Walt Disney World Lodging: On Site vs. Off Site

Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge

Ever wonder about the difference between staying at an official on-site Walt Disney Resort and staying somewhere off-site?  Well, I’ve officially done both.  Between November 2010 and this past September, I visited Walt Disney World four times.  The first three were on site–at The Beach Club Resort, Coronado Springs Resort, and Animal Kingdom Lodge.  But my fourth trip–scheduled to be three weeks in length–required something more home-like…and less expensive.  And so, for the very first time, I found myself living in a condo five minutes outside the ‘Welcome to Walt Disney World’ gates.

As one would expect, there are pros and cons to both types of lodging.  And you know how much I love writing pro and con lists!  Thus, I bring to you my personal opinions on the differences between on and off site…

WDW On Site Hotel Pros

-The Disney resort hotels really are destinations unto themselves.  First time Disney visitors may not realize it, but there’s a whole bunch of us that have been to WDW in the past that actually tour the resorts–just because.  On my last trip, a friend and I checked out Pop Century resort (and have since decided to stay there for our next trip!)  I’ve done multiple monorail hotel tours–either to eat at the restaurants there, have a drink (the Magic Kingdom is dry–the only non-magical thing about it), or to take photos.  Disney World is one of only two places in the world that I know of where you can stay in something that’s considered an attraction (the other example would be, of course, Las Vegas!)

-Disney resort hotels are really very beautiful.  The photo above is my personal favorite Disney Resort–the Beach Club.  I mean, come on.  Who wouldn’t want to stay there?

-Disney magic is an actual thing.  From towel animals with little cards reading ‘It all started with a mouse’ to hidden Mickeys lurking on the bed spreads, curtains, wallpaper, and carpet, you really can’t beat the magic of a Disney resort.


-When staying at a WDW hotel, you have access to the free on site transportation.  This means that you don’t need a car–not at all.  The free Magical Express will take you from the airport to your hotel, and then you can use the rather excellent bus/ferry/monorail system to get anywhere you want to go.  Well–almost anywhere!  But more on that in the cons list.

-If you are staying in the actual resort, at no point will the ‘real world’ accidentally slip into your vacation.  You will not pass strip malls or grocery stores or burned down old motel complexes.  You will be fully ‘immersed in the mouse’ for your entire stay.

WDW On Site Hotel Cons

-Aside from the most expensive rooms on property, WDW hotel rooms are very small.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.  I’m fine in a room by myself–or with my husband.  But sharing a room at Animal Kingdom Lodge with my mother was a bit too cozy.  In the photo above, you can see the amount of clearance between the bed and the furniture in a standard room at Animal Kingdom Lodge.  That’s a women’s size six shoe.  I have no idea how a family of four shares one room.

-If you are paying ‘rack rate’–that is, full price without any discounts applied to your stay–WDW hotels are expensive.  Of course, Disney has created a three-tiered system of resorts–values, moderates, and deluxe–that still do allow you to pick how much you want to spend per night.  But it’s still going to be around $90/night at the least–and upwards of $600/night at the most.

-Assuming you do not have a car, it can be difficult to get from one resort to the other on Disney transportation.  So if you are staying at, say, Port Orleans and you want to go to, say, Animal Kingdom for a meal at Jiko, you will either need to get to a park and then take a bus–or take a cab.

-You are a captive audience.  Remember that Magical Express that brought you to your Disney resort?  Yeah–it didn’t stop at the grocery store for one very good reason:  you now have to purchase everything you eat and drink from Walt Disney World.  And trust me–it’s not cheap!  You may just end up ‘enjoying’ a meal like the one pictured above (yes, that’s a kid’s meal and a glass of merlot.  You got a problem with that?)

Off Site Disney Lodging Pros

-You will have many, many more choices.  The area surrounding Disney World is rife with lodging options–from cheap motels to condos to town homes with private swimming pools.  Given that my only off-site lodging experience has been in a condo, all pros and cons from here on out will assume that you, too, choose to rent a condo.

-You will need a car.  This is a pro in my opinion because it gives you freedom.  Freedom to, say, take a day trip to St. Augustine.  Like the lighthouse in the photo above?  That’s St. Augustine.  I could not have gone there had I been staying car-less on site.

-In a condo, you have the option of making your own meals.  This is not only cost effective, it is also rather refreshing.  I promise, it doesn’t take long to get sick of eating out.  Think I’m wrong?  Try doing it for ten days straight, three meals per day.  Eventually you’re just going to want a quick bowl of cereal, soup, or spaghetti!

-You will have more room.  My condo was a two-bedroom two-bath condo with a study, living room, dining room, and screened in balcony.  If you have children–or are traveling with anyone other than your significant other–you will appreciate the space.  Promise.

-For all that is listed above, you will still pay less in comparison to staying on site.  My very nice condo was less money than the cheapest single room on Disney property.

Off Site Disney Lodging Cons

-Even though it doesn’t take much more time, you will be less likely to take a mid-day break at your room/condo/town house than you would if you were staying on site.  And sometimes a mid-day break from the parks is a much needed refresher.

-You will have to pass into and out of Disney Property multiple times on your trip.  And when you do, you will see the horror that is the surrounding area.  Check out the boutique of crap pictured in the photo above.  I passed by that so many times on my off site trip that (clearly) I stopped to photograph it!

-You will have to pay for parking.  I believe it is something like $14 per park–and I don’t know what happens if you want to park at multiple parks during the same day.  Of course, if you are like me you can avoid this by purchasing an annual pass, which covers parking.

-Speaking of parking, you will ‘have to’ rent a car.  Yes, I know that I said that having a car was a pro–but renting a car is a con.  Not only does it cost money, but the process of picking up your car and then navigating it to a place you’ve never been–well, let’s just say it is less than magical.  On my last trip I was staring longingly at the Magical Express busses!

-Even after paying for parking, you may need to still use Disney transport to get to the actual park.  WDW parking lots are HUGE–so you may be forced (or tempted) to use the parking lot trams.  In addition, there’s no parking lot at the Magic Kingdom–which can make getting there a royal pain in the ears.  You will park at the Ticket and Transportation center and then take a ferry or the monorail to the gates.  Of course, some people (like my own mother) claim that this process is ‘part of the experience’.  Whatever–just get me to the park!

So–which is better?  On site or off site?  I honestly can’t answer that question.  But I hope I’ve given you some things to consider when making the decision for yourself.  And to those of you who have done one or the other or both–which do you prefer?  On site?  Off site?  Why?  Please share your experiences in the comments section!  And, of course…have a magical day!


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