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.
EPCOT BOUND: Though our resort parking pass was good throughout Disney World, we stuck with the free buses, under the assumption that we'd be dropped off much closer than where we could park. We assumed right. After waiting about 10 minutes in the Pop Century depot, near the lobby area, we hopped onto a bus and were deposited a few hundred yards from the Epcot ticket booths about 15 minutes later.
THE DAY AT EPCOT: Disney resorters get a great perk -- each day, one park opens early for hotel guests. It wasn't Epcot the day we visited, but it didn't matter. We arrived shortly after the park opened to find the place virtually empty.
Accustomed to lengthy queues for even the most tedious attractions (sorry, that boat ride through the veggie gardens is a drag), we were surprised to find no lines in Future World, the World's Fairs-ian pavilions that make up half the park. We bolted from one attraction to another, actually walking onto Disney's newest star, the barf-bag-inclusive Mission: Space. Once was enough for that, but we rode Test Track three times in a row and would have jumped on again if it weren't 2 p.m. Time to chill.
Buses constantly depart from Epcot to the resorts and other parks, perfect for Disney guests who want to take a break. After a quick walk to the Epcot depot and a 15-minute return trip to Pop Century, we were in our room and fast asleep. We awoke to thunder rattling the walls and sheets of rain obscuring our parking lot view, but Epcot's World Showcase awaited. Driving to the bus stop, about as far from our room as possible, would have been an enviable option, but after finding the car earlier, we'd parked it where we knew we could find it again.
Next to the bus stop.
AFTER THE FIREWORKS: Once again, we turned to the Disney buses to get us back to the room. This could have gone one of two ways -- either a steamy, snail-paced line clogged with cranky children, their exhausted parents and intoxicated boomers who'd downed a few too many margaritas in Mexico . . . or not. Fortunately, we dawdled a bit after the spectacular park-closing IllumiNations show, so by the time we limped to the bus stop, the line was relatively short, spirits were high and three buses were waiting. Again, the commute from park to Pop was about 15 minutes.
BOTTOM LINE: We love the attention that Disney pours into its resorts, and although costly compared with most off-campus offerings, they're usually worth the extra money just for those great Mouse touches, free transportation and proximity to the parks. And face it, you can't eat breakfast with Goofy at the Ramada off I-4. But we'll think twice before spending $55 or more at a Value resort, when you can get a lot more for your money (a bigger room, nicer pool, free breakfast) at a chain hotel a few miles away. We'll just drive ourselves around.
-- John Deiner