So, you’re planning your Disney World vacation and you’ve narrowed your resorts down to the Polynesian or the Contemporary.
Welcome to an age-old debate. I’ll be your guide.
These two Deluxe resorts are bonafide Disney originals. They’re iconic. And it can be difficult to choose one. But fear not! I’ve spent a ton of time at both of these resorts, I know them inside and out, and I’m here to help. I’m actually writing this a day after I spent some time at both resorts.
I’ll start with the short and sweet answer, then I’ll get into the details.
Polynesian or Contemporary Resort – The Short Answer
The Polynesian Resort is best for guests who prefer an immersive, tropical-themed resort experience that is very well-rounded in every way. The Contemporary Resort is best for guests who prefer a more traditional, upscale hotel experience that is more subtle in its use of Disney theming.
That is the super-abridged answer and there are way too many nuances to make the answer so simple. Both resorts have a lot going on and both resorts make plenty of appearances on my huge list of Disney World must do’s.
I’ve broken down the resorts’ features into categories, then picked a winner for each. This should make it easier for you to read and draw your own conclusions.
For the sake of simplicity, I’m not going to use the full “Polynesian Village Resort” name every time. When I write Polynesian or “Poly”, I mean the same thing.
Theme & Atmosphere
Winner: Polynesian Resort
When it comes to theme and general vibe, the Polynesian is the clear winner here. I love the Contemporary, but its theme (or lack thereof) is more akin to what you’d find at just about any large, upscale hotel. It just doesn’t have the details or the level of immersion that the Poly does. Matter of fact, there are plenty of folks who think the Polynesian has the best theme of any resort, period.
Polynesian Resort – Theme & Atmosphere
I’ve commonly described the Polynesian as 50% Golden Age of Hawaii and 50% Golden Age of Disney. I still feel like that’s a pretty good intro to the resort, due to its design and its status a Disney World original.
Staying at a Deluxe Resort means paying a Deluxe price to be inside the “Disney Bubble”. In my opinion, the Poly is the Bubble at its best. There’s a reason why it’s has a reputation for being the top dog of Disney resorts. It’s got an amazing theme and it’s on the Monorail Loop, which is something that I’m a big fan of.
On one hand, you’re surrounded by a detailed recreation of a Hawaiian paradise. On the other, you can walk outside of your room and see a head-on view of Cinderella’s Castle across the Seven Seas Lagoon. The whole experience does a great job of making you feel like your simultaneously on a Pacific Island and at Disney World.
The Polynesian’s charm kicks in the moment you walk through the front doors of the Great Ceremonial House. This is the Poly’s main building and it’s as much a resort hub as it is a lobby. Without a doubt, the first thing you’ll notice is the Poly’s famous tropical scent. It’s worth mentioning because it’s one of those brilliant little Disney details that does the perfect job of setting the tone the moment you walk in. Definitely one of my favorite smells at Disney World and it just wouldn’t be the same without it.
The Great Ceremonial House contains all of the resort’s best dining, shopping, and the monorail station. It’s also a nice play to just hang out for a while. It’s busy inside, but not cramped. There’s some seating on the main floor, but I like to relax upstairs at one of the restaurants or tiki bars.
Outdoors, the Polynesian carries on with the great theming. Torches and tikis line the walkways. Palm trees and other tropical plants are strategically placed. Elaborately painted buildings line up one after another. All of those things add up to make the resort feel the way a vacation destination should.
The layout is big, but not so big that it’s inconvenient. It’s an ideal size for exploring, but all of the rooms are within a short walking distance of the most important amenities.
A good resort pool is possibly the most important amenity for most families and the Polynesian is a big winner in this area. The Lava Pool (Poly’s main pool) is one of the best at Disney World. I’d call it the best pool on WDW property, but that title belongs to Stormalong Bay at the Beach & Yacht Club Resorts. That’s not a fair fight though, seeing as Stormalong Bay is essentially the resort equivalent of a miniature water park.
The Lava Pool theme is on another level from other pools though. There’s a great splash zone, a big waterslide, and a gigantic volcano. You also have a pretty good view of the Seven Seas Lagoon from the pool.
Last but not least, it’s a well-known fact that the Polynesian Beaches are awesome. Not only are they a great spot to relax, they’re also one of the best places at Disney to watch fireworks. You’ll quickly learn that other guests are aware of this when you see the crowds form to watch Happily Ever After each night.
Contemporary Resort – Theme & Atmosphere
Compared to the Polynesian, the Contemporary Resort’s theme is just a whole different animal. And to be blunt, there are plenty of guests who would argue that the Contemporary has no theme at all. I think that may be a bit of a stretch, but it’s not that far off the mark.
The Contemporary has the look and feel of a massive, modern, upscale hotel. Almost all of the resort’s most important parts are all contained within one gigantic A-frame building. It’s very convenient, but it doesn’t have that immersive magic that most of the other Deluxe Resorts have.
Don’t get me wrong though, the Contemporary does have its own brand of magic. From my experience, the Contemporary’s magic is found in two places- The location and the Monorail running through the middle of the building.
The first thing you’ll notice when you look out from a window or a balcony is that the Contemporary is looking directly over Magic Kingdom. Spaceship Earth looms large and Cinderella’s Castle is right there with it. I don’t think it can be overstated how cool it is for Disney fans to be situated right over the most iconic theme park in the world. And it’s worth noting that you’d be hard-pressed to find a better fireworks viewing spot.
Inside, the Monorail track running through the building is a special touch. It’s a quintessential “Disney” moment to wake up in the morning, open your room’s door, and look down at the Monorail zooming by beneath you.
Staying at the Contemporary might not mean getting lost in a theme, but it’s the resort that constantly reminds you that you’re right in the middle of the most famous vacation spot in the world. Everything about the Contemporary makes you feel like you’re a part of the action, even from the comfort of a quiet room.
Personally, I’m not overly keen on the outdoor portions of the Contemporary. The grounds are nice and the pool is good, but everything feels a bit too “hotel” for my taste. The real charm of the resort is found within the main building and it fades for me when I walk out toward the pool/beach area.
To sum it up, the Contemporary is perfect if you’re looking for an upscale resort experience that takes it easy with the overt Disney theming. What it lacks in theme, it makes up for with its interesting inner workings and awesome location.
By the way- We also have a head-to-head comparison of the Contemporary and the Wilderness Lodge.
Winner: Polynesian Resort
This one is really hard and it really could go either way. Even though the Contemporary Resort is home to my favorite Disney World restaurant, I feel that the Polynesian has the edge in overall dining. The Contemporary has a better high-end, but it doesn’t have the better overall lineup of restaurants that the Polynesian has.
Polynesian Resort – Dining
A strong case could be made that there’s no resort more fun to eat at than the Polynesian. It may lack a true fine-dining establishment, but it more than makes up for it with its array of great restaurants.
I think it’s probably some sort of unwritten Disney World sin to talk about Polynesian dining without starting with Ohana, the restaurant that has often been considered the most popular at any resort. Ohana is the resort’s flagship Signature restaurant and serves an all-you-care-to-eat family-style feast. Steak, chicken, shrimp, potstickers, lo mein, and so on. Breakfast features character dining with Lilo and Stich. For breakfast food, you only need to remember one thing-Tonga Toast. The food is good here and the experience is a Disney must. Reservations are hard to come by, so they have to be snatched up as early as possible.
Right next door to Ohana is one of my absolute favorite resort restaurants, Kona Cafe. It’s a table-service restaurant that has an awesome Pan-Asian menu. The food is every bit as good (or better) as what you’ll find at Ohana, but it doesn’t have the music or view that Ohana does. Whether you order coffee-rubbed pork or simple stir fry, Kona is an outstanding, moderately-priced spot.
Right outside the back doors of the Great Ceremonial House is where you’ll find a walk-up stand called Pineapple Lanai. This is the only permanent location outside of Magic Kingdom where you can order the fabled Dole Whip pineapple soft-serve. I can’t help stopping in and getting a swirl every time I’m at the Poly. The availability of Dole Whips at your home resort is a perk that can’t be overemphasized. The hype is real, people.
The next big Polynesian dining highlight is technically a tiki bar. It’s called Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto and it’s 100% the best bar/lounge at Disney World. This is another can’t-miss Disney experience. The whole place is alive with animatronics and special effects that change depending on your drink order. The staff is also in on the fun and are equipped with zany outfits and countless one-liners. You can also buy all of Trader Sam’s signature ceramic tiki mugs. I just recently completed my collection.
Rounding out the Poly foodfest highlights, there’s also the Spirit of Aloha Dining Show and Captain Cook’s. Spirit of Aloha is a dining event that takes place during the evening. It features singing, fire dancing, and Hawaiian storytelling. It’s a cool thing for the family. Captain Cook’s is the resorts’ primary quick-service spot and one of my favorite 24-hour restaurants at WDW.
Contemporary Resort – Dining
As a regular patron, it just feels weird to rank the Contemporary Resort as a runner-up in regard to its dining. The Polynesian may have more for the whole family, but the Contemporary’s restaurant lineup is good enough that plenty of guests will prefer it, especially adults.
The most noteworthy restaurant at the Contemporary is my favorite at Disney World, California Grill. California Grill is a Signature table-service restaurant that occupies the top floor of the resort. The views are stunning. The windows overlook Magic Kingdom, Seven Seas Lagoon, and Bay Lake. There are also observation decks on each side of the restaurant that allow you to walk outside. You won’t find a better view anywhere at WDW. The food is always incredible, even though the restaurant could be tempted to use the location as an excuse to skimp.
Fun fact: I love California Grill so much that I actually chose to propose there during the Christmas Wishes fireworks show.
Going back down to the main two floors of the Contemporary Resort is where you’ll find the rest of the noteworthy restaurants.
Chef Mickey’s is a family favorite. It’s a character dining spot with the Fab 5 (Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald, and Pluto). It’s very popular and has a cool aesthetic. It’s out in the open so you can see the hustle and bustle of the Contemporary. Right next to Chef Mickey’s is the Contempo Cafe. This is the Contemporary’s 24-hour quick-service spot and it’s one of the best.
Down on ground-floor is Steakhouse 71. This new addition is a modern American restaurant with sleek decorations and a unique menu. It’s very underrated for how good it is.
Convenience & Transportation
Winner: Contemporary Resort
When it comes to convenience, the Contemporary is untouchable. The Polynesian is very accessible in its own right, but the Contemporary’s location takes convenience to the next level. Being walking distance from Magic Kingdom does the trick.
Contemporary Resort – Convenience & Transportation
The Contemporary is the only resort in which you can wake up and subsequently walk right into Magic Kingdom. And if you’re not in the mood to walk, voila!, there’s a Monorail system running right outside of your hotel room door. The Contemporary’s building is also super convenient itself. The layout places all of the most important restaurants, shops, and amenities sans pool inside the main A-frame structure. This means that you can get to everything quickly and efficiently, rain or shine.
Polynesian Resort – Convenience & Transportation
The Polynesian is among the most convenient resorts at Disney World. It’s two monorail stops from Magic Kingdom and within walking distance to the Ticket and Transportation Center. The overall layout of the resort is just expansive enough to keep you busy without being too difficult to traverse comfortably. I also like that the Great Ceremonial House is a great central hub with all sorts of things to do. Guest staying at the Poly shouldn’t have many (if any) gripes about convenient. Compared to any resort but the Contemporary, it’s right at the top of its class for accessibility.
This one was tough. The Polynesian rooms have the better theme, but the Contemporary’s rooms are larger and some have direct views of Magic Kingdom. Honestly, I could go either way on these two, depending on my mood. I don’t think that rooms themselves should ever be the #1 priority when choosing, but neither of these resorts’ rooms should disappoint.
Polynesian Resort – Rooms
The Polynesian Resort rooms are very good for a Deluxe Resort. They were remodeled not too long ago to bring them up to speed. Their design is a little less loud than it used to be and everything looks tasteful. I actually liked the old rooms, but the update was more than welcome. Overall, I feel that the Poly rooms offer a very good blend of size, theme, and comfort.
Contemporary Resort – Rooms
The Contemporary Resort has the largest rooms of the three Monorail Resorts. They were also recently updated with a fun Incredibles family theme. The rooms keep with the resort’s modern vibe and are designed to look more like what you’d expect from a typical upscale hotel, so the theme is subtle. If you choose a Park View room, you’ll have a birds-eye-view of Magic Kingdom. Hard to beat that kind of scenery.
Price & Value
Winner: Contemporary Resort
There’s not a huge difference in price from one to the other, but rooms at the Contemporary do run a little cheaper than rooms at the Polynesian. And being that they’re connected to one another via Monorail anyway, the Contemporary has the edge in value.
Contemporary Resort – Price & Value
Contemporary Resort rooms are the upper-middle price range among Deluxe Resorts. No Deluxe Resort is “cheap”, but the Contemporary’s location and Monorail access adds some good value. There’s really no need for a vehicle if you stay at any of the Monorail resorts, so that’s not really a factor. But being within walking distance of Magic Kingdom is something unique to the Contemporary and that’s huge. If and when the Monorail is having issues, it’s quite nice to have the option to walk instead.
All in all, I’ve always felt that the Contemporary is priced appropriately when compared to its fellow Deluxe Resorts.
Polynesian Resort – Price & Value
Polynesian rooms are typically the second most expensive Disney World resort right behind the Grand Floridian. The Poly isn’t your “budget” option by any stretch, but then again, neither is any Deluxe Resort on the Monorail Loop.
Paying for a room at the Polynesian means paying for a full experience. It’s immersive and it’s one of Disney’s best places to be. If your budget is comfortable and you appreciate the Hawaiian theming, you really can’t go wrong here.
Winner: Polynesian Resort
Even though the Contemporary has some great selling points, the Polynesian just has a certain je ne sais quoi. I’m obviously a Disney World fan and I’m not sure that any resort feels as much like classic Disney World than the Polynesian. I’ve always felt that the Poly is possibly the most well-rounded of all Disney properties. The theme is immersive, the dining is top-notch, the amenities are great, and the convenience of the Monorail can’t be overstated.
The Contemporary does hold its own in plenty of areas and it’s still the best choice for guests who aren’t all-in on Disney theming. Even without the overt themes, there’s a certain sense of wonder you get from watching the Monorail ride past your room or standing on your balcony and peering into Magic Kingdom. The Contemporary has many different ways of reminding you that you’re smack-dab in the middle of the most iconic family vacation destination in the world.
So, that settles that…or not. Honestly, I don’t think the debate over Monorail Resorts will ever be settled. They all have different things to offer and each one makes for a totally unique experience.
If there’s anything I can say to take the stress away from deciding, I think it’s that both of these resorts are effectively connected by the Monorail. When you stay at one, the other is just a simple ride away. No one should ever stay at Monorail resort without taking at least one evening to hop on the Monorail to visit another resort. Truth be told, one of my favorite things to do at Disney World is to go on a Monorail crawl.
What say you? Which resort is your choice and why? Maybe I sold one resort short. Maybe I oversold another. And if you’ve made your decision, check out the MASSIVE guide I made for planning a Disney World trip on a budget.
Help the world settle the Polynesian vs Contemporary debate and let me know what you think in the comments!