Drive anywhere around the Orlando/Kissimmee theme park megalopolis and one thing becomes abundantly clear: There's no shortage of hotels. But how do you choose from the dozens of similarly named Comfort Inns, Ramadas and HoJos that pop up in guidebooks, ads and Web searches? And how can some rooms be so cheap? How good are they?
Or how bad?
The Red Horse Inn's Southwestern motif includes a saddle in the lobby.
(Anne Mcdonough -- The Washington Post)
In late August, we did an online search of five hotel booking sites (Travelocity.com, Expedia.com, Orbitz.com, Quikbook.com and Hotels.com) and SideStep.com, an aggregator site that trolls for the best rates among a number of other sites. We priced rooms for the week of Sept. 11-18. Our budget: $59.99 or less per night.
Then we sent Travel staffers John Deiner, Anne McDonough and Andrea Sachs to Orlando and Kissimmee, armed with lists of hotels in our price range, with the assumption that even during the hurricane-free busier seasons (mid-September is off-peak, and the area was still recovering from the storms that criss-crossed the state), the hotels revealed in our search would still be among the cheaper options. They stayed in or toured dozens of hotels, inspected rooms and talked to on-site personnel.
The overall conclusion? While you obviously get what you pay for, even a $10-a-night difference in a nightly tariff can yield a huge improvement in room and property quality. The hotels listed below -- encompassing numerous chains and several privately owned properties -- are our picks as some of the area's best budget bets, based on lodging quality, curb appeal, property maintenance and amenities, hotel services and proximity to the Disney/SeaWorld/Universal parks.
Standard rooms generally include two double/queen beds and a microwave, fridge, coffeemaker, iron, hair dryer and free continental breakfast or buffet. Just about all offer free transportation to one, several or all of the theme parks (some do charge a fee, so call ahead and check). While most hotels have reopened since the hurricanes blew through, some are still undergoing renovation.
Note that while all of these hotels are within about a 30-minute drive of Disney World, traffic can greatly affect your travel time. Also, when searching online or checking guidebooks, the same hotel often is listed under different names, so it's best to go by the address. (To that end, the main hotel drag outside Disney World is known interchangeably as both U.S. Highway 192 and the Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway.)
Below is an alphabetized list of our 25 selections, including local phone numbers (the better to haggle with) and the price range, if applicable, we found for each. Better deals are possible, particularly if you use the hotels' individual Web sites or call directly; note that during busier seasons and holidays, prices can be significantly higher. Our three overall favorites are starred (*).
1 AMERIHOST RESORT
7491 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy.
Price We Found: $53 (SideStep).
Details: This spot gets rainy-day bonus points for its soaring atrium and splashy indoor pool -- complete with a waterfall and nearby whirlpool -- it covers. Be prepared for a whiff of chlorine in the hallways. There's also an outdoor pool behind the hotel, but it's standard issue (as are the rooms, which are comfy but nothing special). Because of its buffet-style restaurant, food court, cocktail lounge and pool bar, you'll never starve at this 442-room property. Though the interior dining/watering hole is kind of dark, that may be deliberate: Nightly karaoke takes place there.
Info: 407-396-6000, www.amerihostresortorlando.com.
2 BAYMONT INN KISSIMMEE
5196 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy.
Price We Found: $54 (Quikbook, based on two-night stay) to $57.33 (Travelocity).
Details: Children are certainly welcome here, but by all appearances, the 64-room Baymont Inn (at four years old, a baby in these parts) is geared more toward the older set. The tiny pool is unlandscaped and unappealing, and the building sits in a sea of asphalt. But the rooms are exceptional, with stylish furniture; soaring ceilings; two queen beds (instead of the standard pair o' doubles); a large, executive-style desk; and ceiling fans (a rarity). Most rooms don't have fridges or microwaves, but the rate includes a breakfast buffet in the elegant lobby. Look for the hotel waayyy off the road behind an IHOP.
Info: 407-787-3555, www.baymontdisney.com.
3 CLARION HOTEL MAINGATE
7675 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy.
Price We Found: $45.94 (Travelocity) to $55 (Expedia and Hotels.com).
Details: Tiki pool bar. Need we say more? Other standout features include a lake with a viewing station and koi fish food; a gated kiddie pool that's separate from the adult pool (so Junior won't spill Mommy's daiquiri); a small gift shop selling Orlando trinkets; and a large restaurant that can fit parties of eight (breakfast buffet is $6.95, free for kids ages 12 and under). Stacked on five floors, the 198 rooms have modern furnishings with clean lines and lots of mirrors, plus abundant closet space and a brightly lit bathroom with a primping counter as large as a Clinique makeup station. The only downside: Microwaves and fridges cost extra.
Info: 800-568-3352, www.clarionhotelmaingate.com.
4 COMFORT INN LAKE BUENA VISTA
8442 Palm Pkwy.
Price We Found: $54.83 (Travelweb) to $59.95 (Travelocity).
Details: One of the few sprawling resorts that fit our budget, the Comfort Inn is a tropical oasis with two snazzy pools (both fronting I-4, unfortunately), friendly employees and a free continental breakfast. The hotel's 640 rooms (including Family Fun Suites with a separate bunk bed area for the tots) sit in non-distinctive five-story towers, but everything -- including the on-site convenience store and parking lots -- is nearby. Rooms are comparatively large, and many have been recently refurbished. Chain eateries are a few minutes away, but not so close that you have to stare at neon.