What You'll Really Pay
The prices quoted here are for hotels' rack rate, the maximum that it charges; it is, however, seriously unlikely that you'll end up paying that rate in Orlando unless you arrive around Christmas or Easter. You can typically find discounts of up to 20% when booking through websites such as Hotels.com or Expedia. During slow times, it's not impossible to obtain a room at an expensive property for the same rate as a more moderate one. Rack rates at the Orlando Marriott World Center start at $349, but in December 2011, just a cursory search of the usual discount sites revealed that the going rate was actually closer to $160.
If you're the gambling type, you can bid for a room on Priceline. In July, a room at the deluxe Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress (rack rates start at $179) was snagged on Priceline for $80. Sometimes all you have to do is contact the hotel directly and negotiate. For example, in October, the Comfort Inn Lake Buena Vista was advertising a weekday rate of $59 on its own website, but a spot check of the major discounters (Priceline, Hotels.com, Expedia, Travelocity) yielded a price of $45. When I told the hotel what I'd been quoted online, I was offered the same rate on the spot.
As you might expect, many of the inexpensive properties are the farthest from the action and/or have the most spartan, unimaginative accommodations.
Keep in mind, however, that this isn't one of the world's best bargain destinations. Unlike other Florida tourist areas, there are few under-$60 motels that meet the standards demanded for listing in this guide. That's why I've raised the price bar. The listings in the inexpensive category charge an average of less than $100 per night for a double room. Those offering rooms for $100 to $200 make up the moderate category, rooms for $200 to $300 are listed as expensive, and anything more than $300 is listed as very expensive. Any included extras (such as breakfast) are listed for each property. Note: Quoted discount rates almost never include breakfast, hotel tax, or any applicable resort fees.
Orlando's peak and low seasons are often complicated, as the peak times are sporadically disbursed throughout the calendar. Even remote events such as the International Sweet Potato Growers convention in Orlando can raise off-season prices. These events especially impact moderately priced properties outside WDW.
Keep in mind that rates are per night double unless otherwise noted, and they don't include hotel taxes of up to 14.5%. Also, most Orlando hotels and motels let kids younger than 12 (and usually younger than 17) stay free with a parent or guardian, if you don't exceed maximum room occupancy. But to be safe, ask for details when booking your room.
On Request -- Most hotels offer minifridges, microwaves, cribs, rollaways (or cots), and other similar items upon request -- if they're not already located in your room, that is. Although some hotels offer these items at no additional charge, others may charge a nightly fee that can run anywhere from just a few dollars to a whopping $25 -- or more -- per night, depending on the item and the resort. Be sure to ask which amenities are included in your room and which are not, as well as what the charges will be should you require such an item during your stay.
Excess Charges -- Several of the properties add daily resort fees to their room rates. Though it's essentially a legal version of price gouging, charging for services that used to be included in the rates -- such as use of the pool, admission to the health club, Internet access, self-parking, or in-room coffee or phones -- has become a growing trend. Be sure to ask when you reserve to see if your hotel charges such a fee and, if so, exactly what's included (some may even be optional) so you're not blindsided at checkout.
The Perks of Staying with Mickey
The decision of whether to bunk with the Mouse is one of the first you'll have to make when planning an Orlando vacation. You'll find information on the 36 hotels, resorts, villas, timeshares, and campsites that are owned by Disney or are "official" hotels -- those that are privately owned but have earned Disney's seal of approval. All 36 are in WDW or Lake Buena Vista.
In addition to their proximity to the theme parks, there are other advantages to staying at a Disney property or one of the "official" hotels. The following amenities are included at all Disney resorts; some are offered by the "official" hotels, but be sure to ask when booking:
- Guests get free transportation from Orlando International Airport to their Disney resort using Magical Express. Not only does the shuttle service get Disney resort guests to their hotels, but it also delivers their luggage straight from the plane to their room, allowing them to bypass baggage claim! Guests can also check luggage and print boarding passes before leaving their Disney resort. Currently only select airlines participate in the program.
- Unlimited free transportation on the WDW Transportation System's buses, monorails, ferries, or water taxis to and from the four WDW parks, from 2 hours prior to opening until 2 hours after closing. Free transportation is also provided to and from Downtown Disney, Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach, and the WDW resorts. Three of them -- the Polynesian, Grand Floridian, and Contemporary resorts -- are located on the monorail system. The transportation services offered can save money you might otherwise spend on a rental car, parking, and shuttles. It also means you're guaranteed admission to all of the parks, even during peak times when parking lots sometimes fill to capacity.
- Kids 17 and under stay free in their parent's room, and reduced-price children's menus are available in most restaurants.
- Hotel guests have the option of adding the Disney Dining Plan (with three different plans designed to accommodate every budget and palate) -- a definite money-saver when compared to dining a la carte.
- Character breakfasts and/or dinners at select restaurants.
- The Extra Magic Hour. Disney's Extra Magic Hour lets resort guests into the parks either an hour before other guests, or allows them to stay and play up to 3 hours after everyone else has to head home. Many of the more popular rides and attractions are operational (pick up the latest schedule for a complete listing), as are some shops and restaurants.
- TVs equipped with the Disney Channel, nightly bedtime stories (Channel 22, 7-10pm, audio only), and WDW information stations.
- A Lobby Concierge where you can buy tickets to all Disney parks and attractions -- without standing in long lines at the parks -- and get information on dining, recreation, and everything Disney.
- Playing privileges, preferred tee times, and, in some cases, free transportation to one of the Disney golf courses.
- Online check-in within 10 days of arrival. Simply check in online, advise the resort of your arrival time, and provide a credit card to cover your charges -- and you can skip the lengthy check-in line at the resort.
- WDW has some of the best swimming pools in Orlando and most are zero-entry or zero-grade pools, meaning there's a gradual slope into the water on at least one side rather than only a step down. These include pools at the Grand Floridian, Animal Kingdom, and Polynesian resorts and others.
- On-premises car rental is available at the Magic Kingdom Auto Plaza through Alamo (tel. 407/824-3470). There are also car-rental desks at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, as well as select Hotel Plaza Boulevard properties.
- Extensive recreational options (not including the parks), including fishing, tennis, boating, surfing, parasailing, horseback riding, golf, and more. Though many activities cost extra, they're all right at your fingertips and several offer experiences you won't find elsewhere.
- Disney's refillable mug program lets you buy -- for around $13.50 -- a bottomless souvenir mug for soda, coffee, tea, and/or cocoa at its resorts. The offer is for the length of your stay, but it isn't transferable to the theme parks. You can use it only at the property at which it is bought, with two exceptions: Mugs are transferable between the Beach Club and Yacht Club resorts or among the three All-Star resorts. A similar program is available at Disney's two water parks, but again, they're not transferable beyond the park where they were purchased and these aren't valid beyond the day they are purchased.
- Resort guests can charge most purchases (including meals) made anywhere inside WDW to their room. In most cases, purchases made inside the theme parks can be delivered to your resort at no extra charge.
But there are also disadvantages to staying with the Mouse:
- The Transportation System can be excruciatingly time-consuming. There are times when you have to take a ferry to catch a bus to get on the monorail to reach your hotel. It can take up to an hour or more to get to a place that's right across the lagoon from you.
- That free Magical Express shuttle system to and from the airport isn't perfect. Luggage delivery may take up to several hours. And departure shuttles (from your resort to the airport) are scheduled several hours in advance of your flight (thanks in part to the numerous resort stops it makes before getting on its way). Also note that though the Magical Express service is provided by Disney, the airlines still have a say in the matter. Changes to baggage policies (which vary by airline) have now spilled over to Magical Express. Though guests can still check their bags via the resort airline service, those with more than the allotted number of "free" bags (or those traveling via an airline that charges for each bag) will have to call ahead to the airline check-in service (tel. 407/824-1231) to pay the additional fee (by credit card only) or else check in at the airport.
- Resort rates are around 20% to 30% higher than comparable hotels and motels away from the parks.
- Without a car or other means to get off the property, you'll be resigned to either paying Disney's higher prices or paying for shuttles to get to Orlando's other offerings.
- If you don't spend a little time away from Disney, the all-Mickey, all-the-time atmosphere can get overwhelming, and you'll miss out on the real Florida and all the other great attractions Orlando has to offer.