Vote of the Week: How Often Do You Stay On-site at a Theme Park's Hotels?

January 2, 2015, 1:21 PM · With the holidays winding down, now is the perfect time to be planning your summer vacation. Seriously, with the Walt Disney World resort working with a six-month advance window for restaurant reservations, you need to be booking your July vacations now to get the most sought-after tables. Even if you don't care about landing those hard-to-get reservations, the people who do are already booking rooms in the top-rated on-site hotels. In theme park vacation planning, the early bird gets the worm... and the best room and the best meal.

Of course, many theme park fans don't care about getting on-site hotel rooms and selective dinner reservations. That's part of the appeal of theme parks — the offer so many options for so many people. So where do you stand? How often do you stay on-site when visiting a theme park? Not every park offers an official on-site hotel, so it's not always possible to stay on-site. But when those rooms are available, do you take advantage?

We will make this our Vote of the Week. But first, let's crowdsource lists of the pros and cons of staying on-site at top theme park resorts. I'll get the lists started, then invite you to add to or correct them in the comments. I'll update the post as comments come in. We can add other resorts, too, if they have on-site hotels and you'd like to start a list for them.

In each case, let's note that part of the appeal of staying on-site is a more immersive vacation experience where you, essentially, stay with the park 24 hours a day. So we will accept that as a given for all the resorts listed below, and instead focus on more specific and unique pros and cons for each resort.

(Update: One more given for all resorts - if location is a plus, that's not only for getting to the parks in the morning and back "home" after the day, it makes taking a mid-day break much easier, as well. Especially if you don't need to move your car to do it!)

Disney World hotels

Walt Disney World Resort


Cabana Bay Beach Resort

Universal Orlando Resort


Grand Californian lobby

Disneyland Resort


Hotel Breakers

Cedar Point


Let's talk more in the comments about the pros and cons of staying on-site at theme park resorts. And thank you, as always, for being part of our Theme Park Insider community!

Replies (39)

January 2, 2015 at 1:41 PM · Almost always at WDW, less at DLR than previously. The markup has increased in recent years to a fairly unreasonable level for even Paradise Pier relative to, say, very good standard of accommodation at Hilton. One of the benefits of going to the parks is walking and I am usually there for a runDisney event, so it would be hypocritical to complain about the extra walk. That said, Paradise Pier can also enter via the Grand Californian "back door" to DCA, which is very nice when your energy level has flagged. Anyone can EXIT through that gate; only on-property guests can enter by it.

At WDW, the Magical Express is nice to immediately get into the Disney experience, and waiting for the Disney Transport buses from resort to park is a nice forced slow-down of the pace of daily living. One of the lessons of a vacation is to ask yourself, what's the rush? I even like to play bus roulette: when I can't decide which park I want to go to, I'll take whichever bus comes first.

When I rent a car, it is never to get to "other" place. I might have a car for motives that include business excursions, shopping, or to securely store my suitcase on the long last day without returning to a hotel bell desk. Although I am a passholder for both and can pick whatever catches my fancy any day, most people will be ahead on costs by picking one resort (e.g., Disney or Universal) and buying additional days of the same resort, not buying that more expensive "day one and two" for multiple resorts. If it's a once-a-decade (or more) long vacation, then of course go for it, but for those who visit every year or two, you'd probably be better off to alternate than to try to do both each time.

January 2, 2015 at 2:09 PM · We always stay on site at WDW because they have value resorts. We don't drive, so the pros definitely make it worthwhile.

The big con at Universal Orlando is that they don't have value resorts, just expensive, luxury ones. We can stay at a good hotel close to Universal for MUCH less per night. And early access to Potter is an overrated perk.

As for Disneyland, the on-site hotels are very overpriced.

January 2, 2015 at 2:14 PM · An underrated reason to stay on site at Disney World is something you don't really notice until you stay off-site: You still feel that Disney touch when you get to your hotel. Just feels something more special, still in Disney World and their unique aura, you don't get that at an off-site hotel.

Thanks to deals, we often stay at the Dolphin, great way to get to the parks and enjoy the feeling. And yes, being able to have stuff sent from parks to your room is a major plus that makes it easier to handle in-park stuff. I know, more costly but the convience of being so close to parks is worth it.

January 2, 2015 at 2:21 PM · The on-site value at WDW just isn't there anymore. We can get a large condo for our family with a kitchen and multiple bedrooms for the price of a value resort at WDW. I'd love to stay at one of the deluxe resorts, but the prices just aren't worth it.
January 2, 2015 at 2:29 PM · We stay on site at both Universal & WDW. The close proximity of the Universal hotels to the resort provides for a very relaxing leisurely vacation. And the addition of Cabana Bay provides an alternative to the cost of the three deluxe hotels. Cabana is a moderate hotel with value prices. As an example, with our out of state AP we were able to book a "suite" for the amazing cost of $89 a day. The advantages of staying on site at WDW are much less for us since we always have a car & steer away from the early magic hour parks since they're usually more crowded. But we enjoy the Disney ambiance, so we pay the extra money for that and the fact we don't have to get on the crazy busy freeway for a drive to the resort.
January 2, 2015 at 2:39 PM · I never stay on site at either WDW or Universal, it's just too expensive for me and I usually go to the theme parks alone. If I can afford it I'll stay at the Holiday Day Inn across from Universal. And a good majority of the hotels along I-Drive have shuttles going to and from Universal, Sea World and some do Disney. And for driving I usually bring my own car which is great, I drive down from Richmond, VA (about a 10 hour drive). With gas getting somewhat cheaper it helps me save more money.
January 2, 2015 at 3:46 PM · Never stayed on property, if you exclude Colosseo at the Europa Park Rust. When I stayed with my sister in Orlando last summer, we did not have the money to stay on property. But if money was not a concern, I definitely would have wanted to stay in a Disney hotel on the trip.
January 2, 2015 at 3:59 PM · On site pro - easier to take a mid day break, depending on the location
January 2, 2015 at 5:06 PM · I never stayed on site of a theme park.
I love the whole make believe world of the theme parks but my family and I enjoy some Space and a private pool and No kids so we always rent a home.
If I would stay on site at high season (I never do) I would choose a universal resort hotel because of the front in line pass, the fact there is No endless bustravel involved and I think their hotels are superior.
January 2, 2015 at 5:22 PM · I've stayed at Cedar Point on both of my visits to the park, but I'm not sure I'd do it again. Early entry is a great benefit, but it would probably be cheaper to just stay at another hotel and buy Fast Lane. As for the Florida parks, on my first visit I will definitely stay on-site, both for the benefits and for the experience. On future visits, I probably would stay off-site unless there is a significant benefit to staying on-site vs. off-site.
January 2, 2015 at 5:34 PM · Good point on mid day breaks. Orlando is just too uncomfortably humid hot and rainy, even in much of the off season, to be in the parks during the afternoon. Just love those pool breaks, then back to the parks for cooler evenings.
January 2, 2015 at 5:37 PM · Disney World is where it makes sense to stay onsite. The investment in the vacation is such that going to outside attractions is not feasible. At Disneyland Resort, the short stay and walking distance should encourage people to stay onsite, but since I'm a local resident, I don't need to.
January 2, 2015 at 7:23 PM · Always at Universal.... the express access and ease of the walk between RPR and the parks can't be beat. It's not the cheapest option, sure, but since we only go once, maybe twice a year, the convenience is worth it and the price tolerable with our AP/Florida resident discounts. Plus the Loews hotels are pet-friendly, a key point for us.

I haven't been to Disney many times recently, but the last couple times I did I stayed at the Dolphin. Being a psuedo-Disney property, the rates are more reasonable than other hotels, plus the boat access to EPCOT and DHS is almost as good as being at Universal.

January 2, 2015 at 9:56 PM · Sylvain,

You might consider the new Cabana Bay at Universal. The rate there was under $90 a night for much of the fall. It's on the level of a Disney Moderate resort, though the prices are comparable with a Disney Value. Plus, it WAY closer to its parks than any Disney Moderate/Value resort is to the WDW parks.

January 2, 2015 at 10:05 PM · I'll fess up that I almost always stay on-site at Universal Orlando, and almost never stay on-site at Disney. (Keep in mind that I have family with extra bedrooms who live in the Orlando resort area.) It's the Universal Express Unlimited benefit that entices me to spend for the UOR hotel room anyway.

If money weren't an issue for me (hold on.... okay, I've stopped laughing now), I'd just move into the Grand Californian at Disneyland. That's probably my favorite theme park hotel anywhere. But it ain't cheap.

Final question: I know that MANY people cite "Disney magic" or the "Disney touch" when talking about staying at a WDW hotel. But I would love to ask people to cite specific aspects of staying at Disney that make them feel that way. I've enjoyed staying with Disney, but I've enjoyed staying at a lot of other hotels around the world, too.

January 2, 2015 at 10:36 PM · Unless I'm missing something, which I'll admit is totally possible, the only con appears to be cost. If the con isn't listed exactly as expense, then it can be mitigated by spending more for a convenience. For example if you want to go off site at WDW, then you can rent a car.

So if cost isn't a factor, then there's no reason not to stay on site. Obviously for 99% of us cost is an issue (albeit to different degrees), but is there really a debate as to if it's BETTER to stay on site or not?

Robert to me the Disney magic includes things like Mickey Mouse waffles, wake up calls by Disney characters, and being totally ensconced in Disney (Mickey bedspreads).

January 2, 2015 at 10:37 PM · A huge plus for Universal Orlando is that staying a single night at any of the on-site hotels (except Cabana Bay) will grant two days of express - check-in through check-out. It may require some additional hotel planning, but I feel like the payoff is well worth it.
January 2, 2015 at 10:38 PM · A huge plus for Universal Orlando is that staying a single night at any of the on-site hotels (except Cabana Bay) will grant two days of express - check-in through check-out. It may require some additional hotel planning, but I feel like the payoff is well worth it.
January 2, 2015 at 10:47 PM · Staying on site adds a wonderful extra element to our theme park vacations and have become a must for my family, so we now always stay on site at WDW, USF, and Cedar Point. (And yes, The Breakers are in very bad shape and a refurb is long over due). We like to try and get the most out of our time, considering the expense, and staying on-site is key for this. Being at the gates at opening time and staying till we are chased out is our goal. And being close enough to walk back to our rooms for a mid day break is imperative. We are avid park hoppers and not having to get in a hot car and drive to the next park is a huge bonus. A lovely boat ride, or monorail trip is just another attraction for us.
The "Disney magic" for us translates to USF and Cedar Point as well (not quite as much at CP) when staying on site. To be able to park your car on arrival, settle into your room and become ensconced in the luxurious surroundings really makes us feel that we are 'getting away from it all.' It's like you've left 'planet reality' and have landed in a world of magic and adventure. That to me is the the "Disney magic".
January 3, 2015 at 7:39 AM · I think the original article is being a little too generous with the price difference for DLR hotels. It can easily be $200-300 more a night to stay at a DLR hotel. I love staying onsite and usually don't mind paying a premium. However, when the cost difference for a 2-night stay will pay for my tickets, food, and souvenirs, I usually look at alternatives.
January 3, 2015 at 9:01 AM · When ever we go WDW, I feel like we are in another world. So staying on site adds to that even more. The theme parks, water parks, Downtown Disney, and the hotels are all part of one big world that when we are in any part of it, I feel far removed from anything else outside WDW. Isn't that what Walt Disney wanted? It is to bad that he didn't live to see any of it.
January 3, 2015 at 10:52 AM · Always stay at one of universals three deluxe hotels because of the fast passes and the early admission
January 3, 2015 at 12:10 PM · Always stay on site (at Disney). The only time we stay off grounds is when we get to FL around 9pm. Not worth the extra cost just to sleep and not take advantage of the resort.

I think people need to do their research on how much their money can go at the WDW resorts. I heard that many feel that the rooms are not big enough at Disney (which is usually true), but places like OKW and Saratoga Springs have pretty spacious rooms.

January 3, 2015 at 3:03 PM · In my dream trip to Universal, the benefit of inclusive line cutting privileges makes a stay anywhere but on site unthinkable.

Anywhere else, I'd only stay on site if offered a good deal.

January 3, 2015 at 3:58 PM · We stay on- or off-site depending upon who is traveling with us. When the oldest grandkids first went to WDW, we stayed at All-Stars Music and they loved it. As they got older, they told us that they wanted to try other resorts; so we've stayed at a number of the value and moderate priced resorts. On one trip last year, our party was so large we found it less expensive to book a block of rooms off-site. Yes, we missed out on EMH, but our schedule allowed for multiple visits to all of the WDW and Universal Parks, so in the long run, no one missed anything. And, more importantly, the rate we got for the block of rooms made it economical enough to allow extended family members to participate. Everyone had a blast! If it is just my wife and I making the trip, we usually stay at Saratoga Springs. We enjoy the features provided at SSR, but have avoided staying there during the Disney Springs conversion due to our concerns with traffic congestion in the area.
January 3, 2015 at 4:30 PM · We are Disney Vacation Club members so we always stay on property at WDW and often use our car to get to the parks further away. No charge to park if you stay on property. We have stayed at every moderate and deluxe resorts. We stayed at the three bedroom villa at the Grand Floridian over Thanksgiving. WOW! i think we have saved 30-40% on rooms being a DVC member. My grand kids are 20 and 15 so we enjoy the extensive dining experiences too. Great savings with the dining plans if you figure out your points and reservations ahead of time. We love getting extra magic hours from staying at the resorts.
January 3, 2015 at 5:25 PM · If I was going to USO or WDW, it might be different, but since it's the DLR and I go many times per year - plus I'm only about 80 miles away - it just makes more sense to stay off-site. And cents. Even with resort fees and parking, it's much less than the Disney hotels. And usually Diz don't use Hotwire. Nor offer free breakfasts.
January 3, 2015 at 5:49 PM · We rent a Villa (private home)...$900 for the week, 5-7 bedrooms, and we have a private pool and hot tub! Mom and dad have their own MBR...hey, we are vacation too!!! A similar room at DL/WDW would cost $900/night!!!
January 3, 2015 at 7:46 PM · We always stay on-site when visiting the Universal parks but never when visiting Disney. The front of the line perk is worth the extra for the great rooms at Universal. We love the water taxis at Universal although staying at the Hard Rock it is a quick walk and your in. We've never found staying on site at Disney enough of a benefit with the late or early extra hours as the main perk.
January 3, 2015 at 9:38 PM · As a family of five we are limited in terms of where we can stay when we visit WDW, however we have stayed onsite twice at the Art of Animation. I think I just love being surrounded by all things Disney, but I can understand why some people would want a break from it.
I always am looking for cheaper alternatives but every time I think I have found a great offsite alternative the savings really are not that great once you factor in renting a car, paying for parking etc. I am open to suggestions though...
January 4, 2015 at 8:49 AM · We stayed once at all stars at WDW. I was very unimpressed--the hotel was in horrible shape and very, very small. I think I must have missed the Mickey magic, 'cause it just seemed like a very cheap run down hotel to me with some mickey shaped soap... I drove to the parks, and it might have been a short drive, but there were lots of twists and turns to get to any of the parks. The free parking was the only perk that was a benefit to me, and staying off-site in my 2 bedroom, 3 bath at about $90/day is well worth the slight additional expense over value prices. Full sized fridge holds lots of cold drinks + any left overs. It's a 5 to 10 minute drive away, and VERY straightforward on how to get to any of the parks. Personally, I like taking a break from the bustle (and elbows!) at Disney, and eating off-site a couple of times is nice, and off-site there's always a nice place to stop on the way to/from the park. We usually stay for 7 nights, and do 5 days at Disney and do 2-3 character/dining meals + quick service. It adds up.

We will go to Universal for the first time this June. I think it makes more sense to stay at Universal than WDW, but looking at the costs, I just can't book the on-site hotel.

January 4, 2015 at 11:23 AM · I try to stay on resort for the convenience, like not needing a car. At smaller resorts like Disneyland Paris one can walk everywhere. However, when we went to Europa Park and Phantasialand in Germany, to stay onsite would have cost 5 to 8 times the price of a cheaper hotel within driving distance.
January 4, 2015 at 1:37 PM · Aside to Alison Cross - the car rental is sometimes the backbreaker in vacation costs, but it is one you might want to consider. Sure, you can save alot of money by not renting one, using Disney Express from MCO, and stay on-site.

However, in my opinion, the WDW Transportation System has not worked efficiently for a number of years. The time lost waiting for an overcrowded bus that may take over an hour to reach a Park from your resort or another Park doesn't seem worth it, on balance. Our vacation time has value, so with it, a cost; so a rental is effective for us.

I may be one of the heartless few who believe that life exists outside of WDW, but I like the flexibility a rental car provides. Orlando has one of the least expensive daily auto rental fees in the entire US. Additionally, I remember reading somewhere that you can rent and return a car at one of the hotels in WDW, as you need it. Unsure which hotel location and what rental company, but perhaps another commentator is familiar and can provide that info for you.

January 4, 2015 at 7:46 PM · Peter there's a car rental location at WDW, and they pick you up from a location within WDW and take you to their office where you rent a car. I've only picked up a car from them doing one way rentals, but I assume that when it comes time to return your car you simply return it to their office and get a ride to anywhere within WDW.
January 4, 2015 at 9:57 PM · Never at DLR, because all the Disney hotels are basically within the same distance to the parks as some significantly cheaper hotels
January 5, 2015 at 2:10 AM · I just realised that 2 days ago I said 'never' yet I stayed at Knott's last year.
And I have stayed at both Alton Towers hotels.
And onsite at Disneyland Paris.
Doh :-)

Never stayed onsite in 25 years of going to Orlando though.

January 5, 2015 at 10:16 AM · In general, I don't stay at theme park hotels for a couple of reasons. I used to get wrapped up in the fervor-fandom of 'staying at all WDW properties,' but along the way I discovered a few things:

The primary reason, in my humble opinion, to stay at a WDW-Disney property is consistent cleanliness. You know that at the very least, your room and resort will be clean. Now, as I don't have children, I probably shouldn't comment on the benefits of "convenient nap time locations," but considering how spread out the resort is, an extra five-to-ten minutes shouldn't really make that much of a difference.

I stay off-property (and have since 2002) because you plainly and obviously get a loooooottttt more for your money when you do. The basic math is this: on-property WDW-Disney hotels command a premium that prices them at the class above their actual ranking. Which is to say that you're paying a:
Radisson/Courtyard by Marriott price for a lightly-themed motel
Hyatt/Omni price for a highly-themed motor inn
Four Seasons/Waldorf-Astoria price for a well-themed Hyatt/Omni

For me, that's not really worth the extra expense of having transit and theming, especially considering that nearly every property in the area offers either complimentary or for-charge transportation to and from the parks (and really, is it that hard to walk another 100 feet and remember your bus bay code? No, it's not.)

To put this in perspective:
For the price of a Value (with DOUBLE BEDS, no less,) you can get into the decent Radisson Resort Celebration, which has a superb pool complex, casual, moderate and bar dining/drinking options, is within walking distance to a cool strip of dining, and has transport to the parks (free.) OR you can book into the Best Western: Lake Buena Vista and get balconies, a walk to Downtown Disney, and their transport.

For the price of a Moderate, you can and should book into one of the numerous higher-end chains in the region, including (depending upon the offers and time of year,) the SUPERB Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, where you'll get 4-star service, another superb grotto pool complex, golf, a portfolio of dining options, a BALCONY (seriously, at above $150, one should expect a balcony in FLORIDA,) and Mears Town Car service to the parks. Another good option here is the Marriott World Center, as well as the Omni ChampionsGate. Depending upon management and offers, either the Hilton or the Buena Vista Palace in DD are also pretty great...and sometimes are cheaper than the 3-star motor inns Disney is offering you.

For the price of a Deluxe, you can check into the amazing Grand Bohemian in downtown Orlando for true 5-star service. You can get a VILLA at the Sheraton Vistana. Or a villa at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress resort complex. Or a room at the newly opened Waldorf-Astoria. Or whatever the former Peabody became. Or a super-great room at the Gaylord. And so on.

I think the one truly 'worth it' Disney resort is the Animal Kingdom Lodge, as you have the savannah there.

January 6, 2015 at 11:55 AM · I don't like to drive where I don't know the streets or where I'm going, so staying at the Disney Resorts are good for me. I like taking the bus to the resort, and knowing all my transportation needs will be met is great.

I also like how, depending where your staying, you can see the firework displays from the parks. It is a nice little surprise to find that after you left the parks, there is something that follows you.

January 7, 2015 at 12:25 PM · My wife and I love to stay on site at WDW but the cost is so much that we usually only stay on site if it's for a quick 2 or 3 night stay. Thankfully we have a family member that owns with Wyndham Bonnett Creek so we stay there 2 weeks out of the year.

But I will say when I was younger staying on property was amazing to me because like many have said the little things Disney does to completel immerse you in a theme and story is incredible.

However after traveling for a living and being put up by my company hundreds of five-star resorts I honestly have become a Hotel snob, and after last two stays on property I wrote a nice long email to Disney Customer Service because in both bathrooms (Port Orleans - Riverside and Coronado Springs) Tiles were coming off the walls in the bathrooms and the quality was close to that of a Motel 6 which I have stayed at as well on trips.

But I think what really did it for me was on a business trip a client said they would prefer to put more money in my pocket versus putting me up first class and I always am fine with that. So they put me in a Microtel (now owned by Wyndham) and it was $49.99 a night.... Folks that room was more modern, cleaner, and fancier than even a nights stay at some of the dated Deluxe Resorts. And after that I just lost the desire to pay a high premium for less than 3 star rooms.

HOWEVER....Everything else about staying on property is amazing at Disney the Resorts (minus the rooms) are theme parks in themselves to an extent.

If we had the money, which we don't, we would totally buy into Wilderness Lodge as DVC members because with our first child on that way (a boy) I know he would love being near the Geysers and the outdoors.

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