Where to Stay? Part One: The Value and Moderate Resorts

by Steve Russo, staff writer

Are you thinking about where to stay on your next trip? Last year I wrote a column debating the pros and cons of staying at a Walt Disney World on-site resort (On or Off Site?). I truly enjoy those debates I have with myself, mainly because I rarely lose; and when I do lose, it’s usually due to a lack of preparation.

Nevertheless, I want to thank all of you who responded to that column. Many of you echoed my own sentiments confirming that staying on-site is the best choice. A few others offered some very good reasons for choosing the off-site route. There were the solo travelers that typically spend all day, every day in a park using the hotel for little more than a bed and shower. Several responses spoke of the vacation home experience— noting the private pools and game rooms, and speaking of how wonderful these homes can be when traveling with larger groups. I also received several replies from readers who viewed off-site hotels simply as a way to save a few dollars. That might allow them to extend their vacation by a few days or, possibly, squeeze in another vacation where none was planned. They’re all valid arguments in favor off an off-site stay.

However, this is a column centered on Walt Disney World so I’m going to focus on the on-site resorts. (Although… a column with reviews on a bunch of nearby off-site hotels could be fun. I may need a four-week research trip.)

Assuming you’ve decided the only place to stay is on-site, you now have to choose the resort at which you’ll be staying. Thankfully, Walt Disney World offers a wealth of possibilities equipped to match any budget and taste. They further make choosing a resort very easy for you, their guest, by neatly classifying all their resorts into three easy to remember categories: Value, Moderate and … what was the third one? Oh, yeah … Deluxe. Wait … there’s also the Home Away From Home (Disney Vacation Club) resorts which, for some reason, Disney now calls Deluxe Villas. Therefore, there are now four classifications of resorts. Wait a sec… what about the Fort Wilderness campgrounds? OK. Five, count ‘em, five different categories of resorts. What? The campgrounds have cabins as well? What are Treehouses? Not so easy, huh?

So… where do you stay? Are you one of the folks that are gradually trying to stay in every resort on property? Or are you more of the type that finds a resort you love and stays there on every trip? There are reasons to recommend both preferences.

The Criteria

How does one choose a resort? I think we have to start with your budget. After all, if money was no object, wouldn’t we all be in the Presidential Suite at the Yacht Club? It begins with asking yourself what you can afford and, more importantly, how much you’re willing to spend. Just because you can afford a 2-bedroom suite at the Grand Floridian (right around $2,000 per night during peak season, by the way), doesn’t mean you’re willing to spend that much. You need to decide what you’ll allow and start the research there.

The next question has to do with how much space you’ll need; a solo traveler would do quite nicely in a Value resort, but a family of six may have to plan differently. Think about how many beds and bathrooms you’ll need. Do you need an in-room refrigerator? Is a kitchenette or full kitchen attractive? How about transportation? Will your resort allow you to walk to a theme park? Will you share buses with other resorts? Will a rental car be a requirement? All these items will help you make your decision.

I’ve now stayed at a total of seven Walt Disney World resorts: All Star Sports, Caribbean Beach, Port Orleans Riverside and French Quarter, Boardwalk Villas, Beach Club Villas, and Animal Kingdom Villas (Jambo House.) While I haven’t yet stayed in each on-property resort, I’ve visited all but one (if you can believe it, I still haven’t made it over to Pop Century.) I certainly have an opinion on each one of them so let’s take a look at the Disney resorts and see if we can provide some help for someone that’s torn about where to stay. In the interest of space, we’ll start with the Value and Moderate resorts, and then discuss the rest in the next article.

Value Resorts

The Walt Disney World Value resorts are the least expensive resorts on property and include Pop Century and the three All Stars resorts—Movies, Music and Sports. Each of these resorts offers a large number of rooms, as many as 1,920 per resort, which mean you’ll be sharing the resort with a cast of thousands (and thousands.) The swimming pools are themed to the resort (baseball diamond, guitar or piano shaped… you get the idea) and your dining options are within a food court. In-room refrigerators are available for a charge of about $10 per day.

A larger than life Mickey Phone and Foosball game at Pop Century. Photo by Sue Holland.

The rooms can be a bit on the smallish side at roughly 260 square feet. Depending on your point of view, the themes may be called garish or awesome, or anywhere in between. Outside your room, you could have a 40-foot-tall Rubik’s cube or a 35-foot-tall Yo-Yo. Think of the fun of watching the slightly tipsy traveler finding his room on the first night.

The guest rooms are a bit on the smaller side, but functional. Photo by Sue Holland.

Some of that description may sound a bit negative but trust me—that’s not my intent. Everything I’ve mentioned about the Value resorts could be taken as a negative or a positive depending upon your personal taste. Personally, I’ve always felt the Value resort food courts offer quality food with many options at a moderate price, a combination that’s perfect for vacationing families. While not large, the rooms may be perfectly adequate for a family of two adults and two children.

Some of the theming at All Star Sports. Photo by Sue Holland.

A drawback for some is the restriction of four people per room at the Value Resorts. Honestly, I think trying to cram more than that into one of those rooms would be pushing it a bit. In fact, I’d speculate that four adults sharing a room would be rubbing elbows a bit more than they’d like. As an alternative, the All-Star Music Resort now offers a Family Suite, which can accommodate up to six people, plus one child in a crib. To create the Family Suite, Disney combined two connecting studio rooms and did a bit of rearranging and refurnishing.

I’ve had several All Stars stays but haven’t had the opportunity to stay at Pop Century... yet. From all I’ve seen and heard, Pop seems to get the nod from most Value resort fans and many speak highly of Pop’s food court. Indeed, Pop Century received 71% of the vote in my Best of 2009 reader poll—and we all know that is the definitive source for ranking all things Disney.

I guess the deep, moral message I’m sending here is not to judge a book by its cover—or a resort by its decorations or theme. Look a bit deeper and determine if the fun aspects of a Value resort strike a chord with your family.

Moderate Resorts

The Moderate resorts are priced a bit higher than the Values and offer slightly larger rooms and more placid themes (e.g., Caribbean islands, Louisiana bayou, etc.). Disney’s Moderates include the Caribbean Beach Resort, the Port Orleans sister resorts (French Quarter and Riverside) and Coronado Springs. That last one is often referred to as a “convention resort” and you can do with that what you will. Some folks won’t mind sharing the resort with a bunch of business travelers attending company functions while others would prefer to stay elsewhere. Coronado Springs is also the one Moderate resort where I’ve not stayed so I can’t offer up any personal observations there. To confuse matters even more, the reviews I’ve seen run the gamut from “It was a slice of heaven” to “I’ll never stay there again”.

The Moderates are themed in concert with their names and typically offer multiple swimming pools and food options, variations of both counter service and table service restaurants. Currently all the moderates will provide an in-room refrigerator at no additional cost.

Many people consider the Moderate resorts their favorite places to stay. They argue that they are an upgrade over the Values and offer many of the amenities found in the Deluxe resorts, without the higher price. Others contend that the Moderates offer too little over the Values to justify the increased cost and would sooner stay in a Value, or upgrade all the way to a Deluxe. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what makes our world go 'round.

My first on-site stay was in 1992 at the Caribbean Beach Resort, and because of that, the Caribbean will always have a warm spot in my heart. Many complain it’s too big or spread out but that’s never bothered me. There’s nothing like that early morning walk around Barefoot Bay when the resort is just waking up. The area is quiet, the water calm and it’s just a beautiful and peaceful setting. I also became very fond of the background calypso beat and steel drum music playing at Old Port Royale.

One of the quiet pools at the Caribbean Beach Resort. Photo by Sue Holland.

The Caribbean Beach Resort boasts the largest room size of the Moderates at 340 square feet, a significant increase over the Value Resorts. Similar to the Value resorts, the Caribbean Beach is large; it offers 2,112 guest rooms spread across 33 buildings. The buildings are grouped in six “villages” (Barbados, Martinique, Aruba, Jamaica, Trinidad North, and Trinidad South) arranged around the 42-acre Barefoot Bay. Each village has its own pool, white sand beach with hammocks and playground, laundry facilities, bus stop, and parking area.

Understand that there are no elevators in any of the buildings. If stairs are a problem, you should request a first-floor room. A number of rooms at the Caribbean Beach, in Trinidad South, have been themed to a pirate motif. If you or your little one is a buccaneer at heart, this may be for you.

More recently, I’ve had stays at both Port Orleans resorts, French Quarter and Riverside. While I enjoyed both, and can certainly see why each has its fans, I have a slight preference for the French Quarter. Its smaller size, roughly 1,000 rooms versus Riverside’s 2,048, and more compact layout seem a bit more intimate to me. In fact, if you held a gun to my head I’d probably pick French Quarter over the Caribbean Beach and that’s high praise from me (although Riverside came in first with 41% of the vote in the Best of 2009 poll). Both Riverside and French Quarter rooms measure 314 square feet, larger than a Value but not quite the size of the Caribbean Beach rooms.

It's always Mardi Gras at the French Quarter. Photo by Steve Russo.

As I mentioned, I’ve not stayed at Disney’s Coronado Springs resort. It’s also very large at 1,967 rooms and suites. One of the many complaints heard, similar to those about the Caribbean Beach Resort, is the physical size. The resort is contained in three villages that sprawl around a 15-acre lake called Lago Dorado. A moderately priced convention resort, Coronado Springs offers a convention center that houses a ballroom, as well as a full-service business center. The guest rooms here are also 314 square feet.

Coronado Springs Resort. Photo by Alex Stroup.

If you’ve never stayed at Coronado Springs, you need to be aware of some differences in its “food court”, the Pepper Market. It’s much different than a typical food court in that you are first seated and given a card. You can then visit various food stations making your choices and having your card stamped with those choices. When you’ve finished dining, you present your card and pay as you exit. A 10% gratuity will be added to your bill automatically. I mention this because I’ve seen many mixed reviews on this ranging from “love it” to “hate it” so it’s definitely not for everyone. Another common theme is that it’s very easy to over-indulge given the process of grazing for your food at various stations. You’ve been warned.

So there you have it—a brief look at Disney World’s Value and Moderate resorts. Is your favorite among these? I look forward to your feedback so send in your favorites and tell me why you like them so much. For some reviews from your fellow travelers, visit the resort review pages here at MousePlanet (MousePlanet Resort Reviews). As a matter of fact, stop by and enter some reviews of your own.

In the next column, we’ll take a closer look at the Deluxe Resorts, Deluxe (DVC) Villas, Treehouses and the Campgrounds. As always, thanks for reading and send in those opinions.