I recently took a trip to Walt Disney World for the weekend with my family in the middle of summer when our Seasonal passes had us blocked out from getting into the parks. Most people would ask why we even bothered to make the trip down if we weren’t even able to get into the parks or ride any of the attractions. This is where I would tell them that Walt Disney World is so much more than just parks and attractions, and that is precisely why we keep coming back as much and as often as we do. This got me thinking about all the things there are to do in Walt Disney World that doesn’t require an admission ticket into one of the 4 theme parks or 2 water parks. For brevity’s sake, I’m going to try to keep this list to 10 things in no particular order, but therein lies the challenge.
1. Disney Springs
Most people have some sort of idea, at least, of what Downtown Disney is, or should I say, was? But things just got real as Disney has given Downtown Disney and the now-defunct Pleasure Island a major facelift and even expanded out into what used to be parking lot space. The new retail space, which introduced at least 30 new tenants, is now known as Disney Springs. Consisting of the 4 areas of Westside, Marketplace, The Landing, and Town Center, you can find a multitude of things to do there. Shopping has never been as plentiful in this retail area. The Town Center section added an entire outdoor mall shopping experience with stores like Melissa, Under Armour, Buckle, and UNIQLO a Japanese retailer and the first store for the company in the southeastern U.S.
Other unique additions like Cirque du Soleil: La Nouba, Disney Quest, and Splitsville are great leisurely was to take in a show, play games, or bowl with family and friends in the air condition on a hot day. If you prefer something a little less active, the AMC theater offers blockbuster movies and dining at the same time.
Speaking of dining, there are lots of great places to eat in Disney Springs. My personal favorite is Raglan Road Irish Pub. There is also plenty of excitement over Morimoto Asia, a brand new restaurant by chef Morimoto from Iron Chef America. T-Rex and Rainforest Café offer decent food with great (albeit noisy) atmosphere that the kids will surely love. There are plenty of other delicious places to eat and plenty more to come later in 2016 and 2017.
2. Resort Hopping
Walt Disney World has a variety of different resorts to choose from right there on Disney property. Even if you are not staying in one of their beautiful deluxe resorts like Disney’s Polynesian Village, Beach Club, or Contemporary, you can still drop by and visit any of their deluxe, moderate, or value resorts. There are plenty of reasons to do so as well.
For instance, there are terrific restaurants like Chef Mickey’s character breakfast in The Contemporary, The Yachtsman steakhouse in Disney’s Yacht club, or O’hana at Disney’s Polynesian Village. Disney’s Boardwalk has a beautiful waterfront boardwalk complete with shopping, dining, and entertainment. “Yeha” Bob has been playing piano and livening up the party in the River Roost Lounge at Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside Resort. You can even take a trip over to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge Jambo House and watch zebras, giraffe, and more on the savanna. Additionally, during the Christmas season, Disney resorts transform into beautiful, festive resorts while keeping their own sense of theme and design.
3. Water Craft
Most people couldn’t imagine a trip to Florida without venturing either into or onto the water. At Walt Disney World you can do just that. You can rent a boat and venture out onto the Seven Seas Lagoon in front of Magic Kingdom or cruise the waterway behind Epcot that stretches all the way to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Another great waterway to cruise is the lake that Disney Springs sits on. You can rent a boat from Disney Springs and travel the waterway all the way down past the Tree House Villas to Disney’s Port Orleans resort. My wife and I did this one summer and we spotted an otter swimming in the water. Speaking of wildlife, if you’re looking for something a little more sportsmanlike to do, you can even go fishing on a catch and release fishing charter. Also, be sure to check out the brand new amphicar (part boat, part car) at Disney Springs.
Another thing that many people can’t see themselves coming to Florida and not doing is playing golf. Walt Disney World has some of the nicest golf courses in Florida. The Lake Buena Vista and Magnolia golf courses are beautiful, convenient, and close to the parks. It is a surreal experience being on a golf course surrounded by Florida wildlife and hearing the whistle of the train from the Main Street Railroad in Magic Kingdom. Also, the Mickey-shaped bunker helps take the edge of a little of having your ball land in the sand trap.
If you’re more of a golf amateur, Walt Disney World has 2 fabulous miniature golf courses. Winter Summerland, located right next to Disney’s Blizzard Beach water park, is themed around a tropical winter paradise complete with Santa Clause himself. Fantasia Gardens is across the street from Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and it actually has 2 levels of courses to play on. One is more for the entire family with Disney characters and props. The other is super challenging course that is more about course and hole layout than it is about theming with props.
Something I’ve enjoyed doing for quite a while at Walt Disney World is getting up early in the morning and going for a run around property. My 2 favorite resorts to go for a run on are Caribbean Beach and Coronado Springs. Both of these resorts have trails and walkways that you can run on that afford beautiful views of the landscape, the resort, and even Florida wildlife. The Boardwalk is also a nice area to run on. You can even go from the Boardwalk to Epcot’s International Gateway entrance, past Disney’s Beach Club and Yacht Club resorts, past the Swan and Dolphin resorts, and over to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. However, usually I enjoy getting off the resort and running to a destination on property and back. For instance, even though you have to run through some areas of street without walkways or sidewalks, I really enjoy running over to Disney Springs and then running through the area early in the morning while it’s still somewhat deserted. Although, if you’re going to run to Disney Springs, I highly recommend you use caution while on the streets or maybe think of staying at Saratoga Springs resort since it does have a walkway to Disney Springs.
6. Enjoy the Resort
All of the resort hotels in Walt Disney World have plenty of things to do and ways to enjoy the resort. In fact, most people are usually so busy going to the parks that they usually don’t get to enjoy even half of what they’re really paying for in their resort hotel. For instance, Animal Kingdom Lodge offers crafts like bead-work and resort tours. Disney’s Pop Century resort teaches people how to do The Hussle in the lobby at a certain time. Most all Disney resorts show movies by the pool every evening. Disney’s Boardwalk has surrey bikes that you can rent and go for a ride on with the entire family. You can even purchase a safari tour at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge where you can get up close to the animals on the savanna. The resort hotels on the monorail line in front of Magic Kingdom even have viewing areas where you can watch the night time fireworks coming from the park. The pools at Disney resorts are fabulous as well. Stormalong Bay, the pool that Disney Yacht Club and Beach Club share is practically a miniature water park with a sand bottom, enormous slide, a lazy river, and even a whirl pool.
7. Sporting Events
One of the most popular venues on Disney’s Boardwalk is the ESPN Club. On any given Sunday (or any other day of the week for that matter) you can find a line of people standing outside to get in for the food, drinks, and great atmosphere that is conducive to watching your favorite teams or sporting event in. Whether it’s college football Saturday, Super Bowl Sunday, or The Stanley Cup, you’re bound to see people trying to take a break away from their Disney vacation long enough to watch a bit of the game. If you don’t quite feel like braving the crowds and line at the ESPN club, the bars and lounges at the various resorts are also good places to go watch your favorite game. This includes the bar outside of O’hana in Disney’s Polynesian Village. They have a big screen TV that they show popular sporting events on. Another great spot to catch the game is the Victoria Falls Lounge inside Disney’s Animal Kingdom Jambo House.
8. Pin Trading
Disney Pin Trading has become a phenomenon that has captivated everyone from the avid Disney enthusiast to the person who swore they would never get into pin trading. One thing many people may not realize, though, is that pin trading doesn’t just occur in the parks. There are cast members with pins willing to trade all of Disney property. The resort hotels are great places to walk around and trade with cast members. In fact, many of the Walt Disney World resort hotels have designated times throughout the day and evening where they will bring out huge pin boards with dozens upon dozens of pins just waiting to be traded for. Disney Springs is another great area to roam around trading with cast members. There is even a pin station that sells pins and pin-related merchandise. Pin trading is a great way to pass the time whether you’re inside the parks or outside the parks. Most cast members are extremely friendly, and you never know what kind of conversation you might strike up with a complete stranger just by asking them if you can look at their pins.
The House of Blue Orlando in Disney Springs is an excellent venue to catch a concert at. I have seen one of my favorite bands, Better Than Ezra, there twice, and I really love this place as a concert venue. It’s a much more intimate venue than one where you might see a large act on an arena tour. The floor and balcony areas are general admission, so if you get there early enough, you could easily end up standing right next to the stage in reaching distance to the band. The balcony area is also nice and allows for more people to get a great view of the concert that otherwise might end up at the back of the venue on the floor level.
Also worth checking out at House of Blues is the Sunday Gospel Brunch. They do 2 seatings for the Gospel Brunch. The food is fantastic; southern brunch with a little Cajun additions to spice things up. Mimosas and Bloody Mary’s are also served. They band or group varies from week to week, but they are usually southern Gospel groups and singers. This is a great way to get a bang up all-you-can-eat brunch and hear some terrific southern Gospel music live in concert at the same time.
10. Take A Few Hours Away From The Kids
Many people might think it sounds odd to go to Walt Disney World, a place known for being family friendly and dare I say “for kids”, only to drop your kids off with a babysitter. I used to feel the same way. I would think, “What’s the point in going to Disney if we’re not going to be with the kids the entire time?” Then, on one trip, my wife and I decided to let our 3-year-old try Simba’s Clubhouse in Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge for a few hours while we went out for a nice upscale dinner at Yachtsman Steakhouse. We felt guilty and even rushed a little to get back to him. We were surprised to see that he actually had a nice time and even asked to go back. So a couple of nights later we took him back and went out for another nice dinner.
There are several of these child sitting clubs at Disney’s deluxe resort hotels like Simba’s Clubhouse at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, The Lilo’s Clubhouse at Disney’s Polynesian Village, Sandcastle Club at Disney’s Beach Club, and Camp Dolphin at the Walt Disney World Dolphin hotel. Kids ages 3-12 years old can visit these centers where they can play games, draw, watch movies, and play. Dinner is even included!
These are just a few of the reasons why my family and I continue to visit Walt Disney World even after we’ve ridden It’s A Small World and Space Mountain a thousand times. The entire property is a resort and a destination; not just the parks. I’m sure I’ve left out some amazing things to do out of the parks, so comment below and let our readers know the things that you like to do outside the parks in Walt Disney World.
Note: We are also looking for someone to write an article like this from the Disneyland perspective in Southern California. Send me an email at Bryan@aatmcentral.com if you’d like to contribute.