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.
Outside Disney, you'll probably be quoted a rate better than the rack rates contained in this guide's 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.
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.
Many of the Kissimmee hotels listed can be booked through the Kissimmee Convention & Visitors Bureau (tel. 407/742-8200; www.visitkissimmee.com). The same goes for Orlando and the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau (tel. 800/972-3304 or 407/363-5872; www.visitorlando.com).
Florida Hotel Network (tel. 800/293-2419; www.floridahotels.com), Central Reservation Service (tel. 800/555-7555 or 407/740-6442; www.crshotels.com), and Hotels.com (tel. 800/246-8357; www.hotels.com) are three other services that can help with hotel and other kinds of reservations in Central Florida. HotelKingdom.com (tel. 877/766-6787 or 407/294-9600; www.hotelkingdom.com) is also a good source of hotel and vacation-rental bargains.
Several 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.
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.
I-Drive Alternatives -- If you're coming into town during peak season and having trouble finding a room, the 1,052-unit Wyndham Orlando Resort, 8001 International Dr. (tel. 877/999-3223 or 407/351-2420; www.wyndham.com), is an impeccably landscaped property that's good for families and features numerous pools, playgrounds, and a kids' club for children 4 to 12. Rates run between $113 and $194. The 1,338-unit Caribe Royale Orlando All-Suites Hotel & Convention Center, 8101 World Center Dr. (tel. 800/823-8300 or 407/238-8000; www.cariberoyale.com), has spacious one-bedroom suites (with kitchenettes) and two-bedroom villas (with Jacuzzis and full kitchens). The grounds are beautifully landscaped, the pool has cascading waterfalls and a 75-foot water slide, there's a playground nearby, and the service is tops. Rates run between $109 and $209.
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.