My Disney Top 5 - Walt Disney World Resortsby Chris Barry, contributing writer
My neighbors just came back from their first big family trip to Walt Disney World. Since their return, I've been eagerly waiting to hear their thoughts and tales from their journey to the most magical place on Earth. I can't wait to hear because we're good friends, but there's more to it than that. I do feel somewhat invested in their vacation. After all, whose brain did they pick this past summer during their planning stages? That would be me, of course. Everyone around these parts knows whom they should turn to for this sort of advice.
I should hang out a shingle and offer Walt Disney World advice for a living. I kid though because I was more than thrilled to sift through my extensive mental and physical file cabinets chock full of Disney information and help them out as they prepared to bring their seven-year-old grandchild there for the first time. It's a no-brainer for someone like me. I love talking about Walt Disney World. I loved assisting them in their planning and I'm going to love hearing what advice they heeded, what was right, what may have been wrong, and what they discovered on their own.
Of course, the very first piece of advice I give to anyone interested in a trip to Walt Disney World is to stay on property in a Disney resort. There's plenty of discussion out there regarding the pros and cons of staying on or off property. Over the years I've never even entertained the thought of staying in a non-Disney hotel when I'm visiting Walt Disney World. I've heard all the arguments and quite honestly nothing has swayed me and I can't imagine anything ever will. To me staying at a Disney resort isn't just a part of the experience it is the experience. Right from the start, I bought into Walt's vision of his Florida Project. He wanted a place that was big enough to hold "all the ideas and plans we could possibly imagine." That included the resorts. They were meant to keep you inside the Disney bubble. And I'm more than happy to oblige.
I've long said that the hotels of Walt Disney World are a deal and are more than worth what you are paying to stay there. I'm not saying they're cheap. I'm saying that, for the money, you are getting so much more out of a Disney resort than just about any other resort that I've stayed in. There's a reason the term, "the Disney difference" exists. The grounds are beautiful. The architecture is unique, and often times quite inspiring. The amenities are endless. The service is top notch. The transportation network is extensive. The restaurants are wonderful. They keep you surrounded by the magic and that's the whole purpose for going there in the first place. I don't want to see the outside world and when I head down there, the Disney resorts make it simple to do just that. I escape the real world while I'm there. The total escape is probably the biggest reason I fell in love with the place to begin with.
So where did I tell my good friends to stay? I didn't just say, "Stay on property." I offered them my Top 5 choices of Walt Disney World resorts and why I like them so much; I offer that same list of five to you today.
The only caveat that I will add to this article is that I haven't in fact stayed in every Walt Disney World resort. I've stayed in many of them and I've visited all of them at one time or another for meals, to visit family or friends, or just to have a look around. The only resorts that I've missed so far are the All Star resorts and the Art of Animation. However, based upon what I know and the type of resort I like most, I don't see either one of them affecting the outcome of this particular Top 5. Whether or not I've stayed or visited each one of the 27 Disney hotels on property isn't the issue. This isn't an article about every single Walt Disney World resort hotel. This is, after all, an opinion piece and not a guidebook. Out of all the resorts I've stayed in or spent time in, these are my favorites. So with that said let's take a look at my Top 5 Walt Disney World resorts.
5 – Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort
Caribbean Beach will always hold a special place in my heart. Our very first trip as a family took place there. My wife and I and our then 4-year-old daughter spent a mere four days and 5 nights at Caribbean Beach, and had the picture perfect Disney vacation. Samantha was just the right age and mindset to let the Disney magic sink in. She bought it hook, line, and sinker, and the resort had a lot to do with that. Later on I would return to Caribbean Beach on a very special trip with my twin 10-year-old boys. We had an amazing eight days and, once again, the resort was a huge part of our magic. Caribbean Beach also has the distinction of the only resort I stayed in by myself when I traveled down to represent Mouseplanet for MouseFest in 2008. (If you're reading, MouseFest organizers—and I know some of you are—I'd love to see it return.)
The hammocks on Caribbean Cay are especially inviting. Photo by Chris Barry.
The grounds of Caribbean Beach are lush and beautiful. The brightly colored buildings and all around Caribbean theming are well done and really do make you feel like you slipped away to the islands. It has an amazing pool, shopping, and dining complex, Old Port Royale. It also has one of my favorite secret spots in all of Walt Disney World, Caribbean Cay, an island in the middle of the resort's central lagoon, Barefoot Bay. Take a stroll around Caribbean Cay's pathways, let the kids play on the playground, stop in one of the waterfront gazebos, or rest in one of the hammocks nestled in the trees and you'll see why this spot is so special and why Caribbean Beach Resort is one of my favorite places to stay.
4 – Disney's Wilderness Lodge
Disney's Wilderness Lodge is special to just my wife and me. This is where we stayed on our lone grown-ups only trip to Walt Disney World. So far, it's the only one. With any luck, there will be another. Several years ago, my wife and I went through a particularly rough spell and an important part of us successfully clawing our way back to happiness was a four-day escape to Disney sans children. Those of you out there that love Walt Disney World and have traveled there without the kids know just how amazing a time that can be. I adore my children and I love being with them at Disney, but trust us both on this, give the grown-ups only trip a shot.
The view from our Wilderness Lodge balcony. Photo by Chris Barry.
I had always wanted to stay at the Wilderness Lodge but unless you spring for a more expensive suite, the majority of rooms only accommodate four and we are typically a family of five. This was the perfect opportunity to check out a different resort and I was thrilled that we did. This is an amazing hotel. Walking into the lobby of the Wilderness Lodge you know you've arrived at a very special place. The towering fireplace, the big comfortable chairs, the Native American and Pacific Northwest detailing really do make you feel that despite being in Central Florida you've walked into a grand hotel in Yellowstone National Park. The grounds only reinforce that feeling. The resort is surrounded by forest and sits on the shores of Bay Lake, the only natural lake in Walt Disney World. It was this very same lake that Walt himself reportedly spotted during a flyover and decided that this was where his new Florida Project would be.
The Wilderness Lodge's courtyard leading out to the Silver Creek Springs pool is one of the most beautifully landscaped spots in any resort on property. We were lucky enough to be upgraded to a courtyard view and sitting there each morning having breakfast on the balcony, we knew we had found a new favorite. The beauty isn't just in the architecture or the landscaping. There's beauty to be found in their high-end restaurant as well. Artist Point is one of our top dining choices in all of Walt Disney World. The food is excellent. The wine list is extraordinary and the views overlooking the boulders, gardens, and Bay Lake are breathtaking. We save Artist Point for special occasions and it truly has made them that much more special. I wish we were able to stay at The Wilderness Lodge more often.
3 – Port Orleans Riverside
Caribbean Beach was our maiden voyage. It was the resort where we discovered the magic of Disney together as a family and began our schooling. Port Orleans Riverside is where we graduated and earned our Disney degrees. We spent five years in a row at the Port Orleans Resort. Our first stay was at French Quarter with just our daughter. Once our boys were old enough to come with us, we needed that extra trundle bed that the rooms in the Alligator Bayou section had, and Riverside became our new home. We loved port Orleans Riverside. It was the first resort we stayed in as a complete family. It was the first resort we traveled to with friends. It was also the first resort that my parents came to and I got to share my love of Walt Disney World with them for the first time. It really became a special place for us. No surprise there. It's a fantastic resort.
This 35 foot water wheel reproduction is located at the back of the Riverside Mill at Disney's Port Orleans. Photograph by Donald Fink.
Walking around the meticulously groomed grounds of Port Orleans Riverside watching my kids chase lizards and rabbits was always a treat. Despite its size, at just over 2000 rooms, it's an extremely tranquil place. Due to the aforementioned trundle beds, we were always in the Alligator Bayou section; we love how it is nestled in the trees and the rustic style to the rooms, but the Magnolia Bend section with its more stately looking buildings is just as special.
The architecture of the main building, the Sassagoula Steamboat Company keeps up the resort's Southern charm and the pool complex, Ol' Man Island, is a wonderful place to cool off or just relax in the shade. Throw in the river cruise down to the French Quarter and Disney Springs and special amenities like the horse and buggy rides, and it's no wonder we called Riverside home for so long.
2 – Disney's Polynesian Village Resort
"Heresy," You might be saying right about now. How can I possibly put a Disney classic like the Polynesian in second place on my list? It was no easy task. The first time we stayed at the Poly we absolutely fell in love with it. And what's not to love? It's amazing. It's one of my favorite hotels anywhere in the world. The Polynesian has the perfect setting on the shores of the Seven Seas Lagoon looking out at the Magic Kingdom, The Grand Floridian, and off in the distance the iconic Contemporary Resort.
Both times we stayed here we stayed in the Fiji building. The first time we looked out over the marina and we could see the monorail making its way through the Contemporary across the lagoon. The next time, we switched sides and gazed out as the waves lapped up on the beach between the Grand Floridian and us. Either way, sitting on the balcony late at night or early in the morning was just a little slice of perfection.
The empty lava pool at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort. Photo by Chris Barry.
Captain Cook's. The Lava pool. 'Ohana. Kona Café. Sunset Point. Watching the fireworks and Electrical Water pageant from the beach. Tonga Toast. There are just so many things to love about the Polynesian. I haven't been there since the villas were constructed and I hope that hasn't changed the feeling of the Poly's beach too much. I hope to make it back there someday and fall in love with it all over again.
1 – Disney's Yacht Club
I've often heard it said that when it comes to Walt Disney World, you're either a Seven Seas Lagoon person or you're a Crescent Lake person. I'd like to think that I'm a healthy mixture of both. As much as I adore the Polynesian, three of our most recent stays have been at the Yacht Club and it's really starting to feel like home to us. We prefer the serenity of the Yacht Club to the more boisterous Beach Club side of the resort but that's really a personal choice.
Either Yacht or Beach, the two main reasons for choosing this resort are as follows. The first is the pool. Yes, the lava pool at the Poly is pretty awesome. Sitting in the pool at night and looking out over the beach and across the lagoon at the Magic Kingdom is tough to beat. But, if you've been there I'm pretty sure you'll agree, Stormalong Bay at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club is hands down the best pool on Disney property and quite possibly, the best pool at any hotel anywhere. The hot tubs, the sand bottom, the lazy river, and the waterfalls have all pushed me over the edge and I'm not sure I want to be without them anymore ever again when I'm at Disney.
Some of the Yacht Club's beautiful grounds. Photo by Sue Holland.
The second thing and actually, I think it's really become the deciding factor, is the ability to walk right into Epcot and over to Hollywood Studios. Picture this: you've just spent a perfect night in Epcot's World Showcase. Maybe, you had dinner in Mexico. Then you stroll a little bit around the lagoon and stop in Germany for some dessert from Karamell-Kueche. You position yourself lakeside to watch Illuminations. Afterwards you slowly make your way around World Showcase, not heading for a bus, monorail or car, but that brief walk back home to your beautiful resort on Crescent Lake, Disney's Yacht Club. It's the ultimate convenience and such a beautiful place to take that stroll. A glass of wine and a rocking chair on the veranda of the Yacht Club has become my new favorite way to cap off yet another magical day at Walt Disney World.
As I said in the introduction, I haven't stayed everywhere on property at Disney, and I don't know if I ever will. We've had many wonderful meals at the Grand Floridian but we collectively have the same feeling when we're there, "Nice place to visit but we have no interest in staying here." I'm quite sure I'd love to stay at Animal Kingdom Lodge. I've been there. I've been in the pool. I've even been up in the rooms visiting my cousin who was staying there during one of our Riverside visits. It's a beautiful place. Despite the towering beauty of the main lobby, the amazing African art and the way cool fact that I could hypothetically wake up to a giraffe right outside my window, not being able to walk, take a boat or a monorail to the nearest park drops this admittedly special resort down a few notches on my list. Being able to walk into Epcot from the Yacht Club, or hop a monorail to the Magic Kingdom from the Poly, or even the lovely boat ride from the Wilderness Lodge to the Magic Kingdom kind of trumps the giraffe factor in my book.
With 27 Disney owned resorts to choose from, there's certainly something for everyone at Walt Disney World. I have a good friend that adores her DVC villa at Old Key West. It's a beautiful resort, but it's not really my cup of tea. Disney's Coronado Springs Resort has its die-hard devotees, but for my money I'd rather be over at Riverside. I've documented here on MousePlanet just how much we weren't crazy about staying over at the BoardWalk Inn. People like our own Steve Russo would probably think it's sacrilege to even think such thoughts.
But that's the beauty of it all. There are so many options. You can get a good deal on a simple room at Pop Century or pay $2000 a night for the King Kamehameha Suite at the Polynesian and everything in between. All you have to do is choose. Like I said to my neighbors, and like I always say to people that approach me for Disney advice, the first smart choice is to actually stay on Disney property. After that, enjoy researching and learning about all of the choices you have.
An interesting list, Chris. I'm sure everyone will have their own. Here's mine -
5 - The Pop Century Resort. I'm not usually big on the value resorts, but occasionally budget will demand that I save a buck. The Pop is much better themed than the other values (except possibly Art of Animation which I have yet to stay in). It has a feel closer to the moderates, whereas staying in one of the All Stars felt like staying in the Disney equivalent of a Motel 6. As long as you're looking at your room as being a place to shower and sleep, the Pop is just fine - nothing really special, but still better than staying off property.
4 - Port Orleans Riverside. I think this is the first on-property resort I ever stayed at, back when it was Dixie Landings, and it stuck with me. The mansions are beautiful, and any water view at all is very special.
3 - Animal Kingdom Lodge. It's usually the most inexpensive of the premiums. The theme is so well executed, and depending on your room you can have an amazing view of the animals. It's almost like having a room right in the middle of Kilimanjaro Safaris!
2 - Coronado Springs Resort. I'm a confirmed moderate kinda guy - they're the right mix of comfort, theming and value for me. And my favorite theme is that at the CSR. I usually rotate among all the moderates, but CSR is by far my favorite of them.
1 - The Contemporary tower. There's nothing like looking out your window and seeing the Magic Kingdom, or watching fireworks from your own balcony. And taking a monorail to the parks right from your hotel is just totally cool! I used to stay there back when I could get an AP rate of $100 per night. Sadly, those days are long gone.
And I'm with you on the staying on property thing. While I'm on vacation the last thing I want to see is billboards and chain restaurants and basically anything NOT Disney. I like crossing under that sign and knowing that I'm leaving the outside world behind for a few days.
I guess my take is really different since we're DVC members, but my list is completely different than yours.
#5: Boardwalk Resort -- Another resort with close proximity to Epcot. Nice resort, but not quite as nice as the others on my list. Great amenities, including all the shops/restaurants along the Boardwalk itself. Pretty easy walk to DHS, especially if you're staying at the end of the resort farthest from Epcot.
#4: Old Key West Resort -- the oldest DVC resort, but still fantastic. HUGE villas. The two-bedroom villas are almost as big as our house. Giant jacuzzi tubs in the master bathroom, big living rooms, even spacious laundry rooms in the villas. Boat transportation to Disney Springs, short bus trip to Epcot, great pools. It's also the fewest points per night for the villas, so you can stay longer or get a bigger villa than you can at some of the other resorts.
#3: Kidani Village and Animal Kingdom Lodge -- best theming in all of WDW. Animals right outside your room. Great restaurants in the resort. At Kidani Village, there's parking right underneath the building, so you can park close to the elevator nearest your room and not have a long trek to your car. The only downside here is that this resort is fairly long way from most of the theme parks.
#2: Beach Club Resort -- fantastic location. It's the resort with the closest walk to Epcot, which is about all that needs to be said. Nice rooms, nice decor, nice amenities, especially the restaurants and pool. The only real downside here is there aren't any great views from any of the DVC rooms.
#1: Bay Lake Tower (Contemporary) -- best resort we've ever stayed in, and it's our home property for our DVC membership. Being able to walk to the Magic Kingdom is a phenomenal thing. Viewing the fireworks in the Magic Kingdom from your balcony can't be beat. The Top of the World Lounge is also a fantastic place to hang out in the evenings. The rooms are huge, with two bathrooms in a one-bedroom villa and three bathrooms in a two-bedroom villa.
Great article, Chris. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Walt Disney World resorts. And here are some of mine...
- Absolutely agree about staying on-property. My family and I visited WDW this past September. One member of the team insisted on staying off-property. He was convinced we'd save money. No matter how many ways from Sunday I politely pointed out all the advantages to staying on-property and all the disadvantages to staying off-property, he wouldn't budge. I caved in and we stayed at the Wyndham Disney Springs. It was a nice hotel, but not Disney nice. There was bus transportation, but it wasn't Disney buses. Each bus went to two parks making most commutes longer. At Magic Kingdom, we had to trek out to the Transportation and Ticket Center to board our bus. It took one hour to get from the park gates to our hotel; not very nice when you're tired after a long day.
- My favorite resort is Port Orleans French Quarter. Luckily, I haven't required a trundle and I really like being at the smallest Disney resort. The food court there is surprisingly good! The bus and boat transportation are also very convenient.
- Mrs. Klutch and I stayed at Animal Kingdom Lodge for our couples Disney trip. Disney was offering a very nice discount at a few Deluxe Resorts just after Thanksgiving and we took advantage of it. We were upgraded to a savanna view room. Of course, the theming is spectacular. Boma restaurant is wonderful. But Animal Kingdom Lodge is just so far away from everything. The bus transportation is good, but sheesh, although the location actually isn't that remote, it feels like staying in another county.
- Thanks for the Yacht Club recommendation. I visited Boardwalk during my last visit and thought about staying there, but I'm now thinking if I'm going to spring big bucks on a room, the Yacht Club would be a better choice. The pool does look great.
Good choices Dan. I've been to Pop but never stayed there. It is a cool place, but I just assume spring for the extra bucks and go moderate.
And yes, no billboards, chain restaurants, etc. I don't even like seeing the Hess stations on property!!
Hard to believe after all these years and all these visits, we never became DVC members. Never seemed like the right time for us. We did the tour, heard the sales pitch, got the kids ice cream, took our free ride right to the Animal Kingdom gates and got the free FastPasses, but still didn't sign up that day. The Polynesian Villas seem like my dream DVC come true.
Some people don't want to listen and they insist on staying off property. I commend you and feel bad that you had to cave!
It was awfully hard to leave French Quarter off this list. It is a wonderful hotel. You're right, the small size is a pleasure and the food court is quite good. The beignets are dreamy!
Animal Kingdom's distance from everything else kept it off the list but it is a beautiful place.
Contrary to what the BoardWalk faithful will say, The Yacht Club is a much better choice. The pool is to die for. It's like having your own personal water park. I also don't like having to leave the BoardWalk building each time I want a snack or to fill my mug. And don't get me started on the drunks that we kept encountering over there. We were walking back to our BoardWalk room one night after taking a Yacht and Beach Club bus back from the MAgic Kingdom. We missed the BoardWalk bus and figured a nice walk around Crescent Lake would cap off the evening. It was a lovely stroll until we walked past Jellyrolls and a drunk spilled out the door and got creepy with my daughter!! It was the singularly most un-Disney thing that has ever happened to me down there. NExt day, we were leaving Epcot on our last day of the trip. It was a Sunday in the Fall. We were enjoying our stroll once again until we hit the ESPN Club and there was a football game on. People were spilling out the door screaming at the TV monitors drunk. The second most un-Disney moment I've ever had down there.
Don't get me wrong, it's a beautiful hotel and it has it's positives, but we have no interest in going back, not while the Yacht Club is right there and its the same price.
There's a big problem with the Polynesian, which has prevented us from ever trying to stay there. No "regular" villas there. All the DVC villas in the buildings are studios (regular hotel rooms with a kitchenette). There aren't any 1- or 2-bedrooms. We figured we might as well buy enough points so we could always stay in a 1- or 2-bedroom, so we're not interested in staying in a studio.
The over-water bungalows look fantastic, but it would take us two years' worth of points to get one for a week. We can stay in a 1-bedroom at most properties for about a quarter of the number of points it takes to get a Polynesian bungalow, so we'll always opt for four trips instead of one over a two-year period. If we ever find ourselves not using our points for a couple of years, we might try it, but that's not likely to happen any time soon.