What's Cheaper: Staying On or Off Disney Property? Crunching the Numbers

Posted Feb 18th 2011 04:00 PMUpdated Jun 27th 2011 10:39 AM


cheap disney

BestWDW, Flickr

What's the price difference between top-of-the-line "Deluxe" Walt Disney World hotels compared with hotels of a similar star rating just outside the property in Orlando? You get some extra goodies when you stay on Disney property in a Disney hotel, so when you factor in the value of those goodies, how does the difference compute? We did the math.

We took a few of Disney's premium resorts, which it calls "Deluxe," and priced them for two different nights: March 15, amidst spring break time and its higher-than-average rates, and May 2, a shoulder season in between spring and summer vacations, when prices are saner. Both days are weekdays, because weekends typically incur surcharges of about $25-$30. Here's what Disney charges, before tax:

Disney's Contemporary Resort is that famous A-frame structure through which the iconic monorail travels. On March 15, a preemo room facing the Magic Kingdom would cost $580. If you're wiling to settle for a "garden" view instead, $365 is the cheapest. On May 2, the rates are $500 and $330, respectively.

That's as high as it got for a standard room at Disney, partly because the Contemporary is on the Monorail, which links the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. The Disney's Beach Club is not on the Monorail, but it does have foot access to a side door of Epcot. There, $465 gets you a parking lot view and $540 a water view (March) and $385/$475 in May.

Finally, one of the least expensive Deluxe hotels is Disney's Wilderness Lodge, with no Monorail and no foot access to the parks. That's $375 for a parking lot view in March, and $310 in May. For a more pleasant view of the woods, you're looking at $405 and $335.

Rates outside Disney

Those are Disney's top-of-the-line hotels. Now let's take three equivalent, top-of-the-line resorts just outside the cordon of Disney World, for double occupancy on the same dates: the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes (3 miles from Disney), the the Reunion Resort and Club (6 miles from Disney) and the Waldorf-Astoria (on Disney property).

In March, the Ritz-Carlton was cheaper than every Disney resort save for a parking lot view at the Wilderness Lodge, which was $4 cheaper. Same for May, when it was $4 more than a woods view at the Lodge and $9 more than a garden view at the Contemporary. Everything else at Disney cost more.

Nothing was less expensive than the Reunion for a top-quality resort. On March 15, the cheapest room was $260 (for a deluxe one-bedroom villa). In fact, you could upgrade to a two-bedroom villa and still be cheaper than everything else, at $310. The same is true in May: Five-star service for $195 for a one-bedroom, and $240 for a two-bedroom.

Finally the Waldorf Astoria opened in late 2009 and has been popular ever since. Extremely popular, actually, because there were no rooms available on either March 15 or May 2. To get prices, we checked rates for exactly a week later (still midweek) and came up with $329 for both dates. In fact, you could upgrade to a deluxe suite ($509) and still pay less than a water view in a standard room at Disney's Beach Club.

Clearly, the Disney hotels are more expensive than non-Disney hotels of comparable quality (a pattern that holds true across all price levels, even at the cheapest "Value" resorts), but what happens when you consider the dollar value of things you can only get at Disney hotels?

What about the extras?

But at Disney, a hotel is worth more than its sticker price. There are perks that Disney resorts throw in that you can't negotiate at outside properties. What are they worth?

The jewel of Disney hotel amenities is probably Extra Magic Hours, which allow guests to enter one theme park each day for an hour or two for which the general public is not permitted. Let's say you get an extra hour in the morning at the Magic Kingdom. Given that there are fewer crowds, you can see a lot more in that time than you could during the rest of the day, so let's value that extra time as worth three hours of touring time once the park gates open for everyone else.

The most expensive one-day ticket to a Disney World park costs $87.33 -- if you stay for more days, the per-day price descends steeply -- so assuming you spend 12 hours in the park, that makes an hour of time worth $7.27. Times three hours, that's $21.83. So you could say that Extra Magic Hour is worth about $22. That's being hugely generous, since we used the highest ticket rate possible (despite the fact nearly no one pays that much) and valued a single Extra Magic Hour as three. So Extra Magic Hours is worth a maximum of $22 per person.

Disney also gives its hotel guests transportation to and from the airport. It contracts with Mears Transportation, which sells rides to Disney property (we priced to the Waldorf) to non-guests for $34 round-trip for adults and $27 round-trip to kids aged 4-11. If you had a family of two adults and two kids, that would cost you $122.

As for rental cars, on Expedia, the cheapest rental on March 15 was $37.05 per day including the steep airport tax, and the cheapest one for May 2 was quoted at $42.51 including tax. Those prices were for one-day rentals. Rent for week, as most people do, and I saw the per-day price can drop as low as $20. So if you think you saved $122 by using Disney's Magical Express, you could have rented a car for a whole week for that much or not much more.

So already we see that renting a car can be cheaper than relying on a bus to and from the airport. Disney also has its own network of free shuttle buses within the resort, which some claim as a hotel perk, but in fact those are free for everyone, even if you aren't staying there, so they can't be counted as a restricted amenity. But it's also true that if you stay off-property and drive at a Disney park, parking costs $14 per day, which hotel guests can have for free.

Verdict: Per day, Disney guests save $14 in parking. Add that to the $22 for Extra Magic Hours, and you now have an added Disney value of $36 per night.

So if all you care about is dollar value off the special Disney amenities, a non-Disney hotel theoretically has to cost at least $36 less than a Disney hotel for you to break even.

The Final Tally

After that, it's about personal preferences. Disney resorts have pools, but so do the other resorts (in fact, the Ritz-Carlton's, which is shared with the JW Marriott's, is larger than anything Disney has). Disney has fine restaurants, but so do the resorts (the Ritz's claim is by celebrity chef Norman Van Aken). Most Disney resorts are substantially closer to the parks, but not always: The Waldorf isn't much farther from the Magic Kingdom than Disney's own Animal Kingdom Lodge.

One can argue -- and many have -- that Mickey's service is several notches below the true white glove service that's normal at most fine resorts in America, and that anyone who has really stayed at a luxury hotel could never accept the cattle-call lobby scrums at the World as being truly luxe. For example, at Disney, lines at cafeteria-style restaurants are common even at the most expensive resorts, and it's also true that Disney resists allowing guests reserve specific rooms while the fancy resorts are more accommodating.

So if you get so much more for your money just a mile or two away, why do people go Disney?

Well, there's the intoxicating sight of the monorail humming past your room. There's the convenience of hopping onto a ferry or even walking directly into a Disney park (something many, but not all, Disney Deluxe resorts offer). There are wake-up calls from Mickey, and Mickey profiles hidden in the pattern of the bedspreads. You can also have your park souvenirs sent to your Disney resort room (provided there's time), and you can also purchase the resort's dining option if you stay there (but that's not always a good deal).

When it comes down to it, the reason many guests give for choosing a Disney resort over a nearby one is that they love that "Disney magic." If you can't articulate what that is -- or if having fine linens and a concierge who knows your name is your idea of magic -- then you get more for your money by staying off-property. But there will always be people for whom being near the parks is about more than money or comparing Disney services to the amenities you receive at true luxury hotels in 2011.

Sure, this is unscientific, but so are your vacation purchasing habits. Besides, a ballpark estimate is the only one that's ever accurate for something as variable as a vacation budget.

What about you? If you chose a more expensive Disney hotel over a comparable hotel just outside the park gates, what motivated you?

Filed Under: Tips & Tricks, Disney

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7 days - TRAVEL LODGE MAINGATE KISSIMMEE FL $216.88 7 days - at cheapest Disney hotel (96.05 a day) $576.30 Come on !!!!! Really! Why should I stay on the property again ?

December 23 2013 at 10:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Emma Paker

There are some very good suggestions here! I definitely agree that the off season is much better. Less busy, less expensive. All around, nicer.

There are some other good things to keep in mind though. I learned a lot from http://quickvacation.net/ surprisingly. Definitely worth checking out.

It’s amazing what kind of deals you can find when you know what to look for, you know?

Anyway, thanks for the well written and helpful article! :)

November 12 2013 at 9:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The on property resorts are a great place for a short trip or first time stay. They often work well when combined as a package deal with park tickets or dining. Check out this article for more information: http://www.dadstravelguide.com/2013/05/21/first-stay-on-disney-property/ ‎

May 21 2013 at 10:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ruth V

In all honesty, you go to Disney World for the activities, not necessarily the hotels. I don' tknow about the rest of everyone, but each time I've gone over there, I could care less where I stay as long as it's on property so I don't have to rent a car to drive everywhere. I rented a car once on property to drive to Kennedy Space Center, and I got lost getting back to my hotel. I praise the shuttle drivers for knowing where it is they're going.

What would I do in a hotel room anyway? Sleep, shower, store my stuff. That's really about it.

By the way, Magical Express to and from the airport is amazing.

March 01 2011 at 4:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I choose to stay at a hotel only 2 miles from Disney that was a lot more affordable and was still very clean, safe, and fun place to be. I stayed at Celebration Suites (A family oriented all suite property) which was very convenient and offered an excellent Location, Price, and VALUE near disney. The rooms were huge and had a full kitchen, a private bedroom, and sleep up to six people which was great for my large family. The staff was very friendly as well as accomodating. For example, my brother had forgotten his tooth brush at home so we called the front desk and they were able to bring us a new one within five minutes of us calling. The hotel also has 3 pools(2 heated) a game room, as well as several barbeque grills which offers a great night of barbeque with the family. Celebration Suites is located adjacent to the famous Old Town Amusement Park which has 75 rides, shops, and resaurants and offers something to do for the entire family. I will definitely be returning to Celebration Suites to have another amazing Disney experience while not spending thousands of dollars on a hotel room.

If you want to go to Disney and save most of your money for the parks I highly recommend staying at Celebration Suites. You will not be dissapointed.

Check it out for yourself:

March 01 2011 at 1:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This is all well and good, but if you are willing to pay for the top tier hotels, then the little bit of savings or extra cost doesn't really mean much. They need to do a comparison of the value resorts with the low price off site hotels. Then there is no comparison. Staying at a Disney Vale Resort will always get you a clear well maintained room...more than cam be promised by many of the resorts just outside the part. You still get the transportation, the extra hours in the park, the convenience of getting back and forth to your resort during the day quickly. I am a value traveler and visit a Disney park several times a year. At Disneyworld, I would only stay at the value resorts. At Disneyland, that is not an option, but there are several hotels actualy closer to the entrance than the Disney hotels and way less in cost...but then again, at Disneyland, you can stay right across the street from the entrance to the park. Even staying down the street, you can be in the park in 10 minutes.

February 25 2011 at 1:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

We stayed on property a few times. The last time we had a bad time at Carribean Beach Resort, a cigar smoker before us, ruined our stay. Couldn't move us it was sold out...
We now rent a vacation home in the area, fill the fridge, swim in the pool...and hot spa, we cook in or eat out...whatever we feel like....the guys cook if we eat in.(they Love it!)and will never go back to a hotel again. under 200.00 a night 5 or 6 bedrooms, plus lots of bathrooms. We LOVE IT!!!!!!

February 24 2011 at 7:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have been to Disney World almost every year since 1973. Sometimes more than once a year. In 1973, the Magic Kingdom was the only theme park open at that time, having its grand opening in 1971.The only two Disney Hotels at that time were the Polynesian Village and the Contemporary. So much has changed over the years, its unbelievable. Visiting WDW now is like visiting another state within the state of Florida. I, too, have stayed at both outside properties and at Disney resort properties. While some of the outside properties are extremely nice, there nevertheless is an extra element of fun staying on the Disney grounds. The more deluxe Disney hotels, however, have gotten a bit pricey over the years especially considering that most people (especially infrequent or first time visitors) don't spend that much time in their hotel rooms or take advantage of the resorts pools and other amenities. Having the convenience of being on the monorail track, or being able to take a boat, bus, or other Disney conveyence is an added bonus. Having access to the monorail to go to your hotell is especially convenient if you are traveling with small children or you just want to hop back to the room or hotel for a while and rest up. Its always nice to be able to jump back on and go back in the parks at night when the crowds subside. There is definitely an extra element of "magic" staying at a WDW resort. Fortunately, having worked for the Department of Defense, I have another option. I get to stay at the Shades of Green, across the street from the Polynesian Village. This hotel used to be the Disney Inn which was remamed the Disney Golf Resort and is now called the "Shades of Green." This is one of two miliatary owned and run properties in the USA. The second one is the Hale Koa located in Honolulu Hawaii. Members of the military and their families can stay at what amounts to a deluxe Disney hotel with all the perks and deals for about a third the room rate of places like the Contemporary, Polynesian, or
Grand Floridian. If you are a member of the military, or worked for the Department of Defense in a civilian capacity, this is one of the best ways to go. This hotel was recently expanded a few years ago to accomodate the increasing demand for rooms. It's a very nice and well run facility. You can't beat the accomdations at the prices they offer.

February 23 2011 at 9:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don't think this is well writen at all.
Do the math yourself!

I just stayed on Disney, with all the extra's and had a great room under $200. I had a view of the water, king bed, all the disney extra's AND it was a 3 day holiday weekend in Feb.

Do the math YOURSELF!

February 23 2011 at 8:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


February 23 2011 at 8:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply