When we went to Disney World for the first time, when I was five, we stayed in the Tree Houses. This was 1981 and, at the time, there were very few hotels on Disney property. These were suites in the tree. There were three bedrooms and a full kitchen. I have a mix of memories and pictures from the trip, but this was the last time my family would stay in a resort. One of the souvenirs we bought was a book that included pictures of the park, as it was at the time. I remember, very distinctly, looking at the pictures of the Contemporary Resort and thinking how cool it would be to stay there. It remains a hotel you can’t forget. I mean, the monorail goes right into it!
I don’t know the decision process to stay here specifically, but I have some clues. First, my grandparents were with us. That would likely mean two hotels rooms needing to be arranged. Second, my father was fresh out of grad school, we had moved to Florida about a year before, and my parents were adjusting to a different set of financial needs. Third, it was our first trip and there was something special about it.
My sister, Katie, was born within two years of this trip and we wouldn’t go again until it meant something to her. We always stayed off park property. Even if my other set of grandparents went with us, it was easier and cheaper to stay in a hotel on Route 192. All the hotels were there and there was plenty of other ways to occupy your time.
If you want to understand a lot more about why people use to stay off park property and what it’s like now (not good), I suggest the YouTube channel Bright Sun Films, which did a whole video about it. Basically, the entire city of Orlando was next to another town named Kissimmee.
Route 192 was the main drag connecting Kissimmee to Orlando and the turnpike. It hits the Space Coast Parkway, where NASA is. It ends about 75 miles past the theme parks of Orlando and by all major highways in the city. It was hotel central. Every chain had an inexpensive hotel there. Eventually, the Nickelodeon hotel would be there. If you had money to spend, you stayed at the parks, but if you were on a budget, you stayed on Rt 192. A middle-class family of four who drove up in a Toyota Tercel and was staying for days would be on Rt. 192. When I was a teenager, in the early and mid-90s, and went with my youth group for our annual statewide convention, we stayed on Rt. 192. We used the hotel’s conference rooms and event spaces for our meetings for the days we weren’t at a theme park. This all changed during my Disney Drought years when the parks started building more hotels on property. Now, most people stay at a resort, the Disney World budget ones still being pretty affordable and featuring amenities we never had on Route 192. There are even hotels that have partnered with the parks, are sort of on park property, but aren’t officially resorts.
In California, there’s no room for Disney to build a ton of hotels. They have the few park resorts, which are still expensive, but they also have relationships with the surrounding hotels and motels. When we were there in 2017, we stayed at a very popular Motel 8 that was close enough for us to walk to and promoted a shuttle (which we never found). It was very much like the Orlando Route 192 hotels and motels. Yes, it was a cheap place to stay, but they renovated them. It was the cleanest Motel 8 I had ever been in. Would it have been different if we had stayed in the park at a resort hotel? Obviously, but there were five of us traveling together and it was just out of our budgets.
For this latest trip, I stayed in the Contemporary Hotel. There is never a moment in Disney when you are not immersed in the Disney experience. It doesn’t matter which park you’re in. The illusion only breaks when you leave the property. When I began planning the Orlando trip, I already knew I had a book idea to research. I knew I wanted to look at that immersive experience and play with it. Initially, I booked a budget resort, wanting to stay close to some friends, but then I decided to splurge and have my fantasy trip. I changed my plans and booked a more expensive room at the hotel I had always wanted to stay in.
I can’t fully compare the difference between the 2017 California trip to the 2018 Orlando trip. I don’t know how California would have been different if we had stayed in the park. What I do know is that the 2018 trip was not as completely immersive as I expected it to be. Not in a bad way, just in a different way. First off, the monorail that goes into the Contemporary Hotel, doesn’t cover the entire park. You can only use it to get to The Magic Kingdom and Epcot. Everything else requires a bus, boat, or maybe a ride service. I planned on spending most of my time in The Magic Kingdom since it was the park I knew the best. It made sense to focus on a hotel that would get me there easily. I realized you need to pick a hotel based on the park you want to spend your time in. If there are future trips, I’m inclined to think that I would continue to stay on the monorail loop, but there are hints that something new and better is coming.
The hotel was one of the nicest hotels I’ve stayed in. Over the past five years, I’ve traveled often and stayed at some crummy hotels and some nice ones. There were some that were nicer than I expected and others that were worse than I expected. The Contemporary was everything I expected it to be. One big reason was that I had a room facing the Magic Kingdom. For two nights I watched the fireworks from my hotel room balcony. There were restaurants for me to eat at, a cafe for snacks, and shops for more shopping. One night I decided to do a character dinner at the last minute and made the reservation for the one in the hotel.
I think my favorite thing, which is minor, but fascinating, was how each morning I would turn on the television and just keep it on the information channel so I could listen to Disney songs while I got ready for the day. Considering the pain I was in for much of this trip, it was an important way for me to get excited about the day.
Disney is getting smarter about their hotels from what I can tell. They are renovating and making them immersive experiences of their own. The budget hotels come with cute little details and others are branded to certain films or characters. My new plan, if I ever get back to the Orlando parks, is to stay in a different hotel each time and experience the parks from a different theme.
Next time I stay at a different hotel on the monorail line. If my budget can support it, maybe I’ll do The Grand Floridian, possibly the most expensive hotel on park property.