For those of you who tuned into my first post on Disney World, welcome back for the second installment, where the main focus will be on accommodation options (including a few mini-reviews of Disney hotels I’ve stayed at previously), followed by some strategies to make your trip as “magical” and stress-free as possible.
Note: Given Florida’s current struggles to contain COVID-19, now is NOT the best time for Disney. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t kick-start the planning and get all your points and cards in order so you’re ready to book when it is once again safe to go.
In This Post
- A Plethora of Accommodation Options
- 1. Disney-Owned Official Hotels
- 2. Non-Disney-Owned Official Hotels
- 3. Disney Good Neighbor Hotels
- 4. Other Hotels
- One Last Option to Consider
- Tips for Making Your Disney Trip Smoother
- What Else Can You Do Around Disney?
A Plethora of Accommodation Options
Disney World offers a wide variety of accommodation options to suit every family size (meaning you will have no difficulty finding options for families of five or more), style, and budget.
Accommodations generally fall into two types: vacation rentals and hotels.
For some families, vacation rentals are great options. They can provide all the conveniences of a home away from home. You can have a kitchen to cook food and save on the cost and hassle of eating out with kids, an onsite washer and dryer to ensure a clean supply of clothes to help minimize the packing, and more space to accommodate the largest of families.
Choosing this option doesn’t mean you can’t capitalize on some money-saving or points-earning strategies. On the redemption end, you could focus on credit cards that offer cash-back or points redemptions that can be used towards a statement credit. My favourite card for this was the Capital One World Aspire, with its 2% earn rate on all purchases that could be redeemed as statement credits for travel purchases. Unfortunately, this card is about to undergo a significant devaluation, so I will soon have to find a replacement (I’m considering the HSBC World Elite).
On the earning side, see if there is an online shopping portal through which you can earn something extra for the booking. For example, you can book an Airbnb through the British Airways Avios shopping portal to collect 3 Avios per dollar spent.
Sometimes, the same rental property is listed on another travel booking site, like Hotels.com, where after every 10 booked nights, you get one free (and don’t forget to go through Rakuten for cash back as well). And when it comes to payment, consider using a credit card that provides multipliers for travel; for example, Airbnb counts as travel on Amex.
Now let’s talk about hotels. At Disney, hotels fall into four categories, each with their own set of Disney amenities, or lack thereof. How important these amenities are to you will determine which hotels you should consider for your stay.
Disney-owned Official Walt Disney World hotels (over 30 of these)
Non-Disney-owned Official Walt Disney World hotels (13 of these)
Disney Good Neighbor Hotels (53 of these)
Other hotels that don’t fall under any of the above
1. Disney-Owned Official Hotels
These hotels are located on the Disney resort and come with all the bells and whistles of Disney quality and service. They range in price, with some very economical options like a campsite at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort for $80 USD – but if you’re looking for more comfort, be prepared to pay for it.
The appeal of staying at one of these properties comes from the benefits that are included (*denotes changes due to COVID-19):
- Free transportation to and from Orlando airport on their Magical Express Bus service
- Free Extra Magic Hours to spend at the park on certain days (*currently suspended)
- Complimentary transportation within the Disney Resort via bus, boat, monorail or the Skyliner gondola
- Free Magic Bands for the whole family (*to be discontinued as of January 1, 2021)
- 60 day FastPass+ booking window instead of the usual 30 days (*currently suspended)
- Head start in booking dining reservations 180 days prior to the day of check-in (*currently shortened to 60 days)
- Ability to purchase a dining plan (*currently suspended)
- Complimentary parking within the Disney Resort
- Free delivery of Disney purchases to your hotel room
Because of these perks and their proximity to the parks, this category wins the prize for convenience. If you want the fully immersive Disney experience, this is it. The downside is that there aren’t any good redemption options from a Miles & Points perspective to offset the very high cost.
2. Non-Disney-Owned Official Hotels
These hotels are located on the Disney resort, or near it, and share a special partnership with Disney. They offer some of the same benefits as the Disney-owned hotels, like complimentary transportation to the parks, Early Magic Hours, and earlier booking windows for FastPass+ and dining reservations. Marriott, Hilton, IHG, Wyndham and Best Western all have hotels in this category, so if you participate in of any of their loyalty programs, you’ll be able to redeem points for a stay.
In fact, most of my stays have been at hotels in this category because they allow me to leverage my loyalty benefits while also taking advantage of some of the most valuable Disney perks. A few of the ones I’ve stayed at in this category are the Disney Dolphin & Swan, the Waldorf Astoria & Hilton Bonnet Creek, and the Four Seasons Orlando. They are all very family-friendly and can easily be redeemed for with points.
1) Disney Dolphin & Swan
For those looking to earn or redeem Marriott Bonvoy points for their stays, these are two Marriott properties located on the Disney World Resort; the Dolphin is a Sheraton hotel and the Swan, a Westin. The two hotels are located right across from each other, and in fact share a most of their amenities like their dining venues and outdoor pools. Although both hotels have undergone renovations, the decor in the main areas are still a bit dated, but you’re not staying here for its aesthetic appeal after all.
You’re here for its location, especially if Epcot or Hollywood Studios are on your itinerary; Epcot is a 15-minute walk, while Hollywood Studios will take you 20 minutes, or even better, a 7-minute boat ride that embarks and disembarks right outside the hotel entrance. These were two parks on our itinerary, which made this hotel a no-brainer. On our day at Hollywood Studios, we didn’t finish the park until after the fireworks, which was close to 10pm – I can’t tell you how glad we were to hop onto the boat and be back in our hotel room all within 15 minutes!
We stayed at the Dolphin as it can accommodate up to five guests (the Swan can only accommodate up to four). Both are Category 6 hotels, which will cost 50,000 Marriott Bonvoy points a night at the standard rate. Pre-COVID-19, the cash rate was US$200–500, plus a daily US$30 resort fee. Currently, most rates into next year are under US$250 plus taxes, so paying the cash rate could make more sense if you value a Marriott Bonvoy point at 0.6 cents/point (USD). Remember to recheck the pricing regularly, as it often fluctuates and you can rebook for a lower rate.
One other thing to note is that you will see an extra person charge when you confirm the booking. This is an error in their system, as the extra fee only applies if the extra person is an adult. If your “extra persons” are children, the charge should come off when at check-in, but double-check in case the agent misses it.
If you hold Platinum Elite status or higher, you and a guest are entitled to a free continental breakfast buffet (in the pre-COVID-19 days), which can be converted to a full breakfast for $8 per person. My kids aren’t big breakfast fans, so my husband and I enjoyed this perk while they were happy with just a bowl of cereal, some yogurt, and fruit which we brought from a local grocery store beforehand, but these can also be purchased at the hotel’s quick service venue, Fuel.
The breakfast benefit can be used for their Disney character breakfast on the weekends at the Garden Grove restaurant, which features Chip & Dale, Pluto, and Goofy. Normally these types of experiences come at a high price, so this is another great perk.
Room upgrades are also possible; we booked a Traditional Guest room with two double beds (adding a crib or rollaway for a total of five guests) and were upgraded to their Premium Studio King, Larger Guest room upon arrival. The layout is essentially that of a suite, which worked perfectly for some peaceful nights for me and my husband after a long day at the park.
There is plenty onsite to keep the family entertained. They have five beautiful pools and a waterslide, perfect for days between park visits. Family activities are offered throughout the day, including evening movie showings. There is a supervised kids’ club, Camp Dolphin, for kids aged 4–12. If you book a spa treatment or dinner at one of the hotel’s restaurants, you get up two hours at the kids’ club free (normally $12/hour) – great for for a peaceful meal or just some adult-only down time.
Other amenities we found particularly helpful were onsite laundry facilities, a Hertz car rental station onsite (as we decided to venture out to a couple of other attractions), and a 24-hour cafeteria style venue for a quick bite or snacks.
2) Waldorf Astoria Orlando and Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek
We stayed at the Waldorf in 2017. It is located in the Bonnet Creek area, a 15-minute drive away from the Transportation and Ticket Center, where you board the monorail to the Magic Kingdom or catch buses to the other Disney parks. It is directly connected to the Hilton and the two properties share an amazing lazy river and pool system.
We didn’t use points for our stay as we had booked through Amex’s Fine Hotels & Resorts (FHR) program (a perk from having an American Express Platinum Card), and scored a booking for around US$300 per night, which was a great deal especially when combined with the FHR amenities (noon check-in when available, 4pm late check-out, free wifi, room upgrade when available, free breakfast for two, and a US$100 spa credit).
At check-in we were upgraded to a deluxe suite. Children under six dined for free at breakfast, so it was free breakfast for the whole family. To top it off, I used the spa credit for a nice pair of beach sandals and sunglasses for myself. 😉
Both hotels provide a complimentary shared shuttle service to the parks. The shuttle makes multiple stops picking up and dropping off guests from other hotels, essentially lengthening the travel time to get to the parks (up to 35 minutes). A supervised kids club for kids aged 5–12 was available, but it’s quite pricey, costing US$75 for the first child for up to 4 hours.
Surprisingly, the rates at the Hilton are almost the same as at the Waldorf. However, points redemptions for standard rooms at the Waldorf will cost 80,000 Hilton Honors points, while at the Hilton it will cost up to 60,000 points, so between the two hotels, the Hilton is a better redemption.
3) Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort
If you want to add luxury to your Disney experience, then nothing tops the Four Seasons. It is located a 10-minute drive away from the Transportation and Ticket Center, and has its own private shuttle to the parks (with no stops at other hotels).
Aside from the heavy price tag (a standard room runs at US$600 and up), this was hands down our favourite hotel in Disney World. At check-in, kids are given their own little drawstring backpacks with some activities, including a treasure hunt that brings you to different parts of the hotel to collect stamps; collect them all and you’re rewarded with a complimentary ice cream. In the room, they gave each child a bathrobe, tutu, wand, and tiara.
The maximum occupancy for our room was four guests. As a family of five, I wasn’t prepared to pay for a second room so I tried my luck and emailed them asking if they would accommodate a crib in the room for my then-turning-three-years-old daughter (we celebrated her birthday there). To my delight, they allowed it as a one-time exception!
The property is beautifully laid out. Their five-acre water oasis with water slides, a lazy river, fountains, and pools was a hit for kids and adults alike. The kids club is complimentary and great for parents who just need a little “me time” to spend by the pool side or use their spa or workout room. They also feature a Character breakfast on the weekends.
Unfortunately, Four Seasons is not a part of any rewards program. Three nights in a two queen room was going for around $800 (CAD) plus taxes per night, but thankfully, that’s not what we paid. Occasionally, the Amex Platinum Card has promotions if you book through their online travel portal. Last year, one promotion was spend $900+ on a booking and get a $300 statement credit; combined with the $200 annual travel credit, that brought the cost of our first night down to around $400.
My husband and I also both signed up for the TD First Class Travel last year when they had their signup bonus of 80,000 TD Rewards points. This is worth $400 in value when used on their ExpediaforTD portal, so combined, we had $800 which we used to offset the cost of the other two nights.
Four Seasons is also part of the Amex FHR program, but the FHR rates were substantially higher than their normal rates for our travel dates (which is not uncommon with the FHR program), so the cost outweighed the benefit in this case.
If you book any of these hotels, be sure to link your reservation to Disney’s system, My Disney Experience to ensure you get all your early booking benefits.
3. Disney Good Neighbor Hotels
These hotels meet the Disney standard of quality and are within 22km of the resort. They are part of Marriott, Hilton, IHG, Hyatt and Choice Hotels, which makes for plenty of redemption options. From a cost standpoint, they will generally be less than the previous hotel categories.
The downside is that they are lacking in most of the Disney benefits. They only offer onsite Disney ticket sales and information and transportation to the theme parks (which, depending on the property, can come with a fee). Not having the advanced booking windows for FastPass+ and dining was the deal breaker here for me.
4. Other Hotels
If cost is a big factor, then you’ll want to consider one of the hotels that don’t fall into any of the above categories, which can be less than US$100 per night. Points redemptions are lower as well. For example, Marriott has two Category 3 hotels that are a 10–15 minute drive away from Disney World.
The trade-off here is that, once again, they do not have any substantial Disney benefits. Some of them will offer a shuttle service, but many won’t, so you would likely need a car rental or use Uber or Lyft to get to the parks, which would add to your overall cost.
One Last Option to Consider
One option that many people don’t consider is booking a timeshare promotion package. Most big hotel chains have a timeshare ownership program; for example, Marriott has its Marriott Vacation Club and Hilton has its Hilton Grand Vacations. I’m no expert in timeshares, but they do offer some great packages, where you pay a nominal fee for several nights at a timeshare resort in exchange for a 1.5-to-2-hour presentation.
We bought a five-day, four-night package in a studio room for US$199, which we redeemed at the Parc Soleil by Hilton Grand Vacations in 2017, and another at the Hilton Grand Vacations at Tuscany Village in 2019. We paid an extra US$50 per night to be upgraded to a two-bedroom suite that had a fully stocked kitchen, in-suite washer and dryer, and TONS of space, all in a resort-like complex. They are located a little further out from Disney, taking about 20 minutes to drive in, but it was worth it.
The real deal was this: after the timeshare talk, we were refunded the US$199 and were also offered the option of either a US$200 voucher to be used towards a future stay at a Hilton property within the USA over the next six months, or 10,000 Hilton Honors points. So essentially our net spend was $0. Pairing this “free” stay with a few extra nights at another hotel is how we justified our more lavish accommodations, like at the Four Seasons.
This option is not for everybody, as during the timeshare talk you may encounter an agent who is good at what they do and feel persuaded to buy. However, if you can stand your ground and gently advise them that you are not interested at the moment, then you will walk away with a pretty good deal.
Tips for Making Your Disney Trip Smoother
Note: Since COVID-19, Disney has changed some of its procedures (i.e., FastPass+ is currently not available and dining reservations opening 60 days prior) so some of the following tips may not apply again until we come out of this pandemic.
Spread out the days you plan to visit the parks. If you plan to visit multiple parks, squeeze in a day or two to relax between park visits. Park days can be long, especially if you stay for the evening fireworks. A day to sleep in or chill by the poolside can be just as fun for the kids, and help you to recharge for another day at the parks.
Bring your own stroller. You can rent strollers at the park; however, they are made of hard plastic with no cushioning, so they are not the most comfortable. They also all look the same, making it difficult to find yours at the designated stroller park zones where there may be quite a few of them.
If the FastPass+ system returns, familiarize yourself with it and book them as soon as your booking window opens. If you’re staying at an Official Disney Hotel, you can book 60 days out; if not, you have to wait until 30 days out. Either way, you can only book three FastPass+ per visitor beforehand. The early bird gets the worm: many of the popular rides like Aviator Flight of Passage, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Slinky Dog Dash, etc. will book up the first day of the 60-day window. Once you arrive at the park and use your first 3 FastPass+ reservations, you can book more. If you are efficient with this, you can manage to wait only 10 minutes for most rides to maximize your day. And your kids will love you as you speed through the queues!
Map out your route around the park. The parks are huge, and the last thing you want is to book your back-to-back FastPasses at opposite ends of the park. Look at the park map and see what rides are suitable for your kids or that you would like to experience and mark them. Then book your FastPasses in a way that will make sense for you to hit. Don’t forget to look at the parade routes and mark out where you may want to be to have the best viewpoint.
The Rider-Switch program. If you are visiting with young kids for whom some rides may not be suitable, take advantage of this program. For a family, it essentially allows one parent to take older or taller kids on a ride while the other stays with the kids who can’t go on the ride. When the first parent is done the ride, the second parent can then “swap” places and go on the same ride without having to wait in the normal queue. What’s even better is that the second parent can bring along two guests, so your kids can ride twice! Pair this with the their FastPass+ system (when it is up and running again) and you can effectively increase your FastPass+ reservations!
Book dining reservations early. Reservations currently open 60 days out from your park admission date or your stay at an Official Disney Hotel (whichever comes first). Popular venues, like dining at Cinderella’s Castle, can book up within hours of release.
Get a Cast Member to take the photos for you. Photos are a must on any family vacation, but taking them can sometimes be a chore. Disney has Cast Members who will gladly take a photo for you. They carry cameras around their necks and are scattered throughout the parks at the best photo hotspots. If they use their camera, they will scan your admission card so you can pull up your photo online later. It will cost you to download the photos (purchase a PhotoPass Memory Maker package instead and you can download all your trip photos for US$169). If that’s too expensive for your tastes, just ask them to take a photo using your own camera or phone.
- How to carry your admission card. You don’t want to lose this. Not only is it your ticket into the park, but it also is your key to redeeming your FastPass+ for a ride. Some people will buy lanyards and wear them around their necks or put them in their back pockets. What I have found most helpful are retractable badge holders. Get one for each family member and put your admission card inside. Attach it to your belt, your belt rings, your bag, etc.; it makes it a lot easier to scan them at each ride.
- How to not lose your kid. Losing a kid is every parent’s nightmare, so why not minimize the risk by putting a tracking device on them? There are plenty on the market, but the one I’ve been using is the Tile Mate (200-feet range). Simply pair the device with your iOS or Android device, and as long as the tracker is within its Bluetooth range, you can locate your child. Just attach the device on a necklace or on the shoelaces of your child. If you would prefer a longer range, go for the Tile Pro (400-feet range).
What Else Can You Do Around Disney?
Disney World can be a bit overwhelming, so it’s good to take a break and do some more leisurely activities too.
Legoland: This is a great option for those with younger kids. It’s less crowded and is a more relaxed theme park. It is located 45 minutes from Disney World, so you can either rent a car to get there, or take their designated shuttle for a small fee which will take you there and back for the day.
SeaWorld: Despite some bad publicity a while back, this park has made a comeback. With rides and shows featuring your favourite sea mammals, this park was a hit for the kids.
Gatorland: These guys host a guided small group evening tour that takes you through their attractions in the dark. If you have a reptile lover in your family, you won’t want to miss this.
Universal Studios: For the older kids who want a bit more thrill or the diehard Harry Potter fans, this park is for you.
Luckily, when it comes to accommodations, there are numerous options that are part of a variety of loyalty programs, so being able to find one that will suit your needs and budget won’t be difficult. Look at the cost, convenience, and amenities and decide what’s most important for your family when making your choice.
Disney is a magical place and it will be great to visit once again when this pandemic is over. It can be expensive, but doesn’t have to be. To cover your flights, tickets, and accommodations using Miles & Points will involve dipping into multiple reward programs. It takes a bit of time and effort planning your credit card strategy, but it truly pays off. Until then, wishing you and your family many magical memories to come!