10 Great Things to do at Disney World (Outside the Parks)

Most visitors to Walt Disney World feel that they must take in the four theme parks when vacationing in Central Florida’s wonderland. And for those visiting for the first time, a Park Hopper to the parks is a must. However, for those that visit Walt Disney World on an annual basis, and are looking for a change of pace on things to do, WDW is packed with sights and sounds located outside the four theme parks. To help you make your next visit a little more organized, here are ten things that you must do when visiting the Walt Disney World resort area, without ever stepping a foot inside any of the parks.

1- Dining at Downtown Disney. Divided into three sections, this area of Disney World has fun for every member of the family. The Marketplace, Pleasure Island, and West End are packed with dining, entertainment, and shopping galore. Start your day with lunch at the Earl of Sandwich. This gourmet sandwich and salad shop has perhaps the best meal you can get for the money. At around $6.00 lunch at Disney doesn’t get much better.  From the Earl Club to the Hawaiian BBQ, their sandwiches are made to order on fantastic artisan breads. Eat in or enjoy the Florida warmth outside, the Earl of Sandwich will turn out to be a place that you’ll come back to again and again. There’s also the Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop. Offering up tasty chocolate samples, gift bags of their confections, and out-of-this-world ice cream sundaes, the Ghirardelli shop has something special about it (without the ears). C’mon, live a little! Let yourself splurge on a Ghirardelli hot fudge sundae that will make all other sundaes seem like just another bowl of ice cream. Perhaps my favorite place at Downtown Disney is Paradiso 37. This trendy restaurant/bar serves up some fantastic North and South American fare in a very relaxed atmosphere. Whether you decide to dine in or along DD’s waterfront, you will undoubtedly experience Paradiso 37′s cool vibe. One of the favorite beverages of many patrons (including me) is something the bartenders like to call a “Mangled Margarita”. Now I don’t know exactly what is contained in this magical drink, but after a couple you will be ready to take on Peter Pan, Captain Hook, and Tinkerbell all in one swoop. From its 24-theater AMC movieplex and Gloria Estefan’s Cuban-flare restaurant, Bongo’s, to Planet Hollywood and The World of Disney megastore, Downtown Disney could easily be a daily stop during your Disney World vacation.

2- The Boardwalk. Located in Disney’s EPCOT resort area, the Boardwalk Resort and Spa is not only a wonderful resort, but is also home to an authentic Atlantic Ocean seaside boardwalk. Complete with games of chance, sidewalk entertainers, and the sweet smell of cotton candy and roasted peanuts, Disney’s Boardwalk is a step back in time to the early 1900s. Nightlife at the Boardwalk is plentiful with a video dance club at the Atlantic Dancehall, dueling pianos at Jellyroll’s, and non-stop sports action at the ESPN Club. Dining options at the Boardwalk include Cat Cora’s Kouzzina, The Big River Grille, and The Flying Fish seafood restaurant. Located between the EPCOT and Hollywood Studios theme parks, Disney’s Boardwalk is full of fun and food.

3- Golfing at Disney. There are four 18-hole championship caliber golf courses woven throughout the Walt Disney World grounds. The Magnolia course is located near the Polynesian Resort and is appropriately named for the fragrant magnolia trees that are found throughout the 7,000 yard course. The Osprey Ridge track is located near the Fort Wilderness Resort and is designed by the famous architect Tom Fazio, and measures about 6,600 yards long. Disney’s Palm Golf Course has just under one-hundred bunkers on its 6,500 yard lay out located near the Polynesian Resort. The fourth championship course is the Lake Buena Vista Golf Course. Located near the Downtown Disney area, this course measures about 6,700 yards. All four of these championship courses include a GPS enabled golf cart in the green fee. A fifth course, Oak Trail Golf Course, can be found at WDW near the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. This is a 9-hole walking course is just under 3,000 yards and a par 36. Golf club rental is available at all five courses. If playing isn’t what you’re looking for, guests of the Disney World resorts can take a lesson or two from award-winning PGA instructors.

4- LaNouba by Cirque de Soleil. This acrobatic, theatrical experience has been wowing crowds for over a decade at Downtown Disney’s West End. A mixture of strength and grace, LaNouba has performers from all over the world creating mesmerizing stunts and dance from hanging wires and trampolines. Nearly sold to capacity every night of the year, reservations are advised before you make your trip to Walt Disney World.

5- Characters in Flight. This giant tethered balloon rises nearly 400-feet above the Downtown Disney area, giving visitors a panoramic view of the surroundings. Priced at around $20 for adults and $12 for kids, this 10-minute balloon ride is sure to create Disney memories.

6- Miniature Golf. There are four unique and fun miniature golf courses at the Walt Disney Resort. Two are found by the Swan and Dolphin resorts. Fantasia Gardens has one course that takes players through the Disney classic “Fantasia” as they play, while the second is a fairway style course, resembling a traditional golf course. Two other courses are found just outside the Blizzard Beach water park area. Known as Summerland, these two courses celebrate two favorite times of year. The Winter course takes players through a winter wonderland with Santa and his elves, while the Summer course winds players through the sand and surf of summer fun.

7- Splitsville. Brand new to the Downtown Disney area, this rock n’ roll style bowling facility isn’t your grandad’s bowling alley. Located in the former Virgin Megastore, Splitsville is scheduled to open in September of 2012. It will feature 30 bowling alleys, a dozen billiard tables, a restaurant, and sports screens throughout. During late-night hours, Splitsville will have a minimum age of 21, so couples and friends can socialize in a kid-free environment.

8- Dining at WDW resorts. When it comes to world-class dining and menu variety, the restaurants found throughout the Walt Disney resorts are second to none. Some of my favorite places are The Turf Club found at the Saratoga Resort and Spa, The California Grill at the top of the Contemporary Resort, and Olivia’s at the Old Key West resort. The Turf Club serves lunches and dinners in relaxed atmosphere reminiscent of sitting on the veranda of the Saratoga horse track in Upstate NY. The California Grill offers guests spectacular views from its location atop the Contemporary Resort, and a menu ranging from yellowfin tuna to bison to organic chicken. Olivia’s is one of my favorite WDW restaurants because of its menu and laid back atmosphere. Throughout the restaurant are pictures and artifacts of Key West, Florida. With regards to the menu, be sure to try their Chicken Caesar Salad. Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner will likely be a pleasant surprise. Of course every resort at WDW has at least one full-service restaurant, and all meet, or surpass the quality that you would expect from Disney.

9- DisneyQuest. Located at Downtown Disney’s West End, DisneyQuest is five floors of futuristic, interactive games. Whether you want to design, then ride, your own roller coaster with Cyber Space Mountain or drive your own out-of-this-world car with Buzz Lightyear’s Astroblasters, these and other fun interactive experiences can be found at DisneyQuest. Virtual Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Carribean  -Battle for Gold, and Mighty Ducks Pinball Slam are just a few other attractions that can be played at DQ.

10- Relax at the Disney World Resorts. Whenever I visit Disney I try to remind myself that I am ‘on vacation’. With so much to do at WDW, it’s easy to forget that Disney World is packed with some of the finest resorts and spas to be found anywhere. All resorts at Disney have multiple pools, each with one large trademark swimming area, and usually several smaller pools, for a quieter, more relaxed, day of sun and fun. Each resort wraps itself around a theme, and true to Disney style, it is always done to near-exact detail. The Saratoga Resort and Spa celebrates the historic charm of Saratoga, NY, The Wilderness Lodge places its guests inside an upscale log cabin, complete with a working geyser, and The Grand Floridian is simply elegance personified. Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge offers guests a unique experience by having animals found on the savannah of Africa grazing and wandering outside their balconies, while The Polynesian Resort and Spa transports its guests to the feeling of the far east islands.

So next time you’re planning a trip to Central Florida’s most famous tenant, don’t feel you have to get wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of the theme parks of Walt Disney World. True, the theme parks of WDW are like no other, and are world-famous, but the land of Mickey contains so much more. Besides the ten ideas mentioned, there are so many more things to do, like behind-the-scenes tours, parasailing, boat rentals, and bike riding. Walt Disney World is truly “The Happiest Place on Earth”, and has so many things to do that every time you visit you’ll find a surprise waiting for you everyday.

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5 things to do at Downtown Disney, Florida

Most visitors to Walt Disney World feel that they must take in the four theme parks when vacationing in Central Florida’s wonderland. However, for a change of pace and a wide variety of food and fun, Downtown Disney is a place that must be visited. Divided into three sections, DD has fun for every member of the family. The Marketplace, Pleasure Island, and West End are packed with dining, entertainment, and shopping galore.

To make your visit a little more organized, here are five things that you must do when visiting Downtown Disney.

1- Earl of Sandwich. Start your day with lunch at this gourmet sandwich and salad shop. From the Earl Club to the Hawaiian BBQ, their sandwiches are made to order on fantastic artisan breads. Eat in or enjoy the Florida warmth outside, Earl of Sandwich is perhaps the best meal you can get for the money. At $5.99 for a good-sized sandwich, lunch at Disney doesn’t get much better.

2- Characters in Flight. New to Downtown Disney in 2009-’10, this giant tethered balloon rises nearly 400-feet above  the DD area, giving visitors a panoramic view of the surroundings. Priced at $18 for adults and $12 for kids, this 10-minute balloon ride is sure to create Disney memories.

3- Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop. Located in Downtown Disney’s Marketplace, Ghirardelli offers up tasty chocolate samples, gift bags of their confections, and out-of-this-world ice cream sundaes. C’mon, live a little! Let yourself splurge on a Ghirardelli hot fudge sundae that will make all other sundaes seem like just another bowl of ice cream.

4- LaNouba by Cirque de Soleil. This acrobatic, theatrical experience has been wowing crowds for over a decade at Downtown Disney’s West End. A mixture of strength and grace, LaNouba has performers from all over the world creating mesmerizing stunts and dance from hanging wires and trampolines. Nearly sold to capacity every night of the year, reservations are advised before you make your trip to Walt Disney World.

5- Paradiso 37. Having just opened in 2010 in the newly renovated Pleasure Island area of Downtown Disney, Paradiso 37 is a trendy restaurant/bar serving up some fantastic North and South American fare. Whether you decide to dine in or along DD’s waterfront, you will undoubtedly experience Paradiso 37’s cool vibe. A favorite beverage of many patrons (and me) to P37 is something the bartenders like to call a “Mangled Margarita”. Now I don’t know exactly what is contained in this magical drink, but after a couple you will be ready to take on Peter Pan, Captain Hook, and Tinkerbell all in one swoop.

Don’t think that the previously mentioned are the only places worth visiting at Downtown Disney. From its 24-theater AMC movieplex and Gloria Estefan’s Cuban-flare restaurant, Bongo’s, to Planet Hollywood and The World of Disney megastore, DD could easily be a daily stop during your Disney World vacation.

Saratoga of the South

Have you ever been to Saratoga in the winter? And while there, have you enjoyed 80 degree temperatures while swimming or walking around in shorts and sandals? Well no, not if you’re talking about Saratoga, NY. However, if you’ve been to the Disney Vacation Club’s Saratoga Resort & Spa at Walt Disney World, Florida you know what I’m talking about.

I love being a member of the Disney Vacation Club (http://dvc.disney.go.com/), with the Saratoga Resort & Spa as my home resort. Situated within a five-minute walk of Downtown Disney, this Victorian-style resort sprawls out over what used to be the Disney Institute, and meanders through the championship 18-hole Lake Buena Vista Golf Club. Complete with a 5-star spa and fitness center, four pools, two restaurants, and a general store, the Saratoga Resort & Spa takes visitors back to the bygone days of old Saratoga.

With its studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom villas, the Saratoga Resort & Spa engulfs its guests in old-world elegance and charm, while pampering them all the modern amenities one expects when on vacation. Two years ago my family and I stayed in a two-bedroom villa for a week. During our stay we started each day with breakfast in our full-sized kitchen, complete with stainless steel appliances, cooking utensils, plates, silverware, and granite slab countertops. We cooked our breakfast with the food we pre-ordered prior to arriving at the Saratoga Resort & Spa. The eggs, muffins, orange juice, etc. were fairly priced and brand-name quality. The beauty was that our refrigerator and cupboards were stocked with what we had ordered when we arrived. This meant one less hassle to worry about, and more time to enjoy at the parks. The bedrooms came with a king-size bed in the master and two queen-size beds in the other, along with two full-size bathrooms. The master bath also had a Jacuzzi tub. Our greatroom area was spacious enough to comfortably have dining room table in one section, as well as a sofa and a couple of chairs in the remaining space. Off the greatroom was a large balcony with a couple chairs and a table that overlooked the well-manicured grounds of the Saratoga Resort & Spa.

And just recently my wife and I enjoyed five days at The Saratoga in a deluxe studio villa. Though it didn’t have a complete kitchen, it did have a microwave and refrigerator in the small kitchenette area. But for just the two of us, that worked out just fine.

Getting around the Disney World resort is always easy. From the time you land at the Orlando International airport until the day you depart to head home, Disney transportation is seemingly at your disposal. From the airport (MCO) we boarded the Disney Express that took us directly to the Saratoga Resort & Spa. Now check this out, by signing up for the Disney Express (free to all Disney resort guests), not only did I get free transportation to and from the airport, but they also got my bags from the airline and delivered them to my room! Let’s see, I don’t have to rent a car, I don’t have to wait for my bags, and I don’t have to shop for groceries… Yep, I’m on vacation!

Once settled in, the Disney transportation system would basically take me to wherever I wanted to go. My family and I simply walked our of our room to one of the many bus stops, and waited no more than 5-10 minutes for the bus we needed. The air conditioned buses are always clean and comfortable. Only at night are they crowded, as park-goers scramble back to their rooms after a long day at the various Disney parks.

The Saratoga Resort & Spa has one large pool in the common area, complete with water slide and pool-side bar. There are several other pools situated throughout the resort that may be closer to your actual room. Many also come with full-size outdoor hottubs too. The larger pool area is also home to the On The Rocks pool bar, to help quench any thirst you may have. Dining at the Saratoga Resort & Spa is fantastic. The Artist’s Palette and Turf Club Bar & Grill offer guests a wide variety of lunch and dinner options. The Turf Club has one of the most unique presentations of Chicken Caesar salad that you’ll ever see. Of course, only being minutes from the Downtown Disney area, offers up even more dining options. I highly recommend the newly opened Paradiso 37, and their mangled margaritas, while The Earl of Sandwich is always good and perhaps the best value found anywhere at Disney.

Guests to the Saratoga Resort & Spa, as well as all other Disney resorts, are always able to enjoy Extra Magic Hours at the four Disney World parks. Extra Magic Hours are times at selected parks that resort guests can ride the rides and visit the attractions between one and three hours before or after the parks are available to the general public. And it is worth it? Imagine no lines for the newly refurbished Space Mountain, and you can ride it three times in a row at 7AM! Or how about no lines for Expedition Everest at the Animal Kingdom, and ride the spectacular roller coaster to your heart’s content at midnight! It’s all possible with Disney’s Extra Magic Hours.

Guests to the Saratoga Resort & Spa will experience the luxuries of a world-class spa, arcade, fitness room, championship golf course, and general store. Add these bonuses to its serene setting, convenient location to Downtown Disney, and the A+ service to be expected from Disney, and you truly do have the ingredients for a magical vacation.

For more information on the Saratoga Resort & Spa or the Disney Vacation Club, contact Maribella Quinones at 866-240-3817.