Walt Disney World might be the happiest place on earth, but for the unprepared, last minute traveler it can be a nightmare. It wasn't always this way - in those dark, early days of civilization, when reservations were made by telephone or in person with someone called a "travel agent," visiting Disney on the spur of the moment was actually pretty easy. The Mouse even seemed to encourage it, posting a sign along along its exit on World Drive which read "Disney Resorts - Rooms Available." Today, that sign is still there, but I'm convinced it is merely Bob Iger's lame attempt at humor.
Thanks to the internet, the deck has become increasingly stacked against the last minute traveler at Disney. Popular restaurants are booked 180 days in advance, and if you ever wanted to see the deepest look of confusion on a Cast Member's face, walk up to the front desk of any Disney resort and ask to book a room for the night - it's literally impossible. Last minute trips aren't exactly my style, but as I learned on a recent Adventure with Uncle Deej, doing so doesn't necessarily spell doom for your impromptu vacation.
The key to any spur of the moment trip is flexibility, and it is especially important when searching for last minute hotels at Disney. It is true, there is no such thing as a walk in guest at Disney resorts, and calling the 1-800 number to do so will have you daydreaming of a root canal, so you'll need to do at least a little advance planning if you have your heart set on sleeping with the Mouse. It's entirely likely, however, that the rates will cause you to reexamine your lunch, so my suggestion on last minute trips is to forget the Disney resorts altogether...
Enter the Hilton Bonnet Creek, Wyndham Grand, Waldorf Astoria Orlando, and the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin resorts. These "off-site" hotels are found right in the heart of Mickey's kingdom, with better amenities and a fraction of the price tag. Most importantly, last minute reservations can almost always be scored at one of these hotels, many times even with a special package or promotion that keeps even more money in your pocket. For example, we booked a same day stay at Dolphin over Labor Day at a rate that was 60% less than Disney's Yacht Club Resort found right next door.
Deej, Table for Two
The tell tale sign of a last minute traveler at Disney: a guy asking about availability at the hostess stand of the most popular restaurant on property, only to be told at 5:15pm that there's nothing open until 10:10pm and otherwise it will be a two hour wait. I know the pain, because I've lived it. But there is hope...
Disney recently instituted two policies that are a huge benefit to the last minute planner. In the old days, when the booking window opened 180 days in advance, some people would book multiple restaurants for the exact same time, unsure of what their plans would be 6 months in advance. Thanks to this wonderful thing called "technology" Disney's system now recognizes when you have a conflicting reservation for the same or similar time and forces you to cancel the old reservation before booking the new one. The result is less abuse of the system, and more reservations available for you and me.
As great as the new system was, however, it still didn't prevent people from making reservations they had only a marginal chance of using. To solve this problem, Disney instituted this nifty thing called the credit card guarantee - decide not to show for a reservation, it's now going to cost you $10 per person. The result is a boon for last minute planners. Simply watch the Disney Dining website like a hawk the day or two before you need a reservation and watch the cancellations come rolling in. On our recent trip, we scored the Crystal Palace and Cincerella's Royal Table - two notoriously difficult restaurants to book - using this exact same method.
Speaking of Technology...
The new My Disney Experience app is a must have for any Disney visitor, especially the last minute planner. Not only does it show current wait times for all of the rides and attractions, it also allows you to book Fast Passes, dining reservations (if you're still feeling lucky), and has a user friendly map that will save you from looking like a doofus with the folded out brochure. Most importantly, it gives even the smallest elements of strategy to those that managed to show up to the park without any semblance of a plan.
There was a time when I would never dream of tackling Disney on a last minute trip, however that's all starting to change. Thanks to a variety of hotel options, new policies for restaurant reservations, and a few advances in technology, the last minute traveler is no longer an outcast at Disney. Sure, it still pays to do a little advance planning, but I can attest that scoring the hard to get reservation on the spur of the moment is an even greater thrill than Space Mountain.
Enjoy Your Stay