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The Big Picture

Beautifully landscaped grounds are the rule at properties in WDW, neighboring Lake Buena Vista, Universal Orlando, and on the mid- and southern portions of I-Drive. But the beauty of the area is often offset by the beast of heavier traffic and, at times, higher prices. No matter what your budget or crowd tolerance, there is something for everyone. If you're looking for an inexpensive or moderately priced motel, check out the options in Kissimmee (though that area is no longer limited only to the budget conscious) and, to a lesser degree, on the northern end of International Drive.

Once you've decided on your vacation dates, book your accommodations as soon as possible, especially if you want to stay on Disney or Universal property. Advance reservations are an absolute necessity if you're planning on staying at any of the preferred resorts in town, whether on theme-park property or in Orlando proper.

How to Choose a Hotel & Save Money

You can almost always negotiate a better price by purchasing a package deal, by assuring the reservationist that he or she can do better, or by mentioning that you belong to one of several organizations that receive a discount (such as AARP, AAA, the armed services, or a labor union). The Orlando Magicard can save you plenty of cash as well (this discount card is available through the Orlando CVB at www.visitorlando.com). Even the type of credit card you use could get you a 5% to 10% discount at some of the larger chains. Any discount you get will help ease the impact of local resort taxes, which aren't included in the quoted rates. These taxes will add as much as 14.5% to your bill, depending on where you're staying.

The average, undiscounted hotel rate for the Orlando area is currently about $92 per night double, and that rate in good times can climb up by 5% to 9% a year. The lowest rates at WDW are at the Pop Century and the three All-Star resorts, which, depending on the season, can run from $82 to $179. They're pricier than comparable rooms in the outside world; though they're small and basic, they're still Disney owned and offer the same on-property advantages as Disney's more expensive resorts.

WDW's 2011 value seasons or lowest rates fell from January 2 to February 16, and August 14 to September 29. Regular season rates were in effect from February 27 to March 10 and May 1 to June 24. Easter rates ran from April 17 to 30. Summer rates (only at Disney's "value" and "moderate" resorts) ran from June 3 to August 13. Fall rates were generally scheduled from September 30 to November 18 and November 26 to December 22. Peak rates applied from February 17 to February 26 and from March 11 to April 16. Holiday rates were scheduled from November 19 to November 25 and December 23 through December 31. The same general time periods, give or take a day or two here and there, should also apply in 2012. Be aware, however, that Disney's new pricing schedule breaks down seasonal rates even further to include specific weekends and holidays such as New Year's Day, Presidents' Day, Independence Day, MLK Day, and Disney's marathon weekend, among others. Although the actual dates will shift a little (and will also change depending on the level of hotel you choose -- Disney's deluxe and villa resorts follow a rate schedule that is slightly skewed from what is listed), the same general periods should apply in 2012.

If you're not renting a car or staying at a Walt Disney World or Universal resort, be sure to ask when booking your room if the hotel or motel offers transportation to the theme parks and, if so, whether there's a charge and exactly what it is. Some hotels and motels offer free service with their own shuttles. Others use Mears Transportation, and rates can be as high as $18 per person round-trip (some hotels make these arrangements for you; others require you to do it). On the other hand, if you have a vehicle, expect to pay $14 a day to park it at Disney or SeaWorld, and $15 at Universal (with same-day in/out privileges at all parks).

If you stay at a WDW resort or one of Disney's "official" hotels, transportation is complimentary within WDW.

In or out of Walt Disney World, if you book your hotel as part of a package, you'll likely enjoy some type of savings. The Walt Disney Travel Company (tel. 407/934-7806) offers a number of Disney resort packages.

Outside Disney, you'll probably be quoted a rate better than the rack rates contained in the listings, but you should try to bargain even further to ensure you get the best rates possible. If any apply to you, ask about discounts for students, government employees, seniors, military, firefighters, police, AFL-CIO members, corporate clients, and, again, AARP or AAA, holders of the Orlando Magicard, even frequent-traveler programs for hotel chains or airlines. Special Internet-only discounts and packages may also be featured on hotel websites, especially those of the larger chains. No matter where you end up staying, always ask again when you arrive if there are any additional discounts or promotions available. But never come to Orlando without a reservation: Taking chances on your negotiating skills is one thing; taking chances on room availability is quite another. Orlando is a year-round destination, with a heavy convention and business trade, and international vacationers flock here during periods when domestic travelers don't. If you come without a reservation, you may find yourself extremely disappointed -- or completely out of luck.

In the "Amenities" section of the accommodations listings, I mention concierge levels where available. In these hotels within a hotel, guests pay more to enjoy a luxurious private lounge (sometimes with great views), free continental or full breakfast, hot and cold hors d'oeuvres served at cocktail hour, and/or late-night cordials and pastries. Rooms are usually on higher floors, and guests are pampered with additional special services (including private registration and checkout, a personal concierge, and nightly bed turndown) and amenities (such as upgraded toiletries, terry robes, hair dryers, and more). Ask for the specifics when you reserve a room.

You'll also find counselor-supervised child care or activity centers at some hotels. Very popular in Orlando, these can be marvelous, creatively run facilities that might offer movies, video games, arts and crafts, storytelling, puppet shows, indoor and outdoor activities, and more. Some provide meals and/or have beds where a child can sleep while you're out on the town. Check individual hotel listings for these facilities.

Reservation Services -- You can also book Disney World hotels directly by calling tel. 407/934-7639 or visiting www.disneyworld.com; Universal Orlando properties can be booked by calling tel. 888/430-7333 or 888/273-1311, or by visiting www.universalorlando.com.

Walt Disney World Central Reservations Office (CRO) & Walt Disney Travel Company

To book a room or package at Disney's resorts, campgrounds, and "official" hotels through the Walt Disney World Travel Company, contact the Central Reservations Office (CRO), P.O. Box 10000, Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830 (tel. 407/934-7639; www.disneyworld.com).

CRO can recommend accommodations suited to your price range and specific needs, such as a location near a particular park, facilities that offer supervised child-care centers, or a pool large enough to swim laps. But the staffers who answer the phones usually don't volunteer information about a better deal or the latest special offer unless you ask.

Be sure to inquire about Disney's numerous package plans, which can include meals, tickets, recreation, and other features. The right package can save you money and time if you use all of its features (there's no sense in paying for something you won't use); having a comprehensive game plan in place is helpful in computing the cost of your vacation in advance.

CRO can also give you information about various theme-park ticket options, the airlines, and car rentals. It can even make dinner-show reservations for you at the resort of your choice.

Other Sources for Orlando Hotel Packages

In addition to the Disney sources above, several other travel companies offer packages utilizing Disney resorts. AAA (tel. 800/732-1991; www.aaa.com), American Express Vacations (tel. 800/346-3607; http://travel.americanexpress.com/travel/personal), and nearly all of the major airlines offer vacation packages to Orlando. Give each source a call, ask for brochures, and compare offerings to find the best package for you.

On a slightly smaller scale than Disney, Universal Orlando offers several travel packages that can include resort stays (both on and off property), VIP access to the parks, discounts to other Orlando attractions, and cruises. Airfare and car rentals are also available. You can book a package by calling tel. 800/711-0800 or 877/801-9720. On the Internet, visit www.univacations.com or www.universalorlando.com.

SeaWorld offers vacation packages that include stays at nearby resorts and park tickets. These can be booked by calling tel. 800/423-8368 or visiting www.seaworld.com.

Special Treatment -- AAA (tel. 800/732-1991; www.aaa.com) members can take advantage of special lodging programs at select WDW resorts and preferred parking at the theme parks if they purchase an AAA Disney vacation package or prepurchase their park tickets at participating AAA locations. Note: These cannot be purchased at the parks!

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.