What's Cheaper: Staying On or Off Disney Property? Crunching the Numbers

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BestWDW, Flickr

What's the price difference between top-of-the-line "Deluxe" Walt Disney World hotels compared with hotels of a similar star rating just outside the property in Orlando? You get some extra goodies when you stay on Disney property in a Disney hotel, so when you factor in the value of those goodies, how does the difference compute? We did the math.

We took a few of Disney's premium resorts, which it calls "Deluxe," and priced them for two different nights: March 15, amidst spring break time and its higher-than-average rates, and May 2, a shoulder season in between spring and summer vacations, when prices are saner. Both days are weekdays, because weekends typically incur surcharges of about $25-$30. Here's what Disney charges, before tax:

Disney's Contemporary Resort is that famous A-frame structure through which the iconic monorail travels. On March 15, a preemo room facing the Magic Kingdom would cost $580. If you're wiling to settle for a "garden" view instead, $365 is the cheapest. On May 2, the rates are $500 and $330, respectively.

That's as high as it got for a standard room at Disney, partly because the Contemporary is on the Monorail, which links the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. The Disney's Beach Club is not on the Monorail, but it does have foot access to a side door of Epcot. There, $465 gets you a parking lot view and $540 a water view (March) and $385/$475 in May.

Finally, one of the least expensive Deluxe hotels is Disney's Wilderness Lodge, with no Monorail and no foot access to the parks. That's $375 for a parking lot view in March, and $310 in May. For a more pleasant view of the woods, you're looking at $405 and $335.

Rates outside Disney

Those are Disney's top-of-the-line hotels. Now let's take three equivalent, top-of-the-line resorts just outside the cordon of Disney World, for double occupancy on the same dates: the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes (3 miles from Disney), the the Reunion Resort and Club (6 miles from Disney) and the Waldorf-Astoria (on Disney property).

In March, the Ritz-Carlton was cheaper than every Disney resort save for a parking lot view at the Wilderness Lodge, which was $4 cheaper. Same for May, when it was $4 more than a woods view at the Lodge and $9 more than a garden view at the Contemporary. Everything else at Disney cost more.

Nothing was less expensive than the Reunion for a top-quality resort. On March 15, the cheapest room was $260 (for a deluxe one-bedroom villa). In fact, you could upgrade to a two-bedroom villa and still be cheaper than everything else, at $310. The same is true in May: Five-star service for $195 for a one-bedroom, and $240 for a two-bedroom.

Finally the Waldorf Astoria opened in late 2009 and has been popular ever since. Extremely popular, actually, because there were no rooms available on either March 15 or May 2. To get prices, we checked rates for exactly a week later (still midweek) and came up with $329 for both dates. In fact, you could upgrade to a deluxe suite ($509) and still pay less than a water view in a standard room at Disney's Beach Club.

Clearly, the Disney hotels are more expensive than non-Disney hotels of comparable quality (a pattern that holds true across all price levels, even at the cheapest "Value" resorts), but what happens when you consider the dollar value of things you can only get at Disney hotels?

What about the extras?

But at Disney, a hotel is worth more than its sticker price. There are perks that Disney resorts throw in that you can't negotiate at outside properties. What are they worth?

The jewel of Disney hotel amenities is probably Extra Magic Hours, which allow guests to enter one theme park each day for an hour or two for which the general public is not permitted. Let's say you get an extra hour in the morning at the Magic Kingdom. Given that there are fewer crowds, you can see a lot more in that time than you could during the rest of the day, so let's value that extra time as worth three hours of touring time once the park gates open for everyone else.

The most expensive one-day ticket to a Disney World park costs $87.33 -- if you stay for more days, the per-day price descends steeply -- so assuming you spend 12 hours in the park, that makes an hour of time worth $7.27. Times three hours, that's $21.83. So you could say that Extra Magic Hour is worth about $22. That's being hugely generous, since we used the highest ticket rate possible (despite the fact nearly no one pays that much) and valued a single Extra Magic Hour as three. So Extra Magic Hours is worth a maximum of $22 per person.

Disney also gives its hotel guests transportation to and from the airport. It contracts with Mears Transportation, which sells rides to Disney property (we priced to the Waldorf) to non-guests for $34 round-trip for adults and $27 round-trip to kids aged 4-11. If you had a family of two adults and two kids, that would cost you $122.

As for rental cars, on Expedia, the cheapest rental on March 15 was $37.05 per day including the steep airport tax, and the cheapest one for May 2 was quoted at $42.51 including tax. Those prices were for one-day rentals. Rent for week, as most people do, and I saw the per-day price can drop as low as $20. So if you think you saved $122 by using Disney's Magical Express, you could have rented a car for a whole week for that much or not much more.

So already we see that renting a car can be cheaper than relying on a bus to and from the airport. Disney also has its own network of free shuttle buses within the resort, which some claim as a hotel perk, but in fact those are free for everyone, even if you aren't staying there, so they can't be counted as a restricted amenity. But it's also true that if you stay off-property and drive at a Disney park, parking costs $14 per day, which hotel guests can have for free.

Verdict: Per day, Disney guests save $14 in parking. Add that to the $22 for Extra Magic Hours, and you now have an added Disney value of $36 per night.

So if all you care about is dollar value off the special Disney amenities, a non-Disney hotel theoretically has to cost at least $36 less than a Disney hotel for you to break even.

The Final Tally

After that, it's about personal preferences. Disney resorts have pools, but so do the other resorts (in fact, the Ritz-Carlton's, which is shared with the JW Marriott's, is larger than anything Disney has). Disney has fine restaurants, but so do the resorts (the Ritz's claim is by celebrity chef Norman Van Aken). Most Disney resorts are substantially closer to the parks, but not always: The Waldorf isn't much farther from the Magic Kingdom than Disney's own Animal Kingdom Lodge.

One can argue -- and many have -- that Mickey's service is several notches below the true white glove service that's normal at most fine resorts in America, and that anyone who has really stayed at a luxury hotel could never accept the cattle-call lobby scrums at the World as being truly luxe. For example, at Disney, lines at cafeteria-style restaurants are common even at the most expensive resorts, and it's also true that Disney resists allowing guests reserve specific rooms while the fancy resorts are more accommodating.

So if you get so much more for your money just a mile or two away, why do people go Disney?

Well, there's the intoxicating sight of the monorail humming past your room. There's the convenience of hopping onto a ferry or even walking directly into a Disney park (something many, but not all, Disney Deluxe resorts offer). There are wake-up calls from Mickey, and Mickey profiles hidden in the pattern of the bedspreads. You can also have your park souvenirs sent to your Disney resort room (provided there's time), and you can also purchase the resort's dining option if you stay there (but that's not always a good deal).

When it comes down to it, the reason many guests give for choosing a Disney resort over a nearby one is that they love that "Disney magic." If you can't articulate what that is -- or if having fine linens and a concierge who knows your name is your idea of magic -- then you get more for your money by staying off-property. But there will always be people for whom being near the parks is about more than money or comparing Disney services to the amenities you receive at true luxury hotels in 2011.

Sure, this is unscientific, but so are your vacation purchasing habits. Besides, a ballpark estimate is the only one that's ever accurate for something as variable as a vacation budget.

What about you? If you chose a more expensive Disney hotel over a comparable hotel just outside the park gates, what motivated you?

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