Picking a Disney World resort can be a challenge at times and ultimately you’re undoubtedly weighing a lot of factors when making a decision no matter if it’s your first trip or your 50th trip. If you’re like us, you have your “go-to” favorites but also have a desire to try and experience as many different resorts as you can because they all truly do have something to provide that is unique and different from the rest.
However, I do have to admit that this list is a bit skewed towards deluxe tier resorts and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t what we prefer. We are deluxe fans and we’re not afraid to admit that. Sure, paying those top tier prices isn’t for everyone, but for us it really is one of the few things we will splurge to do time and time again at Walt Disney World. Now, that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with moderate or even value tier accommodations. There is absolutely nothing wrong with either of those tiers. On my upcoming trip at the end of May I will even be staying at All Star Music for a night (which I will review) before attending a conference for a couple days and then moving over to the Boardwalk Villas to meet family for another 7 days or so. I say that to show that it’s all about working with what you need and want out of a desired stay. You may not want to spend a ton of time at your resort and may not care about the decor and incredibly detailed theming and story elements you’ll find at deluxe resorts. Instead, you may look at a resort as simply a place to sleep for the night. While I’m not one of those people, I really can appreciate that thought process and often times it accompanies a pretty substantial savings.
All of this is simply a preface to our list because this is what we think about when compiling a list like this and the mindset that we look at things from. To us, a resort is a part of the experience and something that truly sets Disney apart from all other vacation destinations. If you look at Disney in a similar way, our list will undoubtedly work out well for you. If you look at a resort as simply a place to sleep, this list honestly may not be for you, but I do believe that’s a certain mindset that needs to be shared before we dive right into it.
As a final note before we break this down, I have to say that some of the greatest experiences we’ve had as a family at WDW haven’t been in the parks. Sure, a ton of great things happen in the parks, but perhaps the greatest memories I have are of sitting out on the Boardwalk catching a sunset, wandering Wilderness Lodge late at night after the majority of guests have gone to their rooms, or even simply catching the view of the Happily Ever After fireworks just steps from our resort room door at the Contemporary. A resort room can really make all the difference in the world if you want it to and you allocate that time to really enjoy the resort and make the most of all of its amenities.
For those of you who may be first time visitors to the parks preparing for your first trip (welcome to the small scale addiction), it’s important to note that all Disney resorts offer complimentary transportation to the parks, each have their own restaurants, and ultimately they all offer similar room types but of varying sizes. Also, deluxe tier resorts offer villas that vary from studio rooms to 3 bedroom villas. All Star Music and Art of Animation do offer family suites but they are quite different from deluxe villas. If any of that trips you up, feel free to shoot me a message on Facebook and I’ll walk you through it.
However, what you’re all likely here for is the list, and if you skipped through the rest of this to get to the list I completely understand! So here it is! Our top picks for 2019.
Wilderness Lodge – Boulder Ridge Villas
If you’ve read many of our articles on the site, you likely know my “slight” obsession with Wilderness Lodge and in particular the Boulder Ridge Villas. Truthfully I believe the Boulder Ridge Villas section of the property is perhaps one of the best kept secrets of the Disney resorts as a whole. If you’re not looking for them on the property, you’ll likely never wander over to the villa section of the resort and you’ll likely never have a need to unless you’re staying in the villas. However, the villas are truly incredible and one of the single most relaxing offerings of accommodations anywhere on property. From the moment you step out of the main lobby, walk the short distance down the covered outdoor path to the villa lobby and step into the smaller yet just as picturesque entryway, you’re transported to a simpler time. Of course you have all the amenities of home, but you’re surrounded by the warm smell of wood and the subtle essence of the fireplace near by and for a moment the worries of life drift away. It’s a surreal feeling.
When you get to your resort room itself, that oh so prevalent smell sticks with you in a pleasant way and your room is subtly accented with dark woods and elements that make you feel welcome from the moment you step inside the room. My personal favorite rooms are the one bedroom villas. Often times they cost less that a standard room at the “main” resort, but offer up a “full” kitchen, living room, and an incredible amount of extra space at very little to no difference in cost.
The common misconception about villa accommodations at WDW is the fact that most are listed as DVC properties. As a result, many guests assume that only DVC members can reserve these accommodations. Simply put, that isn’t true. Anyone can book these resort rooms. They are focused towards DVC members, but Disney does hold a select amount of rooms for non-DVC guests. Prices can fluctuate drastically but these accommodations are more that worth looking into.
Saratoga Springs One or Two Bedroom Villas
In a similar way to Boulder Ridge, Saratoga Springs is a DVC resort on paper. However, anyone can book a stay here. Saratoga is kind of a double edged sword. If you book a preferred room you’re set! If you don’t book a preferred room, chances are you’ll be walking a pretty substantial distance to the lobby, main pools, and dining areas. That’s not to say that it isn’t an excellent resort because it is! However, it’s a resort that often appears quite budget friendly at first and then by the time you upgrade your room to a preferred room for better placement on the property, sometimes the costs can increase exponentially.
Without a doubt though, if you’re looking for a first “foray” into the deluxe accommodation realm, this is a near perfect balance of cost and benefits. My personal preference here is to split a two bedroom villa with another family you may consider traveling with. Not only will it decrease the costs, but it will also get you a larger room.
On a different note, the location of this resort puts it in the prime spot for anyone looking to spend a substantial amount of time at the ever growing Disney Springs area. The short walk or boat ride over is incredibly picturesque and lends the resort to an incredible array of shopping and dining accommodations literally feet from your doorstep depending on the placement of your resort room. It’s like having a “park” in your back yard in many ways.
Speaking of parks, all other transportation to/from the parks is by bus in comparison to what other deluxe resorts may offer with monorails, boats, etc. It’s a small trade off of size and transportation options to shrink costs and maximize the value for your dollar when planning your Disney vacation.
It is worth noting that I am a bit partial to the Saratoga Springs theming elements. While I’m not from New York, much of the horse racing related theming feels familiar to me as I am from KY and live a few short miles from Keeneland in the horse capital of the world.
The Boardwalk Villas – Two Bedroom Lock-Off
Much like Boulder Ridge, I have a soft spot for the Boardwalk and as a result it pops up in my resort lists time and time again. The atmosphere is a near perfect blend of quiet and classic paired with the flair of night life and unique experiences on the Boardwalk itself.
The resort rooms do tend to be smaller that others when looking at the villa accommodations but are more that enough for the vast majority of guests. Much of the flair in the rooms revolves around a boardwalk theme as the name of the resort implies but it’s easy to see the Atlantic City vibe that the resort exhibits and often on a quite literal level with a Lucy the Elephant display and other subtle accompaniments to the storyline being portrayed.
Perhaps the thing that captures me time and time again about this resort is the transition from day to night and the incredible feel this resort takes on as the sun sets and the Boardwalk truly comes alive. I’ve often thought to myself, sitting on the boardwalk or peering over from the Yacht and Beach Club towards the Boardwalk, what if you booked this resort on a whim and this is what you arrived to?
Could you imagine just stumbling into a resort like this when you checked into a business conference or even a random last minute booking? It would be stunning and mind blowing in so many ways.
In many ways this was a resort I never thought I’d have the privilege to stay in due to cost, but if you act fast on discount percentage offers villa accommodations here can be somewhat reasonable for the average budget. If I had one resort room pick here it would be a 2 bedroom lock off villa. The lock-offs essentially give you a studios room and then attach a 1 bedroom villa to that room. It’s an odd set up, and you even get two doors, but the layout is highly beneficial and doubles many amenities in the room that work highly in your favor as the guest.
The Swan and Dolphin Resort
In many ways the Swan and Dolphin are in that “grey” area between being an official WDW resort and being an “off property resort.” By the literal interpretation of the phrase “off property” this isn’t truly off property. The Swan and Dolphin are literally a five minute walk from the Boardwalk, use the same boat transportation and walkways to Epcot and Hollywood Studios, and even use the same fastpass+ booking options. However, the two resorts are run by the Marriot International Group.
Form a theming perspective that does make them somewhat lack luster, but if you’re looking for an excellent, clean, and picturesque resort in an ideal location, the Swan and Dolphin check every single box. They aren’t as “Disney” as others on this list but the accommodations are incredible, the variety of food offerings are amazing, and there’s everything from a Shulas Steakhouse to a walk up ice cream window on property. The two resorts are large but not near as large as some others near by that are truly “off property” resorts. The entire property is encompassed in two buildings. The Swan is my preference because it does feel a bit less “convention oriented” but you cant go wrong with either option.
Last, but certainly not least, the pool here is quite possibly one of the very best anywhere at Walt Disney World. The massive lagoon style pool is impressive to say the least and with near by basketball courts, tennis, and even pingpong, there’s always something to do when you’re not in the parks!
Port Orleans French Quarter
Port Orleans French Quarter is the only moderate to make our top 5 list at the moment and while that may change with the new additions to Caribbean Beach and Coronado Springs, I don’t believe the rational for placing it on this list will ever change. It is, without a doubt, my number one pick for a blend of quality and price point at Walt Disney World. It isn’t like stepping into the Grand Floridian, but it is an incredibly unique resort that tops so many of the other moderate offerings. To me, it acts as kind of a moderate+. It’s less spread out that other options, the food is far better that other locations, you get he advantage of boat transportation to Disney Springs, and you get your own dedicated bus stop a vast majority of the time at the parks.
Based on our experience, busses do tend to be crowded here, but it is worth noting the there is only one bus stop for the entire resort so you don’t spend ten minutes of your travel time stopping at internal bus stops before even exiting the resort grounds.
You may be asking why this tops other properties like Grand Floridian, Contemporary, Polynesian, and others that didnt make this list but that’s largely because of cost. Sure, those resort are excellent but I wouldn’t call them a great “buy” by any stretch of the imagination and that often plays into our rankings. This resort is reasonably budget friendly and what you get out of it often exceeds your expectations. When you stay at those other top tier deluxe resorts, you expect to pay a lot for the experience, you do pay a lot for the experience (which there’s nothing wrong with), and while the resort may exceed your expectations, you genuinely hope that it does!
That’s what sets French Quarter apart. I can vividly remember overhearing countless conversations on bus rides of guests talking about being blown away by how nice they thought their resort was for the money. I couldn’t help but laugh at times when I heard people say that because it’s what we’ve been saying for years!
Honorable Mention: The Polynesian
The Polynesian is in an honorable mention category mostly because it is historically one of the most iconic WDW resorts and quite possibly one of my personal favorites, but I refuse to recommend it on a resorts list having not stayed there myself. I have only visited the resort, albeit many many many times, but there’s no fair way to recommend a resort authentically if I have yet to stay there myself.
It is a truly mind blowing resort that transports you into what almost feels like a tropical beach vacation right in the heart of central Florida. It can only be described as a transformative experience. It’s amazing how much detail there is to take in and that picturesque view of Magic Kingdom in the distanced is something you have to see and experience first hand to truly appreciate. If money is not an issue, stay here and you likely will not regret it. Make sure to catch the fireworks view from the beach for perhaps the most iconic Polynesian Resort experience in my opinion.
The Overpriced Gem (at times)
There is one resort I have yet to mention accept in passing on this list and I’ve done so for one reason, it’s typical price greatly exceeds what I see as it’s greatest benefits. The resort is great, and don’t get me wrong, I do love it more that I care to admit, but it’s simply too expensive in comparison to other resorts that offer amore unique experience. This resort is none other that the iconic Contemporary resort. Yep, I said it.
Bear with me here. The views from the contemporary are iconic, and the experience is excellent but is it really worth the price of over $1,000 a night on select dates…. no, no it is not.
I have stayed here and have done so quite a few times actually over the years, and those stays created countless memories for me and my family, but I cant say I’ve ever been “transported” by the story or the theming in a way like many of these other resorts do time and time again. I know this is a pretty unpopular opinion in the mainstream WDW community of content creators but for me it’s reality and something that I really don’t mind sharing. I pride myself on being open and honest here on the site and I wont sugar coat my opinions in the vast majority of cases. Hopefully, that authenticity comes across in a genuine way and as a result this list may be one that in turn helps you out in making your vacation planning decisions.
As always, if you have thoughts, concerns, questions, or even some tips of your own to share, don’t hesitate to reach out to us on Facebook or your favorite social media platform. Give us a follow while you’re there, and we’ll keep the conversation going in the future. We’re not the largest Disney community, but we’re one that’s here and one that listens. Thanks for reading and have a wonderful day wherever you are!
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A few short years ago, I was sitting in a college apartment trying to figure out what was "next" and came up with this idea to share my accumulated knowledge of the Disney Parks and Resorts with others. The end goal was to help others make the most of their Disney experience and it's been quite the journey!