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One park,  two perspectives: Staying ‘on campus’ vs. off

Is it best to stay in the "house of the mouse"? Or does one have a better—and cheaper—vacation staying outside Disneyworld?
Image: Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Visa, Fla.Gene Duncan / AP
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With only a limited number of rooms within the boundaries of Disney World, the majority of parkgoers must stay in hotels outside the park gates. So what's the difference? Besides proximity to the attractions, what are the benefits of bunking with the Mouse?

We asked two Travel staffers to find lodging on and off the Disney grounds—and for the same $55-a-night rate. One stayed at Disney's budget Pop Century Resort, the other at a Comfort Suites six miles down the road. Then they visited Epcot, the mammoth mix of futuristic exhibitions and world pavilions, on the same day. Here are their reports.

On Site: Disney's Pop Century Resort

Booking: One of the easiest ways to book a Disney room is through Disney, so we headed to the Web. And because we've reserved through the company's site (www.disneyworld.com) before, we know it's one of the quirkier booking systems—sometimes it'll show only a few hotels available for your dates when you just know there must be more with openings (calling 407-939-6244, the Disney reservation number, has solved that problem in the past). True to form, though we asked for all resorts with availability, the only one the site proffered was Disney's Pop Century—one of its cheapo Value properties.

Good enough. Thanks to a fall special, the $55 price for an on-site hotel was unbeatable. One alarm bell: To get a full refund, you must cancel 46 days (!) in advance, but we were leaving in 35 days.

GETTING TO THE HOTEL: In Orlando, all roads lead to Disney. However, if you get there when it's dark, and you haven't memorized the map, and you're too proud to ask for directions, you're in trouble. From the airport, it was easy enough to find our way through the Disney World gates, but then the jumble of confusing signage got the better of us—for 25 minutes. Finally we stopped in the parking lot at Pioneer Hall (we'd never heard of it, either) and discovered that we'd zipped by Pop Century about five minutes after we'd gone through the entryway. Ten minutes later we were in the lobby.

THE HOTEL: The problem with Pop Century, which opened last December, is that the vaunted Disney imagination (and budget) seems to have gone into the decorating—of the outdoors. Ostensibly a celebration of the 1950s through the '90s, the resort is a warren of five-story buildings cleverly adorned to reflect the decades. Catch phrases from each era jazz up railings, while huge cell phones, Rubik's cubes and yo-yos disguise stairwells. Most impressive are the gigantic fiberglass icons studding the property: a Kong-size Baloo, foosball game, Mickey Mouse phone. All cool, and all just eye candy.

The lobby is large and loud, with few places to sit and long lines to check in. There's no restaurant, just a cavernous food court selling decent but pricey vittles. The three pools are shaped (bowling pin, flower, computer) to reflect the decade they represent, but there's little shade and lots of concrete. The nondescript rooms are clean and quiet but minuscule, with wafer-thin towels and no hair dryers, rickety furniture and obnoxiously bright lighting. But it was $55, right?

We did feel secure, though: In-room safes are standard, and all Disney properties are now gated.

MICKEY MAGIC: We couldn't help ourselves—we felt like little kids running amok among those sculptures, from the humongous Big Wheel to the Costco-ready can of Play-Doh.

MICKEY NIGHTMARE: The parking. We were in the '90s building, and all the spots were gone by the time we arrived. We ended up parking several decades away, then forgot where the car was the next morning.

EPCOT BOUND: Though our resort parking pass was good throughout Disney World, we stuck with the free buses, under the assumption that we'd be dropped off much closer than where we could park. We assumed right. After waiting about 10 minutes in the Pop Century depot, near the lobby area, we hopped onto a bus and were deposited a few hundred yards from the Epcot ticket booths about 15 minutes later.

THE DAY AT EPCOT: Disney resorters get a great perk—each day, one park opens early for hotel guests. It wasn't Epcot the day we visited, but it didn't matter. We arrived shortly after the park opened to find the place virtually empty.

Accustomed to lengthy queues for even the most tedious attractions (sorry, that boat ride through the veggie gardens is a drag), we were surprised to find no lines in Future World, the World's Fairs-ian pavilions that make up half the park. We bolted from one attraction to another, actually walking onto Disney's newest star, the barf-bag-inclusive Mission: Space. Once was enough for that, but we rode Test Track three times in a row and would have jumped on again if it weren't 2 p.m. Time to chill.

Buses constantly depart from Epcot to the resorts and other parks, perfect for Disney guests who want to take a break. After a quick walk to the Epcot depot and a 15-minute return trip to Pop Century, we were in our room and fast asleep. We awoke to thunder rattling the walls and sheets of rain obscuring our parking lot view, but Epcot's World Showcase awaited. Driving to the bus stop, about as far from our room as possible, would have been an enviable option, but after finding the car earlier, we'd parked it where we knew we could find it again.

Next to the bus stop.

AFTER THE FIREWORKS: Once again, we turned to the Disney buses to get us back to the room. This could have gone one of two ways—either a steamy, snail-paced line clogged with cranky children, their exhausted parents and intoxicated boomers who'd downed a few too many margaritas in Mexico . . . or not. Fortunately, we dawdled a bit after the spectacular park-closing IllumiNations show, so by the time we limped to the bus stop, the line was relatively short, spirits were high and three buses were waiting. Again, the commute from park to Pop was about 15 minutes.

BOTTOM LINE: We love the attention that Disney pours into its resorts, and although costly compared with most off-campus offerings, they're usually worth the extra money just for those great Mouse touches, free transportation and proximity to the parks. And face it, you can't eat breakfast with Goofy at the Ramada off I-4. But we'll think twice before spending $55 or more at a Value resort, when you can get a lot more for your money (a bigger room, nicer pool, free breakfast) at a chain hotel a few miles away. We'll just drive ourselves around.

Off Site: Comfort Suits Orlando

BOOKING: The International Drive area is chockablock with chain hotels, with easy access to Universal Orlando, Wet 'n Wild and numerous other attractions such as Ripley's Believe It or Not Odditorium. We figured being off the Drive itself would be a welcome respite from theme park overload, and though we'd have a car, we looked for hotels with shuttles to Epcot in case we couldn't face the traffic.

We wanted a double room, breakfast and a good-size pool, all for $55 for a Friday night, before tax. Comfort Suites Orlando, booked on Quikbook.com, fit the bill.

GETTING TO THE HOTEL: In our pre-coffee state of mind, we'd nodded with apparent understanding as the Budget rental agent described the route we'd take to reach 9350 Turkey Lake Rd. Leaving the airport and hopping on the Beeline Expressway (Highway 528)—piece of cake. But after merging onto I-4 east, things went awry. We got all the way to the exit for Florida's turnpike before conceding that perhaps we'd misheard the directions and that the Turkey Lake Road exit we were looking for just didn't exist. Out with the cell phone, and soon the Comfort Suites front desk was directing us to backtrack to Sand Lake Road at Exit 74A (um, almost the very first exit on I-4), make two lefts and follow Turkey Lake Road for a few minutes. The 14 straightforward miles from the airport had turned into more like 25, but we were there at last.

THE HOTEL: The lobby of this peaches-and-cream colored hotel is reception, breakfast room, convenience store and Orlando area ticket center in one. While that worked just fine when checking in around 12:30 p.m., it made the next day's continental breakfast a somewhat chaotic experience, especially as the hotel was full.

All 214 rooms are billed as doubles/studio suites, with two double beds and a sleeper sofa; like the hotel itself, our room was absolutely devoid of personality but came with the standard amenities. The dehumidifier was a welcome touch; we chalked up the fuzzy television reception to inclement weather. The heart of this hotel is the large palm-shaded pool, which stays open till late, the better to soak while listening to the resident weekend deejay lead the night's entertainment (which is often the folks down the hall trying their hand at karaoke). You can get your nachos-and-mixed-drink fix at the poolside bar, all in view of the sad little kiddie play area.

MICKEY MAGIC: None. The generic decor is actually something of a relief in an area where everything's so, well, animated.

MICKEY NIGHTMARE: We could have done without the rows of leaking air-conditioning units that stained almost every concrete walkway in the place, and wish the construction on the new breakfast patio had been completed before our stay.

EPCOT BOUND: We eschewed the $12 round-trip shuttle to Epcot (it leaves the hotel at 9 a.m. and the park at 6:30 and 9:30 p.m.) in favor of driving what was billed as six miles to Disney. That's to Disney property; with barely any traffic, it took us 30 minutes to reach Epcot, where we slid right into one of the parking spots closest to the entrance.

THE DAY AT EPCOT: At $58 a pop, we wanted to spend every possible minute at Epcot. And not having a room nearby to crash in, that's what we ended up doing. After 2 1/2 hours trying to beat the computer version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Third Edition,” we started eating our way around the World Showcase. Note to self: Next time, try Mission: Space before downing couscous, dumplings and rubber disguised as a crepe. And being in the sun is hard work, even when you're guzzling root beer floats and frozen lemonade at every turn.

With our bed a full half-hour away, we scouted the park for the perfect place to take a mid-afternoon snooze and found it just outside China, where the benches have rounded armrests that fit just so under the curve of our neck. No one blinked an eye, and we shut ours for a good hour or so, at which point we were raring to go for a dinner in Morocco. Sadly, facing a drive home, we nixed the spiked concoction from Italy while watching IllumiNations at the end of the long, long day.

AFTER THE FIREWORKS: We were afraid the front-of-the-line parking spot we'd grabbed first thing in the morning would work against us when leaving Epcot along with every other soul who stayed for the evening's pyrotechnic extravaganza -- but the long wait never materialized. Twelve hours, 15 minutes and about eight pounds after arrival, we swallowed our envy of the bus- and monorail-riding folks leaving Epcot and drove to our hotel bone-tired.

BOTTOM LINE: Our initial attraction to this hotel turned out to be its downfall: its location off International Drive. Sure, there's a free shuttle to Wet 'n Wild and Universal, the two parks closest to the hotel, but it feels pretty isolated. For the same price or less, we could have stayed right on International Drive and, after Disney closed, walked out the hotel door to our pick of evening's entertainment. And staying closer to Epcot or any of the Disney parks would have saved us a cranky drive home.

FOR SIDEBAR: If you plan on staying with the mouse

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Page 1: An Orlando bedtime story

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