Staying at a Disney hotel or Universal Resort hotel: Is it worth it?

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We get a lot of messages and questions from people planning a holiday to Orlando asking what ‘on-site Disney World hotels on property’ actually means and what the on-site Universal resort hotels are? On the other end of the spectrum, others believe that staying on-site at Disney or Universal is the only way to book accommodation if you want to visit the theme parks – but of course, this isn’t the case. It’s fair to say the accommodation choices in Orlando are varied and more than a bit confusing… but hopefully we can point you in the right direction!

Guide to Universal and Disney World hotels on property – and off…

In this post, we cover different examples of accommodation in Orlando. As a general rule, if you hope to save money, staying off-resort (which means in Orlando, within driving distance of the theme parks) will likely be the cheaper option, but there are some deals to be had by staying at a Disney or Universal Resort hotel. Plus, staying on-resort has a lot of perks. It really depends on what you have in mind for your trip to Orlando and how you want to spend your budget.

This forms part of our series of Orlando and Disney Mini guides. Deciding on accommodation will be easier if you know exactly what you want from your trip to Florida. It might be worth taking a look at our Disney Trip Planner or our two-week-Orlando sample itinerary if you need any guidance or suggestions for your plans in Orlando.

Cover image: Joel. This post contains affiliate links.

Staying on-site at Disney or Universal resorts

What is an on-site Disney Resort hotel and a Universal resort hotel?

guide to orlando
Universal’s Cabana Bay Resort (image: Universal)

First thing to point out – staying at a Disney or Universal Hotel does not mean that your hotel is inside the park entrance gate. You will still need a separate admission ticket for the theme park and most hotel packages do not include entry tickets. Don’t get me wrong, your hotel will be very close to the action, but you won’t be able to just pop to Diagon Alley for a chocolate frog whenever you feel like it. There is some confusion about this so I’m glad we cleared that up…

On-site hotels at Walt Disney World and Universal, are hotels that are situated on theme park-owned property, in close proximity to the parks and with their own (free) transport for guests to use. There are 25* different Walt Disney World resort hotels, ranging from moderate priced (equivalent to 2 star) to Deluxe (equivalent to 5 star) and seven hotels at Universal Orlando, ranging from value (3 star) to premier (5 star). That’s a lot to choose from! There is also a choice of ‘Disney Partner Hotels’ to add to the list, but we explain more about these further down the post.

*The number of Disney hotels open for guests varies at any one time, but 25 is a good number to work to.

Is it worth paying extra for a Disney hotel or a Universal Orlando hotel?

Resort hotels at the major theme parks do come at a slight premium for Orlando, where you can get a decent hotel room for £45 a night, but they also offer some great perks. These include Early Park Admission (at Universal) and Extra Magic Hours (at Disney) – essentially, this is exclusive time in the park reserved for resort guests only. This is great if you are desperate to go on the most popular ride before the gates open and the queues start to grow. It’s worth noting that both extra-hour programmes apply only to specific parks at specific times (so, not every park, every day) . A schedule of which park will be opening earlier or later each day will be given to you when you check in to your hotel.

*NOTE: During the Covid-19 restrictions, extra park hours have been restricted. Check the official websites at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando for the most up-to-date information.

Free transport at the theme parks

guide to orlando
Resort transportation at Walt Disney World (Photo: Scott Thomas)

The other big bonus for choosing accommodation at a resort hotel is that you can make use of the free resort transportation to get to and from the parks. Depending on where you are staying, this could either be a bus, tram, train, boat or even a cable car! The hotels at Universal Orlando are also an easy walk to the park entrance and for a bit of fun you can even hitch a ride on a rickshaw (*if you do this, a $5 tip per person is recommended since these are independent of the park).

TAKE A LOOK AT THIS RESORT Vs NON-RESORT COMPARISON: virginholidays.co.uk offer seven nights in Orlando from £935 per person. This includes Virgin Atlantic economy flights from Glasgow to Orlando, room-only accommodation at Disney’s All Star Resorts with car hire included.

This is £260 more than the same package, staying at a non-Disney resort hotel (this is defined below). No park tickets are included in either package.

Watch my video on how to choose a Disney Resort Hotel:

A NOTE ABOUT PARKING at RESORT HOTELS

Even if you have your own hire car and don’t take advantage of the free transportation, parking is free at Disney Theme Parks for all resort guests. This means you can save a lot of money on parking fees depending on how many times you plan to go. As an average, if you are aiming for three days at Universal Orlando and five days at Walt Disney World, general parking charges will be $170 ($23 per day at Universal, $25 at Disney if you are staying off property). Parking is free at Disney Springs and the Disney Water parks, and after 6pm at Universal for everyone.

What to watch for: NOTE that parking at your hotel may not be included in your room fee so definitely check before booking. As a guide, self-parking at Universal’s Sapphire Falls is $25 per night. At Disney’s Port Orleans Hotel it’s $20 per night, at Disney’s Grand Floridian it’s $25 per night.

Do you need a car in Orlando? We cover this in a separate post, click here.

Advance use of FastPass+ for resort hotel guests

Notice: During Covid-19 restrictions, some Fastpass+ services may not be in operation. Check the My Disney Experience app for updates

If you are staying at a Disney Resort Hotel, a big bonus is the opportunity to make your FastPass+ reservations 60 days in advance. This gives you a big advantage as you can reserve prime times to ride the busiest attractions before non-resort guests. I didn’t know this the first time I stayed at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge and as a result we weren’t able to ride the Avatar: Flight of Passage or the Na’vi river journey at all, because the lines were over three hours long all day…

You can still make FastPass+ reservations if you’ve purchased your park tickets in advance and linked them to your My Disney Experience app, but only 60 days in advance. So resort guests do enjoy that small advantage.

We explain FastPass+ and clear up a host of other confusions on our post about Orlando’s FAQs.

NON-DISNEY HOTELS AND WHAT DOES ‘RESORT’ MEAN?

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The Hilton Orlando is on Bonnet Creek, within the Walt Disney World area(Image: Hilton)

When searching for hotels within the Disney resort, options such as Bonnet Creek and Lake Buena Vista will come up as being within the Disney property. This is technically true, Disney own 43 square miles of land in Orlando and not all of it is covered with colourful attractions. There are often great deals to be had at these hotels, some only ten or 15 minutes from the Walt Disney World entrance. A good example is this holiday village, a few miles from Walt Disney World and these family holiday villas which are situated at the entrance to the Disney resort.

However, only on-site ‘Walt Disney World Resort Hotels’ include all the benefits we highlighted above, so note that if you do have a car, parking charges may apply both at your hotel as well as at the parks, making that ‘bargain’ deal suddenly less attractive.

TIP: Do read the small print as the definition of ‘children’ can also vary between hotels, some consider 12-years and above an adult, and others allowing a child price up to age 19. Find out more about Walt Disney World Resort Hotels here.

What is a Disney Partner hotel and do they have theme park perks?

But wait… there is ANOTHER type of Disney accommodation to consider, because nothing is ever simple around here!

Through your research, you may have come across Disney Partner Hotels. This group of hotels are independently owned, but adhere to Disney’s high standards. The Disney Partner hotels are all big named hotel brands, located around Walt Disney World and Disney Springs. Some even offer exclusive Disney services, such as free transport to the parks, on-site character dining, extra magic hours and 60-day FastPass+ privileges – but can work out cheaper than staying at an equivalent Disney Resort hotel.

However, in my experience, if budget is your main priority, it is actually often cheaper to stay on-resort at Disney than at a partner hotel. I’ll explain why:
Value hotels, such as Disney’s all-star music resort start from £60 per night. These include all the epic Disney perks and are the equivalent of a 3-star hotel. Plus, you can find seasonal deals like free days, hotel+park packages and limited edition MagicBands, making the overall cost of your holiday cheaper.

disney partner hotel
Disney’s Polynesian Village (Image: Jeff Krause)

However, if you are looking to stay at a more luxury, Deluxe, hotel for your trip, a Disney Partner hotel will offer premium services for a third of the price of a Disney Resort hotel. Take a look at this:

Rooms at the five-star partner hotel, Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort start from £138 a night. As a comparison, Disney’s Polynesian Village five-star Resort costs £302 a night. It’s fair to say that Disney’s Polynesian Village is a more exciting resort, connected to the theme parks by speedy monorail, boat and bus transfers. However, Dolphin is undoubtedly an impressive hotel with luxury rooms, 17 restaurants, five swimming pools, a white sandy beach and a luxury spa – so not exactly shabby in comparison. Plus, guests staying at the Walt Disney World Dolphin partner hotel can dine with Disney Characters on site at Garden Grove cafe, book FastPass+ 60 days in advance and have their reservation linked in the My Disney Experience app. This resort also has a direct bus transfer to Walt Disney World (most other partner hotels share a shuttle to the parks).

disney dolphin partner hotel
Walt Disney World Dolphin is the most popular Partner hotel (Image: Inside the Magic)

TOP TIP: For obvious reasons, Walt Disney World Dolphin (and its sister hotel, Swan) are among the first hotels at Disney to get completely booked out, so if you decide to go with one of these partner hotels, be ready to book as soon as you have secured your flights.

DISNEY AND UNIVERSAL ROOMS ARE CHEAPER THAN YOU THINK

guide to orlando
Stay at the mouse house (image: passportstamps.uk)

Staying ‘at Disney’ does sound like the dream but that doesn’t mean it’s out of your reach, even if you are planning your trip to Orlando on a budget.
In fact, AttractionTickets.com offer rooms starting at £60 per night, at both Disney and Universal resorts, so it’s worth checking out all the options available during your visit.

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One last tip for booking an off-property hotel

If you decide to stay in a non-Disney or Universal hotel, check the location and access details. Often hotels advertise a free shuttle to the theme parks, but these can often serve three or four hotels making your actual journey time twice or even three times as long as it would be if you self-drive. Or, they may only serve one stop, such as Magic Kingdom. You will then need to use the (free) Disney transportation to reach a different park (such as Animal Kingdom). This can add another ten or fifteen minutes to your journey.

More Orlando planning Mini Guides

What is the best hotel at Universal Orlando?

What else is there to do in Orlando, other than the theme parks?

Where to start when planning a holiday to Orlando? Take a look at our Orlando two-week sample itinerary and our ultimate Disney Trip Planner.

Where to buy the best Disney merchandise in the UK before your trip and SAVE money

How much does it REALLY cost to go to Disney World.

Where to buy Orlando Theme Park tickets and get the best deals in advance

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