Disney World resort hotels are filled with design details, dining, and activities that are every bit as magical as what you’ll find past the theme park turnstiles – and best of all, enjoying much of it can be completely free or very low cost.
But, just how do you get around to the different Disney World hotels? And once you’re there, what can you do? Learn the ins and outs of this underrated Disney activity in this comprehensive guide to Disney World resort hopping.
Disney Resort Hopping 101
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I love hotels. Not just staying in them, although that’s great too. I’m talking about the design, the thoughtful amenities that have been put in place that most people take for granted, the infectious energy that washes over you when you walk through the doors. You just feel like an adventure (or well-deserved rest) is about to happen.
That fascination began early. I can remember popping into hotels with my mom and siblings while we were on vacation. Not to stay, but just to wander around, check things out and, for me, imagine what it might be like to stay there.
So, it’s no wonder that I found myself working in the hospitality industry, or that resort hopping just happens to be one of my favorite things to do at Disney World. “What is resort hopping?”, you might ask. Well, it’s basically what I started out doing with my family all those years ago – visiting hotels at Disney to drink in the ambiance (and maybe a cocktail or two), appreciate the details, and take advantage of the perks they offer.
Then, head back to wherever it is you’re staying. This way, not only do you get to enjoy other parts of Disney World that you wouldn’t normally be able to and save yourself some cash in the process from not having to book one of Disney’s more spendy hotel rooms, but it’s also a great way to test out a resort that you may be interested in staying at in the future.
Resort Hopping at Walt Disney World in 2021
Due to Covid-19, you might be wondering, “Can you go to Disney resorts without staying there in 2021?” And the answer is yes, but it will take a little more planning than it has in the past.
With numerous health and safety measures in place as a result of the pandemic, actually gaining entry to the resorts is a bit trickier than it was in the past. If driving, guests are required to show either a valid room reservation or advance dining reservation when checking in at the hotel’s guard stand before parking.
Having said that, this has basically already been Disney’s policy in the past whenever the resorts and theme parks are especially busy and parking is at a premium. If you don’t have a reservation, the only real way to resort hop in 2021 is by using Disney World’s complimentary transportation options, namely the Disney Skyliner, monorail, water taxis, or buses.
Additionally, once you arrive at the resorts you may find that some of the typical amenities and recreational activities are currently unavailable, specifically offerings that may require a lot of up-close interactions between guests and cast members. Some dining options may also be temporarily on hiatus. I highly recommend that you scope out Disney’s website or the My Disney Experience app for the most up-to-date information.
How to Get There
When resort hopping, you have a few different options for actually getting to the hotel(s) that you’re visiting.
Driving is the most straightforward and speediest of them all. At the guard gate, you’ll be asked why you’re there and required to show an ID. During busy periods, a valid reservation of some sort may also be mandatory to be allowed in. But, in slower seasons, a lot of the time you can just tell them that you’d like to look around or are going to get a drink in the hotel lounge (somewhere that doesn’t accept reservations).
If you don’t want to drive, your other best option is taking Disney transportation. All Disney resorts have buses connecting them to the theme parks and Disney Springs. However, Disney buses do not connect to the different Disney resorts. In other words, you’ll need to return to a transportation hub like the parks first before getting on a different bus to a new Disney World hotel. The only exceptions to this are a bus that runs between Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness and the occasional sharing of buses during slower times of day by the Disney All-Star Resorts or Port Orleans – French Quarter and Riverside.
Similar to the Disney buses, complimentary water taxis are also available at some Disney World resorts, connecting hotels to places like Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Disney Springs. Keep in mind this is one of the slower options, as boats often travel in a big loop between a theme park and multiple hotels.
My absolutely favorite ways to get around when resort hopping though are either the Monorail or Disney Skyliner. Connecting resorts in the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios areas to those parks, these highways in the sky don’t just offer aerial views and make getting around a breeze, but the novelty of it all makes them attractions unto themselves and a whole lot of fun.
Here are the different ways to reach each resort sorted by which part of Walt Disney World they’re found in:
Magic Kingdom Resort Area
All Magic Kingdom Area resorts are also reachable by bus.
Accessible by Boat: Fort Wilderness Campground, Wilderness Lodge
Accessible by Boat & Monorail: Contemporary, Grand Floridian, Polynesian Village
Epcot & Hollywood Studios Resort Area
All Epcot & Hollywood Studios Area resorts are also reachable by bus.
Accessible by Boat: BoardWalk Inn, Yacht & Beach Club
Accessible by Skyliner: Art of Animation, Caribbean Beach, Pop Century, Riviera
Animal Kingdom Resort Area
Accessible by Bus Only: All-Star Movies, All-Star Music, All-Star Sports, Animal Kingdom Lodge, Coronado Springs
Disney Springs Resort Area
All Disney Springs Area resorts are also reachable by bus.
Accessible by Boat: Port Orleans – French Quarter, Port Orleans – Riverside, Saratoga Springs
Accessible by Bus Only: Old Key West
Resort Hopping, Disney World’s Best Free Thing to Do
Ok, you know you want to go resort hopping at Disney World, but when should you squeeze it in? You have a few different options depending on your priorities and how much time you have, from peppering in meals at Disney hotel restaurants to setting aside a half-day or more exclusively for exploring the resorts. Best of all, if you so desire, resort hopping can be completely free.
Bookend your day with breakfast or dinner in a couple of the Disney World resorts or get a break from the hustle and bustle of the theme parks with a lunchtime detour. This works out best when you’re visiting Magic Kingdom or Epcot for the day due to several resorts being just a monorail ride or a short walk from World Showcase away, respectively. Or, for a little bit of Disney magic on your arrival or departure day, sprinkle in a little resort hopping before you check in or after you check out.
If you do decide to have a full day of resort hopping, I encourage and support you wholeheartedly. In fact, for the best experience, I recommend you set aside at least half of a day to really uncover and enjoy your chosen corner of Walt Disney World. Just remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Take some time to wander and appreciate all the wizardry worked by the Disney Imagineers. Even if you don’t have the time for any lengthy activities, you can still take in the details, have a snack or drink, or do a scavenger hunt or tour if one is available.
What to Do When Resort Hopping
Since time is a priority, research and planning are your best friends when it comes to resort hopping. Disney World hotels are plentiful and unique, with each offering distinct theming, atmosphere, dining, and recreation.
To narrow down which resorts you want to visit, you’ll first need to decide what you’d like to do once you’re there. Use Disney’s website, blogs like this, or social media posts for inspiration and let that guide where you’d like to go.
The holidays are easily the most popular, and arguably the best, time to go resort hopping. The Christmas decorations are up, there are cozy seasonal snacks to try, and it is downright enchanting. You can even add in an extra-festive stop at Disney Springs to check out the ever-popular Christmas Tree Stroll.
If you aren’t into the whole tinsel-and-gingerbread thing, or if you can’t make it out to Disney World in November or December, never fear – there are lots of things to see and do at the Disney hotels all year round. Some of the best dining at Disney World can be found in the resorts, so take a break from your wandering to try a bite, have a meal, or sip on something in the lounge. Or, turn resort hopping into a culinary adventure with a self-guided food tour or dine-around. Better yet, plan your visit around the Disney World fireworks and catch the show with a drink in hand, no park ticket necessary.
Have an eye for design? If you’re anything like me, simply walking around and appreciating the carefully considered eye candy can be more than enough to make you happy. And attention all aspiring (and actual) influencers! This elaborate theming can also make for memorable backgrounds for your social media posts.
Looking for something more substantial? Many resorts at Walt Disney World offer a variety of exclusive recreational activities (Paint ‘n’ Sip classes, carriage rides, or architecture tours, anyone?), some free and some paid, while all hotels play host to Movies Under the Stars and maybe a campfire. Always on the hunt for the perfect Disney souvenir or collectible? Check out the resort merchandise locations or search for the next addition to your Disney pin trading collection.
Finally, if you’re hoping to check out some of the best hotel pools at Disney World resorts, I hate to burst your bubble, but pool hopping isn’t allowed for most Disney guests. A MagicBand or Disney MagicMobile Pass on your NFC-enabled smartphone with a valid resort reservation is required for entry to most hotel pools, so the only one you’ll be able to splash around in is at the same hotel you’ll rest your head tonight.
The only exception to this is with Disney Vacation Club members. This DVC perk gives guests complimentary access to select pools at various DVC resorts and Disney resort hotels. Capacity is limited and blockout dates apply.
Where to Resort Hop at Disney World
With so many Disney World hotels to choose from, figuring out which ones to go to can be a challenge. For a resort-hopping experience that’s stress-free without skimping on things to do and see, stick to resorts that are either clumped next to each other or directly connected by some form of Disney transportation.
Magic Kingdom Area resorts, particularly those along the monorail, are a popular choice, although taking the water taxi between Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness is also well worth it. If you’d rather stay around Epcot and Hollywood Studios, visiting the resorts along the Disney Skyliner is as convenient as it is fun.
Or, take a moonlit stroll around Crescent Lake down Disney’s BoardWalk, complete with a fireworks finale. For even more nostalgia, wander beneath the magnolia trees and Spanish moss along the Sassagoula River and explore Disney’s Port Orleans Resorts.
Honestly, we could probably make the case for resort hopping to all of the Walt Disney World resort hotels. However, if we had to pick, our favorite resorts to visit at Disney World are:
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge
With a design and layout inspired by a traditional South African village, savannas teeming with wildlife, one of the largest collections of African art outside of Africa, and some of the best Disney resort dining, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge transports guests far from the swamps of Central Florida.
Checking out the animals is completely free, or get a closer look during the Sense of Africa or Starlight Safari animal encounters (for a fee, of course). If you’d rather admire from afar with an alcoholic drink in hand and even come away with a souvenir, embrace your inner artist at Wild About Painting. You can even go on cultural and culinary tours led by the resort’s cultural representatives from countries throughout Africa.
Disney’s Art of Animation Resort
Ideally situated along a Disney Skyliner route, Disney’s Art of Animation Resort uses larger-than-life theming to immerse guests in beloved Disney and Pixar films, making it a dream for Disney geeks and social media pros alike. Come here for a colorful selfie sesh or discover each section during a free scavenger hunt available at the front desk.
When you aren’t exploring the different movie-themed sections, head to Animation Hall and bring classic sketches to life with Stories of the Enchanted Gallery on the Play Disney Parks app. There may even be a Mickey Tie-Dye class in session if you’re lucky.
Disney’s BoardWalk Inn
Disney’s BoardWalk Inn is a true gem when it comes to resort hopping. Aside from its saltwater-taffy-colored buildings oozing with turn-of-the-century charm, this Disney hotel boasts an incomparable location in the heart of Disney’s BoardWalk. This whimsical entertainment district is best explored after sunset, when street performers take to the sidewalk and fireworks to the sky.
Grab a classic cocktail and play some board games at the Belle Vue Lounge. Then, head outside to explore the glittering shores of Crescent Lake. Pedal a surrey bike down the promenade or try your luck at some carnival games. And don’t miss out on the dueling-piano-fueled fun over at Jellyrolls.
Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort
Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort may not have as many things to do or see as the previous hotels on our list, but what it lacks in notable activities, it more than makes up for in ambiance. Mostly on this list because of its position along Disney’s Skyliner, this Easter-egg-colored confection of a resort is made for laidback wandering reminiscent of lazy days in the Caribbean isles.
Pick up something delicious and portable from Centertown Market then walk the plank (AKA cross the bridge) over to the hotel’s own private island, Caribbean Cay, for a picnic followed by a snooze in one of the island’s hammocks.
Disney’s Contemporary Resort
A quintessential stop on the Magic Kingdom Monorail Loop, Disney’s Contemporary Resort touts some of the most iconic dining experiences at Disney World. Aside from its breathtaking murals designed by Disney Legend Mary Blair, I love coming here for its equally stunning views of the Magic Kingdom fireworks. Make sure you show up early to stake your claim at the California Grill Lounge.
Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort
Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort is a little out of the way compared to some of the other hotels on our list, but this picturesque resort is definitely worth a spot on your resort-hopping tour. From the Salvador Dali-inspired touches of the Gran Destino Tower to the pueblo-style villas throughout the rest of the resort, you feel as if you’ve been transported far away from humidity-ridden Orlando.
As the Disney World’s premier convention resort, you’ll find a slew of dining options here – Three Bridges Bar & Grill at Villa del Lago and Toledo – Tapas, Steak & Seafood are two of my favorites. Or, try the Colors of Coronado Painting Experience for a snack and a drink with a side of art. This is also the ultimate fitness resort, so consider kicking off one of your mornings with The Running of Coronado Fun Run and a lemony, Spanish-style pastry.
Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground
When it comes to resort hopping, Disney World’s campground, the Fort Wilderness Resort, is nigh unbeatable. A rustic retreat from the chaos of the theme parks, Fort Wilderness sprawls across 750 wooded acres of pine and cypress trees. Unsurprisingly, many of the best things to see and do at this resort are outside.
The Tri-Circle-D Ranch is home to the horses of Walt Disney World and is completely free to visit. If you want to get up close and personal, horseback rides, wagon rides, and carriage rides are also available for a fee. To have a chance at seeing some of the hotel’s other denizens, rent a canoe, kayak, or bike or hop on a Segway and join the Wilderness Back Trail Adventure and go in search of creatures like deer and armadillos.
For an animal encounter of a different kind, you won’t want to miss out on Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Campfire Sing-A-Long, the absolute best Disney World campfire and one of the only ways to see Disney characters for free outside the theme parks. Or, get in touch with your inner Merida or Katniss Everdeen at the Fort Wilderness Experience.
But wait, there’s more! The Disney Fort Wilderness Campground is also home to some incredible dining. Trail’s End Restaurant and the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, the original Disney dinner show, are some of the best Disney World has to offer.
Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa is another essential stop along the Magic Kingdom monorail. A vision in Victorian elegance, the Grand Floridian is Disney World’s flagship resort. With some of the best Disney resort restaurants – including the AAA Five Diamond Award winner Victoria & Albert’s, the recently renovated Citricos, and the Enchanted Rose lounge inspired by Beauty and the Beast – it’s a foodie’s dream. You are also able to catch the Magic Kingdom fireworks or Electrical Water Pageant here from the beach.
Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort
Another stop along Magic Kingdom’s monorail, Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort is a romantic stop along your resort-hopping route. This dreamy hotel takes its inspiration from the architecture and culture of the South Pacific – there’s even a luau.
The Polynesian resort is on island time, so I suggest you make your way over to Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto, the pièce de resistance of Disney bars. Afterward, grab a DOLE Whip from Pineapple Lanai and head over to the beach for some of the best views of the Magic Kingdom fireworks outside the park.
Disney’s Pop Century Resort
Situated along the Skyliner route, Disney’s Pop Century Resort often plays second fiddle to its neighboring value resort, Art of Animation. However, with giant icons celebrating the fads of the 1950s through 1990s, Pop Century’s earnest kitschiness is charming, to say the least. Take a stroll down memory lane as you use supersized versions of yo-yos, Big Wheels, and more for quirky, eminently Instagrammable backgrounds.
Disney’s Port Orleans Resort – French Quarter
Walking through Disney Port Orleans – French Quarter feels like stepping out of sticky Central Florida and onto the streets of The Big Easy. Wrought-iron balconies and old-timey gas lamps lend an air of romance, making this a great pick for a Disney date night. Just add in a horse-drawn carriage ride or Painting on de’ Bayou for a truly memorable evening.
What’s date night without dinner? Believe it or not, this moderate resort boasts some impressive dining options. Sassagoula Floatworks and Food Factory offers Louisiana classics like Shrimp & Grits, while Scat Cat’s Club next door serves up live jazz and booze-infused beignets.
Disney’s Port Orleans Resort – Riverside
French Quarter’s sister resort, Disney Port Orleans – Riverside is dripping with Southern hospitality and Spanish moss. Bicycle or surrey bike rentals are a fun way to explore the lushly wooded grounds peppered by plantation-like estates and pastoral bayous. Ol’ Man Island is the heart of Riverside and a must for your visit. Reel in some wholesome fun with cane pole fishing at The Fishin’ Hole, then hang around for the three Ss (stories, singalongs, and s’mores) at the Campfire on de Bayou.
Before you leave, be sure to get a taste of some of the resort’s delicious dining options. Boatwright’s Dining Hall is a must for comforting soul food and don’t miss the musical antics of Yehaa Bob at the River Roost lounge.
Disney’s Riviera Resort
Long on style but short on things to do, Disney’s Riviera Resort is worth a quick look around when making your way along the Disney Skyliner. This elegantly subdued resort is styled after the European Riviera, a favorite vacation spot for Walt Disney and his wife Lillian.
Take a peek at the elaborate mosaics inspired by Tangled and Peter Pan, then savor some of the best Disney restaurants outside the parks. Topolino’s Terrace – Flavors of the Riviera is home to one of the top Disney character breakfasts, while Primo Piatto is a great place to stop for a quick lunch.
Disney’s Wilderness Lodge
As a former front desk cast member at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, I’m a bit impartial when it comes to this rustic retreat. Themed around the majestic, turn-of-the-century lodges found in some national parks with plenty of Craftsman-style touches, this deluxe Disney resort effortlessly fuses the beauty of nature with the grandeur of the Pacific Northwest. There’s even a stream that flows from inside the lobby to the pool area outside.
You’ll find a surprising number of things to do here including Hidden Mickey scavenger hunts and the (free!) Wonders of the Wilderness Lodge tour led by a resort ranger. The Carolwood Pacific Railway Room at the Boulder Ridge Villas DVC Resort is home to one of the train cars that chugged through Walt’s backyard back in the day, making it a must-see for Disney nerds and train lovers alike. You also won’t want to miss the resort’s very own Fire Rock Geyser, erupting every hour on the hour between 7am and 10pm.
Wilderness Lodge also plays host to some of the best resort dining at Disney World. With an open-air lounge on the lakefront, a can’t-miss Disney character dinner starring Snow White, and more, there really is something for everyone.
Disney’s Yacht & Beach Club Resorts
Located opposite the BoardWalk Inn, Disney’s Yacht & Beach Club Resorts are an enjoyable detour when exploring the shores of Crescent Lake. While the Yacht Club Resort is all refined sophistication, the Disney Beach Club Resort offers a laidback escape from the hustle and bustle of Epcot. Along with some excellent views of the nightly fireworks, these resorts are a must for the Beaches and Cream Soda Shop. A Disney World mainstay, Beaches and Cream is famed for its massive Kitchen Sink Sundae.
Well, to all my fellow hotel lovers out there, I hope I’ve convinced you to get out and discover the Disney World resorts. Whether you’re taking part in unique activities or simply soaking up the sights, resort hopping is an easy and affordable way to experience everything Disney has to offer.