Disneyland: The grand-daddy of all other theme parks. There’s no place like it anywhere else. A trip to this Sothern California icon has become a rite of passage for all. With many of the world’s most recognizable rides and attractions, it’s easy to visualize a magical trip of a lifetime full of fun with family. But once you begin planning out your dream vacation, you can quickly get overwhelmed by all the options; particularly when it comes to where you’ll end up staying – especially if this is your first visit. There’s a lot of information on all the area hotels and it’s very easy to get confused about how they compare. We’ve been there: scouring over a dozen different web pages; clicking back and forth comparing prices, amenities, and location. Disney vacations aren’t cheap. We’re sure you’re already aware of the chunk of change you’re about to fork out and you just want to make the best decision for a fun and relaxing experience.
We’re fortunate that we live close enough to the parks that we have been able to visit Disneyland frequently over the years. We’ve compiled our knowledge from multiple visits and scouring the internet to provide you with a valuable spreadsheet so you can make the best lodging choice for you and your family. We’ve got a lot to cover so we’ll get right to it.
First things first: there are three Disney-owned-and-operated hotels located on-property (The Disneyland Hotel, Paradise Pier, and The Grand Californian Hotel & Spa) and about a million more unaffiliated chain hotels crammed together just off-property. We are only comparing off-property chain hotels that are within similar walking distance as the three Disney hotels. These chain hotels are all located on one stretch of South Harbor Boulevard that we will refer to as the strip. Don’t worry, we’ve provided an interactive map.
Our most important factors for comparison are:
- Proximity to the park entrances and Downtown Disney
- Some Special amenities
We’ll explain all this more clearly in just a bit.
Our Search Criteria for each hotel are
- 4-night stay
- Assuming 2 adults + 2 children
- Rates are for low season (Monday, September 10 to Friday, September 13, 2018) and high season (Friday, December 28 to Tuesday, January 1, 2019)
- Rates are for standard rooms only (2 queen size beds) accommodating 2 adults + 2 children
- Click here for quick-info on all In-room amenities and facility amenities for all hotels and rooms
We’ve created an easy to read spreadsheet comparing both Disney and chain hotels within walking distance of the park entrances. Click on the image below to view or download a PDF, or click on the link here Disneyland Hotel Price Comparison Spreadsheet.
We’ve also created an interactive map displaying all Disney hotels and our recommended chain hotels as well as their location relative to the parks. We’ve also included some notable points in yellow to help visualize the area. Click on each icon to see additional information, pictures, or to open Google maps for directions to and from each point.
Pros of staying at a Disney Hotel
The number one benefit of staying on-property is the inclusion of Magic Mornings to your theme park tickets. Magic Mornings are special tickets that grant you 1-hour extra access to one of the theme parks earlier than the general public and are good for every day of your park ticket. You get to go into one of the parks earlier than everyone else, every single day. This is only offered to guests staying at a Disney Hotel. Any Disneyland veteran will tell you that you must be in the parks as soon as they open each day if you want to get the most out of your vacation – by 11 a.m. the parks are already at capacity and wait times remain high throughout the rest of the day. So it goes without saying that an extra hour of prime-time spent riding the E-ticket rides might just be money well spent. Magic Mornings are the best way to get the most out of your Disneyland vacation.
Another benefit of staying at a Disneyland hotel is their proximity to Downtown Disney. While Disney likes to tout their proximity to the parks, the truth is there are many off-property hotels that are as-close-or-closer to the actual park entrances with the exception of Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa. Disney hotels are however the closest hotels to Downtown Disney: a pedestrian boulevard of shops, restaurants, clubs, outdoor entertainment, and a movie theater. It also has the only Monorail stop outside the boundaries of the park. If you’re in the park and forgot something in your room, you can get from Tomorrowland to Downtown Disney faster than you can walk. If you’re like us and need your morning cup of coffee in order to function, Downtown Disney has the closest coffee shop to the park entrances (Starbucks).
Hit’n the Pool
SoCal’s warm most the year and summers can be downright brutal. Around midday, when the parks are at capacity and we can’t take any more of the heat, we like to retreat to our hotel for an hour or two to nap and hit the pool – trust us; you’re only missing out on waiting in a line for two hours. Disney’s Pools offer the best pool experience – especially for families. Each of the three hotels have multiple pools and hot-tubs, themed waterslides, kiddie-pools, rental-cabanas, and cocktail bars with select dining options and poolside service. You’ll feel so relaxed and enjoying yourself that you might forget to go back to the parks.
That Disney Magic
The one thing that makes Disney, Disney, is their exceptional attention to detail. It’s a certain something that everywhere else just can’t replicate. When you stay at a Disney hotel you are totally immersed in that Disney magic. You don’t have to leave the boundaries of the property if you don’t want to and you’re only dealing with Disney Cast Members who want to make your stay as magical as possible. Everything is streamlined for you once you arrive, and if you have a problem you just have to ask someone. That little bit extra really makes things nice so that you can just focus on having a good time.
The Grand Californian
Since we’re discussing the pros of Disney hotels, we must make some special notes about Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa. This is the closest hotel to both park entrances, as well as Downtown Disney – it is in the heart of the action. It’s the only hotel that has direct access to one of the parks – California Adventure. There is a special entrance from one of its wings that grants guests access directly into the park. It’s a great way to avoid the large crowds queuing at the main gate. If you’re looking to splurge for the nicest hotel with access to the park then look no further.
Opportunity for additional special services
We consider the stuff mentioned above to be the main reasons to consider staying at one of the Disney Hotels, but there are a few other special services that are available during your stay – some at an additional cost. To us, they’re not important enough to mention in our recommendations above but they are worth mentioning if they are important to you.
- In-room character celebrations
- Character Dining
- Magical movie nights
- Power walk of California Adventure
- Electric Vehicle Charging Stations
- Exchange Foreign Currencies at the front desk
- Perks of room key
- Merchandise delivery
- Arcade at Paradise Pier
- Hotel tours of Disneyland hotel and Grand Californian
- On-site spa for Grand Californian
- Link to amenities lists on Disney website
Cons of Disney Hotels
They are expensive! This is the single biggest reason not to stay at one of the Disney hotels – but you probably already expected that. The big question is whether that enormous added expense is worth the amenities listed above. While that is purely a personal decision for each of us to make, there are a few things you should be aware of.
First off, Disney hotel rooms aren’t far and away better than those off-property chain hotel rooms. In fact, we’ve stayed in many different hotels up and down the strip and we kind of think they’re pretty comparable. There, we said it. Every off-property hotel room has been clean, comfortable, and in a safe location so we weren’t compromising our safety in order to save a few bucks. At the time of this writing, it didn’t seem that Disney hotels offered microwaves in rooms – even by request. If this is important to you, call ahead to ask.
Parking is an additional fee of $20 per day! That’s right; you read that correctly. After all the expense of getting there – the flight, hotel, rental car, park tickets, etc. – parking is going to dip into your budget as well. We view this as a hidden fee; you might view it as the cost of doing business – regardless, it’s something you should be aware of.
You will be paying a premium for services you are probably not going to use. Look, all those amenities we listed above sound really great on paper, but ask yourself, am I really going to use all that? Unless your stay is four days or longer, the answer is – probably not. The longer your stay, the more leisurely pace you can set in the parks, and the more downtime you can afford. That means you have more time to enjoy those amenities instead of trying to see and do everything you possibly can in the parks. The amenities we listed out in detail are what we believe are the most beneficial to your time and money. You’re going to have to pay Disney a lot of money for all that Disney Magic – make sure it’s worth it.
Previously, we talked about how great the locations of the Disney hotels were – especially the Grand Californian. But as with everything in life, there are trade-offs. First of all, two of the Disney hotels are the same distance from the main gates of both parks as many of the chain hotels we have listed. In order to get to and from your room, you must walk through Downtown Disney. What nobody really mentions is that pedestrian traffic on the boulevard can be as packed as inside Disneyland itself. So when you are leaving the parks after a very long day and you just want to get back to your room and kick up your feet, you’re going to have to fight your way through all the people who are shopping, eating, or watching a live concert. You’re also going to be walking past one of the largest Disney Merchandise stores on the planet, as well as many other shops and eateries specifically designed to target children. This means you’re going to be saying “No” a lot. It might sound trivial, but we’ve witnessed more than a few meltdowns of weary parents battling it out with over-stimulated children.
Pros of Chain Hotels
Let’s be honest; if money is no issue then you’re going to stay at a Disney hotel. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t afforded that luxury in life. This is really the only reasoning to stay off-property; Lodging is across the board cheaper than Disney properties. Most hotels have complimentary breakfast of standard fare and the ones who don’t still have options available that are much cheaper than the Disney alternatives. Parking is also included with your stay at most of the chain hotels. The ones that do charge a fee are certainly more reasonable than the privilege of parking in one of the Disney Mega-lots.
Disney loves to tout the proximity of its hotels to the parks as a selling point on their website. The truth of the matter is that many of the hotels just outside the main entrance are actually closer in walking distance to both parks’ main gate than The Disneyland Hotel and Paradise Pier. Approaching the parks from the South Harbor Blvd. entrance means you get to avoid the foot-traffic of Downtown Disney and leisurely stroll up to the security checkpoints. The traffic exiting the parks at the end of the evening is noticeably lighter and easier to navigate rather than going the opposite direction.
What you get
The rooms are what you’d expect from the big-name chain hotels, albeit with noticeably exceptional, friendly, and helpful staff. Rooms are as good as Disney’s – clean but generic (don’t expect a view) and most offer In-room microwaves standard or by request. If continental breakfasts aren’t your thing, or you just want to avoid the high prices of Downtown Disney, there are nationally recognized chain restaurants up and down the strip to choose from – many located on the same property as the hotels. All the hotels we list have pools. Most are generic, no-frills, but a couple like Howard Johnson Anaheim Hotel and Courtyard by Marriott Anaheim Theme Park Entrance are as good or better than Disney’s! Honestly, we can’t give an honest review as we haven’t stayed at those locations but they are certainly a comparable option if you’re looking for something a little more special for the family to enjoy on hot days.
Cons of Chain Hotels
No Disney Magic
Like we mentioned above about the chain hotels; what you see is what you get – there are no Disney cast members at your beck and call and that attention to detail that Disney is synonymous for is absent. You are not totally immersed in the Disney fantasy, but maybe that’s OK by you. Maybe you don’t want or need that as part of your vacation.
Probably the most tragic part about saving all that money staying off-property is losing Magic Mornings as part of your ticket. You would need to buy a 3-day park hopper ticket or greater in order to get ONE Magic Morning. You’re going to have to wait for the regular entry time with the rest of the general population and miss out on that wonderful extra hour.
Proximity to Downtown Disney
While the chain hotels just off property are about the same distance from the main gates as Disney hotels, they aren’t as close to Downtown Disney. It’s not like they are that far (an extra 3-minute walk) but you are going to have to cross The Esplanade (Disney’s name for the waiting area between the two parks’ main gates). Security checkpoints open up at either end of The Esplanade an hour before the Magic Morning entry time (which is two hours before you will be able to enter either park.) You are going to have to go through security twice in order to cross over to Downtown Disney: once to cross The Esplanade and then again when you are ready to enter the parks or go back to your hotel room. Honestly, we are talking about a 5 – 10-minute idea here as Disney does a great job getting the masses through security. But it is a minor annoyance you’re going to have to deal with as there’s no easy way to get between the two without walking all the way around California Adventure.
With the exception of Howard Johnson Anaheim Hotel and Courtyard by Marriott Anaheim Theme Park Entrance, chain hotel pools are nowhere near as luxurious as Disney hotels. There are no waterslides, cocktail bars, cabanas, and poolside service; what you get is a standard, clean pool like you would find in any rec-center. There’s nothing wrong with any of the ones we’ve been to, but they lack a certain je ne sais quoi. We generally only spend about an hour each day at our hotel’s pool when the parks are at capacity and wait times are at their peak. So it’s not a big deal for us, but maybe you plan on spending a lot more time around your pool.
How do you decide?
So you might be reading all this information trying to figure out whom exactly would benefit from staying on-property versus off-property and whether or not it’s worth spending the extra money. Here’s who we believe falls into each category based on our experiences.
- First-time visitors
- People celebrating a special occasion (birthday, anniversary, extended-family vacation, etc…)
- Families with children in the golden age range (5-12 years old) – old enough to ride the rides and young enough to appreciate the magic without being jaded
- Affluent families
- People who don’t want to do the work of booking a la carte
- Anyone who wants total Disney immersion
- People who have been multiple times
- Families on a budget
- Families with very young children
- Childless couples
- Families with young adults
- People who don’t require the Disney magic
- People looking to experience things outside the sphere of Disneyland
- Business travelers
- People combining Disneyland with other vacation destinations
- People looking for easier access to nearby shops and restaurants
If it’s your first time at Disneyland we say splurge on a Disney hotel – they are going to give you the fullest experience possible. Magic Mornings are the greatest incentive for staying on-property but you are paying a lot for that privilege so you need wake up early each morning and take advantage of it. If money is not an issue we say go for the Grand Californian for its luxurious feel, proximity to the parks, and private access to California Adventure.
If you’ve been to the parks multiple times, are on a tight budget, or just don’t care about the hullabaloo of Disney magic, then stay at one of the chain hotels we’ve listed on our spreadsheet. You get the best deal and are still within walking distance to the parks. Take the money you save on your room and buy an extra day in the parks so you can enjoy them at a more leisurely pace – it’s what we do! Ultimately we feel the room doesn’t really matter. We spend all available time at the parks except a midday-break to swim and recharge. This is a big win for the chain hotels in our opinion. Why pay for amenities you’re not going to use when you’re hardly going to be in your room anyway?
If you want to go to Disneyland but are broke – the motel 6 is the cheapest room that you can still walk to the park from but is nothing more than a bed and 4 walls.
We really hope this article has helped you better understand the pros and cons of Disneyland hotels and has provided you with enough information to confidently choose the best option for your family. We love Disneyland as we’re sure you do too. If you find any information to be incorrect or there’s something we missed, please let us know in the comments below or feel free to drop us an email. We’d truly love to hear some feedback as we love learning more about Disneyland!