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 rooms.
This would have been impossible six months ago. 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. 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.
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.
"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.
The most dog-friendly accommodations are budget hotels, 70 percent of which are pet-friendly, reports the American Hotel & Lodging Association. But luxury hotels aren't far behind, with 43 percent being pet-friendly. Many now go above and beyond in offering amenities for pups.
Disney may not have a dog shuttle, but at check-in, I was given a "Pluto Welcome Kit," with 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 few locations around the property, including in Art of Animation's lobby and at the Emporium in the Magic Kingdom.
Disney's pilot program will run through October, with some limits and extra costs.
Only two dogs are allowed per room. They can't 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. Be prepared to show your dog's vaccination records, too. And you'll pay $50 more per night at Art of Animation, Port Orleans - Riverside and Fort Wilderness resorts. At Yacht Club Resort, it's $75 more.
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 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. 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.