Where Should We Stay?
When it comes to Orlando lodging, no matter who you are and where you decide to stay, you should book months in advance (at least six months for hotels at Disney). This is particularly important for travel when rates are lowest, specifically early January to mid-February, late April to mid-June, and mid-August to early December.
Your choices include resorts on Disney property (most owned and operated by Disney), those on Universal property, and those not in or affiliated with either park. Each type of property merits consideration.
Hotels on Disney and Universal Property
If you're interested solely in attractions at Disney or Universal, in-park hotels are best. For starters, they offer such convenient transportation options that you probably won't need a rental car—a huge cost savings.
Walt Disney World's massive campus is tied together by a dizzying array of complimentary monorails, buses, and water taxis. All get you anywhere on the property you want to go. Universal provides complimentary shuttles and water taxis between its two theme parks and on-site hotels, though the hotels and parks are also within walking distance of one another.
Universal and Disney's on-site hotels also offer many special perks—some designed to save money, some designed to save time. Note that these perks don't necessarily extend to non-Disney-owned hotels on Disney property, so ask for those specifics before booking.
Hotels Off Theme-Park Property
If you plan to visit several parks or go sightseeing elsewhere in Central Florida, consider off-site hotels. Those closest to Disney are clustered in a few areas: along I-Drive; in the U.S. 192 area and Kissimmee; and in the Downtown Disney–Lake Buena Vista Area, just off Interstate 4 Exit 68. I-Drive hotels such as the DoubleTree by Hilton at the Entrance to Universal Orlando and Hyatt Place Orlando/Universal are closest to Universal.
Nearly every hotel in these areas provides frequent (sometimes free) transportation to and from Disney or even Universal. In addition, there are some noteworthy and money-saving, if far-flung, options in the greater Orlando area. One suburban caveat: traffic on Interstate 4 in Orlando experiences typical freeway gridlock during morning (7–9) and evening (4–6) rush hours.
Anyone can visit Disney hotels. To save money and still have on-site resort experiences, stay at a moderately priced hotel off-site and then visit the animals at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, say, or rent a boat at the Grand Floridian.
Considerations for Different Types of Travelers
Whether you stay on theme-park property or off, prioritize your needs. A great spa is wonderful, but if you're running around with three young kids, will you actually use it? Do you want luxury or rustic simplicity? A splurge or a supersaver?
In addition, weigh what you get for the money. Sure, you might spend more on a room at a Disney or Universal resort than at an off-site property. But if staying at a cheaper off-site hotel means renting a car or spending a lot of money and time on cab rides, you might not ultimately be saving that much. Conversely, if you're planning to split your time between, say, Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld, you probably won't make full use of all of the Disney or Universal perks and might be better off shopping for a good-value, centrally located, off-site hotel with free theme-park shuttle service.
Finally, if you're traveling with children, be sure to mention their ages when you make reservations. Sometimes hotels have special features, such as rooms with bunk beds, just for families. Such things aren't necessarily offered up front, so be sure to ask.
Regardless of whether you stay at hotels near the theme parks or at on-site resorts, it can take between 20 minutes and an hour to get to and from park entrances.
Families with Young Kids
If this is a Disney trip, stick with Disney hotels: the transportation system makes it simple to scoot back for a nap or some downtime at the pool.
Many Disney properties are designed to appeal to kids, some with great children's facilities and programs. At the value-priced Art of Animation Resort, young kids love the familiarity of Finding Nemo, Little Mermaid, and Cars themes everywhere. The Polynesian Resort's Never Land Club has an enchanting Peter Pan–themed clubhouse and youngsters-only dinner show. Parents rave about the Sand Castle Club at the Yacht and Beach Club resorts. What's more, most of these clubs are open from late afternoon until midnight, so parents can slip out for a romantic meal while the kids play games, do art projects, and enjoy a snack or dinner.
Surprise kids with a wake-up call from Mickey while staying at a Disney resort.
If you do stay off-site, book a hotel geared to small children. The Nickelodeon Suites Resort, in Lake Buena Vista, offers suites whose separate kid-friendly bedrooms are decorated with images of cartoon characters. It also has live shows featuring Nick characters, a Nickelodeon-themed pool, and tons of kids’ activities.
East of International Drive the connected JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes resorts have rooms with adjoining kids' suites, complete with miniature furniture and toys. The Ritz also has a Kids Club with a play area and daily scheduled activities.
Wherever you stay, inquire about child equipment. Most hotels—and certainly all owned by Disney—have amenities such as cribs. (Some hotels require you to reserve cribs in advance. Ask whether there will be an additional charge, and make sure the crib meets current child-safety standards.)
Family with Tweens
With tweens you don't really need a hotel that's superclose to a theme park, so your selection is greater. Even properties that seem adult-oriented have offerings that tweens love. The "lazy-river" pools at hotels including the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate and the JW Marriott, for instance, are generally big hits.
Many hotels also have supervised camp-style programs, with trained counselors and fun, active, outdoorsy things to do. These are great for arrival and departure days, when you probably don't want to schlep to a park, but you also don't want to hear the dreaded "I'm so bored."
Standouts are the Camp Holiday program at the Holiday Inn Resort Lake Buena Vista and the Camp Hyatt program at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, near Downtown Disney. The latter is a top-class resort with sprawling grounds that abut Walt Disney World property, so it's perfect for families who want to be near the Mouse but prefer to take a break from Disney each night.
Family with Teens
A great hotel pool is a major boon for teens, who might not want to spend all of their time in the theme parks. Stormalong Bay, the pool complex shared by the Yacht and Beach Club, has it all: a lazy river, waterslide, sandy-bottom pool, and elevated tanning deck. This location is also surrounded by the shops, restaurants, and leisure activities of Disney's BoardWalk—a great place for teens to explore on their own.
Teens are usually partial to Universal's thrills, so the South Pacific–themed Loews Royal Pacific Resort here is also an excellent choice. It has a lagoon-style swimming pool with a sandy beach; "dive-in" movies on select nights; a fitness center with a whirlpool, steam room, and sauna; a nightly torch-lighting ceremony; and an authentic luau. The rock-and-roll-themed Hard Rock Hotel is also a great Universal option.
If at all possible, book more than one room. As they say, the family that sleeps together ... hates each other in the morning. Teens are used to having their own space; crabby moods stemming from cramped conditions can put a damper on the vacation. When booking, request connecting rooms—with a door linking your room to that of your teen—as opposed to adjoining rooms, which means only that your rooms are next to each other.
If booking more than one room is too pricey, look into accommodations at all-suites hotels or family suites at regular hotels. These larger quarters are often reasonably priced. Just be sure to check on the hotel's definition of "suite." Sometimes it's merely an L-shaped room with a sitting area (i.e., there's no door separating you from your teen). The key question is, "Do your suites have two separate rooms?"
Singles or Groups of Friends
If you're traveling solo, you'll never feel lonely at a theme-park hotel. Consider one in Disney's BoardWalk area—perhaps the BoardWalk Inn and Villas, Disney's Yacht Club, or Disney's Beach Club. From here you're just steps from shopping, dining, and nightlife. Similarly, Universal hotels like the elegant Loews Portofino Bay Hotel are just a blink away from the shopping and the hopping nightlife of CityWalk. Plus, Portofino has a spa.
If theme parks aren’t your only interest, you can get your wow factor by staying at a hotel like the Gaylord Palms Resort. The interior of this place is like a Cecil B. DeMille movie—about Florida. Just walking around in the 4-acre atrium is an adventure, with indoor gardens evoking the Everglades and old St. Augustine. There's also a lot to do on-site, including dining, shopping, pampering yourself at the spa, or working out in the large fitness center.
Luxury properties such as the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes spell romance. Ultraluxurious rooms, restaurants, and spa programs, plus a championship golf course, make this resort one of the best in the Orlando area. Another romantic option is Downtown's Grand Bohemian, with a rooftop pool, jazz in the Bösendorfer Lounge, and short-walk access to the new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and the Amway Center’s NBA games and world-class concerts.
If you and your sweetie are Disneyphiles, Disney's five-star Grand Floridian absolutely drips with Victorian romance, and the Animal Kingdom Lodge offers the delights of sunsets over the savanna and giraffes and zebras munching leaves just below your balcony. The Port Orleans Resort–French Quarter, in Downtown Disney, is a great, more affordable choice for couples.
All-suites properties are the logical choice. If you're coming mainly for the theme parks, stay on Disney or Universal grounds, as the many perks—especially those involving transportation—definitely make life easier. Some Disney properties with suites include the cabins at Fort Wilderness Resort, the Beach Club Villas, the BoardWalk Inn and Villas, the Bay Lake Tower at the Contemporary Resort, and the villas at Animal Kingdom. At the Universal properties, the new Cabana Bay has 1,800 rooms, half of them suites.
If you plan to spend time away from the parks or will be shuttling between Universal and Disney, consider reserving an apartment or condo. This works best for families who thrive on the chaos of communal living. (It also works better if you assign chores. This is a vacation for everyone, and it's just not fair if one or two people consistently do all the work.)
The only potential hang-up to the apartment-condo scenario is who gets the master suite. If it's a birthday, anniversary, or retirement event, the big room naturally goes to the guest(s) of honor. Otherwise, the decision isn't so straightforward. One solution: donate it to some of the kids. The suite will be plenty big for a slumber party, and you'll love the fact that their war-torn bathroom is blissfully out of sight.
If your family members tend to get in each other's hair, you're better off reserving a block of hotel rooms. Add a courtesy suite, and you have all the benefits of togetherness, plus a place to retreat to when you need it. Talk to a hotel agent to figure out how many people each room can accommodate comfortably, and how many rooms you'll need.
Facilities and Amenities
All hotels and resorts in Central Florida have air-conditioning, and most have cable or satellite TV, coffeemakers, in-room irons, and ironing boards. Those in the moderate and expensive price ranges often have bathrobes and hair dryers. High-speed wireless access (Wi-Fi) is now common even at budget properties, but some hotels still charge a daily fee for Internet service. If being connected is important, it's best to ask. Most hotels, even the budget ones, have a pool, and many have fitness facilities and business centers. Ask whether the hotel charges a resort fee. Finding a week’s worth of unexpected daily fees on your final bill can be a disconcerting surprise.
If a particular amenity is important to you, ask for it; many hotels will provide extras upon request. Double-check your bill at checkout, and if a charge seems unreasonable, this is the time to have it remedied. If you're traveling with pets, note the hotel's pet policies. Some hotels require substantial cleaning fees. A big note to smokers: most of the hotels and resorts in Central Florida are entirely smoke-free, meaning even smoking outdoors on hotel property is frowned upon or prohibited.
In the Orlando area there's an inverse relationship between temperature and room rates. The hot and humid weather in late summer and fall brings lower prices and possibly hurricanes. Conversely, the balmy days of late February, March, and April attract lots of visitors; hotel owners charge accordingly. One note about hurricane season—it officially begins in June, but a hurricane in Florida before August is rare. Rates are often low from early January to mid-February, from late April to mid-June, and from mid-August to the third week in November.
Always call several places—availability and special deals can drive room rates at a $$$$ hotel down into the $$ range—and don't forget to ask whether you're eligible for a discount. You can always save by preparing a few meals in a room, suite, or villa with a kitchenette or kitchen. Websites will often offer a better room rate; so compare the prices offered on the Web and through the hotel's local or toll-free number (if one is available). Always ask about special packages or corporate rates. Don’t be shy. Polite assertiveness can save you money.
The Disney Dining Plan: On-site Walt Disney World Hotels don’t offer meal plans in their rates, but you can choose a Disney Dining Plan. It can be added to any on-site package, and many families swear by it. The plan saves you from having to carry around cash and—at least on the surface—masks the sting of coughing up nine bucks for a cheeseburger. To see if a Disney Dining Plan is right for your family, go to www.disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining for more information.
When booking by phone, expect a robot first, a sometimes protracted wait, then a real person who will be polite and helpful.
Walt Disney Travel Co.. Packages can be arranged through the Walt Disney Travel Co. Guests can find planning tools on the website that allow them to customize vacation itineraries to suit interests as well as special needs based on age, height restrictions and medical needs. 407/939-5277. www.disneyworld.com.
WDW Central Reservations Office. You can book many accommodations—Disney-owned hotels and some non-Disney-owned hotels—through the WDW Central Reservations Office. The website allows you to compare prices at the various on-site resorts. 407/934–7639. www.disneyworld.com.
WDW Special Request Reservations. People with disabilities can call WDW Special Request Reservations, or check the website for specific needs. 407/824-4321 or 407/TTY: 827-5141. www.disneyworld.com.