Entering Disney World is like entering no other place on Earth. It is surreal and it is unreal. It is popcorn wafting through clean streetscapes and formidable pirates giving a wink as they let a little person slither on by. It is being able to spend a half an hour in a country (well…sortof?) and moving quickly on to the next. It’s shaking roller coasters and chugging trains. And at the end of the day? It is often exhausting and overwhelming.
With all of the cotton candy and Disney characters swirling around, it can feel like a slow walk through molasses just to get home at night. And getting up in the morning, hungover from the day before, is often the perfect storm for family meltdowns. One way we combat this level of fatigue is to stay close to the parks, on property in a Disney-owned hotel. The good news is, Disney hotels come in a variety of prices, each distinct in their theme. (Note: There are two properties that are “on property” but they are not owned by Disney. You can read about them here.)
But beyond just the ease of location, what added perks come with staying on a Disney-owned property? After being off property, on property, and every where else in between, we’ve come up with our five favorite bonuses that come with staying at a WDW property.
Generally, Three Kids flies to Orlando when we visit the parks (we do road trip the 1200 miles when we have over a week). And after lugging little people and their whoosits and whassits through the airport, sort of the last thing I want to do is go find all our luggage circling the carousel, drag it and the overly exuberant littles to the car rental location (which often requires going up and down stairs/escalators/elevators and crossing streets), and then pack all of it and them into the car. And, seriously, can we talk about car seats? I don’t want to bring them, but I certainly don’t want to pay to rent them either. They are a HASSLE (which is really just a really nice way of saying what I actually think they are when I have to cart them all over the place with me). There are other options too, of course, like buses from the airport operated by companies such as Mears. But our experiences with theses buses have been less then stellar (cigarette stenches and ripped seats).
The beauty of a Disney-owned property? The Magical Express. And oh is it magical. They literally get your bags at baggage claim for you and have some sweet little luggage fairies drop them off in your room a bit later (of course this means if you’re coming from a different climate, you will need to bring a change of clothes in your carry on if you intend to quickly get out and explore the parks). And guess what? They do it on the way back too. Just drop the bags off and POOF! There they are when you arrive at your luggage carousel at home. Amazing. (Note: if your plane arrives late in the evening (think post 10pm) you will need to retrieve your own bags.)
On top of the beauty of not having to drag 8 million pounds of stuff behind me as I get blasted with Florida heat, I am forever grateful to the Magical Express for being, well, magical. The littles are so wound up. And that often coincides with a level of exhaustion from a too early flight or too-excited-to-nap frame of mind. (I may or may not be talking about my own exhaustion here.) So, I am blissfully delighted that I can sit on a comfy little bus and watch a perfect little video about all the comings and goings of Disney. My little people are sucked in and either end up fast asleep or quietly engaged, giving me enough peace to refill my travel-weary cup. And you know what they say about a full cup. No? Me either, but I think every one gets my point.
On to the park and the plans that we’ve made! We are a family that knows our travel schedule up to a year or more in advance. We’re trying to squeeze things in as often as possible, which means we know when we’ll be at Disney well before we can start booking our fast passes. For a valid ticket holder linked to a Disney account, that means 30 days before your arrival. But for someone booked at a Disney property? That number jumps to 60. Rest assured, this travel tribe is sitting, computers open or Smart Phones ready at the 60 day mark. It may seem a bit crazy, but those rides and experiences that are in high demand will book up quickly, before that 30 day opening even hits. The added 30 days provides a bit of assurance that most, if not all, ride and experience needs will be met.
The same philosophy applies to making reservations at restaurants in Walt Disney World. We like to take a break and sit down at a full service restaurant at least once a day when we’re at Disney. This tribe need a guaranteed place to rest our bones where the world does not swirl around us. But, these restaurants often fill up fast and wait times can be hours, if they accept walk ups at all. But getting reservations can be easy peasy when you’re staying on property. (Cue the sigh of relief.)
Like fast passes, dining reservations open up to those staying on property in a way that can be quite beneficial. Dining reservations open to everyone 180 days prior to arrival (as long as there is a valid ticket linked to a Disney account). The difference, though, is that when staying on property, a guest can book reservations at the 180-day mark for the length of their stay. This means that if we are staying for 10 days, we can log on at 180 days out and book dinner for the 10 days we will be at WDW. On the other hand, if we were staying off property, we would need to call back each and every day to make a reservation for the day that’s 180 days out. No stress, right? I mean, we all easily remember to do small tasks like call to book a reservation for three months out every single day for 10 days straight.
In addition to the fact that is something we can just log on and take care of in a single sitting, the benefits of being able to access dining reservations in advance of others is that it increases our chances of getting into some of those most desirable dining locations, like Be Our Guest.
(For more tips on how to plan ahead for your trip, take a look at “5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Book Your Walt Disney World Vacation (and Why You Need to Answer Them)“.)
Magic hours are special, very, very, very special hours that occur prior to the park’s opening or after the park closes. During these hours, the only people allowed in the park are those with valid park tickets who are staying at Disney Resort hotels, The Swan and Dolphin Hotel, and the Shades of Green Resort (and Disney Golden Oak Residents and their guests). They don’t happen at every park on every day either. They’re quite elusive. Are they morning? Are they night? One hour? Two? Epcot? Magic Kingdom? Animal Kingdom? Any Kingdom? You never know! Until you show up at the hotel at least. That’s when, depending on the duration of your stay and the day of arrival, you will be informed of the Magic Hours either for the next few days or the upcoming week.
While it may seem unbelievable that the “cast” of WDW can actually clear out the parks for the evening magic hours, they are skilled at some how quickly and efficiently ushering out those who aren’t staying on property. All that is needed to attend these hours is a valid park ticket and be a registered guest (so have your magic band). This means, though, that if you plan on being in more than one park in a single day, to take advantage of the magic hours for example, a park hopper pass is needed rather than single park pass. Additionally, the magic hours are subject to change and all attractions may not be opened.
The benefit of having magic hours is pretty self explanatory. The park is substantially less crowded. It is easier to get on the rides and the atmosphere has a much calmer, more soothing feel. Of course, it is early in the morning or late in the evening, so the weather is cooler (even cold during winter months). It’s a welcome relief from the humidity of the day as well as the chaos of the crowds of the day.
I don’t do well lugging things around. I think I established this when I discussed why I have an undying love of the Magical Express. Well, it also applies to the souvenirs we pick up while at the parks. The beauty of staying on property is that packages can be shipped directly from the point of purchase to the Disney Resort we’re staying at. So those giant stuffed animals that will inevitably be shoved into the bottom of an overflowing stroller? They don’t have to stick with us. The coffee mug I’m sure that my little people will manhandle and break? Oh it too goes to directly to the resort.
This lack of having “stuff” hanging off of us everywhere is also key in terms of getting around the parks. In order to move between parks, we often have to fold up the strollers and get on a bus. Holding on to two strollers and three little people and their daily necessities is enough on a crowded bus. Seriously, I’d rather not be responsible for a fragile Christmas ornament as well. And thankfully, I don’t have to.
It is Walt Disney World. Everywhere. And, I certainly don’t want to step into this world of magic and escapism in order to leave it again every single night. By staying on property, we can just be immersed in the experience in its entirety. My little people don’t mind coming back to the hotel, which means no complaints when I bring the littles back to spend time there in order to let the tiniest little nap. They don’t mind strolling around the resorts, spending the extra time searching for hidden Mickeys, eating ice cream midday. In fact, during one of our trips, we failed to leave our resort two of the six days we were there. The little people just wanted to stay there, swimming, relaxing, exploring.
Additionally, ambiance becomes everything when the weather prevents you from going outside. I don’t mind going to the parks in rain; in fact, I prefer it (just for like a day really). The crowds are smaller, and we all seem to bond over the elements. But, extreme weather is a different story. We were trapped inside at Disney during Hurricane Matthew when the parks shut down. During this time, the hotels went out of their way to create an experience for the guests. We were staying on property but not in a Disney Resort, and there was literally nothing to do. A few extra games of Trouble were tossed into the “kids room” (which we were told, may or may not open).
When the storm died down later that day, brimming with cabin fever, we trudged our way to the neighboring properties, which were Disney Resorts. Here we stumbled into Goofy and Pluto roaming the resort grounds. The characters graciously took pictures with a stuffed doll we bought our oldest because she was back at our hotel and sick in bed. In those moments of wandering, we, once again, regretted our decision to stay in a non-Disney resort.
When we go to Disney World, we go to Disney World. We’re not looking for doses of reality (and, yes, we’re ok with that). We don’t want to worry about parking spots, PTA meetings, or whether or not we need to get the driveway sealed this winter. It is a place we escape to. And so, for us, staying on a Disney property allows us to cocoon ourselves in Disney magic day and night, enter the world of our littles, and stay there, blissfully, even when we’re all asleep.
Many minutes after her final tuck in, my biggest little sat up and started spewing…
I know, I know. The Royal Mile is just so touristy. And it is. But…