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Many of us, whether we are planning our first vacation to a Disney theme park or are veterans, look for ways to trim our vacation budgets. Recently, a MousePlanet reader posed a question to the Parenting Panel: I’m planning my first Disney theme park visit ever. Should I stay with relatives in the area or pay for a hotel?


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MousePlanet columnist Chris Barry his wife Diane, 11-year-old Samantha, and twin 8-year-olds, Casey and Alex, live on Long Island and are all major Disney and Walt Disney World fans. Chris writes:

I have relatives scattered around Florida, including a cousin that I’m pretty close with in the Orlando area. In the 10 years or so that we’ve been taking family trips to the Walt Disney World Resort, I’m sorry to say, we have yet to visit or stay with my cousin at his home. That doesn’t mean we haven’t seen them when we’re down there. On the contrary, we’ve been with them several times on our trips…but each of those visits have been on Disney property. They’ve met us at our hotel or they’ve come to spend a day with us in the parks. When Hurricane Charley blew through Orlando, their home, work and schools were all without power for several days. So, they came to Walt Disney World, got a great Florida resident deal on a Disney hotel and stayed and played with us for a few days until the power was turned on again.

There’s a part of me that feels a little bad about not venturing outside the Walt Disney World arches to see them on their home turf. It’s not that I don’t want to pay a visit to their home or stay there. I’m sure that would be wonderful. It’s just that, when I’m on a Disney trip,I really don’t want to leave the Disney bubble…at all…not once. We don’t rent a car. We don’t stop at the supermarket and stock up. We don’t go to the outlet stores. We don’t do anything that would even come close to resembling normal everyday activities. I won’t even watch the local news. That’s not why we’re there. We have enough everyday activities here at home. Walt Disney’s intention of creating a separate world for families to visit is really carried out to perfection. It’s a true escape and we want it that way. That’s what we save for and plan for. No offense to my family members, but I don’t want to be in your normal everyday home and then travel into the bubble. I want the bubble.

This thought pattern has existed in us for quite some time, even way back when, on our first family trip when my daughter was only 4. We weren’t anywhere near as Disney-experienced as we are today. Yet, we knew enough that we wanted the full Disney experience. Sure, we could have saved some money by staying at my cousins' home. They were certainly close enough and they had annual passes at the time, so I’m sure we all would’ve packed into their minivan and headed for the parks together. But, as inexperienced as we were in all things Disney, we knew enough that we wanted Disney to take care of us for that week. We wanted to get away from the craziness of home and be together. We wanted a vacation, and nobody can give a family a vacation like Disney. We worked hard for it and we deserved it.

So, sorry cuz, we’ll stay with you another time. I enjoy our walks through the parks together or sharing a good meal with you in World Showcase and catching up. I loved sitting on the beach at Disney's Polynesian Resort with you last summer and watching the fireworks while enjoying some cocktails. But, I wait all year to be in that Disney bubble and, as I said before—no offense—as long as I’m able to, I’m staying in it.

Chris, also known as GusMan, is always planning his next family trip to the Walt Disney World Resort and loves to help others plan their trips, as well sharing his experiences. Chris writes:

When it comes to any vacation, one of the first things to consider after where you would like to go is dealing with lodging. For some, this is the most stressful part of the planning process because there are so many choices that can either make or break your vacation. Sure, there are some vacations where all you need is a bed and a shower, but there are times where your place of lodging acts as your version of “vacation central.”

I have friends in the Orlando area. And, like many friends, they all have at one time offered their home to us if we wanted to stay with them during our vacation—or if we even wanted to extend our vacation by a couple days through their hospitality. Believe me, this can be a very tempting offer considering you can do a lot on vacation with lodging costs taken out of the picture. Not to mention that it is always good to visit with friends that you have not seen in a long time.

Even with that said, you have to really count the entire cost of such a decision versus staying onsite. While there are monetary costs to consider, there are also several things to consider that do not necessarily have a dollar value attached, as well. From my family's past experiences, here are some things to consider when comparing lodging with friends to staying onsite:

  • If you are flying to the Orlando area, unless you plan on sharing your vacation with your friends, and they are able to accommodate your family, you will need to rent a car. That cost adds up.
  • Keep in mind that Central Florida is still a busy area and you need to consider commute time, just like those who are trying to get to work, as well. In other words, if your friends live 30 miles outside of the parks, you can still be looking at nearly an hour of commute time to and from the parks.
  • You might want to consider sleeping arrangements. If your host's home only has one spare bedroom and kids have to resort to sleeping on couches and floors, will that be sufficient for recovering after a day at the parks?
  • If you or your kids have allergies, similar consideration needs to be had if your friends have pets.
  • While lodging might be free when staying with friends, you still need to consider dining options that may include your hosts. Personally, when I stay with friends, I make it a point to pick up the tab when we go out as a token of my appreciation.

As you can see, even with a few examples, "free" lodging comes with different considerations. In comparison, if you think that staying on site might be a more expensive option, or a little less “personal” when it comes to meeting with friends, here are some thoughts that come from my family’s perspective:

  • Using Disney’s Magical Express—Disney’s free airport transportation service—can help you avoid having to rent a car. I’ve always had good experiences with the service and it is my first choice for when I fly in. You can always rent a car for a day or two if you want to venture to different areas within the central Florida area.
  • When staying on site, you maintain in control of your vacation lodging. You can get the room you want, the features you want, at a price you are willing to pay.
  • Sometimes the features of an on-site hotel are a big part of your vacation activity. With themed pools, dining options and other activities led by resort cast members, you have many entertainment options, even if the weather is not cooperating.
  • You can always invite your friends to come visit you at the resort or decide to meet at a park for a day, or even a meal somewhere on property. This gives everyone flexibility to get together without feeling obligated to be around each other constantly. (Helps avoid the worries related to wearing out one’s welcome.)
  • If you have never stayed at a Disney resort, you will see that staying on-site immerses you in the Disney magic and makes it very convenient to enjoy everything Disney has to offer.

While I love seeing my friends when on vacation, I do prefer to stay on property for many of the reasons I mentioned earlier. Even when on a tight budget, I think that not everything can be associated with a dollar value. Ultimately, you have to ask yourself what you really want to get out of your vacation. If you have never stayed on-site, you may find the reasons to do so rather compelling.

Parenting in the Parks columnist Adrienne Krock’s three boys are now 13, 11, and 8. They’ve been visiting the Disneyland Resort since they were each just weeks old and Annual Passholders since their 3rd birthdays. Adrienne writes:

Staying with relatives sounds like a great plan to save a few dollars. But. The first question I consider before making a decision like that: What is the purpose of the trip?

If the primary purpose of the trip is to visit family and the Disney portion of the trip is secondary, it might be a fine option.

But if the purpose of the trip is to have a Disney vacation, I vote to stay in a hotel.

The old saying goes “How are houseguests like fish? After a few days, they both start to smell.” Staying with family brings conditions. Most of us would never treat family the way we might treat a hotel. We might feel obligated to stay for breakfast or return home early in the evening to avoid disturbing our hosts. Staying in a hotel provides much more flexible scheduling options. Indeed, staying in a hotel near the parks makes it much more convenient to take nap breaks during the day and then return to the parks in the evening for a few reasons. The first reason is obvious: Hotels will almost always be closer to the parks than most relatives. The second possible reason? Most vacationers will not feel compelled to hang out at the hotel catching up with the hotel staff, whereas they might feel obligated to stay back to visit with relatives.

While we first visited Walt Disney World, several of our friends happened to be in Orlando at the same time. Some of our friends’ vacations overlapped with ours on purpose, others by coincidence. The biggest issue we anticipated in advance would be priority conflicts. Some friends wanted to sleep in later. We wanted the freedom to pick which parks we wanted to visit and not feel obligated to keep the group together. Having our own hotel rooms made this process immensely easier. We did not need to travel together because we had our own transportation options. We made plans to meet each other for specific meals or at specific parks when we were all ready to meet. Each group could take care of their own priorities. We had autonomy while still traveling “together.” Staying in a hotel gives families a little more autonomy from each other. Looking back on the trip, I hold no resentments that I missed any opportunities or any of my vacation goals because I had to make an accommodation for a friend or family member, but I do have lovely memories from the time we spent together on that vacation.

I allow for a few exceptions to the rule. For frequent visitors, or visitors with more experience under their belts, staying with families instead of hotels obvious stretches the vacation budget much further. I regularly host friends from out of town who travel to Disneyland in Anaheim. They face a few disadvantages staying in my home. I live 30 minutes away, without traffic. What they save paying for a hotel room, they offset by paying for gas and potential toll roads. Hotel rooms offer much more comfortable sleeping options than my couches, floor, antique rollaway bed, and one extra twin-sized bed.

But for friends who own Annual Passes to Disneyland and who visit several times a year, sometimes staying with my family is worth it. If they miss rides or shows, they can catch them on another visit. The time they lose on the freeway, they compensate for because they know the ins and outs of the parks so well. They save time using strategies learned over the years. But even those friends who stay with us from time to time, more often than not, stay in hotels.

It's your turn—keep the discussion flowing!

Visit the Parenting in the Parks forum on our MousePad discussion board, and share your opinions about this topic or many others, or send your suggestions via e-mail. Reader-submitted tips might be used in a future article, and you might be selected to participate in an upcoming panel discussion!



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(Send an email to Adrienne Krock)

Adrienne gathered experience taking children to amusement parks when she worked as a day camp counselor and director. She was an elementary school teacher before she started her favorite job: being mom to her three boys. Adrienne, Matthew, Spencer, and Colin visit Disneyland frequently, usually with Dad, Kevin.