"Official" Hotels in Lake Buena Vista
These properties, designated "official" Walt Disney World hotels, are located on and around Hotel Plaza Boulevard, which puts them at the northeast corner of WDW. They're close to Disney Springs. The boulevard has been landscaped with enough greenery to make it a contestant for Main Street, U.S.A.
Guests at these hotels enjoy some WDW privileges, including free bus service to the parks, but be sure to ask when booking which privileges you'll get, because they do vary from hotel to hotel. Their locations put you close to the parks, and even closer to the action of Downtown Disney, but, unlike the resorts on WDW property, which occupy their own completely separate areas, the hotels here are set along a tree-lined boulevard.
Another perk of the "official" hotels is that they generally offer a less intense Mickey ambience, although some do offer character breakfasts a few days each week (call the reservations line for details and schedules). Decide for yourself if that's a plus or a minus.
Best for: Visitors who want to stay close to Disney (and take advantage of many of the perks associated with staying at one of Disney's resorts) without having to pay as high a price tag as those staying right on property, and those who prefer a more central location that ensures they can easily access Orlando's various offerings with ease and are not relegated to remaining solely at the Mouse's House.
Drawbacks: Its proximity to Disney Springs (and all roads leading to Disney's theme parks and attractions) ensures that traffic is often very congested. Its popularity (rooms here book up well in advance) also ensures that area shops and restaurants remain busy from midafternoon (earlier if the weather is poor) until closing, which translates into a lengthy wait to dine (especially when staying here during peak season).
Around Lake Buena Vista
The hotels in this section are within a few minutes' drive of the WDW parks. They offer a great location but not the Disney-related privileges given to guests in the "official" hotels, such as Disney bus service and character breakfasts. On the flip side, because you're not paying for those privileges, hotels in this category are generally a shade less expensive for comparable rooms and services.
Best for: Visitors on a tighter budget will find that their choices are far greater the farther they venture from Disney. Those not concerned with financial constraints but who simply wish to remain farther away from all of the action (and traffic) associated with staying near Disney, or those who may only be spending a small amount of time with Mickey, will find an array of upscale, recreation-rich accommodations from which to choose.
Drawbacks: Staying farther away means having to either drive to the parks (and pay the hefty parking fees) or take a shuttle (which may or may not be free, but is definitely on a predetermined schedule that you will have to follow to the letter if you want to get back to your hotel).
In the Kissimmee Area
This stretch of highway -- U.S. 192, also known as Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway -- is within close proximity of the Disney parks. A revitalization of the area has added such features as extrawide sidewalks, streetlamps, highway markers, and widened roads to make it a more friendly and appealing area to stay and play. Traffic here can nevertheless be frustrating, especially when you are trying to cross the street. Budget hotels and restaurants abound, though a few higher-priced luxury resorts are starting to appear, albeit off the main drag. While Disney is close by, Universal and SeaWorld are not -- the latter are a good 20-minute (or more) ride away. If you don't have a car, Mears Transportation is a good bet to take you there for about $15 to $18 per person per day, round-trip.
In addition to the hotels reviewed below, the Saratoga Resort Villas, 4787 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy. (tel. 407/397-0555; www.saratogaresortvillas.com), offers spacious one-, two-, and three-bedroom town-house accommodations with full kitchens and extensive recreational facilities geared to families and larger groups. A recent redesign has brought the charm and elegance of the New Orleans French Quarter to the Royale Parc Suites, a Quality Suites Hotel (previously the Quality Suites Main Gate East), 5876 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy. (tel. 800/268-6048 or 407/396-8040; www.royaleparcsuitesorlando.com). The spacious suites have separate bedroom and living areas and fully stocked kitchens; perks include a complimentary hot and cold breakfast, free Wi-Fi, free transportation to the major theme parks, and a location that's hard to beat. And the Radisson Resort Orlando-Celebration, 2900 Parkway Blvd. (tel. 800/395-7046 or 407/396-7000; www.radisson.com), set back off the main drag, has stylish, well-appointed rooms; an inviting pool area with a water slide; several on-site dining options; beautifully landscaped grounds; and a location that's close to area shops, restaurants, and attractions.
Best for: Visitors who are on a tighter budget will find an array of accommodations (and restaurants) to choose from; a handful of high-end hotels have popped up, too. Vacation homes are also strewn throughout the area, making it an ideal location for larger families or groups.
Drawbacks: Only Disney is right nearby; if your itinerary includes Universal or SeaWorld, the drive to the parks will be lengthy -- reaching upwards of 45 minutes during peak season, which translates to a painful (usually congested) drive home after park closing (yuck!). Because of its popularity, the area is also notorious for traffic jams, which can be an absolutely infuriating way to start off your day (or cap off your night).
Inexpensive -- There are scores of other inexpensive but serviceable motels, including chains. Most are within a few miles of Disney, have rooms in the 300-square-foot range, and arrange transportation to the parks. Many sell attractions tickets, but be careful: Some people land at the parks with invalid tickets or waste a half-day or more listening to a timeshare pitch to get 30% to 40% off the regular price (single-day Disney park tickets are $82 for adults, $74 for kids 3-9). If a discount is more than $2 to $5 per ticket, it's probably too good to be true. Stick to buying tickets through the parks, or accept the modest discounts offered by such groups as AAA, AARP, and the visitor information centers.
In the International Drive Area
The hotels and resorts listed here are 7 to 10 miles north of Walt Disney World (via I-4) and 1 to 5 miles from Universal Orlando and SeaWorld. The advantages of staying on I-Drive: It's a destination unto itself, filled with accommodations, restaurants, and small attractions; it has its own inexpensive trolley service; and it's centrally located for those who want to visit Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, and the downtown area. The disadvantages: The north end of I-Drive is badly congested; the shops, motels, eateries, and attractions along this stretch can be tacky; and some of the motels and hotels don't offer free transportation to the parks (the going rate is $15-$18 round-trip).
Best for: Visitors heading to Universal or SeaWorld will discover that I-Drive is the best location to call home base (the northern end closest to Universal, the southern end closest to SeaWorld), no matter their budget. The area is chock-full of both affordable and high-end hotels.
Drawbacks: I-Drive is excruciatingly busy no matter the time of year (or time of day), thanks in part to the convention crowd (the Convention Center is located near the south end). Driving here can be frustrating and terribly time consuming -- even dangerous, with all of the tourists reading maps or watching their GPS unit while driving. Pedestrians should never cross from one side to the other unless absolutely necessary, using extreme caution if they do. The dense population of hotels also ensures that restaurants and smaller attractions here fill quickly (and remain busy throughout the evening), making dining out or playing miniature golf more of an adventure than an enjoyable experience at times.
Walt Disney World is at the southern end of Orlando’s chain of big parks, so to see Universal, SeaWorld, and Orlando itself, you’ll always head north on I-4.
When Walt Disney ordered the purchase of these 27,000 acres mostly just west of Interstate 4, he was righting a wrong he committed in the building of Anaheim’s Disneyland. In commandeering as much land as he did, he ensured that visitors would not be troubled by the clatter of motel signs and cheap restaurants that abut his original playground. “Here in Florida,” he said in a promotional film shot months before his death, “we have something special we never enjoyed at Disneyland . . . the blessing of size. There’s enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine.” You could spend your entire vacation without leaving the greenery of the resort, and lots of people do, although they’re missing a lot. The idea of remaining solely on Disney property is outdated now that Universal has proven itself. Still, there’s an awful lot to do around here, starting with four of the world’s most polished theme parks, two of the best water parks, four golf courses, two miniature golf courses, a sports pavilion, and a huge shopping-and-entertainment district.
First-time visitors aren’t usually prepared for quite how large the area is: 47 (roughly rectangular) square miles. Only a third of that land is truly developed, and another third has been set aside as a permanent reserve for swampland. Major elements are easily a 10-minute drive away from each other, with nothing but trees or Disney hotels between them. The Magic Kingdom is buried deep in the back of the park—which is to say, the north of it, requiring the most driving time to reach. Epcot and Hollywood Studios are in the center, while Disney’s Animal Kingdom is at the southwest of the property, closest to the real world.
For its convenience, Disney signposts hotels and attractions according to the major theme park they’re near. If you are staying on property, you’ll need to know which area your hotel is in. For example, the All-Star resorts are considered to be in the Animal Kingdom area, and so some signs may simply read Animal Kingdom Resort Area, leaving off the name of your hotel. Ask for your hotel’s designated area when you reserve.
East of Epcot, the sprawling Disney Springs shopping-and-dining development is popular, even with area locals who may not be attending the parks.
Getting in is easy. Every artery in town is naggingly signposted for Disney World. Exits are marked, but it helps to know the name of the main road that feeds your hotel. A few useful secret exits are not well-promoted on official Disney maps. One is Western Way, which turns past the Coronado Springs resort and skirts the back of Animal Kingdom to reach many vacation home communities southwest of Disney. Be warned that taking Hwy. 429 to U.S. 192 will cost a few bucks in tolls.
There’s a second useful shortcut out of the resort: Sherberth Road, by the entrance to Animal Kingdom Lodge, about a mile west of the entrance to Animal Kingdom, leads to rental homes off western U.S. 192.
It’s interesting to note that when you’re at Disney, you’re in a separate governmental zone. To enable the resort’s bizarre experiments in building methods (such as fiberglass-and-steel castles), Disney negotiated the creation of its own entity, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which can set its own standards. You may see vehicles marked RCID—those are the civic services for the resort. Not far down the road by Disney Springs Marketplace (a route not used by many guests), you may pass the R.C. Fire Department, a toylike engine house with an outdoor fountain that looks like a spouting fire hose.
Disney developed (and then sold) a bit of land east of I-4 into the New Urbanism unincorporated town of Celebration. As a Stepford-like residential center with upscale aspirations (golf, boutiques), it doesn’t offer visitors much to do except eat a bit in its town square. Be prepared to parallel park there.
Best for: Lowbrow chain restaurant and motel options, downscale attractions
Kissimmee (Kiss-im-ee) was the heart of Orlando tourism in the 1970s, but the center of tourist gravity shifted, and the town now lags further behind every year. The tatty drag of U.S. 192, known also as the Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway (after a state senator who sold Walt a bunch of land), is the stop-and-go spine of Kissimmee. U.S. 192 is mostly about chains and buffets, but on weekend nights, this low-rent Rialto fills with drivers of muscle cars who come to show off at Old Town and the Fun Spot.
The motels weren’t flashy in the ’70s, but as Disney becomes more expensive and its guests tend to be wealthier, they increasingly avoid this area. Recent hard times in the economy have only served to drag some of these motels below the line of respectability. While they’re ever affordable—$50 to $80 is the norm, and some shabby places go down to $39 for a single or $45 for a double—it’s no longer possible to confidently vouch for the quality or serenity of a stay on U.S. 192.
There’s plenty of cheap food and souvenirs, though. The best way to get your bearings on U.S. 192 is using its clearly signposted mile marker system. U.S. 192 hits Disney’s southern entrance (the most expedient avenue to the major theme parks) at Mile Marker 7, while I-4’s exit 65 connects with it around Mile Marker 8. Numbers go down to the west, and they go up to the east. Western 192, where the bulk of the vacation home developments are found, is much more upscale than the tacky wilds of eastern 192, but neither stretch could be termed swanky, and driving it is slow going.
Best for: Access to Disney, I-4, and chain restaurants, some elbow room
Lake Buena Vista, a hotel enclave east of Disney Springs, clusters on the eastern fringe of Walt Disney World. LBV is technically a town, but it doesn’t look like one. It’s mostly hotels and mid-priced chain restaurants with some schlocky souvenir stores thrown in. The proximity of I-4 exit 68 can back traffic up (plans are afoot for a major redevelopment of the interchange), but it’s convenient to Disney’s crowded side door and Disney Springs, which is helpful. The bottom line is that LBV is less tacky and higher rent than Kissimmee’s 192, but also touristy and not really part of Orlando’s fabric.
If you stay in LBV, you can also (if you’re hardy) walk to the Disney Springs development, where you can then pick up Disney’s free DTS bus system. That could save you the cost of a rental car.
Best for: Walkability, second-tier amusements, affordable hotels and transportation, proximity to Universal and SeaWorld
Although a developing stretch of this street winds all the way south to U.S. 192, when people refer to International Drive, they usually mean the segment around SeaWorld north to Universal Orlando, just east of I-4 between exits 71 and 75. I-Drive, as it’s called, is probably the only district where you might comfortably stay without a car and still be able to see the non-Disney attractions, because it’s chockablock with affordable hotels (not as ratty as U.S. 192’s can be) and plenty of crowd-pleasing things to do, such as arcades, wild mini-golf courses, family restaurants, and the Wheel (once called the Orlando Eye) at the ICON Park entertainment complex. The cheap I-Ride Trolley traverses the area on a regular schedule.
The intersection at Sand Lake Road is a dividing line for I-Drive’s personalities. South of Sand Lake, there’s a business-y (but party-ready) crowd in town for the mighty Orange County Convention Center, located on both sides of I-Drive at the Bee Line Expressway/528. It keeps the surrounding hotels and restaurants busy. North of Sand Lake Road, within the orbit of Universal Orlando, midway rides and Universal’s affordable Endless Summer Resort prevail. And west on Sand Lake Road from I-4, you’ll find a mile-long procession of mid- to upper-level places to eat that the city dubiously calls its “Restaurant Row.” Hotel and restaurant discounts appear on www.internationaldriveorlando.com.
Just north of I-Drive across I-4, signified by the towering steaming namesake of Volcano Bay water park, is Universal Orlando’s resort with its two theme parks, waterslide park, six on-campus hotels, and the CityWalk food-and-entertainment district.
Best for: Historic buildings, cafes, museums, wealthy residents
As happened in so many American cities, residents fled from downtown in the 1960s through the 1980s. Spacious new condo developments have rescued the city from abandonment, and downtown Orlando is called home by young, upscale residents. Here are the highlights:
DOWNTOWN—Beneath the city’s collection of modest skyscrapers (mostly banking offices), you’ll find municipal buildings (the main library, historic museums) and some attractive lakes, but little shopping. Orange Avenue, once a street of proud stone buildings and department stores, now comes alive mostly at night, and mostly for the young. The 43-acre Lake Eola Park, just east, is often cited as an area attraction, but in truth it’s just your average city park, although the .9-mile path around its 23-acre sinkhole lake is good for joggers. Its swan boats are city icons, as is the central fountain from 1957—its Plexiglas skin is illuminated with a 6-minute light-and-water musical show nightly at 9:30pm. Just east of that, the streets turn to red brick and big trees shelter Thornton Park (along Washington St., Summerlin Ave., and Central Blvd.). It’s noted for its alfresco European-style cafes, none especially inexpensive, but all pleasing, where waiters wear black and hip locals spend evenings and weekend brunches. West of downtown over I-4, the area called Parramore is a longtime neighborhood for African Americans (sadly, the interstate was built, in part, as a barrier). A mile north of downtown, Loch Haven Park basks in a wealth of museums.
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.