Travel Tuesday: The Cost of Magic

blog 8.13.13

I’ve had a couple of conversations recently about the importance of staying “on property” at a Disney Parks resort.  For those not in the know, Disney owns and operates a ton of their own hotels at their resorts in the U.S.: three in California and, like, 45 or something down in Walt Disney World.  The phrase “on property” means you’re staying at one of these hotels and not, say, the Best Western in Downtown Disney or the Holiday Inn in Kissimmee.

There are several tangible benefits to staying “on property,” including the very significant free transportation to and from the Orlando International Airport and Extra Magic Hours (where on-property guests have access to the Disney parks a few extra hours longer than off-property guests).  The Mighty Men of Mouse podcast did a good job at boiling some of these costs down by the hour in one of their most recent episodes, demonstrating how much money you’re saving/losing with these features.

Disney resorts’ theming is also tangible (most off-site resorts are not going to have an extensive Pacific Northwest theme, for example), though not quite as quantifiable.

Now, before I continue, I want to preface by saying that this is my opinion, based on my own biases, budgets, and preferences. Lord knows I spend money on extravagance in different ways, so believe me, this is all about how I perceive the value of Disney resorts.

A lot of people prefer Disney resorts over off-site because of the above, quantifiable factors.  Many people (just read TripAdvisor reviews) also believe that on-site, particularly Moderate- and Deluxe-tier Disney hotels, offer a level of service and dedication to theme that creates an enveloping sense of magic (not so quantifiable).  And that’s great!  Who wouldn’t want an experience, particularly with a company built on pixie dust, to feel magical?

But how much is that magic worth to you?  I personally struggle to justify spending $200+ a night for something as immeasurable as “magic.”

Full disclosure: the only time I’ve even stayed on Disney property was at the Boardwalk Inn, a wonderfully themed hotel and one of Disney’s deluxe resorts.  We were able to stay there because of a very reasonable conference rate.  Without that, we could never have afforded to spend the $450+/night a Standard View room goes for.  The lobby was great, the music, the smells, the surrounding boardwalk area.  Fantastic, don’t get me wrong.  But, in my opinion, the room and the bathroom were small (and Lance and I are not big people).  And, I’m just gonna lay this out there: regardless of how thematically appropriate it is, I want a standing (not tub) shower in a $450+ hotel room.

Effectively, Lance and I are shut out of the deluxe resorts for budget reasons.  Even if we could afford $400+ night hotel rooms, I couldn’t justify the expense to myself. It’s not worth it to me.

Even the Moderates (your Port Orleans, your Coronado Springs and such) are often over $200 a night (and might drop down to around $150 with a discount at the right time of year), and these are for hotels that have exterior entrance to the rooms.  Yes, these are basically well-themed motels.  Granted, they have food courts and gift shops and many of the services you’d expect of a hotel, but if I can’t access my hotel room from an interior hallway, then it’s still a motel (this all goes for the Values as well, which are usually very reasonably priced at about $85-125 a night, but with a balanced dip in amenities/services).  You can put lipstick on a pig…

Part of what I struggle with regarding Disney hotels is knowing that I can get more of what I’m looking for at off-site hotels for the same rate or cheaper.  And if I can’t get it for cheaper elsewhere, I can usually play the points/best rate guarantee games with chains like Hilton or Sheraton and get similar accommodations off-site for a much cheaper price.  For example, if I were to book for this upcoming Saturday, Port Orleans–Riverside, a Disney Moderate hotel, would be $190 before tax.  The Doubletree Lake Buena Vista, with the same TripAdvisor score, is $96 before tax (and if you use Priceline or Hotwire, you can get a rental car in Orlando for less than $50 a day).  And with Hilton, Hyatt, Sheraton, Holiday Inn, and more, I could save a significant amount more via their loyalty points programs.  (And thankfully, I can redeem Sheraton’s Starwood Points for stays at the Swan or Dolphin hotels located on Disney property.)

Probably the only way to “play the game” to really get bang for your buck at Disney itself is by renting Disney Vacation Club points from a DVC member, meaning you can stay at the villas at some of the Disney Deluxe resorts for a great savings compared to the rack rates (say, $125 for an Animal Kingdom value room versus $200+).  You can rent points through more established companies (usually at a higher price per point) or, if you know a DVC member, you might be able to negotiate a lower price.  We’re looking into renting DVC points, even through a broker website, for a one-night stay on the tail-end of our Disney cruise next year, but the process is a little messy and it seems like you give up a lot of flexibility as a renter.

This all basically comes down to: how much am I willing to spend for that “magical” component, that Disney Difference?  Each person has to answer that question for themselves.  I’m not arguing for Disney to lower their prices–they’re a business, after all, and they can charge as much as they think the public is willing to spend (they aren’t gouging you if you agree to spend that amount, regardless of what my cartoon above suggests), but for me, as a Disney fan, the extra hours in the parks, the transportation, the theming, is not worth the extra hundreds of dollars per night.  The magic of their hotels is not a make-or-break for me in visiting the parks.

So, that’s me.  What about you?  Am I crazy?  If I really want the magic, should I just suck it up and stay at the Disney Value resorts I am willing to pay for, regardless of amenity disparity between those and off-site hotels for the same price?  Am I really saving any money after rental car costs?  Am I undervaluing immersive magic just for a standing shower? (This might be true.)  Obviously, Disney fans are passionate and I’m sure there are a lot of opinions about the value of the Disney resorts.

If you’ve got thoughts, please share in the comments!

[Tip of the hat to Estelle from This Happy Place Blog for sharing her thoughts on this topic and post.]

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7 thoughts on “Travel Tuesday: The Cost of Magic

  1. Really, for me at the moment, it’s Go-Value or go off-site. Maybe one day when I can roll around in money/have a DVC membership/find the one English conference in Orlando, I’ll do a deluxe (like you, I see no point to the moderate), but the Value is the only thing that really seems worth it (and call me crazy, but there’s a weird part of me that prefers the camp of the value over the classiness of the other ones). And honestly, when I do Disney, my hotel is little more than a base of operations, so it doesn’t need to be fancy.

    If you’re doing a short trip and not going off-site (universal, beach, etc) the Value actually does make up whatever extra cost you’re paying in not having to rent a car (and compared to when I stayed off site in December, I really enjoyed the feeling of just walking to a bus and knowing I’d be “home” in 15 minutes without having to drive/navigate a parking lot, etc after a 17 hour park day) .

    One of the big game changers I think will be the MyMagic+ fastpasses, which will guarantee you definite entry to certain attractions…BUT the catch there is that (for me at least, not for most people) they need to figure out how to link it with Annual Passes. They were doing a trial run of it this past week at Pop Century, but because I wasn’t buying my tickets at the hotel, it was little more than a glorified room key. Annoyingly, when my friend and I asked an imagineer about it at the Parks booth at D23, he kept saying “Well first we want to make it work for resort guests, then we’ll figure out AP holders” to which we kept pointing out to him that we WERE resort guests. [/rant]

    1. Thanks for your thoughts!

      Yeah, APs and stuff are a whole ‘nother ball game when it comes to the MM+ rollout. I read on one of the news blogs that APs will get 7 FastPass+ a month, though I don’t think that’s been confirmed yet. I also don’t know if this will be standard across both coasts eventually, either.

      I like the theming of the Moderates but I don’t really see how they can be two+ times as nice as the values (granted, I’ve never stayed at either, so this is purely an outside perspective based on what I can gather from “research”). Lance is much more of a lounging vacationer and might like the pool options at the Moderates more (I couldn’t care about the pool.)

      I think what irks me most about Disney hotels is that I don’t have options, like Best Rate Guarantees or anything like that. There’s no real competition driving down the cost or any real avenue for me to get the best price possible save whatever discount Disney wants to offer. With other chain hotels, there are options when “playing the game” to get lower prices, not just by redeeming loyalty points but through pricematching and the like. You can’t do anything like that with Disney (save DVC point rental), so you’re at the whim of the Mouse.

      1. True – though I’ve noticed Expediaing Disney hotels about a month before the trip (except busy times) will give you a better deal than even AP discounts. Though Expedia was a bit of a headache this time in terms fo getting info changed on reservation and such.

        I think the only real competition is Disney’s knowledge that people WILL stay off-site. But their solution to it tends to be less price dropping and incentives (hence MM+).

        I dunno about Lance, but in my world, you can’t beat a floppy disk pool. (Though I admit, I’d love to swim in Beach Club’s pool one day)

      2. We’re trying to get a room in either Wilderness Lodge or the Beach Club via DVC point rental for the night after our cruise basically because of the pools 😉

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  4. If my fiancé and I weren’t Disneyland Cast Members from CA, I don’t know how we’d do it. As of now, WDW is a cheaper trip than going to NYC for a few days.

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