RESORTS OF THE WORLD
My first trip to Walt Disney World was in 1998. After growing up in California, I was unprepared for the vast acreage The World encompasses. In my opinion, staying on property is a MUST. The Disney Magic starts when you cross on to property. I am not making this up, the second you pass under the Walt Disney World arch, the signs are bright, there is no litter, things are cleaner and happier and I swear a little sunnier. This feeling continues into each part of your vacation, giving you a little taste of Stepford only without the evil robots. A themed resort, in various price brackets, is essential to the complete Disney experience.
For that first trip we were on a budget and stayed at a value resort. Values are the steerage class of the Disney properties. However this means steerage on a luxury liner as opposed to a freighter. You still will get a better experience than staying at the Holiday Inn in Kissimmee (which I also have done). We stayed at All Star Music.
When I stayed at All Star Music, I was not bothered with any of the down sides. The rooms are small, that is true. However if you are not spending a great deal of time in the room, the size really doesn't matter. The rooms are about the size of your average Motel 6 but are clean and do have the small Disney touches. Are there screaming kids? Sure, the value resorts are the prime destination for families on a budget but if you are in the parks during the day by the time you get back (and have a night cap at the bar) most of the kids are passed out anyway.
Sure, there is no sit down restaurant but that just gives you the opportunity to eat at other resorts and check them out for future stays. The rooms are all "outside" access meaning the doors are fronting an outdoor breezeway like a Motel 6. Only the Deluxe resorts have rooms that are in hallways like "regular" hotels.
My next trip was to a moderate resort, Port Orleans (now renamed Port Orleans: French Quarter).
The moderates, Port Orleans, Dixie Landings (now Port Orleans: Riverside), Caribbean Beach Club and Coronado Springs are the equivalent of 2nd Class and give you a little more comfort without paying a Deluxe price. They each have a sit down restaurant with the exception of Port Orleans: French Quarter. Bonfamille's closed in 2000 so guests can use Boatwrights, the sit down place over at Riverside which is a 5 minute walk away. These two resorts are "sister" resorts and share facilities.
Of the four resorts, my favorite is Port Orleans: French Quarter. It is the smallest of the moderates which is in your favor if you have tired kids at the end of the day. You don't have a long walk to the bus stop. The theming is beautiful, romantic and they have the coolest themed pool with a water slide in the shape of a sea serpent. Both of the sister resorts share a boat to Downtown Disney which makes for one nice, relaxing bit of transportation. Disney does provide free bus service but let's face it, during the busy times you are going to be standing and packed in with a bunch of grumpy adults and screaming kids. It's like BART/Metro at rush hour. No fun.
I moved up to the First Class Deluxe resort experience in 2001 and have not looked back. I have stayed at Wilderness Lodge for my past four trips and it is truly my home away from home.
THE MAGIC KINGDOM RESORTS
Wilderness Lodge has Artist Point as it's gourmet restaurant, Whispering Canyon Cafe (which is anything but whispering), boat transport to Magic Kingdom as well as the Contemporary and Fort Wilderness.
The Grand Floridian, a Victorian Seaside getaway, has Victoria & Alberts (one of the finest 5 star restaurants you will find) as well as Citricos & Narcooses as its gourmet dining places and 1900 Park Fare as its secondary eatery. Yes, they have more but the GF is the flagship Deluxe resort so they are entitled. They are also on the monorail route to the Magic Kingdom as well as the Ticket & Transportation Center where you can catch a monorail to Epcot. The monorail service is shared with the Polynesian and the Contemporary resorts as well The Grand Floridian also has boat service to Magic Kingdom.
The Polynesian does not have a gourmet restaurant per say but they do have O'hana (which has a great character breakfast) and Kona Cafe as well as a luau called the Spirit of Aloha at Luau Cove. They have a white sand beach, waterfalls and a general tropical islands flair.
The Contemporary (or the giant toaster as I like to call it) has California Grill as it's gourmet destination with a great view of the fireworks, Chef Mickey's (a character meal venue) and The Wave, a new upscale sit down eatery. It is "modern" as modern was envisioned by Walt in the 1960's. It is modular construction (each room section was built individually and craned into place) and has the monorail running straight through the building. It also has a talking elevator.
All of the above resorts also rent water craft such as wave mice, sail boats, have fishing trips, parasailing AND get to see a little electric water parade in the evening.
THE EPCOT RESORTS
The Boardwalk boasts many great eateries as well as a functioning Boardwalk with shops, games and entertainment. The best of the restaurants is the Flying Fish. There is also Big River Grille & Brewery, ESPN Club, and Kouzzina (by Cat Cora).
The Beach Club has Cape May which sports character dining for breakfast and a clam bake for dinner. It's sister resort, Yacht Club has Yachtsmans Steakhouse as its gourmet dinner destination.
These three Disney resorts have the Friendship boat that takes guests to the International Gateway of Epcot in World Showcase and makes a trip to Disney Studios as well.
In addition to these three Disney properties there are also two hotels that are not owned by Disney but are still included in our little family. The Swan/Dolphin resorts are run by Sheridan & Marriott. However the hotels contain all of the bonuses of a full Disney resort except for some of the theming. It is more a "real nice hotel" as opposed to a mountain get away or a tropical paradise. As a result you can get some great deals. The food here is also very good and includes Kimonos sushi bar (the only place in the World you can get real sushi and that does NOT include California roll) and Todd English's Blue Zoo.
The final deluxe is really out on it's own and is the newest to the deluxe family. Animal Kingdom Lodge is next to the Animal Kingdom and while it only has bus transportation available it does have something the other resorts don't have. Wild animals. You can see animals from the resort viewing areas and from Savannah view rooms 24/7. Their gourmet restaurant is Jiko (one of my favs) and their secondary buffet dining is Boma. They also have a fabulous bar. The design of their lobby is similar to Wilderness Lodge and the Grand Californian in Disneyland. All have the same designer and they are amazing!
You may want to count pennies and say "we only sleep in our rooms so why not get something cheap at Downtown Disney and save that money for the Park?" Why? Because you will regret it. Unless you live locally and can go whenever you want, this is a trip most of us do not make often. The transportation of an off property hotel is spotty at best and takes longer. Sure you can rent a car but you will have to PAY to park if you are not staying on property. See? The extra money is creeping in there anyway so you might as well stay on property. If you are on a tight budget, stay at one of the All Star resorts or Pop. It just makes things so much easier and cheaper in the long run. You can snag some great package deals, plan your meals ahead of time and still have the bit of Disney Magic when you return all tired at the end of the night. This is the magic that just makes you happy to be alive and makes you feel that dreams really can come true.