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.