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Is it still worth it to stay onsite at Disney World?

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Is it still worth it to stay onsite at Disney World?

Disney World vacations have never been “cheap,” especially if you decide to stay onsite at one of the many Walt Disney World Resort hotels. But if you dug deep into the numbers, it wasn’t that difficult to justify the extra expense an onsite resort would cost considering the value you could get for your dollar.

But this week, Disney dropped some news. Some sort-of-unexpected-but-also-really-not-that-unexpected news that has since driven us to sit down and think about whether or not that same value remains.

Here’s how that went.

Note: Before we dive into things below, if you’re looking for a simple list of the available perks, make sure you check out our post on the Benefits of Staying On-site.

Perks of staying onsite

Like many other companies, Disney offers guests visiting their Walt Disney World Resort certain benefits or perks to entice them to stay on-property.

Sunset over Bay Lake at the Contemporary

Now, to be fair, no business offers perks or benefits just because they are nice (although in our imaginary altruistic world, we wish it were that way).

There is a science and math behind it all that is way above our paygrade. But at the simplest level, happy vacationers are going to spend more money. And, when you remove barriers to spending, people will spend more.

Sure, a piece of it may be to help build brand loyalty, but when a business extends a perk of any kind, they typically have a multitude of reasons to do so.

The best perks are win-win ones that allow both the company and the consumer to receive equal (or at least perceived equal) benefits. 

Most businesses don’t come out and tell you straight up WHY they extended their freebies, benefits, or perks. And Disney hasn’t ever said exactly why, either.

But we can take some guesses.

Take for example, the Disney Dining Plan, which is a premium perk (meaning that it costs money) that is only available to onsite guests.

Visitors love it because it creates an all-inclusive feeling. It also helps with budgeting because when you use it – before you even set foot on property – you’ll have an excellent idea of a near-total for your food expenses.

And for Disney? It is a win for them because it helps keep the restaurants filled and locks-in those food dollars before visitors even arrive.

For many guests (ourselves included), the perks and benefits Disney offers have added a level of convenience that contributed to the overall perceived value we received from our onsite visits.

The process was sped up

Witnessing Disney World Resort Hotel perks come and go isn’t new.

In recent years (or as we like to say, in the “before times”), we’ve seen other perks like free resort hotel parking eliminated and the total number of Extra Magic Hours reduced.

If you’ve been around the Disney universe for very long, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that Disney World fans have a reputation for not always loving “change.”

Anytime something closes or is replaced, you can bet that there will be lots of voices with lots of opinions.

That isn’t a bad thing, and it makes sense considering just how much the entire Disney brand is built around multi-generational shared experiences and sentimentality. 

Illuminations Dessert Party

But the same fierce loyalty to what was can also make it difficult to change anything.

This last year was rough. Across the board, it was b-a-d.

And we now see Disney in a position where they need to find a way to save money as well as having an opportunity (and even a cover) to change things that they may have held off changing simply because it would have been too difficult.

Pair that with updates necessary for safety, and instead of changes happening slowly and incrementally, we are seeing many changes (and announcements) happening very fast. 

Historical perks

Beyond the on-property locations and unique Disney-theming that you’ll find when staying at a WDW Resort, at the time of the initial closure back in March of 2020, these were the perks that anyone staying onsite could expect to have:

  • FastPass+ reservations at 60 days
  • Dining Reservations at 180+10 days out
  • Free transportation between the airport and your resort
  • Resort Airline Check-In 
  • Free MagicBands
  • Free parking (at the parks) and complimentary transportation between resorts and parks
  • Access to purchase the Disney Dining Plan
  • Access to Extra Magic Hours
  • Resort room charging privileges
  • Resort package Pick-up

And, since the reopening, the list looks more like this now:

  • FastPass+ reservations at 60 days (No FastPass+ at this time)
  • Dining Reservations at 180+10 days out (Remains, but now it is 60+10 days out)
  • Free transportation between the airport and your resort (No more Magical Express as of January 1, 2022)
  • Resort Airline Check-In (Suspended with no word on whether it will return)
  • Free MagicBands (You now have the option to pay for a MagicBand or to use your phone)
  • Free parking (at the parks) and complimentary transportation between resorts and parks
  • Access to purchase the Disney Dining Plan (The Disney Dining Plan has been suspended, but we do expect it to return)
  • Access to Extra Magic Hours (Extra Magic Hours have been eliminated and will be replaced with Early Theme Park Entry)
  • Resort room charging privileges
  • Resort package Pick-up (It was back for a bit over the holidays, but Disney has said the service has been suspended again. We do expect it to return in full sometime in the future.)
  • NEW Park Pass Reservations for the number of days on your ticket. This mainly impacts Annual Passholders because, without a resort reservation, you can only make Park Pass reservations for 3 days at a time.

Taken at first glance, that looks pretty grim. So, what does all that mean for travel? Do we still recommend that people stay onsite?

Onsite vs. Offsite

When researching where to stay, you’ll likely find yourself focusing on 4 different things:

  • location
  • convenience
  • price
  • amount of space

All of those are important. But for you – which is the most important? Because whatever your answer is will likely drive your decision.

  • Typically, if the price is the main driver, you’re going to find much better deals offsite. And if you have reward points, you’ll likely even be able to use those at the surrounding hotels, too (which is something you can’t do at a Disney resort). 
  • When it comes to space, there are some fantastic onsite options (that come with price tags to match). But there are also many offsite ones, too – most of which are much more budget-friendly.
  • But – when it comes to location and convenience, hands down, your onsite options will nearly always be your best bet.

And when it comes to Disney World vacations – especially if this is your “once in a lifetime trip,” we think it is worth it to stick to onsite for the location and convenience alone.

Art of Animation

Plus, if you’re making a once-in-a-lifetime Disney trip, a Disney resort with Disney theming is kind of like the cherry on top.

We know what you’re thinking: “Didn’t you just list out all the onsite things that are gone or going away?”

Yes. We did.

But we think there is more nuance to it. Here’s how we think that shakes out over the next 2 years.

Travel in 2021

We spoke a lot about how we anticipate things to look in 2021 on our Crowd Calendar post, but in a nutshell, we definitely think that the parks will get busier the further into the year we go.

And as things get busier, it is possible that guests might begin to feel the pinch of the absence of perks we listed above even more.

But Disney knows that. And that also may mean we might start to see some things return or even be replaced.

In fact, Disney has already announced one: Early Theme Park Entry.

They connected it to the 50th Anniversary that is happening this fall, but Disney has already said they’ll replace Extra Magic Hours with the new Early Theme Park Entry.

Magic Kingdom entrance

Is it an even trade? Yes and no. But beyond the discussion of if this new version is better or worse, we think the reintroduction of it (at the same time they announced something being taken away) is an indication of just how important Disney knows guests view those perks to be.

Another big thing to keep in mind is that even though Disney has announced the phasing out of Magical Express and although it doesn’t look exactly the same right now (i.e., no luggage delivery), you will still be able to use Magical Express through the end of the year. 

And finally – looking forward, we do highly expect that some of the perks return (like some version of the Dining Plan) and possibly replacements or swaps for some of the others.

However, at least for the time being, until we’ve seen a strong return in revenue for the parks, don’t expect the perks offered to be things that cost Disney more money than they are worth.

We might even go one step further and say we would not be surprised to see that at least some new perks aren’t as much “free” things (like Magical Express is) but rather the option to pay for things that might make your vacation easier (like the possible re-introduction of the Disney Dining Plan).

Boardwalk area

Do we know this for fact or have any inside scoop on things whatsoever?


But, before the shutdown, Disney had been pushing out a long trend of extras and upcharges that travelers – ourselves included – were willing to pay for. 

Early Morning Magic. Disney After Hours. Dessert parties. Minnie Vans.

Disney offered them and guests willingly (even if sometimes begrudgingly) shelled out a lot of money for them. 

And, if you are a Disneyland fan, you know about one of their most popular add-ons: MaxPass.

Like at Walt Disney World, the FastPass system was also free at Disneyland. 

But instead of the Walt Disney World version (called FastPass+), where you could book your rides ahead of time, at Disneyland, you snagged return times via kiosks stationed nearby the attractions at the park.

And if you went with Disneyland’s free version, that meant when it was time to get a new FastPass you had to walk to each attraction to receive your return time.

But, you could pay extra for the MaxPass add-on that allowed you to use FastPass with your phone on their app versus walking to each attraction to grab a return time.

Of course, that add-on was available to all guests (not just ones staying at the Disneyland resorts), but it is another example of guests’ willingness to pay for convenience.

That can’t help but make us wonder: if they know guests will pay for extras, just what extras can they re-introduce as upcharge perks for onsite resort guests? 

Maybe nothing. Or, maybe something.

Again – all this is only conjecture, but you can bet we will be filing the idea away in the back of our brain. 

Offsite might make the most sense in early 2021

Ever since the parks reopened, we’ve tried to walk the line of keeping people safe by not encouraging everyone to run back to the parks while at the same time providing information to help those that do choose to travel do so as safely as possible.

Nothing is perfect. There’s no commercially available mask or hand sanitizer that will keep you 100% safe when you are in a theme park. We don’t have to be scientists to tell you that.

But you can follow CDC guidelines to help minimize the risks, and many of the things that can help you minimize your risks are easier (and less expensive) to do offsite.

For example, right now, we recommend you rent a car and skip Disney transportation altogether.

Epcot Entrance

We also recommend that you avoid eating indoors and stick to dining outdoors or in your room.

And dining in your room is a lot easier when you’re staying somewhere with the space to store food or even cook, both things that are less expensive to do if you’re staying offsite.

We also don’t think early 2021 is a good time for “once-in-a-lifetime” trips simply because so many things (like nighttime entertainment) are still missing in the parks.

But, if you are a frequent visitor that wants to maximize your dollar while making it as easy as possible to practice some of the things that we know will help keep both you and the hard-working Cast Members safe, you’ll be able to do that a lot less expensively offsite.

What about the 50th Anniversary?

After seeing what Disneyland did for their Diamond Celebration, we thought we had a decent idea of what to expect for the 50th Anniversary at Walt Disney World.

But now, we aren’t really sure.

Originally several big projects were scheduled to be completed in time for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary kickoff.

Now, it looks like those will be pushed into 2022.

And with no idea when we might see any of the health and safety measures scaled back, it is tricky to know what to expect.

But here’s an important thing to know: Disney does tend to prioritize onsite guests.

Remember how FastPasses worked? Onsite guests received access to them at 60 days out, while for offsite, it was only 30.

And back in the “before times” when parks would close to capacity, onsite guests were the last tier of guests Disney would restrict from entering.

There are some examples of when they keep opportunities equal between onsite and offsite guests, like with their new attraction, Rise of the Resistance.

Rise of the Resistance queue

With that attraction’s unique virtual queue system (at least with it the way it is currently set up), there are equal opportunities for both onsite and offsite guests to snag a Boarding Group.

But that is likely because there is no standby option (like you see at nearly every other highly-popular attraction) to funnel offsite guests into.

Disney does NOT want to upset offsite guests. Truly. They need those visitors, too.

But, for us personally, as an additional layer of protection, we have opted to stay on-site for the 50th to maximize our chances of getting to see and do whatever it is that Disney might have planned.

Travel in 2022

Probably the thing that is causing the (understandably) largest uproar right now is the phasing out of Magical Express beginning January 1, 2022.

Add us to the list of people who found themselves a little lot shocked when we heard that news.

We don’t tend to use it as much now that our kids are grown and we are visiting primarily for “work,” but having experienced the ease of it first-hand, we recognize just how big the loss of this service will be, especially to families of little ones.

And then we saw this tweet by Carlye Wisel:

 This really got us thinking because here’s the deal: if Disney was forced to make this announcement because of a contract they weren’t going to renew, we aren’t sure that Disney won’t replace it with something.

Disney mentioned in their press release that “Vacationers have more options to choose from than ever for transportation, including ride-share services that save time and offer more flexibility to go where they want, when they want.

And that is true.

And they know that guests pay for that convenience. 

And, they knew guests paid a lot for the convenience of the now-suspended Minnie Van service.

Minnie Van at sunrise

It will all come down to the numbers (again, something far above our paygrade), but if the numbers work, we think that Disney will (eventually) find something to replace the service. It may not be “free,” but Disney isn’t known for leaving money on the table, either.

We very much expect the Magical Express angst to continue until we know for sure whether or not Disney will replace it.

If they don’t, there are still lots of options for guests traveling to Orlando. In fact, we have an entire post all about your Orlando Airport Pickup options.

Continuation of the 50th Anniversary and new attractions

As we mentioned above, we expect Disney to do something for the big 50th, and whatever it is, they will likely continue through 2022.

Note: for reference, Disneyland’s Diamond Celebration lasted longer than 1 year.

We also know that we will likely see the opening of 2 highly anticipated attractions: TRON: Lightcycle Run in Magic Kingdom and Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind in Epcot.

For all the reasons we’ve already talked about, if you’re looking for an extra layer of protection, definitely stay onsite if you plan to visit Disney World in 2022 for those openings. 

Why we usually choose to stay onsite

What do you value?

Not all perks or benefits will have an equal value to every guest. 

And with travelers visiting from so many different parts of the world, it was nice to have a hefty list of perks that went beyond the location aspect a Walt Disney World Resort Hotel offered. And in the “before times,” most guests could find at least 1-2 things on the list of perks and benefits that made the cost of the onsite room “worth” it.

But, at least right now, the list of perks is a lot shorter. And it makes sense that for some guests, losing some of the things that made it easier to justify the price now makes it easy to move their business offsite.

What matters the most to you and what you consider a good value for your money may not be the same for the next person.

It’s the location and convenience for us

We can sum up why we frequently choose to stay onsite in just a couple of words: location & convenience.

We don’t do it every visit. But, we are suckers for the location and convenience that the onsite resorts offer.

First of all – in most instances, you aren’t going to find resorts with any better locations than the onsite resorts. Of course, there are resorts like the Swan and Dolphin that are good options, too. But, Disney beats just about everybody else when it comes to location.

And, we love that there are so many free and convenient transportation options onsite (like bus, boat, monorail, Skyliner). Not only does that make getting around easy, but it also makes things a lot more simple if we split up our group.


Add room service (which we also hope returns soon) and easy-to-access dining options, and onsite not only checks a lot of the boxes of things that are important to us but it also wins our hearts nearly every time.

Of course, a lot of the things that we love about onsite aren’t available right now. Or, like in the case of transportation, we aren’t currently using as much.

But, we have our fingers crossed that someday that won’t be the case. 

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Heather Thomas

Sarah M

Tuesday 2nd of February 2021

We are in the VERY early planning stages of a trip for hopefully late 2022/early 2023. As international visitors (Canada) A Disney Vacation is a huge expense and rare occurrence (haven't been since 2011 pre kids) with the Magical Express being cancelled, I am wondering what airport to Disney hotel transport you recommend for families with young kids? ours will be roughly ages 6 & 8 and still require booster seats in the car, I'm dreading the idea of having to lug carseats through an airport with all the other luggage..and we really don't want to rent a car that will only sit at the resort for the entire trip...would love any advice!

Gary Capritta

Tuesday 19th of January 2021

The magical express is a big loss, I’m wondering how long the lines will be without the fast passes. We have been visiting Disney since 1957, knowing fully well Mr. Disney believed that every visit should be a MAGICAL EXPERIENCE and it has been. We like a lot of people, visit when we can, I want to wish you all the best.

philip baker

Sunday 17th of January 2021

As an international traveller hoping to return when possible i hope they put in place something to replace the magical Express. When we have stayed onsite at Disney it is wonderful to arrive at the airport after a 9ish hour flight, travel down the escalator to the Disney Magical Express board a coach and you are on your way. No need for hire cars, no need for hotel parking fees and when we want to travel off site we can book an Uber to take us where we want to go keeping more of our Dollars at Disney. We love the magic bands and the fast passes and Disney dinning to make it feel all inclusive. I have paid there is nothing more to pay until i want some Disney memorabilia. I look forward to My Next Disney trip and hope they can make it just as Magical. Maybe the end of 2021 or 2022.


Saturday 16th of January 2021

Parking is no longer free you don't have that marked off.


Monday 25th of January 2021

But isn't parking only free at the parks if you're staying on property and you pay the nightly fee for parking at the resort?

Heather Thomas

Sunday 17th of January 2021

Parking is still free at the parks, just not at the resorts.