Drive anywhere around the Orlando/Kissimmee theme park megalopolis and one thing becomes abundantly clear: There's no shortage of hotels. But how do you choose from the dozens of similarly named Comfort Inns, Ramadas and HoJos that pop up in guidebooks, ads and Web searches? And how can some rooms be so cheap? How good are they?
Or how bad?
In late August, we did an online search of five hotel booking sites (Travelocity.com, Expedia.com, Orbitz.com, Quikbook.com and Hotels.com) and SideStep.com, an aggregator site that trolls for the best rates among a number of other sites. We priced rooms for the week of Sept. 11-18. Our budget: $59.99 or less per night.
Then we sent Travel staffers John Deiner, Anne McDonough and Andrea Sachsto Orlando and Kissimmee, armed with lists of hotels in our price range, with the assumption that even during the hurricane-free busier seasons (mid-September is off-peak, and the area was still recovering from the storms that criss-crossed the state), the hotels revealed in our search would still be among the cheaper options. They stayed in or toured dozens of hotels, inspected rooms and talked to on-site personnel.
The overall conclusion? While you obviously get what you pay for, even a $10-a-night difference in a nightly tariff can yield a huge improvement in room and property quality. The hotels listed below—encompassing numerous chains and several privately owned properties—are our picks as some of the area's best budget bets, based on lodging quality, curb appeal, property maintenance and amenities, hotel services and proximity to the Disney/SeaWorld/Universal parks.
Standard rooms generally include two double/queen beds and a microwave, fridge, coffeemaker, iron, hair dryer and free continental breakfast or buffet. Just about all offer free transportation to one, several or all of the theme parks (some do charge a fee, so call ahead and check). While most hotels have reopened since the hurricanes blew through, some are still undergoing renovation.
Note that while all of these hotels are within about a 30-minute drive of Disney World, traffic can greatly affect your travel time. Also, when searching online or checking guidebooks, the same hotel often is listed under different names, so it's best to go by the address. (To that end, the main hotel drag outside Disney World is known interchangeably as both U.S. Highway 192 and the Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway.)
Below is an alphabetized list of our 25 selections, including local phone numbers (the better to haggle with) and the price range, if applicable, we found for each. Better deals are possible, particularly if you use the hotels' individual Web sites or call directly; note that during busier seasons and holidays, prices can be significantly higher. Our three overall favorites are starred (*).
7491 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy.
Price We Found: $53 (SideStep).
Details: This spot gets rainy-day bonus points for its soaring atrium and splashy indoor pool—complete with a waterfall and nearby whirlpool—it covers. Be prepared for a whiff of chlorine in the hallways. There's also an outdoor pool behind the hotel, but it's standard issue (as are the rooms, which are comfy but nothing special). Because of its buffet-style restaurant, food court, cocktail lounge and pool bar, you'll never starve at this 442-room property. Though the interior dining/watering hole is kind of dark, that may be deliberate: Nightly karaoke takes place there.
Info: 407-396-6000, www.amerihostresortorlando.com.
BAYMONT INN KISSIMMEE
5196 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy.
Price We Found: $54 (Quikbook, based on two-night stay) to $57.33 (Travelocity).
Details: Children are certainly welcome here, but by all appearances, the 64-room Baymont Inn (at four years old, a baby in these parts) is geared more toward the older set. The tiny pool is unlandscaped and unappealing, and the building sits in a sea of asphalt. But the rooms are exceptional, with stylish furniture; soaring ceilings; two queen beds (instead of the standard pair o' doubles); a large, executive-style desk; and ceiling fans (a rarity). Most rooms don't have fridges or microwaves, but the rate includes a breakfast buffet in the elegant lobby. Look for the hotel waayyy off the road behind an IHOP.
Info: 407-787-3555, www.baymontdisney.com.
CLARION HOTEL MAINGATE
7675 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy.
Price We Found: $45.94 (Travelocity) to $55 (Expedia and Hotels.com).
Details: Tiki pool bar. Need we say more? Other standout features include a lake with a viewing station and koi fish food; a gated kiddie pool that's separate from the adult pool (so Junior won't spill Mommy's daiquiri); a small gift shop selling Orlando trinkets; and a large restaurant that can fit parties of eight (breakfast buffet is $6.95, free for kids ages 12 and under). Stacked on five floors, the 198 rooms have modern furnishings with clean lines and lots of mirrors, plus abundant closet space and a brightly lit bathroom with a primping counter as large as a Clinique makeup station. The only downside: Microwaves and fridges cost extra. Info: 800-568-3352, www.clarionhotelmaingate.com.
COMFORT INN LAKE BUENA VISTA
8442 Palm Pkwy.
Price We Found: $54.83 (Travelweb) to $59.95 (Travelocity).
Details: One of the few sprawling resorts that fit our budget, the Comfort Inn is a tropical oasis with two snazzy pools (both fronting I-4, unfortunately), friendly employees and a free continental breakfast. The hotel's 640 rooms (including Family Fun Suites with a separate bunk bed area for the tots) sit in non-distinctive five-story towers, but everything—including the on-site convenience store and parking lots—is nearby. Rooms are comparatively large, and many have been recently refurbished. Chain eateries are a few minutes away, but not so close that you have to stare at neon.
Info: 407-996-7300, www.comfortinnorlando.com
* COMFORT SUITES MAINGATE
7888 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy.
Price We Found: $59.99 (Travelocity).
Details: One of the newer properties along U.S. Highway 192—and one of the best. The 150 rooms have large sitting areas with pull-out couches, and the multi-mirrored bathrooms are family-friendly (plenty of counter space and lots of plugs). Kids can chill in the huge pool—and the nearby mushroom fountain—while Mom and Dad lounge at the poolside bar. A sunny breakfast room sits off the airy lobby, and the free waffles-and-bagel spread rocks. Bonus: The hotel sits far off the highway, so it's extra quiet.
Info: 407-390-9888, www.kisscomfortsuite.com.
DAYS INN MAINGATE WEST
7980 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy.
Price We Found: $40.91 (Travelocity) to $41.24 (Travelweb).
Details: Culture at a chain hotel? Yes, indeed. The now-closed Splendid China theme park moved many of its Asian treasures to this secluded, woodsy property (same owners), filling the lobby and 333 rooms with Eastern artifacts like fans, Zen-like prints and sculptures. Also planned: an on-site Asian cultural center and martial arts and dance school. The rooms are standard in size and layout (and some smelled slightly fusty), but the exotic accouterments add an upscale touch. As does the gift shop, which sells Japanese and Chinese crafts, and the large pool area, which is distinguished by sky-high palm trees and lanterns. At night, nothing could be finer than rocking in the large wooden swing lit only by the glow of the moon and the lights above. Info: 800-327-9173, www.dimgw.com.
HAMPTON INN ORLANDO-LAKE BUENA VISTA
8150 Palm Pkwy.
Price We Found: $53.10 (Travelweb).
Details: It had us at hello. After a look at the lobby—with its plush chairs, fireplace and pretty breakfast buffet room—we weren't surprised to find the 147 rooms similarly appointed. In fact, the whole place seems too tasteful for a Disney area chain hotel. Even the pool, though small, was gussied up with palm trees, red brick and flowers. The Disney parks are only a few minutes away, and even closer is a profusion of shops and restaurants.
Info: 407-465-8150, www.hamptoninnlbv.com.
* HOLIDAY INN MAINGATE EAST
5678 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy.
Price We Found: $55 (Hotels.com) to $59.36 (Travelweb).
Details: This sprawling 614-room faux oasis requires a road map—or a golf cart—to get around. In addition to the two Olympic-size pools, with accompanying tot pools and food/drink chaise-lounge service, the hotel has lighted tennis courts, a sand volleyball court, poolside shuffleboard, a basketball hoop and more. Between laps, you can get hitched at the Little White Wedding Chapel—that is, before it reverts back to a movie theater that shows free family-friendly flicks nightly. With their large windows and festive color scheme, the rooms are above par, but we're even bigger fans of the “playhouse” suites (themed for NASCAR, cowboys, etc., with bunk beds, Nintendo and fun phones) for kids. (On Jan. 1, the hotel will change owners and will be renamed Seralago.)
Info: 407-396-4488, www.orlandofamilyfunhotel.com.
HOLIDAY INN NIKKI BIRD RESORT
7300 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy.
Price We Found: $50 (SideStep).
Details: It's tacky-looking (lots of exterior neon and polished metal) and has an ugly, loud lobby, but we loved this 530-room hotel's bright, tropical-hued rooms, its three pools set amid lush palmy landscaping, the cheery diner and the close proximity to Disney. The KidSuites are about $30 more a night but worth it—children get their own bunk beds and TV/VCR and are separated by a wall from their folks. Kids eat free, plus it's one of the few spots we found that offers baby-sitting service.
Info: 407-396-7300, www.hicentralflorida.com.
HOWARD JOHNSON EXPRESS INN SUITES
4836 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy.
Price We Found: $29.32 (Travelocity) to $32.50 (Travelweb).
Details: Lounge at this HoJo's long square pool, which overlooks a lake buzzing with birds, bugs and Jet Skis, and you won't feel so landlocked. Though the front-door views are of a shopping center and a busy highway, the back door leads to a full water entertainment center. Complementing the pool is a whirlpool, kiddie pool and covered picnic area with barbecue grills and a dock. Among the 131 rooms are 42 suites with Jacuzzis and full kitchens (but no microwaves); "home office" rooms come with fridges, microwaves and coffee makers—but little else (at least cooking wise). A simple continental breakfast is included, but there's no real dining area, minus a picnic table in the parking lot and that outdoor pavilion with water views. Info: 407-396-4762, .
LA QUINTA INN LAKESIDE
7769 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy.
Price We Found: $56 (Hotels.com) to $59 (Expedia).
Details: Don't let the strip-mall location fool you. Though it sits behind a Walgreens, La Quinta is more beach resort than budget motel. The 651 rooms, housed in 15 two-story buildings, cluster around two main frolic centers that include pools (kiddie and all-ages) with on-deck food/beverage service, palm tree-shaded paths, a fitness center and wood picnic tables with conical roofs. The hotel offers an array of dining choices: a well-stocked mini-mart with deli and a Pizza Hut Express, a hops-happy bar and grill called Hurricane Sam's and a sit-down restaurant where guests can get $1.50 off the $6.95 breakfast buffet (kids 10 and under eat for free, including Pizza Hut). Rooms don't have microwaves, but the general store has one you can use. Our fave feature: the 18-hole mini-golf course that sits by the lake.
Info: 407-396-2222, www.laquintainnlakeside.com.
* PARC CORNICHE CONDO SUITE HOTEL
6300 Parc Corniche at International Drive
Price We Found: $59 (Expedia).
Details: Jump on this deal if you see it. At Parc Corniche, there's no need to cram the whole family into one room with a mini-fridge when you can rent a condo with a full kitchen. To ensure that the cook also gets a vacation, there's room service, plus a pub and restaurant in a small reception building. Condos on the ground floor have small patios; others have balconies—the better to look out over the bucolic surroundings that are a far cry (yet less than a half-mile) from SeaWorld. Stays at this 210-unit property include a discount at the adjacent Mariott golf course.
Info: 800-446-2721, www.parccorniche.com.
14 QUALITY INN AND SUITES EASTGATE
4960 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy.
Price We Found: $40 (SideStep).
Details: Before heading to the parks, guests can catch some rays on a beach. Okay, it's more like a large spoonful of sand—but still, it's yellowish and abuts a lake. Prefer chlorination? Then try the pool—long, wide, clear blue, cool—or the adjacent whirlpool. The 176 rooms look fresh and newly refurbished, with bold striped bedspreads, light wood furniture and fingerprint-less black microwaves and fridges. The kids' suites have bunk beds and Nintendo, and mom and dad are safely tucked away behind another door. For breakfast, guests can eat indoors or take it outside, to mosaic-tiled tables near that sliver of beach.
Info: 407-396-1376, www.qualityinn.com.
QUALITY INN AT INTERNATIONAL DRIVE
7600 International Dr.
Price We Found: $59.95 (Travelocity).
Details: A guard with a pleasant smile waved us into this two-pool, 728-room complex that's right off the highway. Near the lobby are a luggage room, large convenience store, two e-mail kiosks and—a nod to the mostly British clientele—the aptly named Apothecary Restaurant. The standard rooms at this pet-friendly location include a microwave, fridge and the all-important coffeemaker—but really it's all about the Topsy Turvey Cafe, where chairs hang from the ceiling and the karaoke can go until 2 a.m.
Info: 800-825-7600, www.orlandoqualityinn.com.
QUALITY INN KISSIMMEE
2930 Polynesian Isle Blvd.
Price We Found: $49.95 (Travelweb).
Details: Removed from the ruckus of the highway, the 119-room hotel feels pastoral—almost. A large grassy area, adorned with trellises and flower beds, makes for a nice spot to relax after park mania, as does the sizable gated pool with enough deck space to fit all those Brits who come via a British Airways package. The breakfast room is small (only four tables) but feels larger thanks to large bolts of sunshine. However, if you want to eat in your room (cozy table and chairs, tall windows, nice iron lamps), remember to ask for a fridge and microwave, available upon request and for a nominal fee.
Info: 407-396-2199, www.qualityinn.com.
QUALITY INN MAINGATE WEST
7785 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy.
Price We Found: $38 (Hotels.com) to $49.87 (Travelocity).
Details: From the outside, it was a pink nightmare too close to the highway. On closer look, though, we were taken by the large, clean rooms, the gratis continental breakfast and the outdoor heated pool sitting on the edge of a pretty little lake—for $38, an excellent deal. We'd ask for a room toward the back of the property though, just to avoid staring at cars whizzing by.
Info: 407-396-1828, www.qualityinnorlando.com.
RADISSON BARCELO HOTEL
8444 International Dr.
Price We Found: From $50 (Expedia) to $58.50 (Hotels.com).
Details: Perhaps the grandest of the hotels on our list, with a restaurant, well-stocked gift shop and premium coffee at the Cargo Bay Cafe right in the busy lobby. Guests at this 523-room hotel have privileges at the on-site YMCA Aquatic Center, perfect for working off those nachos from Ripples Pool Bar. There's also a heated outdoor pool, bocce, horseshoes and tennis (the desk has racquets). The yellow-stuccoed rooms have spacious bathrooms and surprisingly tasteful (for Orlando) flower-print wall decorations. Free shuttles to Universal and SeaWorld, but you're on your own if you want to visit Disney.
Info: 407-345-0505, www.radisson-orlando.com.
RAMADA PLAZA HOTEL & INN GATEWAY
7470 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy.
Price We Found: $46 (Expedia) to $46.20 (Hotels.com).
Details: This is two hotels in one. The Plaza is a glittery high-rise, with 147 airy, pastel-infused rooms containing bleached-pine furniture, large windows, a nifty micro/fridge/sink area and a 12-cup coffeemaker. A huge, sunny lobby—with copious seating, a lounge and a restaurant—opens out onto an oh-so-inviting pool area, with palm trees, umbrella'd tables and lounge chairs. Surrounding the pool is the two-story Inn, whose 353 tired rooms are pleasant but a notch below those in the Plaza. Plus, they have smaller fridges and no microwaves. Plaza rooms are about $10 more a night (and worth it), but you could do far worse than the Inn.
Info: 407-396-4400, www.ramadagateway.com.
RITZ EXPRESS INN AND SUITES
2407 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy.
Price We Found: $49.95 (Hotels.com).
Though a bit scuffed, this 130-room property is the little hotel that could. It has a nice tiled pool surrounded by tropical landscaping and an angel fountain that mutes highway traffic. We're told management is trying to make the place a bit more resorty, with a fitness-room-in-progress and high-speed Internet coming for all the rooms. What we liked, though, were the subtle touches: The mugs, tablecloth and candles laid out for a repeat guest, the practical fridge/microwave unit, the breakfast nook that overlooks a wall mural of dolphins and sea critters.
Info: 407-933-2400 www.ritzexpress.com.
RODEWAY INN INTERNATIONAL
6327 International Dr.
Price We Found: $43.50 (Hotels.com) to $59.95 (Travelocity).
Details: The pool's rather small to accommodate a 315-room hotel, but the location is great: The Orlando Visitors Center is just across the street. Relax in your standard room with a video (rentals in the lobby run "from kinky down to kid stuff," according to an employee), get knock hockey happy in one of the two game rooms and end the evening with some sushi at the on-site Shogun restaurant. Breakfast at the Palm runs $5 (kids eat free).
Info: 407-996-4444, www.rodewayinnorlando.com.
4640 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy.
Price We Found: $39 (SideStep).
Details: If you can ignore the construction outside—and find the driveway—you'll be surprised at the mom-and-pop charm of this 50-room family-run property. Homey touches include bright, quilt-like bedspreads, a small vase of dried flowers by the microwave, the owner's granddaughter splashing in an amoeba-shape pool sheltered by tall palms and an even taller fence. There's no free ride to the parks, but you can take a $12 shuttle or a $1 bus—the stop is just out front, along the excavated road.
Info: 800-367-1363, www.sevillainn.com.
SLEEP INN MAINGATE
8536 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy.
Price We Found: $45 (SideStep) to $60 (Hotels.com, but it was $45 for three nights or more). Details: This 104-room spot offers rooms with two different views: the parking lot (soon to be home to a Houlihan's) or the resident deer. The property sits back from the highway, on acres of pine forest, where Bambi, peacocks and other critters live. Though the small pool in the parking lot is a turnoff, the piped-in classical music drowns out incoming cars. The rooms are dorm-size, but the well-kempt furnishings are definitely post-grad. We especially liked the bathrooms: Instead of a tub, there's a large shower with a full-length glass door that creates the illusion of space. Breakfast is included, and is participatory -- you can make your own waffles and eat them, too.
Info: 407-396-1600, www.sleepinnorlando.com.
WELLESLEY INN KISSIMMEE LAKE CECILE
4944 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy.
Price We Found: $59 (Travelweb).
Details: The 222-room Wellesley feels more like a full-service hotel than an amenity-sparse inn. The rooms have self-contained bathrooms (sinks inside) big enough for two to get ready at once; strong lighting (natural and by bulb); and enough space to spin around like the Mad Tea Party ride. Tucked behind Coconut Willy's pub and restaurant (its specials are posted near the check-in desk), the property has a large breakfast room just up the lobby's spiral staircase that overlooks Lake Cecile. An on-site store sells everything you may have forgotten, and the game room includes pinball, air hockey and a rockin' CD jukebox. There is also no shortage of water, as guests can walk from the spouting fountain in the driveway to the L-shape pool to a tiny pond with ducks to the lake with dock and Jet Ski rentals.
Info: 407-396-4455, www.wellesleyonline.com.
FOR SIDEBAR: Tips to help stretch your lodging budget
The average leisure visitor to Orlando spends about $534 per trip and stays 4 1/2 days, according to the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau. That's a lot of Grumpy mugs and plush Shamus. You can cut costs by trimming your lodging expenses. Here are some ways to do that:
Go at the right time of year and you can save a bundle
Though it's difficult for families with school-age children to travel off-season, prices (as well as park crowds) plunge. Off-season includes early winter (January to mid-February), the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the months cushioning summer (May and September).
Use multiple Web searches to check hotel prices
As we found during our search for budget lodging outside the park, it pays to use numerous sites, including Orbitz.com, Expedia.com, Travelocity.com and Hotels.com. Use an aggregator site such as Sidestep.com to run a search that includes hotel sites.
Call the individual hotels for discount rates
Once you've narrowed your choices, call the individual hotels or check their websites for discounted rates or special deals not available elsewhere. AAA and AARP deals, for instance, can be sizable. We found a rate for about $40 through a Web search for the Howard Johnson Maingate Resort, but when we checked , we found the same room for $33 with a AAA discount.
Read the signs
Many hotels in Orlando/Kissimmee advertise their rates on giant illuminated signs that change based on occupancy. If the rate you're paying is more than what the hotel's marquee is promising, ask for that rate.
Don't be afraid to shop around once you've checked in
If the hotel you booked is a dog and you're in it for more than a night, look around to see if you can do better. After we checked in at the aforementioned Howard Johnson, we started searching for alternative lodging — and found it a few miles down the road. For $20 more, our hotel (the Comfort Suites Maingate) was nicer in every conceivable way, and the price included breakfast. True, we did book a $33 room, but we didn't have to settle for it. After we voiced our displeasure, the HoJo desk clerk let us cancel our reservation penalty-free. If we'd been staying a week and the employee was less amiable, we gladly would have forfeited the $33.
Check tourism bureaus to see what deals they're listing
The state's official tourism site, www.flausa.com, has long-term, short-term and military deals on its home page. The Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau site () lists a ream of "Great Offers"; you can also print out an Orlando Magicard, which offers numerous lodging discounts. For example, according to the site, the peak-season published rate for the Comfort Inn Lake Buena Vista is $69 a night; with the card, the tariff is $49.
Look for Disney discounts
Prices at Disney properties, for the most part, don't fluctuate much except for seasonal variations. But the company has been offering discounts to fill rooms in the past year; watch for ads and check with Disney itself (407-939-6244, ) for deals. Rooms at its Value resorts (Pop Century and the All Star properties), for instance, usually start at $77 but have been marked down to as low as $55 in the past year.
Check whether your hotel includes breakfast in its rates
It's well worth the extra $10 or $20 you may pay for waffle-inclusive lodging at another hotel (breakfast for four at Denny's can easily top that amount). For a bit extra, you may be able to get a room with a kitchen or kitchenette, which will ultimately save even more if you use it.