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Going to Disney World? Congratulations! Now for the bad news, deciding to take a trip to the Most Magical Place on Earth is the easy part. When it comes to picking among the hundreds of hotels in the Orlando area, things can get tougher in a hurry. There are trade-offs involved with each choice. Do you stay on Disney property and likely spend more but enjoy all the Disney-specific perks and theming? Do you conserve cash and stay off-property but trade away some of the “magic” and logistical conveniences?
Fortunately, there is a great middle-of-the-road solution for those who like to redeem or earn Marriott points on their Disney vacation. The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin are located on Disney property, have access to many of the same perks as full Disney Resorts, and provide the added option of using (or earning) hotel points instead of cash to cover the stay.
The Disney Swan and Dolphin resorts are massive with a combined 2,270 hotel rooms on 87 acres of lakefront property in Disney’s Epcot and Hollywood Studios area, adjacent to Disney’s Boardwalk. The two hotels share most amenities — for example, you can stay at Dolphin but charge meals from Swan’s restaurants to your room — but each operates as a unique hotel. There’s also a third tower, The Cove, that is currently under construction with a projected 2021 opening date.
The Swan and Dolphin both opened in 1990, but have undergone hefty renovations in recent years (although some parts of the properties are fresher than others).
In Disney circles, you will often hear of these two resorts referred to as Disney Deluxe Resorts but at a Moderate Resort price, which is pretty much true. As long as you are OK without all the Disney theming and without a few of the full Disney Resort perks, a room at the Swan or Dolphin is at least on par with a room at a pricier Disney Deluxe Resort, such as Disney’s Contemporary. We’ll offer some insights on both the Swan and Dolphin to help you choose between them.
When it comes to a Walt Disney World resort vacation, you can’t get a more central location than the Swan and Dolphin. You can walk to Epcot or Hollywood Studios in 10 to 15 minutes. If one extra step sounds like a bad idea, there’s also a free boat ride every 20 minutes or so. You are also just a bridge away from Disney’s BoardWalk with shopping, restaurants, surrey bike rentals and an arcade. Just across the street from Swan in the other direction is Disney’s Fantasia Fairways Miniature Golf Course, which can be a fun activity on a day when you might not be paying for a theme park ticket.
You probably aren’t going to walk to Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom or Disney Springs from the Swan and Dolphin, but the hotels are roughly at the epicenter of all of those popular Disney destinations.
Official Walt Disney World buses stop at the Swan and Dolphin, so you can get to all of the parks on property at no extra charge. Disney World Minnie Vans are another option for getting around when staying here since the hotels are on Disney property where the special vans operate. Unfortunately, one thing that is not an option for Swan and Dolphin guests is the free Magical Express Bus that runs to and from the Orlando Airport for guests at Disney-owned resorts.
Room rates during the off-season start at little over $100 per night. Peak-season nights for standard rooms can creep to $600+ per night. Most commonly, rates are $250-$300 per night, though the price varies dramatically based on seasonal demand and conventions.
Both resorts offer special rates for teachers, nurses and military personnel. Both hotels are Marriott Category 6 properties, meaning that award nights cost 50,000 Marriott points per night (40k-60k per night when peak/off-peak prices are introduced).
The annual award night that comes with the Marriot Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card can also be used to cover the cost of a night at either of these resorts. If you need more Marriott points, those can be transferred in from Chase Ultimate Rewards or Amex Membership Rewards at a 1:1 ratio thanks to cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or American Express® Gold Card.
Of course, the Marriott family of credit cards is also a great way to earn Marriott points.
By far the larger of the two properties, Dolphin is technically a part of Marriott’s Sheraton brand, though it does feature some Westin elements like the Heavenly Bed. As the larger of the two, Dolphin is also home to many of the complex’s amenities such as laundry facilities, the spa, a kids club and Picabu (a 24-hour cafeteria and convenience store).
The Dolphin offers a standard-room maximum capacity of five per room (compared to four at Swan), though rooms with two beds at the Dolphin have double beds rather than the queens found at the Swan.
Those who need more space might love the suites at the Dolphin that have a true living room and a connected bedroom with two double beds — and yes, Marriott Platinums do sometimes luck into these upgrades.
Although official Disney Resorts have largely done away with their kids club-type amenities, Camp Dolphin is free for two hours for kids 4-12 while parents dine at Shula’s Steak House, Todd English’s bluezoo or Il Mulino New York Trattoria or receive a 75-minute service at Mandara Spa. (One child admitted for free with each adult entree or 75-minute spa treatment.)
The full-service breakfast buffet at the Dolphin is served in the Fresh Mediterranean Market. It doesn’t have Disney characters like the Garden Grove at the Swan (more on that soon), but the space actually feels fresher and livelier than the Swan’s breakfast with a carving station and slightly better food.
Marriott Platinum members receive complimentary daily breakfast for two at Fresh Mediterranean Market or Garden Grove. The card benefit includes the continental portion of the buffet. Buying up to the full buffet is $8 per person.
A new addition to the full-service options at the Dolphin is a new lobby grab-and-go restaurant called Fuel, open daily from 6am-10pm and serving coffee, eggs and sandwiches from about $7 per sandwich.
Should you wish to work off all that food (beyond all the walking you’ll do in the parks), both hotels have fitness centers with plenty of new equipment.
Swan is a Westin-branded hotel, with traditional Westin amenities such as Heavenly Beds. The Swan has about half the number of rooms as Dolphin, though this is still a very large hotel.
The rooms at the Swan have been renovated in recent years and are relatively spacious for Disney. Some rooms have balconies and a standard room also featured a small couch.
The bathrooms at the Swan often have an extra sink outside of the main bathroom, allowing one guest to brush their teeth, for example, while another family member showers.
The hallways are also updated, though some corners, like the elevator banks, speak to a slightly different era.
The lobby area of the Swan has recently been refreshed. A new grab-and-go option, Java, is currently under construction.
In contrast to the lobby, breakfast at Garden Grove within the Swan feels like a flashback to the 1990’s — the restaurant doesn’t look like it has been included in recent renovations.
However, the restaurant is home to a Disney character buffet featuring Chip and Dale, Pluto and Goofy on the weekends beginning at 8am on Saturday and 7:30am on Sunday. The best part? Marriott Platinum, Titanium and Ambassador Elite members who choose breakfast as their amenity can redeem the benefit for two people at Garden Grove. Character meals at Disney World are usually an expensive indulgence, so having both a free breakfast and character interaction is a luxury.
There is an $8 up-charge for the full buffet. The price for the weekend buffet is otherwise $27.99 for adults and $17.99 for kids 3-9.
On weekdays, or when you aren’t in the mood for characters, we’d recommend choosing breakfast at Fresh Mediterranean Market over at the Dolphin, since they make Mickey waffles and pancakes on demand (rather than in bulk sitting on the buffet at Garden Grove). They also have a better focus on healthy items like fresh smoothies and a fresh-squeezed orange juice machine.
Other dining options within the Swan include Il Mulino New York and Kimonos. These are not on the Disney Dining Plan, but several Swan and Dolphin restaurants do have their own loyalty points program.
A final nod for the Swan over the Dolphin is that the Disney buses typically stop at the Swan first, so you have a better shot at getting a seat on the first one that passes by.
Unless you are attending a convention (and that’s extremely common for these resorts), you are probably considering the Swan and Dolphin because you want Disney perks without all of the Disney price. The Disney perks you get for staying at the Swan or Dolphin include:
- Transportation to the Disney parks such as the bus service to Epcot and Hollywood Studios and bus transportation around the parks.
- Access to 60-day FastPass+ reservations, instead of the standard 30-day window for non-resort guests. This is essential for getting a FastPass to the most popular attractions such as Slinky Dog Dash, Seven Dwarves Mine Train ride or Avatar: Flight of Passage.
- Access to Extra Magic Hours in the parks so you can squeeze a little more time out of your Disney days. Note that with the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, there are currently Extra Magic Hours at Hollywood Studios everyday at 6am.
- Free parking at the Disney World theme parks.
Unlike true Disney Resorts, guests at the Swan and Dolphin do not get access to the Magical Express Bus to/from the airport, free Disney Magic Bands or the ability to use your Magic Bands within the parks to charge items to your room. Once you are accustomed to using the Magic Bands for everything, that is a little bit of a bummer but certainly not reason enough by itself to avoid these resorts.
Outside of the Disney-specific perks, there are other nice amenities at both the Swan and Dolphin, such as the five heated pools open from 6am-11pm, a playground and a sandy “beach.”
There are cabanas available for rent by the pool but they don’t look like they have been updated in recent history, so I wouldn’t be itching to rent one.
Whether you want to swim laps, relax in the grotto pool, go down the waterslide, paddle a swan boat or visit the arcade, there’s as much to do outside at the Swan and Dolphin as you would find at most Disney properties (except for a property like Disney’s Fort Wilderness where there is fishing, bike riding, horseback riding, evening campfire sing-a-longs, golf cart driving and more).
On the Swan and Dolphin daily agenda, you’re likely to find offerings such as a dive-in movie, evening s’mores, live Peloton cycling classes, animal classes and live entertainment.
An adorable inclusion is the Plush Pal Playtime, where your kids can drop their stuffed animal off for camp and then receive a report card and pictures of all the things they did that day. We’ve never done it but it sounds great.
Note that there is a $25 daily self-parking fee and a $30 daily resort fee at both the Swan and the Dolphin. True Disney Resorts do not have an added resort fee but do have parking fees that currently vary from $15-$25 per night.
The resort fee does get you $30 off a $175+ treatment at the Mandara Spa, located within the Dolphin.
The Disney Swan and Dolphin are both great options for staying right on Disney World property while earning or redeeming Marriott points and elite status. The Dolphin is sometimes a bit cheaper per night if you’re paying cash and has the Camp Dolphin kids club on site. The Swan can cost a little more (again, in cash), but is a tiny bit quieter with an on-site restaurant that hosts Disney character buffet breakfasts on the weekend.
The bathroom set-ups are slightly different at each property and those looking for two beds will need to choose between the queens in rooms that technically sleep four at the Swan or doubles in rooms that technically sleep up to five at the Dolphin.
The renovations have brought a welcome change to the lobbies of both hotels with the addition of Fuel and Java as extensive grab-and-go food options. When combined with Picabu, the 24-hour cafeteria and convenience store, these new food choices improve an area that was sorely lacking. Between the new casual dining options and the breakfast benefit for Marriott Platinum elite members, it’s easy for a family to eat a few meals affordably outside of Disney parks without resorting to peanut-butter crackers and tap water.
Regardless of which resort you choose, be sure to add your reservation to MyDisneyExperience on Disney’s website or Disney’s app in order to book your FastPasses 60-days in advance. Just be sure that your guest names are listed correctly, including all children, so that you shouldn’t have problems when you link your reservation to your Disney account.
We’d love for you to weigh in here with your Swal-phin experiences!
Additional reporting by Cindy Gossett, all photos by authors.
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