I’ve admitted previously online that my visits to official Disney hotels have been international in character until now. I’ve spent nights in Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneyland hotels, but none at Walt Disney World (I did sleep on a Disneyland Hotel floor once before a half marathon, but that hardly counts). That changed recently, when I finally got the chance to stay at Disney World hotel. Since I’ve been somewhat discouraging about Disney World hotels in the past, I thought it only fair to revisit the question now that I’ve had a firsthand, paying experience. Read on and you’ll discover that while I’m still not fully convinced, it’s a lot closer to “parity” than I once thought. An awful lot. Maybe more than I’d care to admit.

First, the specifics. The occasion was my wife’s birthday. We figured we would start small and inexpensive, knowing we could always try for better hotels in future years. That meant either All Stars or Pop Century; we went with Pop Century.

We got very lucky. My favorite courtyard happened to be our view!

It’s a Value resort, and in the past, I’ve always compared such a room (which I’ve certainly seen by visiting rooms rented by my friends) with an off-site motel such as Motel 6. People have e-mailed me constantly that the comparison isn’t fair.

After staying in Pop Century for a weekend, I agree that the comparison isn’t fair. There really is more to the Disney value resort than Motel 6 has to offer. But we CAN compare apples to apples here. Everything has a price. And that’s when it struck me. The right way to compare these products is to evaluate them on services delivered.

My first time on “POP”erty! (sorry, couldn’t resist)

Let’s compare Motel 6 (on the nearby US-192) to Pop Century, for a weekend evening. I take the Motel 6 example as the “base” and then will contrast the Pop Century experience to it, and assign dollar values to the individual perks, benefits, and advantages to staying at the Disney hotel.

The room decor is “Disneyfied” in only very minor ways.

A weekend night in October costs $30 for Motel 6, and $115 for Pop Century. When I lived out of town, that was the end of the comparison right there. $85 extra is a lot of cash that could be put to use buying turkey legs, churros, and keychains. Why pay more?

There are some “big characters” at Pop, but Art of Animation has only Disney decorations. What’s Disney about a yo-yo?

What I discovered by staying on property, after almost a decade of living locally (with no need of a hotel) and many years before that of staying off-property will not be a shock to many of you: Yes, there are advantages, and they do add up.

My second child used the Pop sign as one of his very first words ever “read”

My “fatal flaw”, if you will, all these years has been to search for a killer app, the ONE THING that will convince me that spending an extra $85 was worthwhile. $85 was a lot of money. That’s almost three additional nights at Motel 6. Surely there’s no one thing that will make it worthwhile.

The food courts during breakfast hours are a BEEHIVE of activity. I had no idea the seething mass of humanity that teemed in here. This shot doesn’t do it justice.

I’ve realized that if you put a dollar value to all the things a Disney hotel gets you, you essentially “earn back” all of those $85. What I did was ask myself how much a given perk was worth to me. How much cash would I fork over to get something (knowing that this figure was likely different from what it actually costs to purchase or otherwise provide). Often, I tried to double-check myself by asking: how much would I demand to get me to do it the “other” way?

In this fashion, I think the following values for all the perks are accurate for ME and my family (the numbers will almost certainly be different for you and your family). Note that the dollar values are “per room” rather than per person:

  • Disney-quality bed and pillows: $0 (I detected no difference)
  • Better shampoo and soap, room upkeep / lack of shabbiness: $3
  • No car needed to MK and Epcot (and being able to get drunk at Epcot w/o driving): $5
  • Theming/Decor all around the hotel grounds: $5
  • Waking up “in” Disney World—feeling relaxed, whereas the vacation has breaks when you sleep off-property: $10
  • Convenient food court with no driving, with prices mostly in check ($6 breakfast burrito, Tables in Wonderland card honored): $2
  • Avoiding traffic on busy US-192 or SR-535: $2
  • Skipping the TTC and moving straight to the MK gates without need of waiting for a monorail or walking in from my car: $3
  • The fanfare on the bus as you arrive at the MK: $1
  • Extra Magic Hours: $20/room (or roughly $5 each for a family of four)
  • Amortized savings of not renting a car, since you are not leaving Disney property: $20
  • Amortized savings of not paying for an airport shuttle, due to free Disney’s Magical Express: $5
  • Daily savings on Disney parking: $14 (unless you have an annual pass, in which case it’s less than a dollar). Note: parking is free even with your own car if you have a dashboard printout proving that you’re renting a Disney room.
  • Included wi-fi in the rooms and food court: $4. I know this usually costs $10, but my criteria here is not what something costs, but what it’s worth. What I’d be willing to pay for it.
  • Thicker walls than Motel 6: $5
  • Pool: $1 (way better than Motel 6)
  • Package pickup from the parks brought to your hotel gift shop: $1

    One gripe though:

  • Hassle of crowded busses at night, with 40-60 minutes going by before you arrive at your hotel common at night: negative $5. In other words, I would have paid $5 to have my own car present in the parking lot so I could skip this bus at night.
The busses are, um, crowded.

Adding all of those together, I get $96 worth of benefit from staying at Pop Century versus Motel 6. In other words, the equivalent perks if purchased at Motel 6 would make that room on US-192 cost $126, or $11 more than the Disney room I *did* purchase.

This got me. I come from a school of thought that prefers to spend fewer dollars on an absolute basis, never mind the RELATIVE value. So putting absolute dollars onto paper like this made it real for me in a way that would hardly have been possible otherwise.

As groovy as it is, it has limits.

I’m still cheap, and the concept of “absolute dollars” has not left my vocabulary completely. But the entire experience has given me an enhanced understanding of why folks would pay such a premium price for Disney hotels. I’m sure the calculations would look different for Moderate hotels, and then different yet again for the Deluxe resorts. I look forward to running such calculations in the future. One birthday at a time, you see. First my wife has to get a year older so we have another excuse to stay!

What are your thoughts on this? Would you value things differently? Anything I may have missed or overstated? Scroll down to leave your comments below…

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  • bhb007

    If you have a child under 7, I’d add say that the value added for staying on-property grows exponentially. My experience is that you can have a great morning with a younger kid at a Disney park, but by the early afternoon THINGS START TO GO TERRIBLY WRONG. A quick jump on a shuttle bus, a little relaxation time in the room, perhaps a swim, and a leisurely meal (not possible in the parks)… and the little ones are ready for a great evening at the park (only a shuttle bus ride away).

    That’s the “killer app” for me. With multiple parks, Fastpass, and huge crowds, the stress factor of being at Disney is higher now than ever. It can still be a lot of fun… but you now occasionally need to “take a vacation from the vacation.” On-property hotels allow you to do that… which is a godsend if you have younger kids.

  • mkcoastie

    I have to admit that I swear by the WDW resorts. I won’t stay anywhere else. I have long maintained that (at least on the value level) the resorts are fairly comparable once you start adding in all the extra’s (car rental/parking/airport shulttle, ect.) To be honest, however, that is not the reason I like Disney resorts. I can liken it to the reason I go to Disney World in the first place. I am currently statuioned in southern Virginia. Busch Gardens Williamsburg is a fifteen min drive from my house. A quick look at ticket costs tells me that it is approximately $50 dollars cheaper for my family of four to buy single day tickets to Busch Gardens. It is MUCH cheaper for me to get there (about $5 in gas). Despite this price differance, I still pack my family into the car about once a year and spend a large amount of money driving halfway accross the country to go to the more expensive WDW………why do I do this? Because Disney parks give me something that my local park never could. As much as we complain about the current state of WDW (and we rightfully do), it still provides a completely different level of theme park from my local park. The same goes for Disney Resorts. Orlando has every hotel and resort brand you could possibly want. I’m possitive I could find a more posh, much cheaper resort with a fantastic pool and great amenities off property. What I cannot find is a turn of the century seaside resort, with a backstory leading to the pirate ship wreak that forms the pool’s waterslide. I can find many beautiful and convienant off-site hotels that will allow me to quickly drive to any of the parks. i will not find any off site hotel that allows me to almost feel that I never really leave the parks. many of the Disney Resorts (moderate and up) offer immersive themed enviorments that can often rival whats in the parks. That for me is worth a lot. just my two cents.

  • BC_DisneyGeek

    Good article that makes a fair comparison.

    Did you actually use the magic hours? I remember one year staying at the same hotel, there were a ton of people waiting for busses to get to AK for early magic hours. 20 minutes after EMH had started, there were still two busses worth of crowds waiting. It was pretty clear it would be over by the time they got there.

    Honestly, I wouldn’t stay at Pop Century again unless it was a deal I couldn’t pass up. The moderates are so much nicer. I found the moderates to be places I enjoyed spending time at, whereas Pop was a place to sleep between theme park visits.

  • StevenW

    Why would you nickle and dime yourself? This is a horrible exercise of taxing yourself to Disney’s exorbitant prices. It makes no sense or cents.

    You have to offer counter examples of living off-site with a rental car, which is a real amenity that you can use to full advantage despite the daily rental price, car insurance, the gas, and the parking fee.

    1. Convenient to eat at cheaper places off-site. Up to 70% savings if eating breakfast in own room. Or 100% savings if hotel offers free continental breakfast. Eat dinner locally.

    2. Easy grocery store runs. Bring packed lunches to park.

    3. Quick drive to hotel when compared to bus during peak hours.

    4. Easy to visit much cheaper alternative parks.

    5. Variety of night-time attractions off-site.

    6. Costs are driven up from living in a captive situation.

    7. Purchases are encouraged via package pickup. Do you do know this? There is no savings from spending.

    $85 over 7 days is $595. This equivalent of 2 adult tickets to Disney. It should be clear that $115 for Pop Century isn’t that much for a moderate hotel, but you shouldn’t compare it to Motel 6, which is an important starting point for many people. This $30 per night rate is best for much poorer locals who drive their own cars. These people don’t have to worry about flying in. They know the area.

  • StevenW

    I should note that if you have enough money, the best thing is stay at a resort close to the Magic Kingdom or EPCOT. For at least one park, don’t use the bus or the transportation. Just walk.

  • WesternMouse

    What a great analysis. I worked in the Disney hotels and they are very nice. Ironically, I left Orlando because the industry never paid me enough to allow me to enjoy what the city has to offer.

    I any case, assessing the opportunity costs of staying off property is a smart thing to do. By the time you add in the “breaks” of driving and parking and the other things you mentioned, it’s worth it to consider the on-property hotels.

    Now if I could only find a $30 Motel 6 outside of Disneyland Paris….

  • maguiref2001

    I think you’ve set the stage for a reasonable way to weigh your options when planning a vacation at Disney World. Our family found one major advantage to staying at any Disney Resort is that you get free parking anywhere at Disney World. And you have easy Access to the Disney Resorts by car/van. So, you can drive to Animal Kingdom in the morning and drive to another resort you aren’t staying at for lunch. You are absolutely right about the overall cost. You should be able to save money by living and shopping off-property. But if you over think it you are probably being penny wise — pound foolish at some point. After all, it’s supposed to be a vacation.

  • lionheartkc

    I’m a huge proponent of staying on property, but I have to say, you couldn’t pay me to stay in Pop Century. A few weeks ago we were checking out Art of Animation, which is just across the lake, and we looked across at Pop Century and just looking at it made our heads hurt. First, it’s geared toward families, but kids won’t get 90% of the references. Second, it’s just flat out ugly… and putting a beautifully designed value resort like Art of Animation next to it just magnifies that fact. So, I suggest taking your list and subtracting $20 for having to look at the hotel every time you come and go, and for having to answer all of your kids questions about what everything is and or means and why they can’t stay in the cool hotel across the lake.

  • Malin

    I recently looked at staying at a Moderate Disney Hotel next year. And I actually took a variety of things into consideration. I was offered straight away a Disney package that included 14 day ultimate themepark ticket. Staying 12 nights at Port Orleans, Riverside. Also included was $100.00 spending money and the free quick service dining plan. Once you include these extras the vaule if you can get a decent package really do add up in your favour here.

    Then you have to look at your own needs. Most of my time in Orlando will be spent at Disney. So for me it makes perfect sense to pick one of the Disney Hotels. I had some friends who recently stayed off site but were offered free transportation to the parks. The only issue with this is the return journey was schedule for 8.00 pm some nights. Making it impossible to see such shows as Fantasmic. The Bus journey’s back to your Disney Hotel can get busy at park closing. But if you miss your bus another one is minutes away. And the service is offered through-out the day. Extra Magic Hours while the service is being cut back. Still provides a couple of additional hours in the parks. The rooms in my experience are usually kept in good condition and you have plenty of themes and prices to pick from at Walt Disney World. Unless I was planning to spend more time outside of Disney. It just doesn’t add up to stay off site. Besides a lot of these cheaper options outside of Disney will cost you more in taxi’s or gas each day to get to and from Disney.

  • I know I’m getting gouged by staying at Disney. But I do it anyway. When I was younger and money was the sole consideration, I always stayed off property because that was all I could afford. And I’ve got to say that there are a lot of great (and a lot of really terrible) off-site hotels just a short drive from WDW. But now that I’m older and a bit more established, I really enjoy staying on property. Yes, it’s VERY expensive compared to the alternatives, but I like being close to everything and there is a certain extra level of magic at most of the hotels.

    I’d say that the Al Stars and the Pop Century would be at the bottom of my list of Disney hotels. No magic there for me. Just big oversized props and a mass of people and screaming kids. I don’t know what it is about those resorts but they just grate on my nerves.

    However, the new Art of Animation is quite a different experience in many ways (though still the same over-crowded food court and pools).

    For me, the right balance is the Moderate resorts – Port Orleans and Coronado Springs in particular and the aging Caribbean Beach resort to a lesser degree. They are lovely, relaxing, great amenities, less chaotic feeling and can often be booked at an affordable rate is you travel off-peak.

  • Gregg Condon

    I’ve been saying to people who stay off-property for years that there really isn’t a tangible dollar amount you can place on the experience of staying on-property vs off-property.

    For me, it’s the absolute immersion in everything Disney. For us, a WDW vacation is not just about the parks, the attractions, etc. It’s the entire package of being at Disney 24/7.

    As for the transportation system, it’s awful. We always rent a car as the only park not having a car has it’s advantages is at the MK. We like to visit the other hotels (most are attractions by themselves) and restaurants. We also like to stock up at Winn Dixie for snacks, water, milk, etc.

    I can’t ever imagine going to WDW and not staying on property. I would equate it to going on a cruise but instead of staying on the ship you are sleeping in a row-boat being towed by the ship. Why bother?

    • waymire01

      “I can’t ever imagine going to WDW and not staying on property. I would equate it to going on a cruise but instead of staying on the ship you are sleeping in a row-boat being towed by the ship. Why bother?” Exactly!! Such a hilarious way of putting it..

  • danyoung

    Welcome to the dark side, Kevin! For me there are two tangible benefits and one intangible to staying on site. First, I like being able to drive to the parks and not pay $14 a day for that parking privilege. Second, I’m a big fan of the morning Extra Magic Hours, only available to a Disney lodger. And the intangible is that indefinable magic of leaving the outside world behind and staying right there in the park, totally immersing in the escapism that you can only get inside the borders.

    As Dusty said above, for me the right balance of price vs. quality is in the moderates. I have a trip coming up in December where I booked the Wilderness Lodge for 3 nights. Now, I could afford it. But I just couldn’t take the idea that I was spending around $300 a night (and that’s an AP rate!) just to sleep. Sure, it’s a beautiful property. But for less than half of that amount I could stay at a moderate that is also a beautiful property. For me it just didn’t make sense to spend the extra bucks just for my lodging. Heck, I even stay at the Pop when money’s tight, and don’t regret it a bit!

  • Amy VandenBoogert

    I’ve stayed at Pop Century several times and I love it. But I’m a HUGE fan of pop culture, so this hotel is like Mecca for me. It’s a fun hotel to stay at. Plus the food court has the most awesome (and EVIL) chili nachos!

    But… these days I prefer to stay off property, since I have an AP, my own car and I have a usual hotel I stay at that’s only a mile from Disney property (plus I’m part of their rewards program and earn points I can use to redeem for free nights, which I use several times a year). So for me, the price difference has no justification for me. I also have no kids and usually visit the parks by myself. And sometimes… I just want to get away from the Disney property. When I went for a few days earlier this year, by day 2 I was Disney’ed out before 5pm. I hightailed it out of there, went way out to the Florida Mall and hung around there for awhile before having a nice, quiet dinner at a local sushi restaurant.

    In the end… it’s all personal preference. Some people prefer to save money and stay off property (like me). Others want the full Disney experience 24/7, and that’s ok too. There’s no right or wrong way to do the hotel thing. It all boils down to works best for each individual scenario.


    Golly Kevin, you are cheap; cheaper than me. Really? Only $5 for the Theming/Decor all around the hotel grounds? That’s at least $6.50.


  • funtobfree

    I realize values will differ between families but I want to know how a family of four gets round trip airport transportation for $5/room night? It would take around 20 nights to pay for Mears shuttle at that rate.

  • Bubba B

    I’ve stayed at Pop Century in February and off site in April when most kids and families were in school. I found that being in the Disney “bubble” was worth the cost of staying on-site. Exploring all the different areas and resorts of the “world” is something else you probably don’t do if you drive in from off-site. The next time I visit, I plan on staying on site again, possibly at a moderate resort.

  • Neon Cactus

    I say yes and no to the value. The past two times we’ve been, we’ve exchanged our timeshare, and had great accommodations. But in two weeks we go back and we’re staying at Port Orleans, and I’m more excited to be there. I prefer renting a car over Disney transportation, because of mobility to the other resorts and restaurants, but the pool, the service, the atmosphere is so much better at the Disney resorts.

    That said, we had originally booked the Polynesian and changed to Port Orleans and saved over $2,000. I love the Polynesian and we’re going to Ohana, but since I’m rarely at the hotel room, the extra cost of that over a moderate resort wasn’t worth it. I feel a little differently about the Beach Club because of the pool and because I can walk to EPCOT and DHS, but I’d still be questioning how much it’s worth to me.

  • Epcyclopedia

    Kevin – don’t forget the $15 “resort fee” almost every hotel in the area charges and then $10 per day for parking that many charge as well.

    Just adding those two in.. and you didn’t discount for Annual Passholder discounts from the price… It almost immediately becomes a wash for Values compared to staying off property for a passholder.

    Also, gas. I spent $30 in gas driving around property over Epcot’s 30th, largely because I couldn’t get a Value resort days added to my stay last minute so it was split on/off property.

  • waymire01

    I would pay double or triple what you allotted for most of the perks you mentioned. Also I think if you did your calculations by actual replacement value.. the transportation alone if you fly in, rent a car, pay for gas and parking, etc. would be much higher than your allotments. Once you have had a kid get sick in the middle of the day.. or some other personal emergency.. or a teen who wants to ride the Rockin Rollar Coaster 50 times in a row.. and have the luxury of knowing everyone in your party has a way of getting wherever they need/want to go whenever they choose to do so.. the Disney transportation does not look so bad… and I guarantee if you have a problem or request the hospitality at a Disney resort is going to take care of you a lot better than any independent hotel.. and good luck getting any attention/assistance at all at Motel 6. On our last trip we stayed at All Stars.. so a value resort.. and I had personal assistance to obtain electric scooter and stroller rentals (delivered to our room at our convenience)… items packed, labelled, and shipped home by staff- all I had to do was fill out a form… personal hands on assistance to change/obtain dining reservations… the ability to charge every single purchase in the parks and resorts to our room via only our key to the world, itemized in detail, and paid in one transaction… our bags picked up from the airport and delivered to our room… and much more.

  • waymire01

    Oh.. and Pop Century is probably the worst resort on property for the “Disney experience”. Try another and you will get a much better experience of what it is like to stay on property.

  • PineappleFrenzy

    I travel with my 72 year old uncle as my Disney World partner, and find the value resorts are perfect for us. We go when free dining is offered, so that saves us some money, but what’s most important to me is that my uncle can go back to the hotel and nap every day with little disruption to our day, and we go back for the night-time festivities because it’s so easy to get back (I think if we had to deal with freeways, etc we’d sometimes choose to stay at the hotel instead.) Plus, my uncle loves the Pop food court (we are early risers and generally don’t see huge crowds), and we both love the refillable mug we get with the free QS dining.

  • SamBuddy

    Your comparison to a Motel 6 forgot a few items, how do you value not having these things?

    – drug needles in the parking lot
    – police sirens at 2 am
    – ants in the shower
    – used condoms in the lawn
    – people in the room next to you with handguns

  • SpectroMan

    Welcome to the world of tourist accomodations. A lot different, isn’t it? Buses and ridiculous masses of humanity in food courts are truly disheartening..but the rest is great.

    Same goes over here in CA…you grow up with DL as your local park but if you spend just one night in an on-property hotel, it becomes a completely different vacation.