ORLANDO, Fla. — Walt Disney World has expanded so much in the last couple of years that anyone who hasn't visited in four years or so might find the new additions downright dizzying.
New attractions include MGM Studios, Typhoon Lagoon and Pleasure Island--and another new theme park based on turn-of-the-century Atlantic City is slated to open in the next year. And whereas tourists who wanted to stay inside the park once had a clear-cut choice between the tropical Polynesian Resort, the towering Contemporary or the rustic Fort Wilderness Campground, today's visitors have to choose among more than a dozen on-site resorts, each with a unique atmosphere.
The first questions you're probably asking are: Is there really a difference between staying on-site and staying off? And, is it worth the price?
The answer to both questions is "yes"--especially since the recent openings of three "moderately priced" (about $100 a night) hotels on Disney premises.
There are some financial advantages to staying off-site, of course: Hotels are much cheaper and often come with free breakfast and in-room pay-per-view movies (which Disney hotels lack). Also, eating most meals off Walt Disney World premises will cost less and probably satisfy more.
But those who plan to spend the majority of their time touring Walt Disney World will appreciate the advantages of staying on-site.
The most obvious advantage is the commute--or lack thereof. The in-park transportation system is a network of monorails, boats, trams and buses that drop you right at the gates of the Magic Kingdom (or wherever), bypassing the monorail to the parking lot. The system is so efficient that people staying on-site need never get into their cars--unless they take a day or two to tour other Orlando attractions such as Sea World or Universal Studios. Even if you do drive, you won't have to pay for parking at Walt Disney World theme parks or hotels, a savings of $4 or more per day for on-site guests.
Disney resort guests also have the advantage of early admission (up to an hour) to the theme parks--giving them a valuable jump on the crowds during the jam-packed peak seasons. Resort guests also have access to the free Disney films shown nightly at some Disney hotel theaters--and can purchase "Be Our Guest" theme park tickets at a slight discount.
The atmosphere at Walt Disney World-operated hotels is infectiously pleasant. "It's like you never have to leave the theme parks," said one recent Dixie Landings visitor. The Disney touch is evident in every room, from the antique pictures on the walls at the budget-priced Port Orleans, to the live parrots in the lobby of the Polynesian resort.
Every Disney hotel offers basic amenities like Mickey Mouse soap and shampoo; CNN, The Disney Channel, and a special Walt Disney World channel on TV (pay-per-view movies are conspicuously absent); room cleanliness that borders on fanatical, and odd little pleasant surprises, such as the soft, pleasant music that greets you with your morning wake-up call, or the Disney characters drawn into the sand on the beaches every morning.
Finally, there is the unspoken guarantee that when you're staying on-site you don't have to deal with reality at all. You can just unpack your things, catch the nearest Disney transport, and relax without ever having to hassle with the minor unpleasantries of life. If something isn't right, Disney staff will make it right. That's one of the best things about staying here.
THE THREE 'CHEAP' HOTELS
With the opening of the Caribbean Beach Resort several years ago, Disney World went into direct competition with the low-priced hotels along the major Orlando strips. On-site prices aren't really cheap (an off-site motel can go for as little as $30 a night; the cheapest Disney hotel still costs about three times as much), but at around $100 a night, the "budget" hotels are the most affordable accommodations on WDW property.
Each of the moderately priced hotels has a different theme, but they do have certain things in common:
* Because the budget hotels are in relatively out-of-the-way places, you really need a car to get to the parks easily, especially if you have kids. Buses are plentiful and very reliable, but can still be problematic for families who don't want to drag sleeping children off, then hike back to their rooms.
* Room service is limited to pizza delivery--the closest thing in Disney World to New York-style pizza--but this service generally closes by midnight. There are also fewer on-site restaurants than there are in the expensive hotels--especially at the Caribbean Beach, where the lines at the food court are legendary.
* None of the budget hotels of fers on-site kids' clubs (although the Neverland Club at the Polynesian is open to all children staying at Walt Disney World resorts). In-room sitting is available through Fairy Godmothers Inc., but it's not as much fun for the kids as the supervised play areas in other hotels.