Walt Disney World trip, 12/2008 – Accommodations

Our family took our annual trip to Walt Disney World (and Orlando in general) from 12/7-12/15.  We bought into the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) time-share a couple years ago, which makes it pretty easy for us to reserve a 1-bedroom villa for our typical length of stay.

Our home resort for DVC is Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort, a large, very spread-out resort complex located near the Downtown Disney shopping and dining area.  At the time that we bought in, this was the only home resort that was available without going through the extra difficulties (and risks) involved with purchasing an interest on the third-party market instead of directly from Disney.  The DVC contract allows members to book accommodations at their home resort 11 months in advance and at any of the other DVC resorts, if available, at 7 months.

Based on what we knew about the location and decor of Saratoga Springs, it hasn’t been our first choice of where to stay.  Our standard procedure has been to go ahead and book our target dates there at the 11 month mark, but then switch the reservation to another resort that is more to our taste once the 7 month booking window opens.  Prior to this year’s trip, we had only stayed at Saratoga Springs for one night, which was last year’s arrival night before heading to port to take the Cruise the next morning.  Our longer Walt Disney World stays as DVC members had included two stays at The Villas at the Wilderness Lodge (our favorite resort) and one stay at the Boardwalk Villas.

This year, we apparently picked some pretty high-demand dates for our trip as there was no other availability for the first 6 nights once we hit the 7-month booking window.  We were able to book Villas at Wilderness Lodge for the last 3 nights only.  We did get on the waiting list for the first 6 nights at Wilderness and also checked back a few times to see about other options.  Nothing opened up, though, and we did end up spending those 6 nights at Saratoga on this trip.

Getting right to the point, we were not especially happy with Saratoga Springs.  The room was very typical of the single-bedroom villas that we have stayed in at other resorts and was still a good fit for our needs.  The size and layout of the complex was our problem.  Saratoga Springs is huge and extremely spread out, making it very difficult to navigate.  Our room was in the Carousel building, which is one of the most remote.  This put us very far away from most of the resort’s amenities, particularly the food services and the Downtown Disney boat transportation.  These major amenities are generally clustered pretty close to one another, but are a pretty long walk from the remote buildings, such as the one where we were staying.

In general, Saratoga Springs is enormous, but simply does not have the infrastructure or design in place to make its size manageable.  The resort is so spread out that there are 5 bus stops.  All of the theme park and Downtown Disney buses stop at each of them, but there is no internal transportation provided.  It definitely seemed like there should be some busses (or even trams or some other smaller vehicle) that just continuously made the loop around the resort in order to provide easy internal transportation.  While you could theoretically get on any of the park buses for one-way transportation to any of the later stops in the loop, there wouldn’t be any readily available transportation back.

Finding your way around the resort can be pretty difficult, particularly at night.  The buildings are named, although each name generally was applied to a cluster of two buildings rather that each having a separate one.  The names are on large signs on upper walls of the buildings, but they are only visible if you are looking from the correct angle and the signs are unlit and nearly invisible at night.  They do have maps posted at various places around the resort, but we found that it could be very difficult to determine the right route from them.  Signs that indicated the directions to specific buildings or facilities are non-existent on the walking paths.

During our one-night stay at Saratoga Springs last year, our visit got off on the wrong foot as we became seriously lost trying to find our room.  After checking in, the desk clerk told us that it was a "pretty easy walk" to our room and didn’t make any recommendation that we get any help from Bell Services with finding our room.  We then ended up walking around for over a half hour trying to find the right room.  This was while lugging our carry-on bags (fortunately our larger luggage was being delivered by Disney’s Magical Express service) around and was after a long and very exhausting day of travel.  We finally did manage to flag down a bellman who drove us to our room (which was pretty much in the opposite direction from where we had gone) on a golf-cart type vehicle. 

This year, we had hoped to avoid repeating that experience by insisting on getting assistance up-front from Bell Services to get to our room.  This worked out ok, although they seemed very understaffed and we had to wait about 20 minutes or so.  With this help, we did get to our room without too much trouble and were able to fairly quickly get settled in before heading to Downtown Disney for dinner.  There was a bus stop not too far from our room (although still a bit further than the walk from the Villas at Wilderness Lodge to the bus stop there) and we were able to find it pretty easily to get a bus to go get dinner.

Our mistake came on our return after dinner.  We decided that we wanted to pick up a few grocery items at the Saratoga Springs snack bar/gift shop  before heading back to our room.  We knew that the dock was right by that building, so we took the boat back from Downtown Disney instead of a bus.  For some reason, we deluded ourselves into thinking that we would then be able to figure out the correct route to walk back to the building where our room was.  Instead, we managed to once again get completely turned around and walk quite some distance in the wrong direction, eventually having to backtrack pretty much all the way back to the main check-in/lobby building.  We eventually ended up having to follow the vehicle roadway (which didn’t have adjacent sidewalks) to find our room, since this was the only place where they seemed to have directional signs that were any help in finding our building.

The resort is easier to navigate during daylight hours and we did walk over to the quick service restaurant for breakfast on one morning.  That was only a one-way trip, though, as our plans were to go visit my parents’ house (they live in the Orlando area) afterward and we just had my father pick us up in his car outside the main lobby.  Other than that, for the rest of the trip we never really went any where at our resort other than the building where we were staying and the nearest bus stop.  We had actually picked up a couple of the refillable soft drink mugs on our first night at the resort, but didn’t use them until we got to the Wilderness Lodge since the quick service restaurant at Saratoga Springs was just too far away.

While I know that I sound very negative about Saratoga Springs, I will also acknowledge that it has some definite merits and could be an excellent choice for some visitors.  One friend suggested to me that it is a resort that is really much better suited for guests that have rental cars (or have driven to the resort) and I can easily see where that would be true.  There appeared to be ample parking throughout the resort and I can easily see where the majority of its shortcomings would be much less relevant to someone with ready access to a car.  As I noted earlier, we even found that we were somewhat able to overcome our difficulties navigating around the resort when we used the roadways intended for cars.

I will also emphasize again that the room itself was very nice, with all the usual features that we have come to greatly appreciate in a 1-bedroom DVC villa.  This included the spacious layout, the full kitchen, the enormous bathroom with a whirlpool tub, the in-unit washer & dryer, and the comfortable, high-quality furnishings.  Despite our misgivings about the resort, I can pretty definitively say that we would definitely choose another stay there over a non-DVC room, even at a resort that we like better in other ways.  I do plan to pursue options for changing our DVC home resort (most likely to the new Bay Lake Tower that is being built near the Contemporary), but if that doesn’t work out I hope that the lessons learned on this past visit can make any future stays at Saratoga Springs less problematic for us.

As I mentioned towards the beginning of this post, we were able to book a room at the Villas at Wilderness Lodge, our favorite resort, for the last 3 nights of our visit.  This was my fifth stay at the Wilderness Lodge, third in the Villas.  Prior to becoming a DVC member, I had stayed there for one night years ago, before I even met my wife, and then my wife and I also stayed there for our honeymoon.  In many ways, arriving back there towards the end of our trip felt a lot like we were coming home.  We find the overall decor and the very compact layout of that resort to be extremely welcoming and even downright comforting. 

When we bought into DVC, the most easy choice for a home resort was definitely Saratoga Springs since any other home resort would have likely required a secondary market purchase.  In retrospect, I do kind of wish that we had gone to the trouble to try and purchase points at Wilderness Lodge back then.  As I mentioned,  I see Bay Lake Tower as our likely best option for changing our home resort now.  The Contemporary was our second favorite of the resorts where we had stayed and it also has certain advantages logistically, particularly with its walking-distance proximity to the Magic Kingdom and its location on the monorail line.  Still, I haven’t ruled out at least investigating what possibility might exist for at least shifting a portion of our points to Wilderness Lodge as our home resort.

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