Friday, February 03, 2012

The Disney Report--Lodging

The first question everyone asks is "Did you stay on-property or off?" I have done both, and have stayed in more than one (but by no means all) of the Disney resorts. The immediate and obvious tradeoff is that Disney resorts cost more money for less amenities, but are undeniably "Disney". But we found many more less-obvious pros and cons to weigh.

Sure, money definitely factors in. Off property you can get a very nice hotel room, or an efficiency, or even a condo for around $100, and be as close or closer to the theme parks as you would be in one of Disney's own hotels. I rented a timeshare efficiency for less than $100 a night and had a jetted tub, a separate bedroom, a living room, free wifi, and a kitchenette. That same money would get you a very basic room with no free wifi, no kitchenette, two double beds, and a closet-sized bathroom on Disney property. To me that tradeoff is obvious; if money is a concern, I'd rather have a space where we can spread out a little and enjoy the convenience of having our own means of feeding ourselves.

However, we are a pack of only children who need our space. A week together can be tough on us if we don't have room for that all-necessary alone time. We have friends who stayed in the aforementioned Disney property and found it to be perfectly adequate for their needs. I would have been unhappy there. I like having a fridge and micro, plus a coffee pot, so I can have my coffee immediately upon waking (and still in my nightgown). My daughter is accustomed to having her chocolate soy milk and a snack early in the morning, and it's hard to do when you don't have a fridge. For us, it's important to have those amenities.

A key aspect to staying out of the world that we discovered quite by accident was that if you are outside of Disney, you tend to eat more meals out of the world, which can be half (or less) than what you would pay "inside". A counter-service meal at a Disney park or hotel costs between $20 and $40 for three people. The food is about on par with an average fast food restaurant. If you are in a Disney hotel with no means of transportation other than Disney transport, you are a captive audience. You'll have little other choice than Disney's offerings. If you are beginning and ending your day outside of the gates, you can very easily begin your day with IHOP and end it at a steakhouse and spend less than half what you would at the counter service cafe in your Disney hotel.

Another wrinkle to Disney's hotels is that with the advent of the Disney Dining Plan, reservations are a must for almost all table service dining. This meant that when we were hungry at dinner time with no reservation, our options were to take a cab somewhere, order room service, or eat at the most expensive restaurant in the hotel. We found that the moderately priced places were near impossible to get into, but if you were willing to pay $150+ for dinner, you could walk right in. The time we stayed on property, we made that choice more than once because we simply needed to eat.

This brings me to my next point:

The Rental Car
Disney would like you to believe that a rental car is completely unnecessary if you are staying on property. Disney operates Magical Express, a "free" (nothing is free) service that will ferry you to and from the airport, plus a fairly comprehensive "public" transit system. It is true that this transit system makes it fairly expedient to get to the parks, but unfortunately getting anywhere else can mean a very long bus ride. Disney's own literature advises a 1.5-2 hour lead time to make it to a dinner reservation if you are relying on their transport. (!)

Therefore, even if you are staying on property, I would strongly recommend a rental car. I struggled with this, thinking that it seemed an extra expense on top of higher-priced lodging. However, I've read estimates that state using the car to eat one meal per day outside of the world will save you the cost of the rental car. I was skeptical at first but I believe it now. Having a car also means:

*you can easily get to the grocery store, drug store, or, as we just did, emergency room.
*you can easily get to a restaurant, and if it has a prohibitively long wait, you can easily get to another
*you can grab a bag of sandwiches and put them in your bag to take into the parks
*you can run to a store to pick up something like a forgotten bathing suit without being held to Disney's inflated gift shop prices.
*you can get to and from the airport on YOUR time schedule, without making stops at other resorts
*driving to and from your hotel from the parks, you have your own space inside your own vehicle, which can be priceless when you have spent the whole day getting jostled and poked by crowds of people.

Within the parks and Disney hotels, a t-shirt costs $25+. A princess dress, $65 (not including shoes, tiara, etc). A keychain or mug, $10-20. At Walgreens, Target, or Walmart, however, you can get your fill of Mickey tshirts, mugs, pens, keychains, autograph books, hats, ears, toys, etc for a fraction of the price. I found Mickey tees 2 for $12. Hats for $10 and under, mugs for a few dollars, ears for 50% less than park prices. Whether you're bringing gifts back for your family or have a child who wants virtually everything they see, you can save a lot of money by having the freedom to purchase souvenirs outside of the world. In many cases, the items you find are the very same items as you find inside the park, down to the UPC code. In other cases, they're pretty close, or you might like them better. In any case, if there's a special unique item that's only available in the parks, you can save by purchasing the other gifts and sundries at the drugstore and saving your money for your one special item.

Next installment--what to take to the parks.


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