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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.