Disney Animal Kingdom Lodge Rating: 4.0 Pearls
From the gazelles and giraffes freely roaming the grounds to the enormous pool with a waterslide, the safari-themed Disney Animal Kingdom Lodge was designed to amaze and delight children. Throughout the day, staff members lead (free) educational activities for children like craft-making, African drumming, or mini-lessons about the where giraffes come from. Here, even the learning is captivating.
Disney's Wilderness Lodge Rating: 4.0 Pearls
It's not exactly luxurious -- the bedding is subpar and crowds are a constant -- but the 727-room Wilderness Lodge is still a superb family resort. It has lake access, hiking trails, a standout pool and waterslide, free daily kids' activities, a great gym, and elaborate, Western frontier decor (including an exploding geyser) to keep kids enthralled -- all just five minutes from the Magic Kingdom.
Reunion Resort Rating: 5.0 Pearls
This sprawling 411-room resort located 15 minutes south of Disney is one of Orlando's priciest condo properties outside of Disney -- but you get a lot of fun for the money. It offers beautiful, kitchen-equipped, one-bedroom villas; daily kids' activities; a top-notch water park with waterslides, shallow play areas, and life guards on duty; excellent restaurants; and polished service. In short: a great place to take the kids.
Nickelodeon Suites Resort Rating: 3.5 Pearls
You know when you stay at a hotel with "Nickelodeon" in its name that you're in for a kid-tastic treat. Dedicated entirely to children's comfort and entertainment, "Nick Hotel," as it slangily refers to itself, is literally made for families. Accommodations are configured to give parents and children separate bedrooms, with plenty of shared living space and the convenience of kitchenettes. The entertainment and on-site amenities are unmatched outside of Disney and include two water parks, a mall, and -- during the busiest seasons -- activities like live entertainment at the pool and Studio Nick.
Disney Port Orleans Resort - Riverside Rating: 3.5 Pearls
Designed to evoke an old town in the Mississippi Delta, the huge, 2,048-room Riverside is one of Disney's best values. Its guest rooms aren't as new as those at the Coronado, for example, but its central location, fun pool complex, large rooms that sleep five, and beautiful setting make it a great family pick for the price.
JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes Rating: 4.0 Pearls
JW isn't remarkably kid-friendly by the impossible standards of some Disney and Universal Studios hotels -- where kids can get a wake-up call from their favorite movie character -- but by any other standard it's an excellent choice for families, especially those looking for a little more luxury from their Orlando vacation. It's virtues include big rooms (renovated in 2012), a winding lazy-river pool, kids' menus available for in-room dining, arts and crafts activities, Saturday evening film screenings, and good dining variety.
Disney's Pop Century Resort Rating: 2.5 Pearls
The pros: It has three enormous pools and a massive arcade. The cons: The guest rooms are small (and often noisy) and the on-site food options are limited. On balance, a fine landing pad for families spending most of their time (and money) at the parks.
Universal's Royal Pacific Resort - A Loews Hotel Rating: 4.0 Pearls
Because all three Universal hotels have very similar features and services, families will do fine at any one of them; picking is really a question of priorities. Portofino Bay has the classiest, most grown-up atmosphere, which may not be a great fit for small children. The Hard Rock's rock-and-roll theme is well suited for teens. The Royal Pacific, meanwhile, has an easygoing atmosphere ideal for guests with youngsters in tow. Kids can dine with their favorite Universal character at the hotel restaurant (say, Spider-Man or the Cat in the Hat), attend twice-weekly luau shows, and zap bad guys in the video arcade. Suites have separate rooms with kid-friendly themes (like Jurassic Park), and the thrills of Universal Studios are just a 10-minute walk, or five-minute taxi ride, away.