When you think of Walt Disney World, you probably think of Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom, Epcot‘s Spaceship Earth, Disney’s Hollywood Studios‘ Tower of Terror, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom‘s amazing animal encounters. These certainly are some of the highlights of almost every Disney World Vacation.

However, there’s one element to our Disney vacation that we tend to overlook: the resort hotels. They have a great atmosphere, each totally unique, the best hospitality, world-class dining, and a ton of activities. Could you spend an entire weekend or longer just enjoying the Walt Disney World Resorts? Sure you can!

Crowds in the parks are growing, so why not save money on park tickets while getting the same Disney experience. Yeah, it might be a little different, but different isn’t bad! If you’re into activities, there’s still a lot to do including golf, mini golf, live shows, and shopping, or you could just relax by the pools all day.

If you’re planning a vacation of a few days – say a long weekend – a resort-only vacation is the perfect way to relax, unwind, and experience the not-so-crowded side of Disney World.

The resorts have a lot to offer. Disney puts as much thought into the theming of their resorts as they do the theming of their parks. During your resort-only vacation, be sure to intentionally explore and notice the details used to create the perfect atmosphere. Also, be sure to focus on the variety available at your resort, which we’ll discuss below.

Now, let’s take a look at the best resort in each category for a resort-only vacation.

Value

Not all Value Resorts are created equal. Two of my favorites are Disney’s Art of Animation Resort and Disney’s Pop Century Resort.

Both win out over Disney’s All-Star Resorts for a couple reasons. First, Art of Animation and Pop Century have lake views that make for great walking places. Art and Pop also both have one more pool each than the All-Stars. Finally, the All-Star Resorts tend to be the place where high school groups go. I try to avoid these resorts for this reason.

Art of Animation boasts elaborate, larger-than-life theming with huge characters from many of Disney’s animated films. Think Ursula is imposing in the move? Try seeing her several stories tall! The rooms are also amazingly themed, and the family suites have enough room for the whole family with a kitchenette for preparing simple meals and snacks. Because of the suites, there tend to be a lot of kids here. If you’re traveling with children, especially if you have an only child, this is a great place for him or her to make friends making for more fun at the really awesome Finding Nemo pool!

Pop Century tends to appeal more to the adult demographic with decade-themed buildings from the 1950s to the 1990s. The lobby has lots of fun memorabilia from each decade, and the Cast Members lead games and dance parties in the lobby as well.

Another reason Art of Animation and Pop Century top the Value Resort category is because they’re neighbors. Art of Animation’s Landscape of Flavors is arguably one of the best food courts on property, but Everything Pop is nothing to shake a stick at either. Since the resorts are connected by a walking bridge, you can easily try both places during your stay!

Art of Animation offers great themes and a wonderful food court.

Art of Animation offers great themes and a wonderful food court.

Moderate

There are a handful of moderate resorts on property, but I’ve settled on the Cabins at Fort Wilderness for the simple fact that there is so much to do here.

To start, Tri-Circle-D Ranch has enough activities to fill up an entire day or more. Guests can watch a blacksmith make horseshoes or hop on a horse for trail rides or short jaunts around a loop. Carriage rides add some romance to the area, and Cinderella’s ponies make for a little fantasy right there in the barn. These are the same horses that lead Cinderella’s carriage in Magic Kingdom, so you’re getting some park experience without paying the price!

Fort Wilderness also offers swimming, basketball, volleyball, jogging trails, bicycling, canoeing, fishing, movies under the stars, arcade games, and two playgrounds. Sure, these things can be found at just about any moderate or deluxe resort, but you can’t get archery lessons or Segway tours just anywhere!

To finish off a fun-filled day, make your Advanced Dining Reservations for Mickey’s Backyard BBQ or the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue. Both dinner shows have great food, singing, dancing, and some fun humor. Before bed, be sure to stop by the campfire sing-along with Chip and Dale.

With Wilderness Lodge not too far away, guests get some of the deluxe theming while paying moderate prices.

Fort Wilderness offers two dinner shows and plenty of activities.

Fort Wilderness offers two dinner shows and plenty of activities.

Deluxe

There aren’t very many deluxe resorts, but each one is unique and special in its own way. I chose Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa for the best resort-only vacation in the deluxe category for a couple reasons.

First, there’s a lot to do at Disney’s flagship hotel. If you like the water, you can rent a boat or yacht for fishing, cruising, or guided tours. If you’re working on your Florida tan, plant yourself poolside in a private cabana rental and soak up the rays. For total relaxation, Senses Spa offers a full list of spa services including facials, massage, body treatments, nails, and even kids packages for children as young as four years old. The Grand Floridian also has five gift shops and 10 dining and drinking locations. For an upscale date night, check out the signature dining of Victoria & Albert’s. If the kids want to meet some characters, 1900 Park Fare is the place to be. Mizner’s Lounge serves up tasty drinks with some jazz music, and the Garden View Tea Room is a great place to relax.

The other reason I chose the Grand is because it neighbors one of the other great deluxe resorts: Disney’s Polynesian Resort. This recently renovated resort immerses guests in the South Pacific vibe with white sand beaches, over-the-water bungalows, and thatched roof long houses. One of my favorite things at this resort is the Spirit of Aloha dinner show, but the tonga toast at the Kona Café is a close second.

From the beaches of both resorts, guests have excellent out-of-the-park views of the Happily Ever After Nighttime Spectacular as well as the Electrical Water Pageant. I like to watch Wishes from this location, and the views of the Water Pageant with Magic Kingdom as the backdrop are truly magical. There I go again with more park experiences without the high ticket costs! You’re welcome.

The Grand Floridian offers luxury and plenty of fun activities.

The Grand Floridian offers luxury and plenty of fun activities.

I would be remiss if I didn’t provide you with another excellent Deluxe option. Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge has fewer dining options, no water activities, and no neighboring resorts, but the experience of the animals roaming free in the savanna is unmatched anywhere except in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Did I just do it again? That’s right. You can get up close to the animals at the Lodge just like you can in the park. This resort hotel has amazing African theming, and Boma, Jiko, and Sanaa all have delectable world-class dining. If you choose Animal Kingdom Lodge, you won’t be disappointed!

A final word

Although I would recommend staying at your resort especially if you’re not going to be there very long, you should know that you can explore any of the Disney resort hotels as a paying guest of the resort.

Although Disney frowns on pool hopping (and in some places like Disney’s Yacht Club’s Stormalong Bay and Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort’s Dig Site, it’s strictly enforced), resort hopping is allowed. If you’re staying on the monorail loop, this is pretty easy to do. Otherwise, you’ll have to hop on a bus to one of the parks or to Disney Springs then take another bus to the resort of your choice. It might make for a long trip, but you’ll get some great views of Disney World property.

Have you visited Disney World and not gone to the parks?