In & Around Walt Disney World
The resorts in this section are either Disney-owned or "official" Disney hotels that offer many of the same perks. All are on the Disney Transportation System, which means those of you who don't want to venture too far (and are okay with the occasional scheduling inconvenience) will be able to do without a car. If you do decide to bring or rent a car, you'll get free self-parking at your hotel and at the Disney parks.
If you decide that Disney is your destination, come up with a short list of preferred places to stay, and then call CRO (tel. 407/934-7639) for up-to-the-minute rates. Web surfers can get information at www.disneyworld.com.
Those who come by auto will find large signs along all of the major roads on Disney property pointing the way to the various resorts.
Individual resorts don't have their own golf courses, but WDW has 99 holes situated along the northern end of the property. The same goes for kennels; resort guests can board their pets during the day or overnight at Disney's Best Friends Pet Care center. The luxury pet facility (opened in the summer of 2010) caters to the pampered-pet set and is centrally located on the Bonnet Creek Parkway (and replaces the numerous facilities once located near the theme-park entrances). The new kennel offers a wide range of services and amenities, the most basic of which include day care, grooming, and overnight boarding.
Rates vary depending on season and room location, but the numbers should help you determine which places fit your budget.
Note: Most hotels and resorts, Disney or otherwise, have a limited number of cribs (or portable cribs) available at no extra charge. Rollaway beds or cots are usually available for around $10 to $25 per night. Refrigerators (mini ones, anyway) are sometimes available, though some hotels may charge up to $15 per night for the privilege. All Orlando hotels also offer nonsmoking rooms (while offering at least some rooms for smokers), and all of Disney's hotels went smoke-free in 2007, with all three of Universal Orlando's resorts following suit on May 11, 2011 (they do, however, offer a small number of designated outdoor smoking areas).
Best for: Visitors who intend on spending all (or at least most) of their time at Walt Disney World.
Drawbacks: Prices are often much higher for the most desirable accommodations (those closest to the theme parks); and Disney transportation, albeit free, can be difficult to manage with kids, strollers and all the associated gear -- not to mention painstakingly slow, depending on the location of your resort.
"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 Downtown Disney Marketplace, Downtown Disney West Side, and Pleasure Island (soon to be Hyperion Wharf). 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. Traffic can be a frustration, as the boulevard is a main access route to Downtown Disney from the outside world. Also note that the Walt Disney World Dolphin and Walt Disney World Swan (listed earlier) should be considered the eighth and ninth of the "official" hotels because they're not Disney-owned. The difference is they're located directly on WDW property.
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.
You can make reservations for all of the properties through the CRO (tel. 407/934-7639) or through the direct hotel numbers included in the listings. To ensure you get the best rates, however, call the hotel or its parent chain directly to see if there are special rates or packages available.
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 Downtown Disney (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).
A Marriott Montage -- The December 2000 christening of the Marriott Village at Lake Buena Vista, 8623 Vineland Ave., Orlando, FL 32821 (www.orlando2stay.com; tel. 877/682-8552 or 407/938-9001), brought together three of the flagship's properties in a cluster just east of Lake Buena Vista, 3 miles from WDW. In 2007, extensive renovations ensured the village remains appealing and up-to-date. The resort includes a 400-room SpringHill Suites ($116-$211 double; free continental breakfast), a 388-room Fairfield Inn ($107-$199 double; free continental breakfast), and a 312-room Courtyard by Marriott ($125-$224 double). Children younger than 17 stay free in a parent's room, and an extra person costs an additional $10.
Wi-Fi is available at all three resorts for an additional fee (in-room at the Fairfield; in the public areas at the Courtyard and Springhill Suites), and all rooms have free high-speed Internet access, PlayStations, and fridges (the SpringHill Suites also has microwaves, and the Fairfield features 48 bunk-bed suites for families). Each resort has its own pool and play area (the Courtyard features an indoor/outdoor pool with an interactive splash zone for the kids), though guests may use whichever pool they choose. The fitness center, Hertz rental-car desk (located at the Courtyard), arcade, and Marketplace are also shared. All offer transportation for a fee ($11-$30 per person per day) to Disney and non-Disney parks. There are three restaurants within walking distance, as well as an array of on-the-go and snack-style eateries located right in the village itself. To get here, take I-4, exit 68, Hwy. 535/Apopka-Vineland Road; head south to Vineland, and then go left for a half-mile to the village. There's free self-parking at this gated property.
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.
In Downtown Orlando
The main reason travelers usually give for staying in downtown Orlando is to avoid the hustle and bustle (and crowds) of the theme-park zone. One other plus: Those traveling without children may greatly appreciate the lack of them in the downtown hotels, which generally cater to business travelers.
But if you're traveling in the middle of peak season, including summer or around the December holidays, you'll likely find yourself bumping into other people no matter where you go. And in my opinion, unless you're getting a really fabulous discount at one of downtown's many business hotels, there's only one property that really stands out in the area and is worth the schlep .
Best for: The business set traveling to the city proper, as well as visitors who prefer to avoid the theme parks altogether, will find an array of upscale boutique hotels set amid a trendy cityscape -- with its own eclectic array of shops, restaurants, clubs, and recreational and entertainment venues that, while aimed at locals, are worth experiencing if the theme parks aren't really your thing.
Drawbacks: If you plan to spend most of your days in the theme parks and nights at CityWalk, then you're better off staying in the thick of things. Unless you avoid driving during rush hour from 7 to 9am and 4 to 6pm, you'll likely spend a lot more vacation time on I-4 and in its traffic than you'd like. It will also be harder to escape back to your hotel for an afternoon swim or a nap.
Orlando Bed & Breakfasts -- Although most of the properties in Orlando are resorts or chains, there are a few good bed-and-breakfast options. These properties offer a respite from the crowded, run-and-gun world of the theme parks, and they're ideal for couples looking for a little quiet time or romance. Note that most of the inns and B&Bs in Orlando do not accept children -- a major selling point for some visitors. If you choose to stay at one of these properties, you'll need a car or some other kind of transportation, because these inns do not provide it. You can find other options in the area through Florida Bed & Breakfast Inns (tel. 800/524-1880; www.florida-inns.com).