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1 Park, 2 Perspectives: Staying On Campus vs. Off

Sunday, November 7, 2004; Page P06

With only a limited number of rooms within the boundaries of Disney World, the majority of parkgoers must stay in hotels outside the park gates. So what's the difference? Besides proximity to the attractions, what are the benefits of bunking with the Mouse?

We asked two Travel staffers to find lodging on and off the Disney grounds -- and for the same $55-a-night rate. One stayed at Disney's budget Pop Century Resort, the other at a Comfort Suites six miles down the road. Then they visited Epcot, the mammoth mix of futuristic exhibitions and world pavilions, on the same day. Here are their reports.

Disney's Pop Century: Baloo and other giant icons are a highlight. (©Walt Disney Co.)

On Site: Disney's Pop Century Resort

BOOKING: One of the easiest ways to book a Disney room is through Disney, so we headed to the Web. And because we've reserved through the company's site (www.disneyworld.com) before, we know it's one of the quirkier booking systems -- sometimes it'll show only a few hotels available for your dates when you just know there must be more with openings (calling 407-939-6244, the Disney reservation number, has solved that problem in the past). True to form, though we asked for all resorts with availability, the only one the site proffered was Disney's Pop Century -- one of its cheapo Value properties.

Good enough. Thanks to a fall special, the $55 price for an on-site hotel was unbeatable. One alarm bell: To get a full refund, you must cancel 46 days (!) in advance, but we were leaving in 35 days.

GETTING TO THE HOTEL: In Orlando, all roads lead to Disney. However, if you get there when it's dark, and you haven't memorized the map, and you're too proud to ask for directions, you're in trouble. From the airport, it was easy enough to find our way through the Disney World gates, but then the jumble of confusing signage got the better of us -- for 25 minutes. Finally we stopped in the parking lot at Pioneer Hall (we'd never heard of it, either) and discovered that we'd zipped by Pop Century about five minutes after we'd gone through the entryway. Ten minutes later we were in the lobby.

THE HOTEL: The problem with Pop Century, which opened last December, is that the vaunted Disney imagination (and budget) seems to have gone into the decorating -- of the outdoors. Ostensibly a celebration of the 1950s through the '90s, the resort is a warren of five-story buildings cleverly adorned to reflect the decades. Catch phrases from each era jazz up railings, while huge cell phones, Rubik's cubes and yo-yos disguise stairwells. Most impressive are the gigantic fiberglass icons studding the property: a Kong-size Baloo, foosball game, Mickey Mouse phone. All cool, and all just eye candy.

The lobby is large and loud, with few places to sit and long lines to check in. There's no restaurant, just a cavernous food court selling decent but pricey vittles. The three pools are shaped (bowling pin, flower, computer) to reflect the decade they represent, but there's little shade and lots of concrete. The nondescript rooms are clean and quiet but minuscule, with wafer-thin towels and no hair dryers, rickety furniture and obnoxiously bright lighting. But it was $55, right?

We did feel secure, though: In-room safes are standard, and all Disney properties are now gated.

MICKEY MAGIC: We couldn't help ourselves -- we felt like little kids running amok among those sculptures, from the humongous Big Wheel to the Costco-ready can of Play-Doh.

MICKEY NIGHTMARE: The parking. We were in the '90s building, and all the spots were gone by the time we arrived. We ended up parking several decades away, then forgot where the car was the next morning.

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