Theme parks will always be the big draw in the Orlando area, but what do you do when you’re ready for a break from the hustle and bustle but don’t want to sacrifice a day’s fun? Plenty, if you know where to look.
Many visitors never set foot outside the four main theme parks and two water parks, but there is a World of entertainment to be had without leaving Disney property. When you consider Walt Disney World covers a massive 30,000 acres (47 square miles) you just know there has to be more. And we’ll tell you where to find it.
Whether you are looking for something to do on your arrival or departure day but don’t want to use a day on your park pass, or you just want a change of pace after all the hectic touring in the parks, here are our Top Ten Disney Secrets that will ‘keep you in the magic’ and give you a whole new view of the World.
1. Resort Hopping
RESORT HOPPING is a tradition for some families (ours included), providing a taste of Disney’s incredible diversity in accommodation, from the luxurious Grand Floridian Resort and Spa to the whimsical, larger-than-life All Star Resorts and Pop Century. Want to take a mini-trip to the South Seas? Visit Disney’s Polynesian Resort. Hankering for a taste of America’s picturesque East Coast? You’ll find it at Disney’s Boardwalk Resort. Two of our favourites for a meal and a leisurely wander are the spectacular African flavour of Animal Kingdom Lodge and Wilderness Lodge, where the grandeur of America’s National Parks is recreated with a rustic luxury we find thoroughly convincing.
2. Resort Tours and Visits for Guests and Non-guests
Many guests do not realise they can visit the Disney resorts even if they are not staying at one. Intrigued by the spectacular themed element at the various resorts? Why not try a free RESORT TOUR? Wilderness Lodge hosts a 1-hour ‘Wonders of the Lodge’ tour focused on the lodge’s architecture, history and artifacts each Wednesday-Saturday at 9am. Native Arts buffs won’t want to miss Animal Kingdom Lodge’s African Art Tour. Stay on for the evening (reserve a meal at Boma or Jiko for a real taste of Africa), then head out to the courtyard in front of the Savannah for evening storytelling around the campfire. Wilderness Lodge, Grand Floridian and the Yacht Club also offer free tours. Some tours are occasionally only open to onsite guests, so you should check in advance if you’re not staying there on 407 939 1936.
3. Water Sports
Do you have an adventurous streak? If so, strap into your PARASAILING safety harness and head straight up (450-600 feet above Seven Seas Lagoon, to be exact) for a heart-pounding view of the Magic Kingdom and surrounding area. Sammy Duvall’s Water Sports Centre offers single and tandem rides and you don’t even have to get your feet wet. Launch from the boat deck for an exhilarating flight and a birds-eye view second to none. Reservations can be made at the Contemporary Resort marina dock. Water-skiing, jet-skiing, wakeboarding, fishing and tubing excursions are also available.
4. High Tea at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa
Luxurious decadence in relaxed, intimate surroundings is on the menu when you book up for HIGH TEA at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. Timeless and elegant, it is certainly not ‘for women only’. While the ladies will appreciate light, lovely fare appropriate to a traditional tea (with all the silver service trimmings), gentlemen are equally well catered for, with slightly heartier fare such as duck and cherry terrine, chicken and pork roulade and country pate en croute. Children are not forgotten; Mrs. Potts Tea is a sure hit with the younger set. The Garden View Lounge provides the proper atmosphere for a leisurely break that feels a million miles away from the hurry and hustle of the parks, but just that little bit closer to home.
5. Fort Wilderness
FORT WILDERNESS rustles up a Wild West experience that can easily fill a full afternoon. Youngsters delight in the petting zoo and pony rides while older children (10 and up) and adults can sign up for archery classes or a full guided horse trail ride, departing out of the Trail Blaze Corral (reservations necessary; call 407 939 8687). For a more high-tech option, try the Segway Tour. Tri-Circle-D Ranch is also the home to the draft horses that pull the Main Street Trolleys in Magic Kingdom, and guests can meet these magnificent animals while asking questions of the resident blacksmiths and care-takers. Then, everyone can enjoy a hearty lunch or dinner buffet with all the fixin’s at the western-themed (and reasonably priced) Trail’s End Restaurant.
6. Fort Wilderness – Campfire Programme
Hankering to remain in Fort Wilderness for the evening? Guests staying at any Walt Disney World resort are welcome to enjoy one of the most charming and decidedly American summer-evening pastimes at Fort Wilderness with CHIP AND DALE’S CAMPFIRE SING-ALONG. Those rascally chipmunks Chip and Dale host the nightly festivities (weather permitting) with rousing sing-alongs, marshmallow and hot dog roasts over the campfire (food available for a fee, or bring your own), and the chance to build your own S’mores*, the delightfully sticky-sweet childhood treat consisting of a section of chocolate bar, all melty-warm when pressed together with a roasted marshmallow, sandwiched between two graham crackers (similar to thin digestive biscuits). Cartoons and Disney movies round out the evening and, if you time it right, you can stroll down to the beach and watch the twinkling Electrical Water Pageant, showing (usually at 9.45pm) on Bay Lake. (*Why do they call ‘em S’mores? Because once you try the first one, you’ll be asking, ‘Can I have s’more?’)
7. Boardwalk Resort
A more ‘civilised’ experience can be found at Disney’s BOARDWALK RESORT. Themed after a turn-of-the-century American boardwalk (similar to a British pier, with games, food and fun), the Boardwalk resort is quiet during the day but becomes a vibrant entertainment venue each night. Carnival games, Surrey Bikes for hire (big enough to seat 4, plus two small children!), live music, outdoor movies on weekends, jugglers, comedians and more make for a lively atmosphere, active enough for families but also perfect for a late-night romantic stroll around Crescent Lake. Arrive shortly before 9pm and you might see some of Epcot’s nightly IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth laser and fireworks show from the bridge between Epcot and the Yacht and Beach Club.
8. Fireworks Cruises
Guests wanting an exclusive, up-close view of IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth can book one of the popular ILLUMINATIONS CRUISES, with 10-passenger pontoon boats departing from Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club Marina, for a ‘private’ viewing of the nightly spectacular at Epcot. Magic Kingdom’s night time fireworks can be viewed from Bay Lake on board a 10-passenger pontoon boat for the WISHES CRUISE. Or, reserve the luxury experience by booking The Breathless, a reproduction 1930s ChrisCraft Runabout, accommodating up to 7 guests. Call 90 days in advance on 407 939 5529. Reservations are necessary.
9. Hotel Spas
While visiting the incredible Disney theme parks is great fun, it can also be tiring. There’s no better way to end a long day exploring the parks, than with a relaxing retreat to the spa. You’ll be pleased to hear that the Disney Resort Hotels have a whole host of high-class spas and fitness centres for you to choose from. The lavish Victorian-style SENSES spa at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort is one of our favourites. It offers several relaxing therapies, including facials, massages, body wraps and aromatherapy. Don’t worry if you’re not staying on-site you can still visit the spa and book in for a rejuvenating treatment.
10. Fantasia Gardens and Fantasia Fairways
Tucked quietly into the scenery near the entrance road to Disney’s Swan and Dolphin Resorts are Disney’s best mini-golf courses, FANTASIA GARDENS and FANTASIA FAIRWAYS. Most people know about the Gardens course, but many are not aware there is a larger, more difficult putting course, Fantasia Fairways, which wraps around Fantasia Gardens. The Fairways are a more a traditional 18-hole course, but on a ‘mini’ scale. Its various water hazards, sand traps and challenging fairways make this a far more complicated course than your average mini-golf offering, which also means it’s more fun for families who spend a lot of time on the greens and are looking for a trickier (and longer lasting) adventure. Naturally, the landscaping is superb, but it does lack the theming from the movie, Fantasia, which we think is a welcome relief from singing chipmunks, pixie dust and fantasy overdose when you’re ready for a ‘day away from it all’.
Whether you start your holiday with one of our Top Ten, take a ‘break day’ mid-stream, or want to spend your last morning doing something new and exciting, adding a special event or two from our list might create a new family tradition, is sure to generate some wonderful memories, and could just lead to a little extra magic in the most unexpected ways.