On or Off Site?

by Steve Russo, staff writer

While writing an opinion column, one often finds oneself dancing awfully close to the precipice. To put it a bit differently, you should always try to avoid that proverbial “can of worms."  I’ve come dangerously close a few times with topics such as whether or not to bring small children to Walt Disney World. Of course, I never learn a lesson so… for this week’s column, I’m dusting off and updating something I wrote some time ago for my book. It concerns one of the biggest questions you’ll face when planning a trip to Walt Disney World—where do we stay? Similar to the myriad ways of getting yourself from airport to resort, the hotel/motel alternatives are seemingly endless.

Many of you might say that the hotel room is unimportant because all you do is sleep and shower there. Practically speaking, that’s certainly an understatement of fact but I catch the drift—I just think it’s wrong. If you’re not enjoying the amenities of your hotel, you’re missing out on a considerable component of your vacation. Of course, that presumes your resort actually has amenities and you haven’t rented the equivalent of a refrigerator box on I-Drive.

On- or off-site?

Before selecting the specific hotel, you need to answer a single, critical question: Do we stay on Walt Disney World property or off-site? The facts are that most hotel rooms will offer telephones whose buttons have the appropriate measure of springiness; beds that provide an acceptable level of bounciness; pillows with just enough fluffiness; and, typically, all will have indoor plumbing and hot and cold running water—well, most of them anyway. Beyond that, there may be significant differences in size, décor, location and amenities.

The on-site versus off-site question typically inspires some very spirited debate among Disney fans who can agree on almost everything else. Both camps are passionate about their preference and won’t hesitate to tell you why they’re right or threaten to beat the tar out of you if you disagree.

Why off-site is best

OK, you can probably do better than this - a converted jail in South Australia. Photo copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2009.

The area that surrounds the Walt Disney World property is stocked with hotels, motels, vacations homes and rental condos of every size and shape imaginable. The available accommodations will vary widely from a mud-floored, thatched-roof hut to a villa with a screened-in swimming pool and a hot tub in every room.

It’s safe to say that you could probably find a room to your liking that meets your space requirements, falls within your budget, and offers a reasonable drive to Walt Disney World. Because there is a premium paid for staying on Disney property, you should also be able to save some money when comparing your off-site accommodations to comparable on-site rooms. I would suggest that, in most cases, you could stay in upgraded off-site accommodations for a cost comparable to that of a Disney resort—possibly less. More simply said, off-site hotels typically offer more room for the same money or an equivalent room for less money.

Granted, when staying off-site, you will have to arrange your own transportation; typically, a personal or rental vehicle, to and from the Disney theme parks (and Disney resorts, assuming you’d like to visit or dine there). However, many people view that as a positive—being able to come and go on their own schedule without relying on other forms of transportation. There are also those among us, the less than scrupulous barbarians, who will drive their rental cars from their off-site properties and park them at a Disney resort or at Downtown Disney, and then avail themselves of the free transportation available on property—thereby saving the theme park parking fees. These same people spit on the sidewalks, cheat on their taxes, and neglect to push in their chairs when they leave the food court. In days of yore, they’d have been drawn and quartered for less.

Staying off-site also affords the opportunity to take advantage of the many shopping and restaurant options available. You will spend considerably less picking up the week’s supply of Yoo-hoo and Ho-Hos, and/or dining, at an off-site establishment. You will also have many more choices available to you (even though the vast majority of those choices are the ubiquitous chain restaurants that seem to all offer roughly the same food for approximately the same price).

If you are part of a larger group, and/or willing to spend a bit extra, there are a number of off-site vacation homes that offer some truly special facilities. Over and above the multiple bedroom and bath combinations and the full kitchens, there may be private pools, barbecue areas, game rooms and big-screen televisions. These are but a few of the items that can be available based on the specific home chosen. There’s a potential downside in staying in one of these feature-rich homes, however. There can be a significant letdown when you eventually return home and realize your own abode is just a small notch above the Dew Drop Inn and nothing like the palaces others own just so they can rent them to slobs like you.

What’s the bottom line on off-site rooms? With a little research, you can be reasonably certain that you can find accommodations that are comparable in size and comfort to a Disney resort for less money. To do this, you will give up some convenience and that intangible feeling that comes with staying in a Disney resort.
Pay particular attention to the cost comparisons here, however. If staying at an off-site hotel causes you to rent a car that you wouldn’t have rented if you were staying on-site, add that cost to the cost of the hotel when making your comparison. You should also add the cost of fuel and theme park parking.

Why on-site is best

(Before you start jumping up and down, I’m aware that almost everyone that visits Walt Disney World has to work within a budget of some kind. If that budget allows for an off-site hotel, please stay there, enjoy it and skip my ramblings about why on-site is best. But, if on-site hotels are of interest… read on.)

Some resorts are truly spectacular. Photo by Steve Russo.

I’m certainly aware of those wonderful arguments listed above (they are mine after all); they should convince you that staying off-site is the wise choice and to offer up additional money to the Mouse is just unnecessary. With that said, I still maintain that staying at an on-site Walt Disney World resort is the only way to go. Trust me. I wouldn’t lie to you.

Before I convince you that my way is the best way, let’s first delve into the real reason that anyone stays off-site: it’s the money, isn’t it? It’s the chance to stay in a comparable room for less money or a better-appointed room for the same dollars as a Disney Resort. Here’s a very critical question: If there were no difference in price, would anyone stay off-site? I think the answer to this is a resounding “No”—at the very least, a “Probably not."

Themed pools are the norm at Disney World resorts. Photo by Steve Russo.

Now, consider the off-site drawbacks. There’s a distinct lack of Disney magic in off-site hotels. Ah, that Disney magic. It’s difficult to define, qualify or quantify but it’s real. The combination of the resort theme, its amenities, its feel and the way you’re treated by cast members makes a stay in a Disney resort special.

How about transportation? On-site, you can take advantage of the fleets of buses, boats, monorails, and mule trains that are designed to get you around Disney property—all one million square miles of it. Yes, you may have a less-than-stellar experience on a bus or be forced to wait twenty-five minutes for one at some point, but those situations aren’t the norm. If you’re off-site, you will have to incur the expense of a rental car and drive yourself to and from the parks each day—absorbing the additional cost of fuel and parking. You’ll also be fighting traffic and cursing other drivers—all the things you do at home when you’re not on vacation. If you choose to go without a rental car, you’re forced to travel on your hotel’s shuttle to Disney property—a shuttle that typically runs on a fixed schedule (orchestrated by the Marquis de Sade) and you would be required to adhere to it.

Some offer unique designs... Photo by Steve Russo.

My preferred method of touring the Walt Disney World theme parks (which, quite naturally, should also be your preferred method) is to arrive at park opening, spend several hours enjoying gloriously crowd-free attractions and then return to my resort mid-day for a nap and/or a swim. I then return to a park, refreshed, in the late afternoon or early evening. Try that with an off-site hotel. It’ll take you a minimum of three days to reach your hotel from the Magic Kingdom if you’re driving a rental car. At least a week if you rely on the hotel shuttle. Really … as I’ve stated, I wouldn’t lie to you.

What are the benefits of staying on-site? As mentioned above, you are immersed in the Disney experience from check-in to check-out and, face it, these people are so nice to you it’s almost sickening. You can rely on letting someone else do the driving and travel freely on Disney-supplied transportation vehicles. If you do rent a car (or bring your own vehicle) parking at the theme parks is free. Try to get free parking by showing your Larry’s Shady Rest Motel room key.

... and gorgeous views. Photo by Steve Russo.

You can purchase souvenirs anywhere on property and have them sent to your resort at no additional charge. A free service… from Disney, no less! You can use your room key as a charge card anywhere on property. Let’s not forget about Extra Magic Hours that will let you tour a theme park before or after its normal hours of operation without the threat of being detained by the authorities. While touring, you will be surrounded by fellow Disney resort guests only—no off-site riffraff allowed. The list is endless.

What’s the final tally? Stay off-site and save a buck. Stay on-site, be immersed in the Disney magic and have a true vacation from everything in the non-Disney world. It’s your decision.

In a future column, I’ll tackle the equally difficult decision of selecting the right on-site resort for your stay. For now, that’s my opinion. What’s yours?