Disney Dolphin Resort Review: Pros & Cons of a Non-Disney Resort on Disney Property

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Pros and cons of the Walt Disney World Dolphin, a non-Disney resort located on Disney property! There is so much to know about this unique hotel that is actually a Sheraton property. A thorough resort review of the Disney Dolphin. #disneyworld

I finally got a chance to stay at Disney’s Dolphin Resort last month and I have much to share about the experience!

The Swan and Dolphin are unique hotels at Walt Disney World because they share some of the benefits of on-property Disney resorts but not all. And that makes them very confusing when comparing them to other Disney World resorts!

Normally I would wait until the end of a post to share the pros and cons of a resort, but with the Dolphin, I feel it makes more sense to share them upfront. So here they are (in my opinion, of course):

PROS

  • Location location location (proximity to Epcot and Hollywood Studios)
  • Option to use Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points to stay here
  • Lots of excellent dining options
  • Almost always costs less than other Disney Deluxe resorts

CONS

  • A distinct lack of Disney magic (fancy in a sterile, non-Disney way)
  • No airport transfers included
  • Pretty outrageous resort fees & parking fees
  • No MagicBands – boo!

Now I’ll share my experience staying here, explain these pros and cons in plenty of detail, and share some tips and tricks for staying at the Dolphin. I’ll also show you how to stay here for as low as $30 per night when you book with SPG points!

Amenities

While the Walt Disney World Dolphin is located on Disney property, it is actually owned and operated by Sheraton. The Dolphin’s sister resort, the Walt Disney World Swan, is owned by Westin. They were both built in the late 1980’s and designed by Michael Graves.

The Swan and Dolphin are considered “Deluxe” resorts at Disney World, meaning they have amenities in common with the other Disney-owned Deluxe resorts. You will find:

  • Extensive dining options, including fine dining
  • An expansive pool area with hot tubs and a waterslide
  • An on-site spa (Mandara Spa)
  • A childcare center
  • Resort activities
  • A fitness center

We spent a morning at the pool and it was both huge and lovely. We were there at 8 am and had it to ourselves!

There is a grotto area, three hot tubs, a waterslide, a kiddie pool, and lap pool, and a smaller pool just for younger kids.

Adjacent to the pool is a beach for sunbathing and playing. The beach and pools are shared by guests of the Swan and Dolphin and located between the two resorts.

The pool is definitely on-par with other Deluxe resorts, though it doesn’t have the fun Disney touches that all Disney resort pools have.

Here enters a theme throughout this review: while this resort is lovely, it certainly does NOT feel like a Disney resort!

The whimsical touches found in the rooms, at the pool, and throughout the grounds at Disney resorts are completely lacking here. There’s very little character at this resort – you could pick it up and put it anywhere else in the world and it would work just as well.

That said, the atmosphere is luxurious and we were taken care of very well by the hotel staff.

What I really love about Disney’s Deluxe resorts are that they are luxurious without being stuffy or pretentious (even the Grand Floridian). I can’t say the same for the Dolphin. To me, it was fancy in a sterile, “don’t touch that” way. I strongly prefer the casual, laid-back elegance of Disney’s Beach Club, for example.

Rooms

All 2,267 rooms at the Swan and Dolphin were renovated within the past year, so you are guaranteed to NOT get an outdated room here. The main difference between rooms at the two resorts is that the Dolphin’s rooms have two double beds (or a king), and the Swan features two queens.

Our room was similar in size to those at other Disney Deluxe resorts, if not a bit larger.

All Disney resorts have a table and two chairs (even the Value resorts), but there is just this desk with one chair at the Dolphin. The room seems geared more for a business traveler, and less for families. The boss enjoyed having a desk at which to plan her cotton candy eating, though.

There is a mini fridge hidden inside this storage unit, which is a necessity for us.

Here is the coffee station, that includes two bottles of water that are replenished every day. These come at a price, though – more on the “resort fees” later.

The bathroom setup is pretty standard and has just one sink (most Deluxe resorts have two).

I think the designers were going for a relaxing, spa-inspired theme for the room. To me, it just felt cold – lots of white, and not a lot of character. There’s nothing to let you know you are on Disney property and I wouldn’t say the room is particularly aesthetically pleasing. But the beds were comfortable and everything is new, which is pretty nice.

And here is the bummer of a view from our room. To be fair, I did not make any special requests for a room view or location. We were placed in a room FAR from the elevators with this parking lot view.

I would definitely recommend calling the hotel before you check-in to add a room request to your reservation. You can request a view of the water or a room that faces Epcot, from which you can see the fireworks. At the very least I suggest requesting a room close to the lobby or elevators to avoid being as far away from everything as we were.

 

Cost

One of the main “pros” of staying at the Swan and Dolphin is cost. Not only is their rack rate less than any Disney deluxe resort, but because Sheraton and Westin are part of the Starwood family of resorts, you can use Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points for stays at this resort!

The best way to earn a cache of SPG points is by opening an SPG credit card. There are both business and personal versions of the American Express SPG card, and they sometimes have sign-on bonuses of 35,000 points.

After meeting the minimum spend requirement (which is usually $3,000 in three months), you will have at least 38,000 points in your SPG account.

Nights at the Dolphin start at 10,000 points per night and the Swan starts at 12,000 points. Because SPG has a fifth-night free policy, you can theoretically stay at the Dolphin for five nights for 40,000 points.

I say theoretically because you will have to plan VERY far in advance to find five award nights available in a row at the Dolphin. 

In September I checked for availability for March and there were virtually no award nights left. On the plus side, SPG allows you to book 18 months in advance. I suggest allowing at least 9 months of lead time if you want to book five award nights at the Dolphin!

If you aren’t interested in using points for your stay, you can still save substantially at the Dolphin compared to other Deluxe resorts.

I paid $129.95 for our one night stay at the Dolphin through Orbitz. I took advantage of a special $30 off promo code that is still available – get your own unique promo code here! I recommend booking all room-only stays at Disney through Orbitz so you can take advantage of these promo codes to save money!

Be warned that there are additional costs above the room rate when staying at the Swan or Dolphin. Both hotels have a $31.50 PER NIGHT resort fee that you will pay at check-in.

And if you will have a car with you on vacation, there is also a $20 per night parking fee. These fees can add $50 more per night to your overall cost, so they must be factored in when comparing the Dolphin to other Disney resorts.

Since we had no car, we paid $160 total for our one night stay through Orbitz. And I booked this stay only three nights before we checked in. Both of these would be impossible at other Disney Deluxe resorts – you would never find a room at the last minute for $160/night.

To summarize, it is possible to stay here for as little as $31.50 per night if you use SPG points to book your stay and don’t have a car with you.

Dining

In the dining department, the Swan and Dolphin really shine. They boast 12 restaurants, with everything from counter service to fine dining.

Here are just some of your dining options at these two resorts:

  • Il Mulino (Italian fine dining)
  • Kimono’s (my husband’s favorite sushi on-property)
  • BlueZoo (Celebrity Chef Todd English’s seafood restaurant)
  • Shula’s Steak House
  • Garden Grove (Character dining buffet with mixed reviews)
  • Fresh Mediterranean Market
  • The Fountain
  • Fuel (brand new quick grab location at the Dolphin)

While you have lots of choices for dining at these resorts, most of them are NOT budget-friendly! Entrees at BlueZoo are $40+, and my husband can easily eat $80 worth of sushi at Kimonos (yes, I have to set aside a special sushi fund for him).

I’ve eaten at several of these locations and they are excellent without exception. So if you plan on dining at the Swan and Dolphin, I suggest researching your options and their cost over at AllEars.net to avoid vacation-ruining sticker shock.

Other Benefits & Drawbacks

And finally, here are some other things to consider about staying at the Swan or Dolphin.

While there are other hotels technically located on Disney property owned by other companies, the Swan and Dolphin are unique in that they share some but not all of the benefits of Disney-owned resorts.

Here are the Disney perks that are available to those staying at the Swan and Dolphin:

  • Complimentary Disney transportation to the parks and Disney Springs (in the form of buses and boats)
  • Access to Extra Magic Hours
  • Ability to book FastPasses 60 days before check-in (opposed to 30 days when staying “off-property)
  • Luggage transfers between Disney resorts (I confirmed this myself – we had bags transferred from Animal Kingdom Lodge)
  • Free parking at the theme parks when you show your room card (this was not always the case)

The Friendship Boats can take you to Epcot or Hollywood Studios from the boat dock between the Swan and Dolphin

There are two glaring absences from this list of Disney benefits: MagicBands and Disney’s Magical Express airport transfers.

MagicBands are one of my favorite parts of a Disney vacation – read all about why I think they are amazing in this post. Because you aren’t provided with MagicBands when staying at the Swan or Dolphin, you will have to carry around your hotel room key, theme park ticket, and a credit card or cash to pay for purchases. If you are totally spoiled by MagicBands like I am, this may seem like a huge burden!

One way around this is to do a split stay at a Disney resort and the Dolphin, and stay at the Disney resort first. This way you will receive a MagicBand for your park ticket that will still work for entrance to the parks after you check out. You will be able to make charges back to your Disney resort until midnight on the day you check out, so even after you check in to the Dolphin! We did this and it worked beautifully.

Now that Uber and Lyft can pick up riders at Orlando International Airport, the lack of complimentary transportation to/from the airport is less of an issue. You can easily get your whole party to the resort from the airport for around $30 using Uber (read all of my tips and tricks for ridesharing at Disney in this post). So be sure to factor in an additional $60 for airport transfers when comparing costs.

And I would be slack if I didn’t mention the huge benefit of being so close to the theme parks. Being a 10-minute boat ride (or 15-minute walk) away from Epcot and Hollywood Studios is incredibly convenient, especially if you are visiting during Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival and want to visit it multiple times!

So overall, I would suggest staying at the Walt Disney World Dolphin if:

  • You want to reduce to overall cost of a Disney vacation using SPG points for your stay
  • You don’t mind a total lack of Disney magic at your resort
  • You plan on visiting Epcot and Hollywood Studios more than the Magic Kingdom
  • You don’t mind double beds

If you want help navigating all of your options for a Disney World vacation at no cost to you, I strongly suggest getting a free quote from the expert agents at Destinations in Florida!

Any questions about staying at the Dolphin? Please leave a comment below or send me a message on The Frugal South’s Facebook page!

Pros and cons of the Walt Disney World Dolphin, a non-Disney resort located on Disney property! There is so much to know about this unique hotel. A thorough resort review of the Disney Dolphin. #disneyworld


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