near the convention center and International Drive's attractions and restaurants, giving you a relatively short drive to everywhere even if you're not actually going to SeaWorld. (Traffic on I-Drive is even worse than on I-4, though, so plan for that.)
- If you are not staying on site at Disney, keep in mind that paying $20 in one Walt Disney World theme park lot allows you free access to the parking lots at the other Disney theme parks that day. Just show your parking ticket at the toll booth.
If you are flying to Orlando:
- Skip the rental car if you are not an experienced driver comfortable with traffic on American Interstates. You shouldn't be stressed out on vacation.
- In general, staying on site at Disney or Universal is better than staying off site for people flying in who do not rent a car, as you can use their resort transportation to get around and then summon a ride share to move between resorts.
- Especially think about skipping the rental if you are staying on site at Universal Orlando, as the parking fees will add up and you won't use the car at all while at that walkable resort. If you want to go to Disney from Universal, Uber or Lyft is cheaper than paying for parking at both resorts.
- But rental cars can be useful if you are staying at the sprawling Walt Disney World Resort, as you will have free parking throughout the resort (including at the parks) as a hotel guest. Especially consider a rental if you are staying at a Value Resort that offers only bus transportation to the parks, as waiting for Disney's free buses can eat a lot of time over the course of a week-long visit.
- Flip side: If you are not comfortable driving in the area, you might think twice about staying at a Disney World Value Resort due to the often-slow bus service around Walt Disney World. Stick with one of the Deluxe hotels in the Magic Kingdom or Epcot resort areas if you do not have a car and don't want to stand around waiting for buses, as those hotels have more frequent monorail or boat transportation options.
Disney now offers its own on-property "ride share" service, called "Minnie Vans." They cost $20 a trip and will take you from between any two points on property. They seat up to six and come with two car seats, making them a solid options for families with little kids who need to get somewhere on property relatively quickly (such as a dinner reservation at a hotel). But they're expensive for general transportation around the resort. Call one of the Minnie Vans via the Lyft app.
- If you are flying into the area, don't want to drive, and are spending roughly an equal number of days at Disney and Universal, I would stay on site at Universal, then take Lyft to go straight to the Disney park you want on those days. Universal's on-site hotel benefits are generally better than Disney's, especially if you are getting the free Universal Express Unlimited.
- But if you are flying into the area, not renting a car, and spending significantly more time at Disney, stay there to get the free Disney's Magical Express ride to and from the airport and to minimize the number of Lyfts you'll have to buy. If you can afford to stay at a Magic Kingdom or Epcot area resort, staying there will minimize the amount of time you spend in transit between parks.
- If you are driving to Orlando and visiting all the resorts, consider staying at a hotel near SeaWorld with free parking to minimize drive times.
- If you are driving to Orlando and spending way more time at Disney than the other parks, stay at Disney and look to the Value Resorts for the lowest room rates. If they're still too much for you, look for a cheaper off-site room near Disney around the US 192 or State Road 535 areas.
- If you are driving to Orlando and spending time at Universal, remember to add in the nightly parking cost at Universal's on-site hotels when comparing prices with other hotels.
- If you really want to visit the beaches, Legoland Florida, or Busch Gardens Tampa along with Disney and Universal, renting a car or driving to Orlando will make that much easier and more convenient, no matter where you stay. But remember that you can rent the car for just a few days to do those things, instead of for the entire trip.
Ultimately, transportation time and expense if just one of the factors you should consider when deciding where to stay in Orlando, along with cost, accommodation quality, and amenities. But a great price on a great room won't give you a great vacation if you end up spending a lot of time stuck in traffic or paying for rides around town. Know your transportation options before booking your Orlando vacation... then weigh them against cost, accommodation type, and everything else you want to consider when deciding where to book. Have a great vacation!
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We fly in every year to visit the parks. Over the years we have become very comfortable renting and driving a car to our chosen destinations. We also choose to stay in the resorts nearer to Sea World. We find this the most central for visiting the parks as well as going to Tampa and Cocoa Beach. One suggestion if renting a car is to have a GPS to help guide you. Make sure that it is updated with current maps as there are always a lot of changes. Also if you are not familiar with where you are going, take some time to plan your route so that you are not flustered when you are driving to your destination. Finally RELAX, you are on vacation and you do not need to do stupid stuff if you miss a turn or get lost. Pull over when safe, reset and get to your destination safely.
What about the monorail? ??
Always check if an annual pass would be an option for you at Universal Studios. Just one pass saves a bunch on car rental, hotel costs, food, souvenirs and tickets for the rest of the family.
Have to disagree with most of what you've said.
It does depend as, since you point out, if all you're doing is Disney or Universal, you can just hitch a ride from the airport and let their transport handle you. Tricker off site, have done a few over the years and having a car can be easier in some ways but just have to plan out time for getting to and from.
Universal Portifino and Hard Rock are the nicest places we have stayed in Orlando, with the best staff/service to boot. You can book a shuttle easily if you're doing a Universal package. Then get all the perks and walk to the parks -- easy.
For all parks - WDW, Seaworld parks and Universal Resort - the best location is the southern end of International Drive. All the parks easily and quickly in reach via self drive, shuttle or taxi.
I've been going to Orlando at least once, but as many as four times a year for 15+ years. I've never experienced choking traffic on I-4 within Orlando, except when there is an accident.
You mentioned the cost of car parking, but negated the premium you will have to spend to stay onsite at a Disney or Universal site. For the eqivalent price you can get a similar hotel spec almost half the price outside the resort areas.
@ultimaterollercoaster you are right I'm wrong, I'll remove that part.
One of my favorite things to do on vacation is to drive all over the place...Visit area's I have never been, go to eateries, beach's, theme parks... I love the freedom to go wherever whenever.
I'm with you Brian...Having a car in Orlando is a MUST, even if you're only planning to visit WDW. Even if you have a rental car while staying on Disney property, it's nice to not be bound to Disney Transportation 24/7, and for those who don't know, WDW Resort guests do not have to pay for parking at the theme parks. In fact, even if you only plan on staying at WDW, rental cars are so cheap in Orlando that it's totally worth the $150 a week to rent a car to have that freedom and ability to escape WDW for a few hours.
"Those who fall for Disney's Magical Express Trap might as well just hand Disney a blank check."
Learn to use Apopka-Vineland, Conroy, 435, and Sand Lake roads to navigate around the theme park areas while avoiding International Drive and I-4. You will have to do a little thinking since the map apps are going to calculate "shortest" routes, but it saves a lot of time and frustration.
As an Orlando resident I am sure I speak for the majority of us locals when I say please DON'T rent a car. The traffic here is terrible, and tourist drivers are THE WORST! If you must rent a car familiarize yourself with the local laws;
Hey Anton, We just rented a car in May for 9 days and it was an average of $26 per day... This was a Premium car from Alamo.
My statement was referring to those that get lured in by the idealistic notion of not needing to have a car when at WDW. Disney's service is honestly quite brilliant, because it makes the notion of not renting a car feasible at the sprawling resort far from the airport, and keeps every single dollar of a family's vacation budget in Disney's pocket, aside from the airfare of course.
It is impossible to recommend as everybody has different priorities, budgets, preferences, duration, itineraries, wish lists..... We come over every year for 2 weeks so we always have a car and can't think of not having one. We prefer to stay on US27 as it is close enough to everything but far enough away to have that independence from the parks and I-drive and we get a 5 star, 3 bedroom luxury condo for a fraction of a higher ended Disney or Universal room. But that is purely our choice and won't be for everybody. The budget you have for your vacation/break will ultimately dictate the majority of your main decisions.
"$15-25/day range (plus taxes of course)" The "plus taxes" is how a $25/day bill ends up being $40/day.
"The "plus taxes" is how a $25/day bill ends up being $40/day."
These are typical charges for a 3 day Economy rental at Alamo.
We do use the car for trips to the Publix also… We eat breakfast in the room daily… Plus my daily AM trip to Starbucks… You do not want me to go to said Theme Parks without morning Starbucks… I am already a mean SOB and I do not need any more encouragement…hahahaha.
Russel Meyer said "I'm with you Brian...Having a car in Orlando is a MUST, even if you're only planning to visit WDW. "
@DBCooper - Using Uber might be fine if you're by yourself or with an adult companion, but a bit more complicated with a family, especially if infants and strollers are involved.
SeaWorld doesn't have on-site hotels, but it does have several partner hotels adjacent to the park and within walking distance -- Homewood Suites, Hampton Inn & Suites, Staybridge Suites, Hilton Grand Vacations and Hilton Garden Inn are the closest. I stayed at the latter in 2016, and it's a 15 minute door-to-gate walk -- half of it crossing SeaWorld's parking lot. To be fair, I was a solo adult traveler in April, so that might be undesirable during muggy season, when there's heavy traffic in the lot, for a mid-day nap, or with small children. But the hotels also have (infrequent) shuttle buses.
My family and I have been to Orland o 3 times in the past and are planning for 2019, we always rent a vehicle. We never stay on site, I know you get the extra magic hours, but we usually rent 3 bedroom condos for @1350 for 9 nights which allows us a couple of extra days. On our last 2 trips we took in basketball games, went to Kennedy Space Center and Tampa Bay, not having a car keeps you trapped and doesn't let you experience anything new.
We always stay on site whether we stay at Universal or WDW and we always rent a car theough Costco. We have never paid more than $170 for a rental for about 11 days. Although both properties have great on site transportation to the parks, particularly WDW where the parks are pretty spread out, we always drive to each park even when staying on site. We enjoy the convenience of not having to wait doe buses and shuttles at the end of the day. Plus we have spent a day or two away from the parks going to Cocoa and Daytona Beaches. If you can afford it or plan for it, definitely nice having a rental car. We fly down from Washington State.
@Russell you're wrong about Orlando rental cars. Taxes and fees for cars rented at the airport are typically about 50% of the rental rate. If you pay $10 per day, you'll pay another $5 in taxes per day.
"Lastly, there is no such thing as free dining at Disney!"
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