Whether to stay in an on-site or off-site hotel is a big, important decision when planning your Walt Disney World vacation. This weighs the pros & cons, with an unbiased look at third party accommodations, Universal v. Disney resorts, and other options near the parks around Orlando, Florida. (Updated November 7, 2021.)
We stress the “unbiased” aspect because it seems like there’s a stigma around off-site hotels for many Disney fans. The mental picture of non-Disney hotels is shady dives that are unclean and even unsafe. While there are certainly some sketchy places in Orlando where we’d never consider staying, there are also some exceptional, 5-star hotels. In fact, it’s arguable that the top 5 hotels in Central Florida do not have “Disney’s” in the name.
To that end, we’ll try to fairly address the benefits and downsides to each option. Walt Disney World resort hotels have a lot of great benefits and are a compelling choice for many guests, but the hundreds of local off-site hotels offer many equally compelling reasons as to why guests should stay off-site. If you already know whether you want to stay on-site or off-site, you should skip this article and go directly to our Walt Disney World Hotel Reviews index page to determine which hotel is right for you…
For many people considering where to stay at Walt Disney World, price will be the determining factor, as it can be cheaper to do a Walt Disney World on a tighter budget while staying off-site. However, this isn’t always the case, and there are other factors to consider before booking. Those with small vacation budgets might be surprised to find that, in some circumstances, it’s better to stay on-site, and those with large vacation budgets might be better served by staying off-site.
We’ve stayed at numerous off-site and third party hotels near Walt Disney World, including every single Bonnet Creek, Disney Springs, and Universal Orlando Resorts–among many others. We’ve revised this post several times to reflect how those off-site stays have changed our perspective. In the process, we’ve also added some specific off-site hotel recommendations.
When it comes to this topic, a lot has changed in the last 3 years and, even more so, in the last year. As such, it probably makes the most sense to start with irrelevant considerations–things that used to factor into the off-site versus on-site calculus, but are no longer benefits or drawbacks…
“Extinct” Benefits & Drawbacks
FastPass Booking Windows – There has been a lot of outrage about the paid Genie+ line-skipping service, which is Walt Disney World’s paid replacement to free FastPass+. (See our Guide to Genie+ at Walt Disney World & Lightning Lane FAQ for everything you need to know.) This is particularly understandable among Deluxe Resort guests and Disney Vacation Club members, who now may be wondering what, exactly, they’re getting for the exorbitant amounts of money they’re spending to stay at Walt Disney World.
However, one key thing that’s frequently overlooked is the positive impact for off-site guests. Previously, the on-site booking window for FastPass+ meant that anyone not booking ~60 days in advance got shut out of the most popular ride reservations unless they devoted significant time to constantly refreshing in search of cancellations. By the 30 day mark when off-site guests could book, all of the best options were gone that would save considerable time, leaving mostly the “consolation prize” FastPasses that were often pointless.
Genie+ and Lightning Lanes make it much easier to justify spending less money to stay off-site. There is no on-site advantage in booking Lightning Lane reservations via Genie+ (a colossal oversight, if you ask us) and even the benefit for booking Individual Lightning Lanes is minimal and usually unnecessary. You can thus book off-site and reallocate the savings towards spending $16 per person on Genie+ each day–or on just Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios days, which is really where it’s most necessary and useful.
As with the elimination of so many on-site perks at Walt Disney World, arguably the biggest beneficiary of this change is Universal Orlando. If I were planning on visiting both theme park complexes and had a decent budget for accommodations, I’d book a Premier Hotel at Universal as my home base, take advantage of the unlimited Express Pass that’s included with my stay there, and commute to Walt Disney World on those park days. Obviously, that’s not going to make sense or be ideal for everyone, but it’s just one way Universal has gained significant ground on Disney in the last year-plus. (More on that a bit later.)
Here’s another scenario: let’s say you’re looking at spending $175 per night to stay at All Star Movies or $100 per night to stay at one of the objectively nicer Flamingo Crossings hotels. You will easily come out ahead by shifting off-site and putting the savings towards paid FastPass. In the past, the calculus would be more complicated than this due to the many benefits of staying on-site, but Disney has slowly eroded them over the last few years–so the comparison might be as simple as that for many guests.
Free Resort Parking – One way Walt Disney World used to differentiate its hotels from real world alternatives in Orlando was by not charging parking or resort fees. Thankfully, Disney hasn’t embraced the consumer-unfriendly and deceiving practice of charging resort fees, but it does now charge for parking at its hotels.
This is not a hidden or mandatory fee (since anyone who doesn’t rent a car avoids it), but we nonetheless are not fans of it. Walt Disney World has ample parking lot space, and for the prices charged at its hotels, this is nickel and diming. Unfortunately, that’s par for the course with Disney in recent years, as nickel and diming has become an increasingly common business practice to increase per guest spending.
Disney Dining Plan – Along with everything else that was “temporarily suspended” when the parks and resorts reopened was the Disney Dining Plan, which is the incredibly popular and money-saving meal plan. Around half of the other “temporary” suspensions have since turned into permanent cuts.
While we don’t expect the same to happen with the Disney Dining Plan (so it’s not technically “extinct”), the fact remains that it’s still not back over a year later. Accordingly, don’t book an on-site stay with the expectation of taking advantage of the DDP. (See When Will the Disney Dining Plan Return? for our thoughts and predictions on when that’ll be back!)
Now let’s cover the current pros and cons of staying off-site versus on-site at Walt Disney World…
Benefits of Staying On-Site
Location & Convenience – The biggest benefit of staying at an on-site Walt Disney World resort hotel is convenience. To one degree or another, just about every “pro” radiates out from here. The hotels are generally closer to the parks, which in some cases can mean it’s as simple as walking or taking a monorail or boat from the hotel to the park.
This short and simple commute can enable parties to split up more easily or go back to the hotel for a midday nap without killing a large chunk of the day. This convenience can make the day more efficient and enable your party to accomplish more. This is primarily a benefit if Walt Disney World is the top or sole priority on vacation–as other non-Disney parks continue to add more compelling attractions, this is becoming less important to many guests.
Airport Transportation – If guests so desire, they never have to rent a car or use ride share services if staying in a Walt Disney World resort hotel. Disney’s Magical Express offers round-trip transportation between Orlando International Airport (MCO) and all Disney-owned resorts, which is another huge convenience.
Unfortunately, Disney’s Magical Express service ends in January 2022. This is a controversial decision, and the result will be that guests either have to take Uber/Lyft, another paid shuttle service, or rent a car–all of those options can just as easily be utilized for accessing off-site hotels.
Park Transportation – Once on property at Walt Disney World, guests can use a provided transportation between hotels, theme parks, and other locations on property. All of this transportation is complimentary (or built into the price of their room).
The efficiency of the transportation provided to Walt Disney World resort hotel guests is hotly disputed, but it is a nice perk. Our perspective is that the included transportation is “good enough” and in the rare cases when there’s a problem, we will simply use Uber or Lyft to supplement Disney transportation.
We seldom rent a car at Walt Disney World, as we find it much more convenient to just hop on a bus, monorail, boat, Skyliner gondola, or even walk from our hotel to the parks than have to hassle with navigating the roads, parking, and trams. We have the “pleasure” of dealing with all of that junk (minus the trams) in our daily lives–it’s nice not to deal with it on vacation.
Transportation is a huge advantage that can tip the scales in favor of staying on-site, as it can obviate the need for a rental car, which means not paying for that, or parking–at a hotel and at the theme parks. It’s worth doing the math before booking your hotel. (Again, Disney’s Magical Express is going away as of January 2022, so you’ll either need to rent a car or use other airport transportation if you’re planning a trip for 2022 or beyond.)
Early Theme Park Entry – This replaces morning Extra Magic Hours, or rather, is a spiritual successor to that on-site guest benefit. Whereas morning Extra Magic Hours were offered on select days and at select parks, Early Entry is offered at all 4 theme parks every single day. That makes it unavoidable for off-site guests who like to rope drop the parks.
The other big difference is that Extra Magic Hours lasted for an hour. By contrast, this is 30-minute access to any Walt Disney World theme park. This means that Magic Kingdom or Disney’s Hollywood Studios opens daily to resort guests at 8:30 am, Animal Kingdom opens at 7:30 am, and Epcot opens at 9:30 am. It should go without saying, but those times will change with actual operating hours. (For strategy & info about how beneficial this perk can be, check out our Guide to Early Theme Park Entry at Walt Disney World.)
Extended Evening Hours – This has a smaller pool of eligibility and occurs less frequently than Early Entry. It’s exclusively for guests staying at Deluxe Resorts, Deluxe Villas (Disney Vacation Club units), or other select hotels (only the Swan & Dolphin and Shades of Green). So Extended Evening Hours is not a “pure” on-site benefit.
Extended Evening Theme Park Hours occur two nights per week in total. Every Monday at Epcot from 10:00 PM to midnight and every Wednesday at Magic Kingdom from 9 pm until 11 pm. Guests staying at Value or Moderate Resorts are not eligible for Extended Evening Hours. (Again, those guests are eligible for Early Theme Park Entry.) We’ve had some great no crowds experiences with Extended Evening Hours at Magic Kingdom and Epcot, but it remains to be seen whether wait times will remain this low–it’s still early.
Resort Fees – Hidden fees have proliferated in recent years at off-site Orlando hotels. We cannot stand these resort fees and recommend you fight back against the incredibly consumer-unfriendly practice.
Some are known to charge non-optional resort fees for “wellness packages” (their term, not ours) including things like internet, newspaper, and bottled water. It’s important to factor in all fees when comparison shopping hotel pricing, as that “great deal” might not be nearly as good of an option once you tack on all of those non-optional fees.
Vacation Packages – Many guests also find the convenience of booking a vacation package that covers all aspects of their trip preferable, and those packages necessarily include hotel accommodations. (We suggest buying your park tickets from sources other than Disney to save money.) However, there is something to be said for simply calling up Walt Disney World and buying your park tickets, room, dining, and transportation all in one fell swoop.
The biggest and best component of package bookings is the Disney Dining Plan, which is temporarily unavailable (see above). While we often rally against the illusory convenience of the Disney Dining Plan here, many people do find it more convenient than paying a la carte. More importantly, when the Free Disney Dining Plan promotion is offered, the only hotels at which it can be booked are the Disney-owned ones.
Disney Themed Design – Another benefit of staying on-site is that your hotel is an extension of the Walt Disney World theme park experience. It has its own distinct design and may not always scream “Disney” with icons from animated films, but the on-site Walt Disney World resort hotels feel very similar to the parks in terms of thematic yarns.
For the most part, they don’t feel like ordinary hotels any more than the Disney theme parks feel like ordinary amusement parks. They have an additional layer of detail and storytelling to “transport” guests to a different time and place. In simple terms of luxury, Disney hotels don’t always surpass their real world counterparts, but they almost always have better theme.
Along those same lines, one of the biggest benefits for us of staying at an on-site Walt Disney World hotel is being immersed in the “Disney bubble.” This isn’t one you’ll find on an amenities list, and it’s where our otherwise attempt at an objective comparison fails.
For many people traveling to Walt Disney World, being insulated from the real world is appealing. From the moment you step onto Disney’s Magical Express bus until exiting at the end of your trip back at the airport, you’re encapsulated in the Walt Disney World experience.
Of course, there are some intrusions, but for the most part, it’s an escape from reality to a fantasyland of sorts. A lot of people won’t understand this or simply won’t care for it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you fall in that category, an off-site hotel is more likely to appeal to you. You simply cannot get this experience while staying at an off-site hotel.
Benefits of Staying Off-Site
Many Walt Disney World fans are going to recommend everyone stay at a Disney-owned on-site hotel for their trip because that’s what they personally prefer for their trips. However, it’s important for us fans to remember that not everyone is nuts about being immersed in the “Disney experience,” and off-site hotels can offer great advantages for other guests.
Value Proposition – The biggest advantage to off-site hotels is bang for buck. This is usually expressed as off-site hotels being “cheaper,” but that’s not all it is. Even if you want luxury accommodations that aren’t going to be cheaper than all on-site hotels, you will find that they offer better value off-site. In other words, you’re not paying Disney’s premium for its name, reputation, and location. There’s more competition among off-site hotels, keeping prices low.
Even if you aren’t necessarily looking for a bargain basement price on a hotel, you’ll typically get more value out of non-Disney hotels. In addition to this, although Disney does many things well, their best hotels simply do not compete with the best real world hotels in terms of luxury.
If you want luxury accommodations, your best bet is to look elsewhere, such as the Four Seasons (which is actually on Walt Disney World property), the Waldorf Astoria, Ritz-Carlton, Hyatt Regency, etc. Even the Swan & Dolphin offer superior bedding and other amenities than any Walt Disney World resort hotels, and usually these can be booked for about the price of a Walt Disney World Moderate-tier hotel.
We have a list of the Top 10 Off-Site Hotels Near Walt Disney World, which primarily focuses on the luxurious options. The list also includes a couple of villa/vacation home style resorts that are large enough to accommodate families of 5 or more, and are competitively-priced.
Disney is somewhat insulated from off-site competition. For visitors who want the on-site location, a seamless ‘bubble’ experience from their resort to the theme parks, or rooms with specific Disney themes, off-site is less appealing. Walt Disney World knows they have those advantages, and price their hotels accordingly.
The result is budget or value hotels that cost $100-$200 per night at Walt Disney World might have a comparable equivalent off-site for around $50 to $100 per night. A luxury hotel that might cost over $400/night on-site at Walt Disney World may have an analogue off-site for around $150/night. Whether this premium pricing for being in the Disney bubble (“location, location, location!”) is worth it to you is a personal question.
Loyalty Rewards – Due to work or other travel, you might have loyalty to a specific chain of hotels. If you have status or points at one of those chains and want to take advantage of it, you have an obvious advantage in staying at those hotels.
We are Hyatt Gold Passport Platinum members, entitling us to a variety of perks there, so whenever we travel to non-Disney locations, we try to stay at a Hyatt. For a lot of people, the familiarity and known quality of a major chain like this is very appealing, even if they have no points to use.
Other Perks & Amenities – This one is a very broad, but potentially very important catch-all. Many off-site hotels offer free continental breakfast. Some are pet friendly with minimal fees for that. Others have impressive pools that surpass anything at Walt Disney World. The off-site hotel might have an airport shuttle and shuttle service to the parks–and not just the Disney parks.
The specifics obviously vary by hotel, and with thousands of properties in Central Florida, it’s impossible to list them all here. If there’s something you want from a hotel, you can probably find it somewhere within a ~20 minute drive of Walt Disney World.
Tailored Accommodations – Generally speaking, staying off-site affords greater latitude in booking accommodations perfectly-suited to your family size and needs. Outside of Walt Disney World property, vacation homes, suites, and all sorts of varying sized accommodations all can be found at a multitude of price points.
For instance, it’s much easier to rent a vacation home with individual rooms for everyone, a kitchen, activities room, or whatever you might want for your vacation if you stay off-site. These rooms do exist on-property, but most of the time their pricing puts them firmly in the Deluxe tier, making them cost prohibitive for many groups.
Straightforward Design – Although we mention Disney theming as an advantage of staying on-site in that section above, it may be a disadvantage to you.
After a long day in the parks, you might be having sensory overload at the end of the day and just wanting to get away from all things Disney. If you’re not a huge Disney fan, staying off-site might be a nice reprieve during your trip.
Location – Much like on-site hotels, it’s important to remember that not all off-site hotels are created equal. In this article, we are sort of using the terms “off-site” and “non-Disney” interchangeably, but there are many non-Disney hotels that are located on Walt Disney World property.
This is important to know because it undermines some of the location advantages touted by Disney-owned resorts. For example, the Swan & Dolphin are walking distance to Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Likewise, the third party hotels at Disney Springs and Bonnet Creek are closer to the parks than some Disney-owned resorts.
Universal Hotel Benefits – We save the best for last, as the biggest off-site perks are those offered by Universal Orlando’s resorts. All Universal hotels offer Early Park Admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Volcano Bay water park one hour before the theme parks open to the general public.
Guests staying at Universal’s Premier Hotels get free Unlimited Express Pass to skip the regular lines at most popular attractions in Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. This is Universal’s equivalent of FastPass/Lightning Lanes, but better–and it normally costs a lot more money.
While it’s beyond the scope of this article, Universal Orlando resorts offer many of the same advantages of Walt Disney World hotels. Universal’s hotels also feature great themed design, transportation to the parks, and a great location–most are within walking distance of Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure.
As of 2021, Universal’s hotels offer better value for money and they’ve maintained their benefits, two things that cannot be said for Walt Disney World resorts. Notably, Universal has excellent budget hotels that cost around–or sometimes under–$100 per night. See our Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort Review and Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn & Suites Review.
By contrast, Walt Disney World has suspended many perks of staying on-site during the phased reopening. Some of these either will not return, will be back in diminished form, or have an unknown return date. Even before that, Disney had eroded its on-site guest benefits. (See Is Walt Disney World’s On-Site Advantage Disappearing?)
Consequently, our opinion is that Universal is beating Disney when it comes to the pros & cons of their respective hotels. If you’ll be spending equal (or close to it) time at Universal and Walt Disney World during your Orlando, Florida vacation in 2022, give serious thought to staying at Universal instead of Disney. If you’re exclusively visiting Walt Disney World, obviously this advice is irrelevant.
Overall, there’s a lot to consider when determining whether you want to stay off-site or on-site at Walt Disney World, and there’s no one size fits all answer as to which is “better.” As you can see, different families might make very different decisions based upon what matters most to them. There’s really no right or wrong answer, it’s more what you want out of your vacation and how you weigh the pros and cons.
The subjective factors are almost always going to be the overriding ones, and savings that seem to make staying off-site a no-brainer slam dunk for some guests may be insufficient to lure others off-site. Whether the on-site premium is “worth it” to you is largely a matter of personal preference, but hopefully this post presented some objective considerations for you to weigh and make the decision for yourself.
Planning a Walt Disney World trip? If you’re interested in learning more about hotels, our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page is a good place to start. For where to eat, try out our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews page. If you want to save money on tickets or determine which type you should get, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at unconventional things you should take on your trip. Once you arrive at the parks, our Walt Disney World “Ride Guides” are great for determining what to do and when to do it. For overviews of all of these topics and so much more, the best place to start is our comprehensive Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide to make the most of your experience!
Do you generally stay on-site or off-site? Why? What are your key considerations when determining where you stay? Thoughts on Universal Orlando v. Walt Disney World hotels? Are you a fan of renting a vacation home or using Airbnb when booking a Central Florida vacation? Any specific off-site or third party hotel you recommend? Do you agree or disagree with our advice? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!