Located 20 minutes southwest of downtown Orlando, in Lake Buena Vista, Disney World is a city within a city. Spread among its 43 square miles -- an area roughly the size of Boston -- are four main theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios, and the Animal Kingdom), two water parks (Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach), five golf courses, 25 Disney-owned hotels, several bodies of water, as well as a handful of non-Disney hotels and a more densely packed downtown-like commercial area called, appropriately, Downtown Disney. All this is connected by a complex system of roads, four-lane highways, buses, water taxies, ferries, in addition to the famous (but not very extensive) monorail system.
As you might expect, most (but not all) the hotels in Disney World offer a full-immersion experience -- larger-than-life characters circulating at breakfast, "It's a Small World" playing in the background, theme-driven entertainment and décor, and all manner of family-focused amenities. Disney hotels tend to be somewhat more expensive than hotels with equivalent levels of luxury and amenities outside the park. But staying at a Disney property gets you a range of special perks and privileges, including extended hours at certain theme parks on certain days of the week and free transportation to and from the airport and around the Disney property. (Click here for a full list of these perks.)
Disney World resorts can be categorized a number of ways. Disney itself divides them by price and quality, with a spectrum that ranges from, on the high end, the so-called "deluxe" resorts like the Animal Kingdom Lodge and the Grand Floridian; to "moderate" hotels like the Coronado Springs and Port Orleans resorts; to less expensive "value" properties like the All-Star Movies and Pop Century resorts. (There's another quasi-category, "deluxe villas," which approximate the deluxe resorts in quality but feature multiroom suites.) A majority of the resorts fall into the deluxe category; they tend to have larger and better maintained rooms, more (and higher end) dining options, and more amenities, including elaborate pools and kids' clubs. Rooms at the four value hotels tend to be significantly smaller and -- though renovated on a regular basis -- less well maintained; their amenities, meanwhile, are generally utilitarian, with no-frills pools and relatively few sit-down restaurants. The five moderate hotels, as you'd expect, split the difference.
Additionally, two of the nine so-called "official" Disney hotels -- Walt Disney World Dolphin and Walt Disney World Swan -- are on the Disney property. (The other seven are in Lake Buena Vista, close to but outside Disney World.) These two have the Disney name but, like the other "official" hotels, are not owned by Disney and offer some, but not all, of the perks and privileges that guests at Disney hotels get.
Finally, there are three hotels located within Disney World that are neither owned by Disney nor "official" Disney properties: the Wyndham Bonnet Creek, the Hilton Bonnet Creek, and the Waldorf Astoria resorts. We've created a list of all the properties in Disney World, by type, below.
Location is another key consideration. Virtually nothing outside a given resort is within reasonable walking distance. Disney's transportation system, though extensive, can be sluggish. And even if you have your own car -- which we generally recommend -- traffic can often make traveling within Disney World a slow, frustrating experience, especially if your kids are anxious to get to the next extravaganza. So if you plan to spend the bulk of your time at a specific park, it's worth choosing a resort nearby. For example, the Coronado Springs is relatively close to the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and the Animal Kingdom. The Animal Kingdom Lodge, meanwhile, , is located only five minutes from Animal Kingdom park entrance, but a good 10- or 15-minute drive to the Magic Kingdom. The Pop Century, one of Disney's "value" resorts, is centrally located and has its own bus line directly to the parks, as opposed to a line that stops at other resorts in the vicinity before heading to the park.
The other key consideration is theme. Most of the Disney properties have one -- from giraffes and gazelles freestyling across the savannah at the Animal Kingdom Lodge to movies at the All-Star Movies to the tropical South Pacific at the Polynesian. A handful of hotels, including the Grand Floridian, Boardwalk Villas, Port Orleans, and Coronado Springs, have a more relaxed, adult vibe and generally avoid the full-immersion, character-driven atmosphere.
"Official" Disney resorts located on the Disney World property:
(Note: These hotels are not owned by Disney and do not offer all the perks of Disney-owned hotels):
Non-Disney, non-"official," hotels on the Disney World property:
March 15 - April 15, June 1 - Aug. 30
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15-20% at restaurants