Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa AllEarsNet® Review

Work in Progress:
Saratoga Springs Review

by Debra Martin Koma
ALL EARS® Senior Editor

This article first appeared in the
June 15, 2004, Issue #247 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Before I begin my report on the new Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa at Walt Disney World, let me say that I really wanted to love this resort.

I have many fond memories of my family's stays at the former incarnation of the place — the Villas at the Disney Institute. The serenity, the way you felt isolated from all the park hustle and bustle, the convenience to Downtown Disney, the beauty of the setting, right down to the flocks of ducks swimming in the pool… it really was a haven, not to mention that it often offered really great rates on the studios and one-bedroom villas, perfect for a family who wanted to save a little by making some of their meals in the room.

When Disney announced its plan to convert the Institute villas into a Disney Vacation Club property themed to the famous New York resort area of Saratoga Springs, I thought, "How perfect!" Saratoga is not only known for its horse races, but for its history and its healthful springs — surely this would be a place of pristine beauty where you could get away from it all, while treating yourself to a little pampering.

I guess you can tell where I'm headed with this, right? I didn't love Saratoga Springs. Don't get me wrong. It was OK. And perhaps after all the construction is finished, it will be a beautiful place to stay. Perhaps it will have the serenity the former resort had. Perhaps. But as of right now, the ongoing construction ruins the atmosphere — it just doesn't feel very Disney yet.

Whether it manages to conjure up the real Saratoga Springs, that's harder for me to gauge, as I've not yet been to that area of upstate New York. I suppose that's something you'll just have to judge for yourselves.

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Currently, you approach the resort's check-in area, called the Carriage House, through an expanse of backhoes and cranes, structures covered in scaffolding, and construction walls. Eventually, this sprawling resort will have 828 units, making it the largest Disney Vacation Club property to date. As of now, however, only 184 units are open as part of Phase I. Phase II is set to be completed in 2005 and will add an additional 368 units, while the recently announced Phase III won't be ready until 2007.

The "Health, History, Horses" theme of the resort is apparent from the moment you walk up to the Carriage House, where you're greeted by Cast Members wearing silk jockey jackets and pants. The string of Victorian-styled buildings are peppered with thematic details — a horse weathervane, a gate made to look like that found in a stable.

I felt a sense of deja vu upon checking in at the Carriage House — I seem to recall the wide, open circular space that houses the registration desks from my previous visits to the Disney Institute, but I could be wrong. The Carriage House is beautifully decorated, with immaculate hardwood floors and the calming, muted colors that you find throughout the resort — pale yellow, seafoam green, peachy sand, beige. Horses are clearly a primary motif here — the walls are covered with prints of pastoral scenes depicting equine pursuits. Even the children's waiting area features framed portraits of famous animated Disney horse heroes, like Mulan's steed, Khan.

Cast Members at check-in could not have been friendlier or more thorough in their greeting, and I was welcomed "home" so many times, I started to feel as though I really did belong there. The problem, however, was not with the staff, just with the unsettled feeling that seemed to permeate the atmosphere — nothing seemed quite "done," or finished.

Once checked in, a Cast Member would have taken me to my room, but I found it to be just a five- or six-minute walk to my building over in Congress Park.

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Each of the sections of Saratoga Springs ties in to one aspect of the "Health, History, Horses" motif. The only section open currently is Congress Park, named for the real city's central greenspace, a favorite of both athletes and artists. This cluster of Victorian-style buildings borders on the lake looking out to Downtown Disney, and is the area of Saratoga Springs closest to that shopping and eating district.

In the corridors of the building, you'll find more horsy touches — note the light fixtures, for example. There are ice machines, as well as vending machines, located on each floor. (Laundry facilities are located near both pools.) Bring lots of cash if you want a snack, though. Soft drinks and bottled water are $2.50, just like in the theme parks, and small bags of chips and other snacks are $1.00!

If you've stayed at the newer Disney Vacation Club resorts — Beach Club Villas, for example — then you've seen the layout of the rooms at Saratoga Springs. In fact, except for the decor, there's not much difference between the rooms at all. We stayed in a studio — which means everything's in one room — but we had the chance to tour the one- and two-bedroom units as well as the Grand Villa. The studios (which sleep four) and one- and two-bedroom villas (which sleep up to four and eight, respectively) are set up in an almost identical floor plan as their DVC counterparts. The two-story Grand Villa, however, is most impressive, accommodating up to 12 guests in its three bedrooms, four bathrooms, a full kitchen, dining room — at more than 2100 square feet, it truly feels like a stately home.

The rooms are done in soft shades of seafoam green, sand, cream, and pale yellow, with dark wood furnishings. In keeping with the theme of Saratoga horseracing, many of the accents around the rooms have a decidedly equine motif — pen and ink drawings of horse races on the walls, light fixtures with horse details. Housekeeping even leaves behind a little terry cloth origami — a racehorse made of washcloths. And there are also a few treats for Hidden Mickey fans. Check out the vanity and the upholstery on the sofabed.

While the floor plans of the rooms are virtually identical to their DVC cousins, there are a few touches missing that detract from Saratoga Springs' comfort level. One annoyance in the studio was the lack of a full-length mirror — you don't really know how much you use one until you don't have one to use! Another difference is the type of sofa bed found here. Unlike other sofa beds, which have regular, although thin mattresses, these hide-a-beds were made of a firm foam, and unfolding them takes some thought — instructions for use aren't clearly marked. The bed was perfectly comfortable for little old me (I'm just 5'1"), but by the third night I realized that a larger person might be feeling the gaps in the foam a bit more and might find it a little less comfy than I did.

The balcony for the studio was about average in size — enough room for two chairs and a small table. But be forewarned — you're extremely close to the balcony on one side of you, so close that you certainly wouldn't want to be out there if your neighbors wereunless you knew them very well!

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Surprisingly, to me at least, Saratoga Springs does not have a table-service restaurant on the property. Perhaps the thinking is that guests will walk or boat over to Downtown Disney for a sit-down meal. That's probably a sound assumption — when and if the pedestrian walkway is open. (It's not now, and won't be until at least August, we're told.) There is bus service to Downtown Disney, though, as well as a boat. The thing is, though, that the boat goes from Saratoga Springs to Old Key West before heading to Downtown Disney. And did you know that they shut down the boats if lightning has been spotted within five miles? We didn't either. But that's what the boat captains told us. Twice. (In other words, no boat rides for us this trip.)

So where do you go when you're hankering for a bite to eat at this resort? Unless you have food in your room's kitchen, the only place to order comestibles is The Artist's Palette, back at the Carriage House. It's a beautiful location — bright and airy with a combination of light and dark woods throughout, modeled after an artist's workspace.

Upon entry, you come across the resort's market area, well stocked with Disney merchandise and a good supply of Saratoga Springs specific items. There are also all the usual market items you find at the deluxe resort shops for stocking your kitchenette: bread, milk, donuts, microwaveable snacks, Pop-tarts, beer — you know, all the vacation necessities!

As you walk into the restaurant area, glass cases on the right display an assortment of drinks and prepackaged foods, ranging from salads to sandwiches to short ribs. In the center is the showcase wood-fired oven, where you can choose from a limited list of made-to-order items, such as flatbread pizzas. Finally, on the far left, there are some gourmet food items, such as specialty flavored oils and jams, as well as some items unique to Saratoga Springs, including Saratoga Springs water and the famous Peppermint Pig candy. (For you non-Saratogians, the story goes that the pig is a Victorian holiday tradition, a symbol of good health, happiness and prosperity. A company called Saratoga Sweets makes these confections, rather like a candy cane but in pig shape, in a bright pink. They are usually only sold at Christmastime, but Disney has made arrangements to sell them at this resort year-round.) There are also bottles of wine for sale — much pricier than I've noticed before at the other deluxe resorts' markets.

In the name of research, we sampled the made-to-order Chicken Caesar Salad ($7.49) one lunchtime. It was merely several leaves of lettuce and a small chicken breast sliced on top, drenched in a watery Caesar-like dressing. We struggled to cut and eat this with plastic cutlery, but eventually gave up, deciding it wasn't worth the effort. Given the price and the upscale feel of this resort, I think you understand why we felt a bit cheated. To be fair, breakfast seems to be a little more savory, with a good variety of the usual breakfast suspects: eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits, muffins. The dinner menu is basically the lunch menu, with one or two more supper-like items added.

The On the Rocks Pool Bar, open 11 a.m. until dusk, serves beverages only, but good news — the refillable mug for this resort is refillable here. Don't get any ideas — no refills on the Mudslides, just soft drinks, coffee and tea.

Finally, there's the quiet and very masculine Turf Club, tucked in the rear of the Carriage House. A gorgeous dark wood bar is surrounded by tables, chairs and overstuffed upholstered furniture in a casual yet comfortable setting. Featuring a pool table as well as a wide-screen television, this room looks like the perfect gathering spot. Beverages, but not food, are available here, too.

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The one thing that Saratoga Springs does seem to have in its favor is the variety of activities available for guests.

Are you a golfer? The Lake Buena Vista Golf Course is literally at your doorstep. Feel like treating yourself to a facial or a nice massage? The Spa is located just above the High Spring Rock pool. Want to keep up with your workouts? There's a brand new fitness center located within the Spa facilities. Have kids? They'll probably enjoy the Win, Place or Show Arcade, the pools, the rental bikes, the playgrounds, the daily activities scheduled in Community Hall. Older kids might also enjoy playing a game of pool in the Turf Club, or walking over to shop and eat at Downtown Disney. There are also tennis, basketball and shuffleboard courts, with associated equipment available for rental at Horsing Around, located near the main pool.

A big attraction of the resort is undoubtedly the main theme pool, High Rock Spring, patterned after actual rock formations found in Saratoga Spa State Park. The pool itself is located near the Carriage House and features a twisting water slide that even has a recorded warning to guests to "wait until the light turns green" before taking the plunge. Near the shallower end of the pool, there's a children's water play area, floored with a spongy material and featuring spurting mini-jets and a small statue of Donald Duck. A smaller, handicapped-accessible slide also dumps into the three-foot end of the pool. There are also two hot tubs located near High Rock Spring, recessed into rock formations so that you might miss them unless you were looking for them.

There's a "quiet pool" located near the Congress Park buildings for those looking for a more sedate water experience. Near the quiet pool there is a playground, and also a barbecue area for those hoping to do a little alfresco dining.

We hear also that the old Disney Institute Cinema, located on the main road into the resort, Broadway, may eventually reopen to guests. Wouldn't that be a nice addition?

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Overall, I found Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa to have great potential, but the construction that's still going on, and will be for some time, really detracts from the peace and quiet you want when you're on vacation. It was a little depressing to be sitting at the bus stop, staring at scaffolding and construction walls here, cranes and heavy duty equipment over there.

The staff, on the other hand, was first-rate. Were it not for them, you might not have known you were at a Disney resort.

Bus service to and from this resort seems to be good so far, except, ironically, to Downtown Disney. I waited more than 20 minutes one day and a bus to Downtown Disney never showed up. In fact, getting there proved to be almost impossible without a car! Due to the severe afternoon thunderstorms, we were never able to take the boat over, and, since the walkway is not open, we couldn't even stroll over as we had planned.

Although I was ready to love Saratoga Springs, I think I'll wait until the construction is further along before I visit again.

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As you may recall, we asked ALL EARS® Readers for questions about this resort before I left. I tried to answer as many as I could:

Liz Cassamassino wonders: I just wanted to know whether you were familiar with any kind of reservations that could be made at Saratoga Springs if you're not a Disney Vacation Club member.

AE Answers: Just as you can at the other DVC resorts, you can book a room at Saratoga Springs using good old cash, depending, of course, on availability.

Hilary Huffman asks: We are huge horse racing fans, and I understand Saratoga Springs Resort has some fun horseracing touches. We would love to hear about them!

AE Answers: There are many allusions to horse racing throughout the Saratoga Springs Resort. Look for the framed silk jockey jackets along some of the walls in the hallway toward the Turf Club lounge. In fact, the bell services staff wears jockey outfits, including those silly jockey hats. Many of the fixtures also have horse motifs, and much of the artwork relates to equestrian activities.

Denise Wallace, Paul Hurley and a number of other readers wonder: I'd love to know what the food area is like (is it a food court, or a sit down restaurant) and how extensive the offerings at the market are (and if the prices are not too outrageous!). I'd also love to know how big the refrigerators in the efficiencies are and if they have a freezer compartment.

AE Answers: As I mentioned in the feature, the menu at the food court is fairly limited and much of the food is of the "grab 'n' go" variety. There is no sit-down restaurant at this resort, although Olivia's Cafe at Old Key West Resort is a short cab ride (or boat or bus ride) away. The offerings at the market are, for the most part, typical of what you'd find in the markets of most of Disney's deluxe resorts, and are priced accordingly. There are a few specialty items, such as Saratoga Salsa, and gourmet olive oils and jams, and, of course, the uniquely Saratogian Peppermint Pig candy. The only real surprise to me was the wine available — they definitely offer more expensive vintages than I've seen at other deluxe resorts.

As to your specific question about the studios — the fridges are about 3' tall, your standard dorm size. And yes, there was a freezer compartment, albeit a very small, narrow one.

Sharon Boyle asks: I'd really like to know more about the pool. What age groups will find it appealing and how does it compare to other Disney resort pools? And how is the slide? Are there rooms close to the pool? Also, do they have a refillable mug program?

AE Answers: Lots of questions, Sharon! I'll answer your questions in reverse order: Yes, there's a Saratoga Springs refillable mug for $11.99. And it can be used at the Artist's Palette food court, as well as the On the Rocks Pool Bar.

As to the pools: The main, themed pool, High Rock Spring, has a long, curving water slide, that I think will excite most age groups. The pool itself is gorgeous, with a faux rock setting. The kids' play area looks like a lot of fun for the little ones, with a statue of Donald and spurting water fountains. This pool is located near the check-in area, not really close to any guest rooms. In fact, I felt the location was odd, since it fronts on the main road through the resort and is across the street from the bus stop. There's only one little gate closing off the pool area at this point, allowing passers-by to peek in, but more importantly, offering an escape point for a quick toddler who gets away from Mom. When we sat waiting for the bus one day, that gate was wide open — an unsupervised child could have easily run out into the street. (Sorry, it's the mom in me that notices these things.)

Marla Cain asks: Do they have boat transportation to Pleasure Island? If so, what are the hours? Can you get a boat back at 2 a.m.? And we need some pictures of the balconies.

AE Answers: Your wish is my command! Photos of the balcony of the Saratoga Springs studio:

Balcony 1
Balcony 2

And yes, you can get a boat to Downtown Disney, but the boat only runs from Downtown Disney back to the resort until about 11:30 p.m. If you want to stay at Pleasure Island until its 2 a.m. closing, you'll have to take the bus back to the resort!

Scott Cerino asks: I would like to know what they plan on doing with the old Treehouse Villas. I heard that the newly announced Phase III of the resort was going to be built on the old Fairway Villas, but that still leaves the Treehouses.

AE Answers: We spoke to several Cast Members who told us, unofficially of course, that there are no set plans yet for the Treehouses, due to some "wetlands conservation issues." We've also heard that the Treehouse Villas are in such a bad state of disrepair they might be torn down. It would be great if they could keep those Treehouses, wouldn't it? But from what we hear, they're not even being used at this time.

Lisa LoCascio and several others ask: How long does it take to walk to Downtown Disney from Saratoga Springs? Can you hear the fireworks from the rooms?

AE Answers: Lisa, if you're going in just a few weeks, you're not going to be able to walk to Downtown Disney — the path isn't open yet, due to the construction. The official word is "August." We'll see. Once it opens, though, I expect that the walk will take about 10-20 minutes from the Congress Park buildings. (There is probably a way to walk through the Lake Buena Vista Golf Course paths over to Downtown Disney's West Side, near Cirque du Soleil, but that's not a sanctioned route apparently, since you risk getting run over by a golf cart!)

And yes, you can hear, and possibly see, the fireworks from Downtown Disney. At midnight one night, I heard what I thought was thunder. When I noted the time, I realized that it might be the fireworks, so I ran onto the balcony — sure enough, I could see them, although the view was partially blocked by some trees.

Shelly asks: What do you know about accessibility at Saratoga Springs? Are there plans to improve it before our son's July birthday trip?

AE Answers: The main themed pool is a zero-entry pool, which means you can just wade, or wheel, in. And I did see a wheelchair accessible area near one of the smaller water slides ( The hot tubs, however, are set into the "rock" of the High Rock Spring, and there are a few steps leading up to them. I didn't see any accommodation there for a wheelchair user.

As far as the vacation homes themselves, though, there are a number of "fully accessible" rooms, with features like additional low entrance door viewers, fire strobes, hand-held shower attachments, lower countertops, and roll-in showers. See our Saratoga Springs Resort Fact Sheet for more details.

Mona Bailey says: I'm wondering how long a walk it is from where you park to the actual room at Saratoga Springs. Our son has bought at Saratoga Springs and wants to treat us to a trip there.

AE Answers: We weren't able to park right at the room, as I recall doing at Old Key West. In fact, though there is a lot of parking we often had to park quite far from our building.

Alan Passwater asks: How does this resort compare to Beach Club Villas and Wilderness Lodge Villas?

AE Answers: From a room standpoint, Saratoga Springs is virtually the same as the Beach Club Villas and the Villas at the Wilderness Lodge. The floor plans are nearly identical — it's just that the theming and the decor are different. The Saratoga Springs rooms aren't quite as airy and light as the Beach Club Villas, not as dark as the Villas at the Wilderness Lodge. The resort itself, however, is very different, in my opinion. You are much more remote at Saratoga Springs, which is fine if you like that. Stormalong Bay, the mini-water park at the Beach Club way outshines most other resort pools. The other major difference, and drawback in my opinion, is that there is
no full-service restaurant at Saratoga Springs.

Amanda asks: I want to be able to spend my money way, way, way too far in advance, in my mind at least, picking out all the spa treatments I'll go get on my next visit, so of course I need prices if you got 'em.

AE Answers: I did indeed get the prices after touring the spa and fitness facilities. (Very nice, in my opinion.) Fifty-minute massages range from $110 to $150, facials from $115 to $155, and manicures from $30 to $60. I'll try to get the full list online soon! And by the way, for Disney Vacation Club members, there's a discount.


Related Links

Saratoga Springs Fact Sheet

Saratoga Springs Photo Gallery

Saratoga Springs Resort Photo Slideshow

Artist's Palette Menu