One of my most memorable vacations was during Spring Break in 2012. I had just wrapped up a major volunteer job that consumed a great deal of my time and energy, and I was ready for some warm sunshine and time away with my kids. A Disney Parks vacation was not in the budget, but I was wanting to be around the magic and the fun that is found in Walt Disney World. So I booked a 4-day, 3-night trip after I found an awesome deal on Priceline for the Omni at ChampionsGate. We had access to beautiful amenities, a lazy river pool, and a fifteen minute drive to The World. With four kids, it was definitely budget friendly.
This might not be the ideal Disney trip for many people, but if you have to go years between theme park vacations, or you are looking for a quick getaway that includes some Disney magic, you might want to give it serious thought. This kind of vacation can work especially well for people who can get to Orlando in a day's drive. Because we weren't going to be in the theme parks, I planned out the days so that we could still experience some Disney magic while also having lots of time playing and relaxing by our resort pools. Thanks to my love of memory keeping and photo taking, I have some fun photos of our “Non-Park Disney Vacation.” Here are five ways we captured the magic without stepping foot in the parks.
1) eat ice cream for dinner at beaches and cream
On our first night of vacation, we went over to the Beach Club Resort to have dinner at Beaches and Cream. Ice cream for dinner was the plan. I went all out for a banana split, and asked one of my kids to take my picture before things got ugly. Take photos of your group eating special foods, any unique features of your dining location, or a snapshot of the menu. Dining outside of the parks is one of the easiest ways to experience notable Disney magic without having a park ticket. At WDW, you have tons of options. Check out the Disney Food Blog for great tips and reviews, and these blog posts that spotlight Disney food and how to preserve your dining experience through your photos and memories.
2) visit a resort for a quick service dinner and arcade fun
Disney resorts are known for their theming, attention to detail, and amenities. While some activties are reserved for resort guests only, there are some things you can do as a visitor. We went over to All Star Sports because I had experience with that resort and knew my sporty kids would love it. We had dinner in the food court, walked around to see the faux football field and gigantic cup of Coca-Cola, then went over to the arcade where each of my kids had an arcade card to use as they wanted. They were thrilled, and I loved that there was an end to the gaming – when the cards ran out of credits! Check out this link to see how many arcades are found at WDW – it's an impressive list. Take advantage of the resort surroundings and the little details that your more leisurely pace might allow you to observe. It's okay to capture your family and friends enjoying a Disney resort even if you aren't staying there – it's still part of your vacation experience.
3) meet and greet with the characters at downtown disney
Okay, so maybe the characters in Downtown Disney don't hug or interact with the guests, but they are still cute and make perfect photo ops. I see many people taking pictures standing next to the large characters found along the store fronts and within the shops. My favorites are the Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and Piglet spot, and the Mickey and Minnie duo at the pin traders store. There is also a Buzz Lightyear, a Cinderella, a skeletal pirate, and assorted Lego characters. Another plus – no lines! (One of my photos was taken in 2007, when we were in Orlando for four days and had only one park day – so a similar vacation of lots of pool time and non-park magic.)
4) play mini golf at two colorful, themed courses
Because we weren't consumed with being in the parks, we had time to enjoy both of the miniature golf courses located in WDW. Winter Summerland is located by Disney's Blizzard Beach water park and is themed with wintry white and holiday decor, but with a beachy summer twist. Olaf would LOVE this place! Fantasia Gardens is the other course themed after the classic animated film of the same name. (Check out this photo tour of this location to see the whimsical course design.) My kids enjoyed both. We did Fantasia Gardens at night and I found that the lighting is kind of wonky for an amateur photographer, so my photos did not turn out so great. But it was bright, warm, and not crowded at all during the day at Winter Summerland. There are plenty of props and signage for some fun pictures of your golf outing.
5) schedule a character dining experience
As I already mentioned, the resorts offer an array of possibilities for guests when they are not in the parks. This includes character dining experiences. There are a number of resort restaurants that feature characters during the meals – Chef Mickey's, ‘Ohana, 1900 Park Fare, and Cape May Cafe are all places where you can make a dining reservation and not have to use a park ticket. For more about these options, look at the Disney Food Blog's section on character dining. But did you know that there are a few other options for dining with characters outside of the WDW Resorts? The Hilton in Downtown Disney has a Sunday breakfast at their Covington Mill restaurant, and the characters typically include Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Brer Fox and Brer Bear (note that these could change). We met all four of them when we ate there before driving home back in 2007. My daughter even got her Minnie Mouse plush signed by Minnie herself. We did stay at the Hilton for that trip, but you can always call to get more info if this an experience that appeals to you. (This article from 2009 may be a bit dated but the list of character dining options outside of the parks might be worth a little bit of research, especially of you are staying at any of the mentioned resort locations.) For tips on maximizing your character dining experience, listen to this Capturing Magic podcast – Episode 38: Character Dining Tips.
My guess is that most guests experience some or all of these things at some point during their Walt Disney World vacations, but it might be as an activity tucked in and around the exciting parks' schedules and touring plans. Whether you are enjoying mini golf on a non-park day, or you are exploring the outdoor activities at Fort Wilderness during your non-park vacation, don't forget to take photos of your surroundings, the unique Disney features, and the people and relationships that are important to you. There is so much to take advantage of outside of the theme parks in Disney World. In addition to Downtown Disney, Disney's Boardwalk and the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex are great non-ticket destinations. For more ideas on enjoying the Disney magic without having park tickets, check out these articles. You may find you will be planning a Disney trip sooner rather than later.
- 101 Things to Do Near Disney World Without Going into a Theme Park by Erin Foster, TouringPlans.com Blog
- Top 10 Things to Do in Disney World Outside the Theme Parks by Sharlene Earnshaw, Trekaroo Blog
- Disney World Without the Theme Parks by Dawn Henthorn, About.com Florida Travel
A scrapbooker and collector since childhood and long time fan of Disney parks and media, Beth ventures into the blogging world at Any Happy Little Thoughts where she shares her approach for preserving personal Disney memories, one story at a time.