Do You Need To Stay At Disney World To Get The "Full Experience"?

It’s hard to put into words just how massive Walt Disney World Resort is. Located on 43 square miles, the property is as big as some cities. The resort is home to four theme parks, two water parks, a shopping and dining complex, and more than 25 hotels that are just Disney-owned properties.

But, while there are plenty of Disney World hotels to stay at, they aren’t your only option when visiting the Most Magical Place on Earth. Orlando is the theme park capital of the world, so it should come as no surprise that there are countless properties in the area that you can choose from, often at a more palatable price. Which begs the question: Do you need to stay at a Disney World hotel to get the ~full~ Disney experience?

Disney World World Resort Hotels

Disney World is home to four different categories of hotels: Deluxe Villas, Deluxe Resorts, Moderate Resorts, and Value Resorts. Deluxe Villas are Disney Vacation Club properties that DVC members and the general public can use. Typically, they are part of the Deluxe Resort category, available as studios or 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom villas that provide more of a “home away from home” experience that could include amenities like a washer and dryer or kitchen.

Deluxe Resorts are the most expensive Disney World category, coming with the most amenities, dining options, and typically the closest proximity to the parks. Moderate Resorts sit one level below, with fewer amenities but at a slightly less expensive price. Value Resorts are the least expensive option, with no table service restaurants available and the fewest amenities.

All three categories come with transportation to the parks, as well as various room types and themes. Additionally, each offers special perks of staying on-site, such as Early Theme Park Entry and the ability to book a Lightning Lane (the paid way to “skip the line” on rides) earlier than non-resort guests.

Why It’s Worth Staying On-Site

While there are pros and cons to any hotel you choose to stay at when visiting Disney World, these are a few of the major perks of staying at a Disney World Resort hotel.

  • Early Theme Park Entry and Extended Evening Hours: All Disney World Resort hotel guests get Early Theme Park Entry, which gives you access to the parks 30 minutes before they open. Additionally, Deluxe Resort hotel guests get Extended Evening Hours, which is two extra hours in select parks on select dates.
  • Disney Theming: Disney World Resort hotels come with incredible theming. Whether it’s the subtle Mary Poppins touches at the Grand Floridian or The Incredibles-themed rooms at the Contemporary Resort, Disney fans will love the immersive experience.
  • Ease of Transportation: I can’t overstate how nice it is not to have to worry about a car when going to and from the parks. Whether it’s a boat, Monorail, Skyliner, bus, or even walking, each hotel offers an easy way to get to and from the parks.
  • Staying in the “Magic”: Perhaps the most significant advantage of staying at a Disney World Resort hotel is getting to stay in the Disney World bubble. With easy transportation from the hotels to the parks and Disney Springs, you can easily get wherever you need to go without ever having to leave Disney property.

Reasons You Don’t Need to Stay On-Site

While there are perks to staying at a Disney World Resort hotel, there are a few reasons to consider staying off-site, too. Here are some considerations to help you determine if an off-site hotel may be your better pick.

  • Better Amenities for a Better Price: Despite the name “value,” many of the Disney World Value Resorts still come with pretty hefty price tags. For the same price or cheaper, you can find many off-site hotels that offer far more luxurious accommodations.
  • Many Off-Site Hotels Offer Similar Perks: Because many of the off-site hotels cater to Disney World guests, they come with a lot of the same perks you’d have staying on-site. For example, many Disney World Good Neighbor Hotels offer the same Early Theme Park Entry perk, as well as transportation shuttles to and from the parks.
  • Different Room Types for Different Group Sizes: For a bigger group at Disney World, you may end up shelling out more money to stay in a Deluxe Villa, Family Suite, or two rooms. Staying off-site can give you the option of finding the right room type and situation for your group for less. Find a hotel with a suite or adjoining rooms that cost less than you’d end up paying for bigger accommodations at Disney World.
  • Ability to Use Reward Points: If you have points with Marriott, Hilton, or any other major hotel chain, you can use those points to get a cheaper stay at one of the many non-Disney locations.

Best Off-Site Hotels Near Disney World

There are endless hotels in or around Orlando that you can choose from, but these are a few of the best categories to look out for if you’re staying in a non-Disney World Resort hotel.

Bonnet Creek Hotels

The Bonnet Creek Hotels are technically within Disney World property but are not owned by Disney themselves. Located right near Disney’s Riviera Resort, the complex includes the following hotels:

Staying at one of these hotels means you are just a short drive from the parks, with each offering perks such as Early Theme Park Entry as well as complimentary transportation to and from the property.

Disney Springs Hotels

If you’re planning on spending any time at Disney Springs (Disney World’s shopping and dining complex), a handful of Disney Springs hotels are within walking distance of the area. The Disney Springs hotels include:

Each hotel offers shuttle service to the parks and Early Theme Park Entry. When I stay at Disney World, I have always loved the Disney Springs area hotels for their convenient proximity to the Parks. Once the parks close, Disney Springs is typically still open, offering a great spot to grab a drink or food nearby.

Four Seasons Orlando

If you’re considering a non-Disney property for a lower price tag, the Four Seasons Orlando is not your pick. However, if it’s luxurious amenities you’re after without staying at an official Disney World-owned hotel, the Four Seasons Orlando is the most decadent hotel you could possibly find.

Located in the Golden Oak area of Disney World, this beautiful property comes packed with amenities such as exquisite views (you can even see the fireworks!), a huge pool, dining options that include a Disney character meal, and even a spa. If you want a luxury vacation at Disney World while staying off-site, there’s arguably no better place.

Good Neighbor Hotels

Disney World offers a variety of what they call Good Neighbor Hotels. Each of these nearby hotels has been vetted by Disney for its high standards and close proximity to Walt Disney World. There are dozens of choices, all at varying distances and prices. You can check out a full list here.

Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin and Swan Reserve

So technically, the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin and Walt Disney World Swan Reserve are not off-site. The three hotels offer luxurious accommodations just a short walk away from Epcot. However, the hotels are not owned by Disney, which means you can often get Deluxe Resort accommodations at a fraction of the cost you’d be paying at the nearby BoardWalk Inn or Yacht and Beach Club Resort.

Marriott owns the hotels, so Bonvoy Rewards members can use their points when booking. Additionally, these hotels come with the major perk of Extended Evening Hours for guests, meaning you can get a Deluxe Resort perk without staying at an official Disney World-owned property. They’re a great option to consider if you’re looking to stay in more luxurious digs without paying the premium of staying at a Disney World hotel.

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