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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express, Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card from American Express, Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard
The Swan and Dolphin resorts are great options for Walt Disney World visitors, as they’re both SPG properties located inside the park. However, the two hotels offer guests very different experiences. Today, TPG Contributor Cindy Gossett discusses the benefits of each and the differences between them.
While there are hundreds of hotel options in Orlando, Walt Disney World offers visitors a variety of incentives to stay within the park at official Disney hotels. Luckily for miles and points enthusiasts, Starwood has two properties located within/affiliated with Disney World: Swan and Dolphin. Guests can earn Starpoints and elite credit for paid stays, or redeem Starpoints (also earning elite credit) for free nights at either property, all while having access to most on-property Disney benefits such as transportation to the theme parks.
Note: For a limited time, you can earn 30,000 bonus Starpoints, which is enough for 3 free nights at either property, after spending $3,000 within the first three months with the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express. You can pool points with a partner, giving you a total of 7 free nights at either hotel (the 5th night is free on award redemptions) when you both sign up and meet the minimum spending on each card.
The Swan and Dolphin resorts sit on 87 acres of lakefront property in Disney’s coveted Epcot area, adjacent to Disney’s Boardwalk. The two share most amenities (for example, you can stay at Dolphin but charge meals from Swan’s restaurants to your room), but the hotels provide different experiences. In this post, I’ll offer some insights to help you choose between them.
By far the larger of the two properties, Dolphin is part of the Sheraton brand. Just inside the Dolphin’s front doors is a cavernous lobby leading to two elevator bays (for the east and west sides of the buildings) or to a set of escalators leading down to the ground level of the hotel. While the huge lobby offers a great place to sit and people-watch (maybe while having a drink in the Lobby Lounge), between the overwhelming space and the number of business travelers attending meetings at the attached conference center, I always feel like I’m traveling for work rather than vacation.
That said, some travelers may prefer the bigger space and busier vibe at Dolphin. And with a maximum capacity of five per room (compared to four at Swan), larger families should look to Dolphin for more efficient accommodations.
Dolphin is also home to many of the complex’s other amenities such as laundry facilities, a kids’ club and Picabu (a 24-hour cafeteria and convenience store).
Swan is a Westin hotel, with traditional Westin amenities such as Westin’s Heavenly Beds. Swan has about half the number of rooms as Dolphin, providing guests with a more intimate experience. Swan’s rooms have an extra sink outside of the main bathroom, allowing one guest to brush their teeth, for example, while another family member showers.
My family prefers the Swan for the quieter feel and for breakfast at Garden Grove, which turns into a character buffet featuring Chip and Dale, Pluto and Goofy on the weekends. The best part? SPG Platinum members who choose breakfast as their amenity can redeem the benefit at Garden Grove. All character meals at Disney World are a fairly expensive indulgence, and having both a free breakfast and a character interaction is a luxury, especially in a place that’s known for separating guests from their money.
That said, on weekdays I’m more likely to choose breakfast at Fresh Mediterranean Market at Dolphin, since they make Mickey waffles and pancakes on demand (rather than in bulk to sit on the buffet, as they do at Garden Grove).
Prices and Award Redemptions
Room rates start around $175 per night at Dolphin, and $185 per night at Swan. Both resorts offer special rates for teachers, nurses and military personnel. Both hotels are Category 4 Starwood properties, meaning award nights cost 10,000 Starpoints, or 5,000 points + $75 when Cash & Points redemptions are available.
Earning Starpoints to Redeem at Swan/Dolphin
As a reminder, now is a great time to earn Starpoints by picking up the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express. With the current increased sign-up bonus, a couple could earn 66,000 Starpoints (including the $3,000 minimum spend for the card) by each signing up for a personal card and completing the minimum spend within the first three months. SPG allows spouses to transfer points between accounts, so the consolidated amount would be enough for 7 free nights (with the fifth-night free redemption) at either property, with enough left over for an additional Cash & Points redemption night.
Location and Amenities
The location of the Swan/Dolphin compound is fantastic, set within walking distance of Epcot. The Friendship Boats take you to and from both Epcot and Hollywood Studios, but when the weather is nice, I like the 10-minute walk back along the lake. Swan/Dolphin are also just across a bridge to Disney’s BoardWalk; with shopping, restaurants, surrey bike rentals and an arcade, my family always spends an evening there. Just across the street from Swan in the other direction is Disney’s Fantasia Fairways Miniature Golf Course, which is another fun activity on a day when you might not be paying for a theme park ticket.
Swan and Dolphin have three pools, including a lap pool and the Grotto pool with a waterfall and a water slide. There’s also a kids’ playground and activities scheduled for most nights, such as entertainers and s’mores on the beach. The Camp Dolphin kids’ club is free for two kids for two hours when parents are dining at one of Swan or Dolphin’s signature restaurants, or getting pampered at the Mandara Spa.
You’ll have access to the following Disney on-property benefits while staying at Swan/Dolphin:
- Transportation to the theme parks, including the Friendship Boat water taxi to Epcot and Hollywood Studios;
- Extended access to the parks for on-property guests during Extra Magic Hours;
- Extra 30-day window to book Fast Passes for rides at the parks (vital for the most popular attractions, such as the new Seven Dwarves Mine Train ride or the character meet-and-greet with Ana and Elsa from Frozen);
- Free parking at all theme parks.
You will not have access to these Disney on-property benefits while staying at Swan/Dolphin:
- Free hotel parking (self-parking at Swan/Dolphin is $18/ day; valet is $26/ day);
- Disney’s Magical Express complimentary shuttle service to/ from Orlando International Airport (MCO);
- Free MagicBands (can be purchased for $12.95 each);
- Charging privileges to your room at Disney’s theme parks and restaurants;
- Also note that Swan/ Dolphin charge a daily resort fee of $23 + tax (waived for SPG Platinum members).
Fortunately, you can still access some of the Disney benefits not included at Swan/ Dolphin. For example, the last time my family stayed at Swan, we decided to add a night at the start of our trip, but both Swan and Dolphin were at full capacity. Because you can book official Disney hotels through third-party websites, we booked the first night at one of Disney’s Value hotels through Expedia using a coupon code, bringing the nightly room rate down from $92 to about $85.
We also got access to Disney’s free Magical Express shuttle service from MCO (saving us about $60 for one-way cab fare with tip) and free Magic Bands (saving us $12.95 each, for a total of $51.80). Between avoiding the cab fare and getting free MagicBands — which allow you to check in at Fast Pass entrances, in addition to other perks — we actually spent less money for an extra night at Disney World than we would at Swan or Dolphin.
Note that luggage transfer between Swan/Dolphin and other Disney Hotels isn’t a published benefit, but I’ve never had any trouble getting my luggage transferred. After our night at the less-expensive Disney hotel, we simply went to the lobby and dropped off our bags for luggage transfer, took the bus to Hollywood Studios then took the Friendship Boat back to Swan at the end of the day, where our luggage was waiting for us.
One Last Tip for Theme Park Tickets
Once you’ve paid for or redeemed Starpoints for your hotel, you still need to buy your theme park tickets, which is a significant expense: One-day tickets to the Magic Kingdom park start at $99-$105 each (depending on your age), and separate tickets for Epcot start at $91-97 apiece. Remember that you can buy theme park tickets through third-party websites such as Expedia or Orbitz, both of which count as travel for redeeming Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard miles. The card currently offers a sign-up bonus of 40,000 miles after spending $3,000 in the first 90 days, and since you earn 2 miles per dollar spent, you’ll have enough for a statement credit of $460 to offset ticket purchases, with 10% of any miles you redeem being refunded to your account (soon to be 5%).
For more tips on Disney in general and how to save at the parks, check out these posts:
- 5 Ways to Save on a Disney World Vacation
- Maximizing Purchases and Redeeming Awards at Disney Resorts
- Disney to Open Star Wars-Themed Lands
Swan and Dolphin are both great options for staying right in Disney World while earning Starpoints and SPG stay credits. Dolphin is a bit cheaper per night if you’re paying cash, and has the Camp Dolphin kids’ club on site; Swan costs a little more (again, in cash), but is quieter and feels more intimate, with an on-site restaurant that hosts Disney character buffet breakfasts on the weekend.
Regardless of which resort you choose, be sure to add your reservation to MyDisneyExperience on Disney’s website in order to book your Fast Passes and restaurant reservations for your trip.
What has been your experience at the Swan and Dolphin in Disney World?
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