So you're going to Orlando. You may have heard that prices are up, that the American-as-apple-pie tradition of a trip to Disney World is, increasingly, not something within the grasp of many Americans. It's true, theme park tickets are costly, airfares can be a bear, and transportation seems priced to take advantage of the tourists who'd give anything not to have to cope with Orlando's exhausting sprawl. These days, it's important to control costs where you can – are hotels a great place to start? Let's talk.
Resort? More Like Last Resort
There are certainly unique and interesting hotels in Orlando, but there are fewer of them than you might expect. Many of them represent poor value, at best. Third party booking sites are awash in indie-sounding "resorts" for around or under $100, but what you won't learn (before it's too late!) is that Orlando has recently had a rash of cheap upgrades to barely functional motels. Sorry – a lick of paint and a few brightly colored chairs by the pool do not a resort make. Not when the resort began the year as an Econo Lodge.
Familiarity Breeds Content
A trip to Orlando – particularly with children – throws enough curveballs your way. Where you are not looking for surprises is your hotel. There are scores of chain properties here that do things pretty much as they do them anywhere else in the country – SpringHill Suites by Marriott and Hyatt Place are two great examples. These are limited service business hotels that cheerfully comp a decent hot breakfast, internet and, usually, parking; these models are designed to make business travelers happy – staff tend to be efficient, quiet and pleasant. Both brands also feature a rather soothing design, the perfect thing after a sorely trying day in the parks with your tribe. Two great examples: Hyatt Place Universal is a partner hotel and is walking distance from those parks in decent weather; the SpringHill Suites Sea World has a free shuttle to that resort and features the brand's new spa-like décor, along with plenty of date sets in 2015 with rates around $100 per night. If you time your visit right, you can't beat the residential-style properties from the big chains – Residence Inn by Marriott is usually the most dependable in the category, with Homewood Suites by Hilton not far behind. I've seen the Residence Inn Sea World – minutes from Universal – for under $100. At peak times, when all of the above are wildly expensive, you can always lean on the budget options from the major chains – Hampton Inn by Hilton and Fairfield Inn by Marriott generally offer the same perks with more basic rooms at a slightly lower rate.
If It's Cheap, There Is Usually a Reason
The further below $99 the hotel rate, the more your skepticism ought to increase. Find out why, exactly, this great deal is being offered to you and billions of other people from all over the world. There are some horrible hotels charging $89 and getting it, there are others that charge less that are perfectly fine. No need to wonder which, Orlando travelers are incredibly active on the internet – many third-party sites and often the hotels themselves now feature a TripAdvisor plug-in. There's no excuse for not reading the reviews.
Beware the Mid-Priced Trap
Of course, there's the horde of nothing special chain properties, hanging around in the low to mid $100's – don't blindly book one of these hotels, assuming you've done the right thing by paying a little more. Maybe you did, but don't leave it to chance. You could end up paying $145 for nothing, when, for a little more – or, by simply selecting a different hotel – you can actually get your money's worth. A good rule of thumb, at least for chain hotels in this category – would you book that brand in another city? They might call it a "Hotel & Suites" or a "resort" (there's that word again!) in Orlando, but don't be fooled. It's still the same standard – if you're lucky – with the benefit of a slightly more appealing pool and a few broken arcade games.
Say, What about Those Disney Budget Resorts?
What about them? No, seriously. Disney now has more rooms in its budget category than you'll find in some small cities. They're all shoved into this oddly drab backwater, a long, usually quite crowded bus ride from anywhere. Did you go on vacation to experience the morning commute from hell? Rooms at these properties are strictly motel standard, with the barest of essentials – for the same price or less, you can have a kitchenette and more space and easier access to your car just a couple miles further away from the parks. Some people swear by the Disney "value" experience. I've seen these hotels up close – the rooms feel cheap, the lobbies are like bus terminals (because they mostly are) and everything is loud, loud, loud. Unless not renting a car, access to Magic Hours, the babysitting service, and other Disney perks are the most important things about your next Orlando vacation, you are better served elsewhere.
Elsewhere, as in Hotels like This One...
Value for money, reliability, cleanliness, good customer service and – if you're lucky – a little bit of character – should be the standards by which all hotels are judged. Oh, and a pool, too. It's Orlando. You have to have a pool. Besides the aforementioned chain properties, my top pick right now is the Drury Inn & Suites, located just outside the tourist ghetto on the more upscale Sand Lake Road, across from a giant Whole Foods Market. If you want value, proximity to Universal (7 min.), Sea World (8 min.) and Disney (15 min.) via local roads, plus plus walkability to shops and restaurants that locals would actually patronize, this should basically be the first and last place on your list. With kids, it's a dream – free hot breakfast and an evening buffet that can actually be dinner, every day of the week; internet and parking are also free. The pool is indoor/outdoor – another hit with kids. Plus, this is a Universal Partner Hotel, so book a package and get all of the attendant benefits. I really like this hotel. Everyone likes this hotel. Book in advance.
And if You Just Can't Abide Being Away from the Parks
If you want the increased pizazz of a park stay without the poor value, the one you want right now is Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort. Rates here also at $100, though I've generally seen it a little higher. A retro-fab design kicks off the fun - think Miami Beach meets old Palm Springs – while functional, cheerful rooms, the water park-like pool scene and a bowling alley bring it all home. CityWalk and the park gates are within walking distance; there's a shuttle for lazies. Internet is free, parking is $12, there is no resort fee. When it comes to Disney, the Good Neighbor Hotel program is mostly – here we go again – poor value; if the rates are good, odds are you've landed on one with extremely limited park shuttle service; the most meaningful benefit at most of these hotels is easy access to park ticketing. (My industry colleague Jason Cochran offers up quite the cutting analysis of the program in his award-winning guidebook, Frommer's EasyGuide to Disney World, Universal and Orlando. This book is a must-read for the Orlando first-timers, by the way.) If you really want to be near Downtown Disney (currently undergoing a transformation into what they're calling Disney Springs), the cheerful Radisson Lake Buena Vista is just out the end of Buena Vista Drive, about a mile walk from the shopping and entertainment district. This hotel has a reputation for trying harder – parking and internet are free, there's no resort fee, there's a complimentary shuttle to the parks with eight daily departures. Rates begin at a reasonable $109.
How to Be A Discount-Finding Wizard
Prefer to go your own way? Excellent. Some of the best deals come and go very quickly, requiring you to stay on top of the process. Others are not widely published, or not published at all. One site you definitely want to visit is Mousesavers.com – not only do they collect all of the resort discounts known to man, they also have a list of preferred hotels where you'll receive special rates and perks for being a reader. Subscribers (it's free) get even more insider information. Then there are the old coupon books, still piled high by the door of every crummy International Drive attraction / restaurant / motel, but those are mostly just good for walk-up room rates. HotelCoupons.com is the online manifestation of the genre, but the one time I tried to use it, the hotel had since changed names, leading me to wonder how often they update their site. For the hotels I listed, I found the starting rates at Tingo.com, a TripAdvisor site (and cousin to Airfare Watchdog), which gives you cash back on your hotel if the price drops after you book; it's also just a great place to go deal hunting. And – of course! – don't forget Airfarewatchdog's own Hotelwatchdog, a new feature that curates the best available deals in your destination.