You’ve decided it’s time for a family vacation to Disney World, and you hopped on over to the Magical Escape Vacations blog to do a little research, only to stumble across the Beginner’s Guide to a Disney World Vacation blog post or the Beginner’s Guide to Disney World Hotels blog post and realize you have no idea whether to stay on-site or off-site for this upcoming trip. Should you stay on property, or should you look at hotels outside of Disney World?
When it comes down to it, there are 5 main considerations for making this decision, and I’ll be going over all of those today, as well as what my suggestion would be for your trip based on your needs/wants.
The Disney Bubble
The least concrete consideration, but one that can’t be discounted, is being inside of the Disney bubble. The Disney World resort is huge, and while not everything is within walking distance of each other (see Beginner’s Guide to Disney World Transportation to learn more about getting around), there is still very much a bubble that you feel like you’re inside of when you’re staying on-property.
No, seriously. Cast members have reported guests asking them to change the weather inside the dome … it really feels like you’re living inside a bubble.
And while some of that is purely feeling, it also comes down to the guest experience that Disney World has created for its guests. When you are staying on-property it feels as if you are staying at an all-inclusive (although you aren’t). Everything you could possibly need is on-site, so if you did choose to stay on property, you wouldn’t ever NEED to leave.
For some people, the ability to let go and feel as if they are truly on vacation, thanks to the Disney bubble, just can’t be beat. Personally, I don’t really feel as if I’m on vacation unless I have zero responsibilities. I just have such a hard time turning the to-do lists off in my brain, which makes the Disney bubble always incredibly attractive for our trips.
However, staying in the Disney bubble does come at a cost. You can absolutely find Airbnb’s, homes on VRBO, even other hotels for significantly less than it would cost to stay on-site. Even the cheapest Disney World hotels are currently sitting at a little over $150 a night. And I know that personally, if I’m looking at staying anywhere that’s not Disney … well $150 a night is getting to my stretch budget.
Which is why budget is often a major deciding factor for many people as to whether they will stay on-site or off.
If you’re really hoping to stay on-property, but cost is a major factor, check out my Planning a Trip to Disney on a Budget blog post. There might be some ways that you can make room in your budget in order to stay on-property.
When it comes to hotels, the cheapest options are going to be 1) The Campgrounds and 2) The All Star Resorts. The campgrounds are exactly what they sound like. If you’d like to pitch a tent, or stay in your RV, the campgrounds might be the perfect solution for your trip. However, if that’s not your style, check out the All Star Resorts. There are three to chose from, each with different theming (Movies, Music, and Sports), and are the most budget-friendly hotels on property.
Another consideration is transportation. Are you hoping to fly into Orlando, get to your hotel and never have to worry about getting around? You should highly consider staying on-site. Disney Transportation (see my Beginner’s Guide to Disney World Transportation blog post) can get you everywhere you need to go once you’re at your hotel – all’s you need to do is figure out how to get to your hotel.
However, if you’re leaning towards staying off-site, you have some options. The first is to rent a car for your trip, and the second is to use Uber/Lyft. Personally, I’d be wary of having to use Uber/Lyft for all of my transportation needs during a trip where there will be a lot of back and forth, but it’s certainly an option.
Another thing to consider is space. When you book an AirBnb or a place through VRBO, you are most likely going to have significantly more space. Your dollar is just going to go a lot further square footage-wise. Growing up, my parents would plan a trip to Disney, hook up with friends or family that also wanted to go, and rent out a large house in Kissimmee that they split together. The cost was significantly less than staying on site, and everyone had so much space.
We spent less time in the parks because we weren’t close enough for the adults to be willing to do a lot of back and forth (gas is expensive and even that small trek can feel like a lot when you’ve already been in the park for hours), but we always had our own private pool and as kids we thought that was just the best thing ever.
Unless you plan to stay in a DVC suite, even deluxe property rooms are small. If you want to be able to just relax at your home away from home, off-property might be the winner for you. (Let’s be real. Hotel rooms are not relaxing. Your stuff is everywhere. You get in bed and fall asleep. It feels closed in. Idk maybe it’s just me.)
The last thing I want to do while on vacation is meal plan and cook. Admittedly, since it’s just my husband and I, it’s a lot easier to justify eating out for an entire trip than it would be if we had a large family. Similar to the space consideration, if you’ve got a larger family, it just might be too cost-prohibitive to eat out for every meal during your trip.
There are some ways around this if you’re staying on-property. For example, you can pack or Instacart some quick and easy breakfast and lunch foods that don’t need to be cooked. Eat cereal before you head to the parks; pack your cooler with sandwiches for a lunch picnic at the park; and then grab a quick service meal for dinner.
You could also stay in a suite at a DVC resort – those rooms have a full fridge, oven, stove, and dishwasher so you could cook meals in your room. Or, you could stay Club Level where coffee, continental breakfast, light afternoon snacks, hors d’oeuvres for dinner, and dessert and cordials late at night are served. However, both of these are pricier options, so if you’re looking to stay budget-friendly, you might as well stay off-site and just cook for yourself there.
Perks of Staying On-Site
While the list of perks for staying on-property are becoming smaller and smaller, there are still some that are worth considering.
Bubble/Being So Close
We’ve already gone over the bubble, and why that’s a consideration to whether you’re staying on or off site, but I did want to take a moment to emphasize the ability to be so close to the parks. If you’re like me and love a nice afternoon nap (or you know, you have kids that will need an afternoon nap), being able to quickly hop back to your hotel after park touring is incredible.
Not currently being offered, but likely to return, is the Disney Dining Plan. These plans don’t necessarily save you money, but they give you the ability to make your vacation have even more of an all-inclusive feel. You pick a plan for how much you think you’ll eat while there (there are different levels and different rules for each), pay in full before you go, and voila! When you use your meal plan credits alls you have to do is swipe your magic band and be on your way again.
Charging to room
When you are staying on-site, anytime you dine (if you don’t have the dining plan) on property, or purchase souvenirs, you can simply swipe your magic band and charge your room instead of carrying around your debit or credit cards. (This is especially great if you plan to buy bulk giftcards from Sams Club or Costco, and use those to pay for everything on your trip. Just make sure you head to the front desk and pay off your bill using those the day before checkout, otherwise your credit card will be charged!)
Sending items back to your hotel
Not currently available, but also likely to return is sending your purchases to your hotel. When you buy a souvenir but don’t want to carry it around, you can have them send it to your hotel for you. You’ll then pick it up from the hotel gift shop.
Note: You can also just send a package to the front of the park and pick-up there, which is great if you are checking out the next day, or just aren’t staying on-property.
Personally, this is the biggest perk of staying on site – advanced dining reservations. When it comes to making those ADRs, you can make yours 60 days before the day you want to book, at 6:00 am EST.
However, if you are staying on-site, you can book your ADRs 60 days before check-in (at 6:00 am EST) for your ENTIRE trip. So if you’re going for 10 days, you’ll be able to make some of those reservations a good 70 days before. Which gives you a real leg up on some of those hard to grab reservations.
Meaning that if you are staying off-site, you will need to get up early enough to be on your computer by 6:00 am EST multiple days in a row. If you’re looking for reservations for 6 days, and you aren’t in the Eastern time zone … I feel for you. (Or, you know, you could use a travel agent who would do that for you, I’m just saying)
However, if you don’t plan to do many dining reservations anyways, this isn’t a perk worth worrying about.
Extra Magic Hours
Currently, guests that are staying on-site are able to get into each park 30 minutes before official opening. Deluxe resort guests also get special evening hours, although it varies by day which park is offering those. As of right now, it’s alternating between 3 bonus hours at Magic Kingdom and 2 bonus hours at EPCOT, but it’s not a daily event.
If your answer isn’t clear after reading through all of these, I’d suggest swaying over to the on-site crowd. Frankly, if cost and space don’t prohibit you from staying on-site, being a part of the Disney Bubble is worth it. (Unless we’re talking Disneyland, and then I have other opinions)
Have you ultimately decided to stay on-site? Your next step is to choose which resort to stay at! Be sure to give my Beginner’s Guide to Disney World Hotels blog post a read, if you’d like some guidance on that decision!