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Walt Disney World hotels testing dog-friendly rooms

| Friday, Feb. 16, 2018, 11:33 a.m.
The Art of Animation Resort is one of four Walt Disney World hotels participating in a dog-friendly room pilot program.
The Art of Animation Resort is one of four Walt Disney World hotels participating in a dog-friendly room pilot program.

At sunset on a warm January evening, I walked my dog along the edge of a man-made lake at Walt Disney World's Art of Animation Resort. She sniffed the grass and marked her territory while I kept my eye out for alligators and staffers' ubiquitous golf carts hauling guests' luggage to and from their rooms.

Six months ago, this would have been impossible. Annie Oakley Tater Tot is not a service dog. She's my pet, and for the first time, my room could be her room while I visited the Magic Kingdom.

In September, Walt Disney World allowed guests evacuating inland from Hurricane Irma to bring their pets with them. That experience prompted the company, which has 28,000 rooms at its Florida location, to pilot a one-year program that designates as dog-friendly 250 rooms at four properties.

Resort rooms at the Art of Animation, Port Orleans Riverside, Fort Wilderness (in the cabins) and Yacht Club that host canine guests are given the same cleaning provided for rooms occupied by service animals, a company spokesperson said.

If anything, Disney is somewhat late on accommodating pet owners. Thirty-seven percent of them travel with their companions, up from 19 percent from a decade ago, according to the American Pet Products Association , and more than half of U.S. hotels are already pet-friendly, according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association .

Pet-friendly travel

“We've been around for almost 12 years, and pet travel is certainly much easier today than it was a decade ago,” said Jason Halliburton, chief operating officer of Bring Fido , a website and app that pairs dog owners with dog-friendly activities, events, parks, restaurants and hotels. His wife, Melissa Halliburton, started the website to help people find places to bring their pets while traveling. (It's a good one, too; I've driven about 10,000 miles with my dog and use it wherever we go.)

While our grandparents may have had a dog that they kept outside, he added, “Millennials have grown up with pets inside their homes, so their first pets are also going to be considered part of the family, and people want to travel with their family members.”

The most dog-friendly accommodations are budget hotels, 70 percent of which are pet friendly, the American Hotel & Lodging Association says. That number is bolstered by chains such as La Quinta Inn and Red Roof Inn that, with few exceptions, allow pets.

But luxury hotels aren't far behind, with 43 percent of them being pet-friendly. Many now go above and beyond in offering amenities for pups.

In November, Hilton announced its new “Paws in the Neighborhood” program, which is piloted at the Canopy by Hilton location in Washington, and partners with Planet Dog to provide pet toys, treats, poop bags, a dog guide to the neighborhood, and even leashes and collars.

Hotel Nikko San Francisco has had a “canine operating officer” since 2015, and offers a $50 pet package that includes a plush bed, a food and water bowl, and a grass run on the roof.

The Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan is pet-friendly year-round (with “pet” having a wide definition as it has, at least once, hosted a guest who brought bats), but has a doggy concierge for the Westminster Kennel Club dog show who arranges for rooms big enough to accommodate dogs, canine spa treatments and shuttle runs to and from the nearby judging locations.

Making pets welcome

Disney may not have a dog shuttle, but at check-in, I was given a “Pluto Welcome Kit,” which included a new food and water bowl, a place mat, a roll of pickup bags and a scarf for Annie. None of it was Disney-branded, though — if I wanted that, I could buy a leash, collar, bowls or Minnie Mouse dress and ears from the Disney Tails collection, which is sold in a handful of locations around the property, including in Art of Animation's lobby and at the Emporium in the Magic Kingdom. (Because I'm a sucker, Annie now sports a Mickey Mouse collar. Cost: $14.99.)

Disney's pilot program will run through October. There are some limits and additional costs. While Disney doesn't set weight limits for canine guests, only two dogs are allowed per room.

Dogs cannot be left unaccompanied for more than seven hours, and guests are expected to come back to their rooms if their dog is barking or otherwise being disruptive. You should be prepared to show your dog's vaccination records, too.

And you'll pay extra: $50 more per night at Art of Animation, Port Orleans Riverside and Fort Wilderness resorts. At Yacht Club Resort, it's $75 more.

Annie and I experienced only one hiccup: After making my room reservation online, I called to make sure that it included the notation that I was bringing my dog. But when I checked in at Art of Animation, Annie wasn't on my reservation.

Fortunately, they still had a dog room open, but I stayed on a weekday in January. If I were coming with Annie during a busier time of year, I would make sure to call before check-in to make absolutely sure she was on my reservation.

Extra fees and services

Bringing Annie along cost more than that extra Disney fee: I opted to leave her at Best Friends Pet Care while I was in the Magic Kingdom. It's a 27,000-square-foot facility on Disney property (about an eight-minute drive from the parks) that takes care of dogs, cats and what it calls “pocket pets” -— animals such as hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits and ferrets. The company has partnered with Walt Disney World for more than a decade and once was guests' only option if they traveled with pets.

For dogs, Best Friends offers overnight boarding (ranging from a 4-by-7-foot, climate-controlled space to a 16-by-9-foot VIP luxury suite with a platform bed and flat-screen TV), doggy day care and grooming. I opted for grooming and daytime boarding for Annie, which included one walk; I added an extra walk and one-on-one playtime.

My park ticket for the day cost $107. (The price for that type of ticket has risen to $109.) Annie's day at Best Friends cost $78, which included a tip for her groomer. Best Friends is open one hour before and one hour after the last Disney park closes. When I picked Annie up at the end of my long day, she bounded out to greet me and then slept for the next 16 hours, also exhausted by her day of play.

While Best Friends is on Disney grounds, it doesn't offer any pet services at the resorts themselves, such as coming to your room to walk your dog, though it does offer discounts if you and your dog are staying with Disney.

As I walked Annie along the lake that evening, the only surprise more palpable than hers (at the resort's golf carts) was that of other visitors (at the fact that I was walking a dog on Disney property). If this policy continues after the pilot program ends, expect that to change — and for Annie and I to come back soon for another magical stay.

Jen A. Miller is a Washington Post contributing writer.

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