Where to Stay? Part Two: The Deluxe and Deluxe Villas Resorts

by Steve Russo, staff writer

In my last column (Where to Stay? Part One), we looked at the decisions involved in selecting an on site resort—specifically focusing on the Value and Moderate resorts. We also took a brief look at the resorts themselves, with an eye toward the pros and cons of each.

In this article, we’ll continue the discussion and focus exclusively on Disney’s Deluxe resorts—which I expand to include the Deluxe Villas as well. One distinguishing characteristic of Deluxe resorts is inside access to the rooms—which is to say your room door is in an inside hallway rather than facing outdoors or in an outdoor breezeway (although there are exceptions to this such as Old Key West and Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa). More succinctly, it’s a hotel versus a motel although I’m not really sure if that’s an official definition. No worry, it’s my column so I can create my own definitions whenever needed. The Deluxe resorts also offer larger rooms that may accommodate more people, are (usually) in better locations, and offer a balcony or patio and more amenities… of course, this comes at a higher price. No surprise there.

The Fort Wilderness Resort and Campgrounds contain cabins, which Disney characterizes as Moderate accommodations. Because of that, and the fact I recently devoted an entire column to Fort Wilderness (Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground), I won’t be discussing the cabins in this article.

Deluxe Resorts

The Deluxe resorts can be categorized, at least partially, by their location:

  • The Monorail resorts include the Polynesian, the Contemporary and the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa.
  • The Epcot resorts include the Boardwalk Inn and the Yacht and Beach Clubs.
  • The Lodges include the Animal Kingdom Lodge, which is near, but not within walking distance to, Disney’s Animal Kingdom; and the Wilderness Lodge, which is near to and classified as a Magic Kingdom resort but, again, not within walking distance.

I’m including the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) resorts in the Deluxe category because in my opinion they fit best there. I also include them in Deluxe because they’re not for the exclusive use of DVC members. Walt Disney World offers a chance to rent (for cash) rooms at the DVC resorts—once referred to as Home Away From Home resorts but now called Deluxe Villas. You also have the option of “renting points” from a DVC member and using those points for a stay in a DVC resort. The DVC resorts offer rooms in several sizes including Studio, one and two bedroom, and the Grand Villa (which sleeps twelve). All offer some version of kitchen facilities as well, from a kitchenette in the Studio to a full-sized kitchen in the others. All but the Studio offer an in-room washer and dryer as well.

The DVC resorts, for the most part, exist as a section of an existing Deluxe resort. The Boardwalk Villas share a lobby and facilities with the Boardwalk Inn. Ditto for the Beach Club and Beach Club Villas, Wilderness Lodge and Wilderness Lodge Villas and, to a lesser extent, the Animal Kingdom Lodge and Animal Kingdom Villas (now broken up into Jambo House and Kidani Village.) Bay Lake Towers is a DVC property adjacent to the Contemporary. The exceptions to the shared space principle include the first on-site DVC property, Old Key West, as well as the newer Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa.

The Deluxe and Deluxe Villas resorts typically offer multiple themed pools and multiple dining options that would include some type of fast food (counter service) and one or more sit down restaurants—table service in Disney’s parlance.

So… assuming you’ve decided to cash in the kids’ college funds and stay at a Deluxe resort, how do you pick one?

Similar to the Value/Moderate discussion, price will certainly be a consideration. I refuse to discuss specifics because they seem to vary with the season, type of room, view, and phase of the moon (just kidding about that last one.) The prices do seem to jump all over the place and change frequently but, in general—I hate that phrase because you should almost never believe what follows—the “Lodges” (Wilderness and Animal Kingdom) will be less expensive than the theme-park resorts. The same will often hold true for the “isolated” resorts: Old Key West and Saratoga Springs.

I was once told that homes in New Jersey would increase in value by $10,000 to $20,000 per mile as you moved closer to New York City. A similar structure is at work here; as you move toward the theme park resorts, things get a bit pricier. As every real estate agent will tell you: it’s all about location, location and location.

Let’s take a closer look at each resort starting with the…

Magic Kingdom Resorts

The Magic Kingdom resorts have a lot to offer, not the least of which is monorail travel from your resort to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot (via a transfer at the Transportation and Ticket Center). They also boast some excellent restaurants, fine beaches and themed swimming pools. If you get a little lucky, you could also wind up with a room offering a view of Cinderella Castle—not too shabby.

The Contemporary Resort, and its sister DVC property, Bay Lake Tower, are located between Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon—and they’re on the monorail loop. In fact, the monorail comes right through the Contemporary, which definitely adds a coolness factor as well as a degree of convenience. From the Contemporary, one could also walk to the Magic Kingdom, which is a very nice touch.

The Contemporary Resort and Bay Like Tower to the left. Photo by Steve Russo.

The Contemporary is home to a number of fine dining establishments that include everyone’s choice for character meals, Chef Mickey’s. It also houses the California Grill, a signature dining establishment that boasts a magnificent view of the Magic Kingdom from the Contemporary’s top floor. It would seem that the Contemporary (and Bay Lake Tower) “has it all." The only drawback is the rather austere theming. What was once considered a somewhat futuristic design when the resort opened in the 1970s now appears to be a bit plain. That’s a personal opinion that I’m sure is not shared by all—but it’s my opinion.

Austere? Just my opinion. Photo by Steve Russo.

The Polynesian Resort, or “the Poly” as it’s affectionately called by its many fans, is at the opposite end of the theming perspective from the Contemporary. As soon as you step on the grounds or into the lobby, you’ll feel as if you just stepped off a plane or boat onto a tropical isle. Palm trees, Tiki torches, lush vegetation and the lei around your neck will transport you there. I’ve noticed a fierce loyalty within the fans of the Polynesian. It seems that once you stay there, you’ll be back.

It doesn't get any prettier than the Polynesian at sunset. Photo by Steve Russo.

The Polynesian, like the Contemporary, has its own monorail station. It also boasts several dining establishments including the very popular ‘Ohana.

The last of the monorail resorts is the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. It wasn’t the first, but this sprawling resort on Seven Seas Lagoon is often thought of as Disney World’s standard of elegance. The resort has a turn-of-the-century Victorian theme and offers one of most picturesque main lobbies you’ll find anywhere.

The Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. Photo by Steve Russo.

Fine dining is plentiful here as the Grand Floridian offers the rave-inducing Victoria & Albert’s as well as my personnel favorite, Narcoossee’s… among several others. You can’t go wrong at the Grand Floridian but a common objection is that the resort seems to be a little haughty. There may be a bit of truth there but most folks that stay there and enjoy it will tell you that claim is unfounded.

Epcot Resorts

OK. You’ll probably get a bit of a biased opinion from me here, mainly because I’m a founding father and card-carrying member of the Crescent Lake Snobs. Nevertheless, there is a lot to recommend this area. Epcot provides an entrance—the International Gateway— that’s only a short walk (or boat ride) from the Boardwalk, Beach Club or Yacht Club lobbies. As an added convenience, there’s a walking path to Disney’s Hollywood Studios as well. This walk, measuring about .8 miles from the Boardwalk, is a bit longer, but walking is a real time-saver… and good exercise to boot. In any case, if the walk is not for you, boat transportation is always available.

This area also boasts some fine entertainment options that include the various magicians, musicians and jugglers that entertain on the Boardwalk each evening and the dueling pianos at Jelly Rolls. Additionally, the Crescent Lake resort area also boasts myriad dining choices including the ESPN Club, Kouzzina, the Flying Fish and Big River Grill and Brewing Works on the Boardwalk; the Captain’s Grill and Yachtsman’s Steakhouse at the Yacht Club; and the Cape May Buffet at the Beach Club. We also can’t forget our sweet tooth with the Boardwalk Bakery, Seashore Sweets and everybody’s favorite, Beaches & Cream.

The Boardwalk, both the Inn and Villas, sport a turn-of-the-century feel (that would be turning from the 19th to 20th century lest I confuse everyone) reminiscent of the old Coney Island Boardwalk. In fact, the Boardwalk’s main pool is named Luna Park.

The Boardwalk is beautiful when lit for the evening. Photo by Steve Russo.

The theming across the lake is a bit different with that Cape Cod feel at the Beach Club and a marina motif at the Yacht Club. In addition to being adjacent, the Yacht and Beach Clubs also share their main swimming pool, Stormalong Bay. To call it a “swimming pool” is not doing it justice—it’s really closer to being a small water park.

Stormalong Bay at the Yacht and Beach Clubs. Photo by Steve Russo.

The Yacht Club marina. Photo by Steve Russo.

The Lodges

The Wilderness Lodge does an exceptional job of transporting you to the Pacific Northwest, without leaving Florida. It’s themed for a lodge in Yellowstone and boasts a lobby with totem poles, a huge stone fireplace (with a Hidden Mickey), a waterfall and chirping crickets. Wonderful rooms, themed restaurants and boat transportation to the Magic Kingdom are just a few reasons to recommend this resort. Even if you don’t stay here, I offer a strong recommendation to pay a visit for a quick meal or just to walk around and take in the theming. It’s worth your time.

The Pacific Northwest? Nah! Just Disney. Photo by Steve Russo.

The Animal Kingdom Lodge is now broken into two properties: Jambo House is the “old” Lodge and the nearby Kidani Village is the newer DVC property. When you first step into Jambo House’s cavernous lobby you’ll be immediately reminded of the Wilderness Lodge. This is a tribute to Peter Dominick, the architect for both facilities. The difference between these two six-story lobbies is in the details. Here, that Pacific Northwest feel is replaced by the sights and sounds of Africa. Authentic artifacts are strewn throughout the lobby area and can occupy a good chunk of your time taking them all in. Where the Wilderness Lodge boasts an indoor stream and waterfall, Jambo House has a fire pit—and offers views out to several savannas boasting giraffe, zebra, Ankoli cattle, wildebeest and much more.

This Igbo Ijele mask is one of many artifacts you'll find in the Jambo House lobby. Photo by Steve Russo.

Kidani Village is a short walk, roughly .4 miles, from the Jambo House lobby. When you enter, you’re struck immediately by the similarities although Kidani’s lobby is a bit smaller.

I managed to catch a bit of a "horse" race from my balcony. Photo by Steve Russo.

The Wilderness Lodge offers some fine dining and interesting fare at Artist Point; as well as a more rambunctious dining experience at Whispering Canyon Café. Jambo House offers what are arguably two of the finest restaurants in the World: Jiko – the Cooking Place (and, yes, I call it the “Eating Place”) offers an eclectic menu with a bit of elegance. Boma is a very popular buffet that features a taste of Africa. I can heartily recommend both of these restaurants.

Not to be outdone, Kidani Village offers Sanaa, a restaurant that will provide a more casual setting with an Asian-themed menu.

We can’t conclude our discussion of the Animal Kingdom Lodge properties without mention of the many rooms that provide savanna views. It’s truly a unique and wonderful experience to step outside on your balcony to take in the animals feeding or at play.

The Other Resorts

Old Key West Resort is the original Disney Vacation Club property. It’s a sprawling resort that features buildings themed to its name and some of the largest rooms and balconies on property. Views can range from waterways and woods to the Lake Buena Vista Golf Course, which surrounds and runs through the property.

Old Key West, like the Polynesian, has a cadre of very staunch supporters—many of whom are the original DVC Members who bought in “way back” in the early 1990s. In my opinion, it’s a fine resort that offers great rooms, facilities and dining but suffers a bit from a lack of transportation options. There’s a boat that can run you to Downtown Disney but you’ll be riding a bus to all four theme parks, That’s not terrible but it is a shortcoming compared to the Magic Kingdom or Epcot resorts… unless of course, you have a car.

Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa is another sprawling DVC property located across the water from Downtown Disney. It’s similar in many ways to Old Key West but is themed to the horseracing Mecca in Upstate New York. I live very near Saratoga Springs and have visited many times, and I’ve spent a week at Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa. While I can certainly notice the horseracing theme and recognize the various names used around property (Congress Park, the Paddock, etc.), I just didn’t get a Saratoga feel there. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and most people wouldn’t have the comparison aspect I have so you can disregard that statement if you wish.

The Treehouse Villas are very cool. Photo by Steve Russo.

I liked Saratoga Springs Resort a lot. It has some very fine rooms and facilities and the added coolness of the Treehouse Villas but… (you knew there was a “but”, didn’t you?) I had the worst bus transportation experiences ever. Crowded buses, lengthy waits and long delays were the norm during the week I was there. I have since spoken with a Disney Transportation manager that expressed concern and detailed the many steps being taken to improve the transportation system there. Things may have improved since my stay in 2009 but, until I hear otherwise, my advice would be to have a car at your disposal.

Space prevents me from giving more than a mention to the other on-site properties: the Swan and Dolphin resorts or the Downtown Disney area hotels. That’s another column unto itself.

I hope that these most recent two columns have provided a bit of a resort overview for you. Maybe you read something that might cause you to look a bit closer at a specific resort or, perhaps, book a night or two. I know that while a certain resort might be a bit pricey and preclude a week there, the concept of spending 6-nights in a Value followed by two in a Savanna View room at Jambo House (or a magic Kingdom view at the Contemporary) might be do-able. My only advice would be to book the Deluxe resort toward the end of your stay. Moving from a Value to a Deluxe is usually pretty cool; going the other way, not so much.

Lastly, you should check out the reviews of your fellow guests here at MousePlanet’s Hotel Review section and, while you’re there, take the time to complete a review of your own.

As always, the preceding has been lots and lots of my opinions but… I’d love to hear yours. Where do you like to stay? Where would you stay if money was no object? Let me know and thanks for reading.