“No, we stayed away from the madness of the parks,” is a common answer I find myself reciting to the obvious question many times when I return from a visit to Orlando. The reason we don’t feel the need to always go to the parks is there’s so much to do in this popular city in Florida. Many places on Walt Disney World property, especially, are incredibly entertaining and don’t require admission tickets to the parks.
We made a marked point not to go into the parks on a recent trip during a busy time of year. (It was during Christmas and New Year’s Eve when Mikkel was in town to photograph a wedding. But February break, Spring Break, July 4th and Thanksgiving are all very popular times of the year to go.) The parks would surely be too busy for our liking in that situation anyway.
Yet in a quest to get “our Disney fill” we successfully sought other ways to get a dose of Disney several times throughout our visit. While some of these activities cost money it’s not nearly the entrance fee or stress of visiting the parks during peak times. Some of these things are also great to do if you only have a half day, for instance when you arrive to Orlando or leave the area on your last day.
Ride the Skyliner
Disney’s new Skyliner is a blast. It gives you a bird’s eye view of areas of the park you’re normally only eye-level with. It has a few different stops, including limited resorts and some parks. It’s 100% free!
Here’s where it stops:
- Epcot (by the World Showcase entrance of the park near France) – the Boardwalk is within very easy walking distance
- Hollywood Studios
- Riviera Resort
- Caribbean Beach Resort
- Pop Century
- Art of Animation
Don’t forget you can dine near the Skyliner too whether you’re hotel-hopping for fun or want to diversify your cuisine options. It’s a great way to expand your travels through the Walt Disney World property, car-free. And worry free too!
Any restaurants at the following locations have sit-down restaurants off Disney’s Skyliner but also outside the theme parks:
- Riviera Resort (including Topolino’s Terrace and
- Caribbean Beach Resort (Sebastian’s Bistro)
- Beach Club (Cape May Cafe, Beaches and Cream Soda Shop)
- Yacht Club (Ale & Compass Restaurant, Yachtsman Steakhouse)
- Disney’s Boardwalk (Abracadabra bar, Ample Hills Creamery, Big River Grill & Brewing Works, Trattoria al Forno, and more)
- Swan & Dolphin Hotels (Il Mulino, Kimonos, Shula’s Steakhouse, Todd English’s bluezoo)
Visit Disney’s Boardwalk
Rent A Surrey Bike
We got such a kick out of seeing families cycle past us on these bicycles built for two, four, or six people in two rows.
Here’s a list of place you can rent them:
- Disney’s Boardwalk Inn
- Disney’s BoardWalk Villas
- Disney’s Old Key West Resort
- Disney’s Port Orleans Resort – French Quarter
- Disney’s Port Orleans Resort – Riverside
- Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort
Stop to Watch a Performer
There are various performers who walk the boardwalk and stop to perform if you’re there at the right time. The most popular time to catch this is at night or the late afternoon.
Play Boardwalk Games
A few Boardwalk games open in the evening. They are exactly what you imagine a state fair or Atlantic City Boardwalk having years ago, like basketball hoops and balloon popping for prizes. They’re only open and night.
Sing Along at Jellyrolls
We had a BLAST singing along to popular tunes as we sipped beer, ate popcorn and spent four hours at Jellyrolls one Saturday night. This dueling piano bar is 21 and over, and not to be missed if you’re of age. We even stepped outside to see the Epcot fireworks that night and went right on back in with our hand-stamp when they were over. Note there isn’t food here aside from popcorn so don’t go hungry. You can always grab a bite at a place like Big River Grill, just a few shops down from Jellyrolls, before the show.
Jellyrolls opens at 8:00pm and the show begins 15 minutes later. They charge a $15 admission fee and accept either credit or cash for that. And it’s worth EVERY PENNY! They don’t have a break or intermission because two sets of dueling piano performers simply rotate throughout the evening, until when they close around 2:00am most nights.
Note they don’t take reservations but seats fill up fast. That being said as people come and go as they please it’s entirely possible to get a table any time throughout the evening. Timing is everything!
Bust a Move at Atlantic Dance Hall
If you love to dance and go out at night after the sun has set on a gorgeous Orlando day, there’s a dance hall just next to Jellyrolls. It’s 21 and over and there is usually no cover charge to enjoy it. Most nights it’s open from 9:00pm to 2:00am but be sure to check their calendar for operating hours when you want to go.
Rent Swan Paddle Boats at the Swan and Dolphin
If motorized boats aren’t your thing try an eco-friendly swan paddle boat! Be sure to wear sunscreen as there’s no protection or breezy winds to relieve you from the Florida sun as you leisurely paddle on their little manmade lake.
Rent a Sea Racer “Mouse Boat”
There are several places on property you can rent motorized boats. It’s likely if there’s a marina at the resort they have boat rentals. Our favorite boat is the little two-seater Sea Racers. We lovingly call them “mouse boats”.
They rentals are under $35 per half hour. We saw kids zipping under the Boardwalk driving them, having a blast. (You have to be at least 12 years of age to drive one and have a parent or legal guardian sign for people under 18.)
Take a Specialty Cruise
If you want to spring for something truly extra special consider a specialty cruise. You can hire a yacht for private dining or sign up for a fireworks cruise. It’ll truly add extra pixy dust to your stay whether you’re a party of two springing for a big ticket item or a group of 18 people looking to share the experience and cost.
Play Miniature Golf
There are two locations to play mini golf at Walt Disney World, with adults around $15 each and kids around $12 each:
- Fantasia Gardens and Fairways, with two courses. 1) the more playful, whimsical one called Fantasia Gardens and 2) Fantasia Fairways, Par 3 and Par 5 course that’s a more difficult. (I know it sounds funny to say a mini golf course is difficult but the Fairways really is challenging and not especially for children.)
- Winter Summerland, which is themed to Florida, of course, with a holiday twist no matter the time of year. They have two courses: 1) sandy Florida and 2) snowy Florida (which almost never happens in Lake Buena Vista, where Disney World is, but imagination is a beautiful thing, especially when Imagineers use it!)
Play a Round of Traditional Golf
Walt Disney World is reknown for great golf courses. They have four courses you can choose from including:
- Lake Buena Vista Golf Course at Saratoga Springs Resort
- Magnolia Golf Course at the Polynesian Village Resort
- Disney’s Oak Trail Golf Course, also at the Polynesian
- Palm Golf Course, at the Polynesian as well
Play Foot Golf
There’s also foot golf at Walt Disney World. This requires using your own feet as “clubs”. Instead of tiny golf balls a soccer ball serves as the target to get in the holes. This course has nine holes total.
Indulge at a Hotel Restaurant
The restaurants at the Disney Hotels and Resorts are delicious and often themed (yet not over the top). Make a reservation and enjoy being on property at any number of hotel restaurants. Some of our favorites are:
- Boma or Jiko at the Animal Kingdom Lodge
- California Grill at the top of the Contemporary Hotel – if you make the reservation at the right time you can see the Magic Kingdom Firework from the hotel restaurant!
- Artist Point at The Wilderness Lodge
There are also specialty experiences involving culinary delights at Walt Disney World that don’t require theme park tickets. Here’s two of our favorites (we recommend making a reservation ahead of time for both):
- Dine with an Imagineer at Citrico’s at the Grand Floridian
- Highway in the Sky Dine Around at three resorts (approx. $170)
Understandably, you cannot use a Disney Dining plan for either of the above.
If you are curious about pricing for special experiences or how to book, or even staying at a resort, here’s our number one secret tool we use to plan a Disney vacation, stress free: our Disney travel agent, who can make even more magic happen for you. It’s 100% free for you to use her services. No gimmicks. 100% free: Becca, Pixie and Pirate Destinations, becca (at) pixieandpiratedestinations.com
Have a Cocktail at a Hotel Bar
I absolutely love some of the hotel bars at Walt Disney World, particularly the one at Animal Kingdom Lodge, called Sanaa Lounge, and The Wilderness Lodge, called Territory Lounge. Bonus that you may see animals outside Animal Kingdom Lodge if you’re lucky.
Take a Carriage Ride at Port Orleans or Fort Wilderness
There’s something extra special at Port Orleans Resort and Fort Wilderness. You can pay to have a 25-minute horse drawn carriage ride through a “Louisiana inspired” environment or wilderness camp ground. How romantic would that be?
Dip in the Hotel Pool
This is one you need to actually be staying on property for, but if you are don’t forget about the fabulous pool at your hotel! Every single hotel at Walt Disney World has a pool (or several) and a day or afternoon spent by it can be just the relaxing re-energizing activity you need to gear up for a full day of park hopping another time.
Disney’s Contemporary Resort and Grand Floridian even have cabanas to rent.
Treat Yourself at a Spa
One of the best things to do at Disney World besides the parks is to treat yourself to a spa day! Or morning. Or afternoon.
Try the spa at:
- Disney’s Grand Floridian near the Magic Kingdom
- The Dolphin Hotel next to the Boardwalk
- Saratoga Springs Resort by Disney Springs
Additional Assorted Activities
Hotels at Walt Disney World have scheduled activities throughout the day whether volleyball or story time time for kids. You have to be a guest of the hotel to partake but if you are be sure to ask the front desk or concierge about it.
Electrical Water Pageant at the Deluxe Magic Kingdom Hotels
Every evening between 9:00pm to 10:35pm, depending on where you view it, there’s a little “electrical parade” that floats by the docks of Magic Kingdom resorts.
While it’s not particularly impressive it’s really nostalgic and sweet! It feels a bit like homemade holiday lights passing by, choreographed to old time music but like I said: nostalgic and sweet. And if you’re craving a light show outside the parks this will at least give you a taste of it and make you smile.
Note the Electrical Water Pageant can be canceled on any given evening if the weather is unfavorable.
Hang Out at Disney Springs
Strike Out at Splitsville Bowling
We had a blast bowling at Splitsville. We ate and drank there too as Mikkel rolled gutter balls (she had some strikes and spares!) and Dan bowled exceptionally well. Either way the atmosphere is amazing on their two floors of bowling lanes, staff super friendly, and food delicious. (Yes, the food is really good!)
If you can’t get on a lane if it’s too busy when you arrive, consider eating there to watch people bowl until a lane becomes available. You can also go outside to listen to live music in the meantime…
Listen to Live Music
There’s live music outside at House of Blues (as well as paid concerts throughout the year) and Splitsville. Grab a drink and enjoy the talented performers at both locations at any given time, daily.
Bonus: House of Blues has Happy Hour from 11:30am-5:00pm
Fly High on a Balloon Ride
If the wind cooperates it’s likely you’ll see a tethered balloon floating in the sky when you’re walking around Disney Springs. This pay-per-person, per ride attraction takes you high above the treetops to see Disney Springs and the surrounding area (including Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa) from an aerial view.
Aerophile holds more cubic feet of helium than you want to think about and takes you 400 feet into the air. Tickets can be purchased at Disney Springs, right in front of the attraction. Adults cost $20 and children $15.
Take an Amphicar Boat Ride at the Boathouse
I couldn’t believe these things were actually vintage originals and not a Disney creation when I first saw them. They’re like Duck Boats that drive on land and disappear into the water but cooler. At about $125 it’s a larger expense than the balloons but also, arguably, a more unique experience as well.
These original American Brand Amphicars can take the captain (your tour guide) plus two adults and two children, or three adults for a 25 minute ride. There are only about 100 Amphicars left in working condition and The Boathouse has nine of them!
If you eat at The Boathouse you can get a discount on the experience so consider doing so for a little percentage off if you’re interested. Plus the food and drinks at The Boathouse are really good! They also give discounts for Disney Vacation Club Members and Annual Passholders.
Hours of operation: 10:00am to 10:30pm.
Shop ’Til You Drop
We are not “shoppers,” yet even we found stores we loved at Disney Springs. We bought Heat Tech wear at Uniqlo for a winter trip to Norway and Dan bought a shirt at Volcom (because he’s so California!). Mikkel even purchased a “classy” Mickey Mouse necklace at their Ever After Jewelry Co. store years ago that she loves. We promise even if you’re not shoppers like us there’s something for everyone here.
Here’s some stores that may be of interest to you:
- American Threads
- Alex and Ani – we were told it’s their only corporate store that sells Disney bracelets
- Art of Disney
And how freakin’ cool are these handpainted TOMS at Curl at Disney Springs? As far as we know, you won’t find those inside the theme parks!
While there are more activities to enjoy all around Walt Disney World property besides the theme parks these hit the high notes of our favorites!
For more theme park inspiration check out:
- Where to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth at Disney Springs
- Proof Disney Cruise Line is for Adults Too
- 5 Mistakes to Avoid at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
- The Ultimate First Time Guide to Tokyo DisneySea
What’s your favorite non-park part of Walt Disney World? Let us know in the comments!