I've traveled to Disney World many times since my first visit to Central Florida in 1979 and have been fortunate that most of those trips included a hotel stay on Disney property. In the early years and even with some trips in adulthood lodging was chosen by my parents (who also covered the costs). In recent years, as the cost of Disney vacations continues to outpace inflation by a considerable margin (and I've had to pay for my own rooms) I've chosen to look at how to save money on what have become frequent visits to the park. I've also become fond of driving during my stays, as a way to save time and avoid getting stuck standing on Disney buses at the end of a long night. Thus, when planning a Disney World visit in March it seemed like the right time to venture off of the Disney property for my lodging.
If you don't count a three year stretch when my family stayed at different resorts in the Disney Village Hotel Plaza (on-property, though not Disney-owned resorts) the last time I stayed off-site when visiting Disney World coincided with the time when President Reagan was shot, so it's been quite a while. As a child, I enjoyed my two stays at the Howard Johnson's Main Gate, which was located on US 192, just outside the Disney property line, but being a child I didn't take copious notes on those trips. I remember spending a lot of time in the swimming pool, using the putting green, and ending most days in the game room. As a kid, you couldn't ask for much more. As an adult, things like safety, efficiency, quiet, cost, and comfort become more important. I put those to the test with a three night stay at the Clarion Inn Lake Buena Vista
early in March, 2015.
My off-site stay was a success and will probably have an impact on my future Florida vacation planning. You can read my more detailed review of the Clarion
, but for less than half the price I would have paid to stay at Disney's cheapest hotel (one of the All-Star Resorts) during the same time period I got a larger, more comfortable room, with better amenities, including a microwave and coffee maker. Internet access was not as fast as I've grown accustomed to in recent Disney visits (which has improved considerably in the last year or two) and noise reduction was downright poor, but after the first night I was so tired that I probably could've slept in the middle of the highway, so that turned out not to be a problem. The pool area wasn't as well-themed as any Disney value resort, but it also wasn't as crowded during the day. Service certainly wasn't Disney-caliber, but beyond checking in I had no direct dealing with the staff, so that didn't affect my stay. Overall, I'd consider my hotel experience to be a slight upgrade over a Disney value resort at a considerably lower cost.
WHAT DID I MISS?
You do lose out of a number of conveniences when staying away from Disney property, namely:
No Disney's Magical Express transportation to and from the airport
No Disney Resort Airline Check-In / Bag Check
No 60 Day Window to Make FastPass+ Reservations
No Extra 10 Days to Make Dining Reservations
No Free Parking on Disney property
Limited Bus Transportation to/from the Parks
No Access to Extra Magic Hours
No Additional MagicBands
No Room Charge or Package Delivery to Resort with Disney Purchases
No Priority Access to the Parks on Peak Days (only applies around Christmas, New Year's, and Independence Day)
In the case of my March trip, I didn't miss any of these perks to staying on property. I mentioned in my introduction that I prefer to rent a car when visiting the parks, so other than trips to the Magic Kingdom I seldom rely on Disney transportation. That means not having Magical Express and the less than ideal bus transportation that my off-site hotel provided had a negligible effect on my travel plans. During my three nights at the Clarion I drove to the Magic Kingdom (TTC) twice, Epcot twice, and Animal Kingdom once and my travel times to all those locations were almost identical to what I experienced driving or using Disney transportation when staying on-site. The exception was a considerably longer trip to Animal Kingdom, though that is mostly because many of my recent on-site stays have been at Disney's All-Star Resorts, which are located only a few minutes from Animal Kingdom. In this case, staying on-site would have saved me a couple minutes in travel time, but not enough to make a meaningful difference for comparison purposes.
I realize not everyone enjoys driving while on vacation, so if that's you, then transportation challenges associated with an off-site stay may be significant. For me, since I would be renting a car and driving anyway and travel times are similar to staying on-site, I would be quite content to stay off-site again, feeling confident that I could get where I needed to go in a reasonable amount of time. My hotel was located near the Crossroads shopping center, minutes from Downtown Disney, so if you chose to stay somewhere farther away from Disney World, then your travel times could be higher. However, since a wide variety of reasonably priced accommodations at nearly all quality levels exist on the periphery of Disney property I think the travel time comparison with the Clarion would be comparable. Another possible concern for some would be paying for parking. Disney charges $17 per day for automobiles (and slightly more if you're driving a camper, bus, or tractor trailer), which could eat into your savings when staying off-site. I have an Annual Pass, which includes free parking, so this wasn't an issue for me, but is an important consideration for most visitors.
Other Disney resort perks, such as the extra time to have FastPass+ and dining reservations, have been a factor for some trips, but that has seldom been the case for me. In December, when traveling with a friend's family, which included his five year old Frozen-obsessed daughter, the extra window to make FastPass+ reservations ensured that all five people in the traveling party could get FastPass+ to meet Anna and Elsa at the same time. However, with no one in my traveling party that wanted that coveted FastPass (I was traveling solo) I was still able to reserve ride times for every attraction I wanted, including Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Wishes, and Illuminations when I my FastPass+ window opened. As far as dining reservations, I seldom seek out pre-rope drop breakfasts or other high-demand dining locations, and for this trip I was planning to eat most of my meals in Epcot to sample the Flower & Garden Festival Outdoor Kitchens, so dining reservations weren't a priority. Additionally, I booked this trip on relatively short notice, so I was well inside the 180 day window when anyone could make dining reservations, so the extra ten days resort guest have to make their ADRs would not have mattered.
For some having a MagicBand may be of measurable value. I already have one in each color that Disney offers hotel guests, so another band wasn't very important to me. Having stayed on site a number of times over the last year, it was a minor inconvenience to have to reach into my wallet for the hotel key, rather than just tapping my wrist against the door, but given the choice I'm not sure I'd pay more than a few dollars a night for that feature. What I did miss a little bit were the room charging privileges that come with the MagicBand when staying on-site. Since I planned to pay for most of my Disney purchases with Disney gift cards, and those cards were in $50 increments, I had to carry around my stash of cards and keep track of how much money was left on the one I was actively using. Had I been staying on-site I would have charged all of my purchases to the room and could have brought my gift cards to the Front Desk and paid in one long transaction. Another potentially useful plus to staying on-site, though one I've hardly ever used, is the ability to have purchases in the parks delivered to your resort (so you don't have to carry things around the parks). Not having that didn't bother me, but not being able to charge items to my room was a slight inconvenience, though it is another thing for which I wouldn't pay more than a couple dollars a day.
WOULD I STAY OFF-SITE AGAIN?
Yes. There are certainly circumstances that make an on-property stay a reasonable value for me, including my next trip, which will be during Star Wars Weekends, when early access to FastPass+ may be valuable, as will Disney transportation during a time when the odds of getting stuck in the remote recesses of the Hollywood Studios parking lot are higher than normal. However, having experienced the considerable cost savings of an off-site stay, with minimal increases in transportation time, I can see many instances where I will be content to spend my nights at a nearby off-property hotel. The money I save will allow me to pay for more upscale dining, additional entertainment like backstage tours, or just to allow more frequent visits to the park, all of which outweigh what I might lose out when staying off-property. There are some advantages to staying off-site, too, including larger hotel rooms and more in-room amenities than you would have on property. Additionally, the ease of access to off-site dining can provide even more cost savings. For those who prefer to stay in the Disney "bubble" that may not sound appealing, but for others, eating some meals away from the Disney property (and Disney prices) may be the best way to make a trip economically feasible. Of course, off-site stays also work best when you are willing to drive and require a cursory knowledge of the local roads (or a close relationship with your GPS), so for some that may be more of a hassle than they want on their vacations. For me, I'll be excited to return to the All-Star Resorts for my next on-property stay, but I'm also looking forward to trying out some more hotels close to the Disney property. They were good enough for my first visits to Disney World and it appears off-site lodging will also be part of my future travels.
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