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Have you ever considered making a trip to Disney World and NOT visiting the theme parks?
I know this may seem almost sacrilegious to some, but I’ve considered skipping the parks for years. I enjoy Disney’s resort hotels so much and I never feel like I have enough time to take advantage of all they have to offer when we are rushing off to the parks.
Last spring I finally took a five day “resort only” trip to Disney World with my sister and our kiddos, then ages three and one. We had an incredible time at Disney’s Caribbean Beach resort (you can read my full resort review here) and saved over a thousand dollars by not buying park tickets for the trip!
In this post I’m sharing five reasons why you can have an incredible vacation at Walt Disney World without every setting foot in a theme park. While this approach certainly won’t appeal to everyone, you might be surprised at how much Disney magic can be found outside of the parks!
#1: There is SO MUCH to do at Walt Disney World resort hotels
On our recent park-free trip we decided to stay Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort. While all Disney resorts have incredible amenities, I picked this resort because of how much there is to do there with kids.
The main pool complex at Caribbean Beach is incredible – a large zero-entry, pirate-themed pool, two hot tubs, and a water playground for the kids. We spent several hours at the pool every day. Actually, my daughter would have been content to do nothing more than swim and play at the pool the entire trip!
The pools are a huge draw at all of the Disney resorts, so if your kids like to swim, they will beg to go to the pool every day. Even the pools at the value resorts are large and well-themed, and all offer a kiddie pool of some variety.
All of the resorts also offer pool-side recreation led by Disney “cast members”. The kids absolutely love the games and prizes, and the cast members who lead the activities are top notch. At some resorts, such as Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, you’ll find resort activities scheduled all day long that range from arts & crafts to cultural immersion programs.
We also spent some time at the playground at Caribbean Beach, hidden away on a island called “Caribbean Cay”. All Disney resorts have fantastic playgrounds, even the Value resorts. Giving the kids some time at the playground each day will make your vacation so much more enjoyable!
Playing on the beaches at the resort was another huge draw for our kiddos. They scooped sand, made sand castles, and carried wet sand around while the moms hung out and occasionally chilled out in the hammocks. Note that the beaches are protected by fences and swimming is strictly prohibited. We toasted (unlimited!) marshmallows on the beach one night, another activity found at many Disney resorts.
Lastly, at Caribbean Beach and many other resorts you can rent bicycles and watercraft. We planned on renting a fun surrey bike and cruising the kids around the resort, but we ended up running out of time to do this! You can visit any of the Disney resorts and check out the grounds and rent bikes there, etc., but the pools are only for guests staying at that resort.
#2: You don’t have to visit the parks to meet the characters
You can meet plenty of characters at Disney World without a park ticket. “Character Dining” can be found at many Disney resorts, and gives you the chance to meet Mickey, Minnie, and many more favorite characters.
On our recent trip we had dinner with Cinderella and company at 1900 Park Fare at the Grand Floridian resort. My daughter loved meeting Cindy again and really loved Prince Charming (hubba hubba).
We also took the kids to meet Minnie, Donald and Goofy for breakfast at Cape May Cafe at the Beach Club. We all had blast and we will treasure the pictures for a lifetime!
Keep in mind that you will pay a premium to eat with the characters. Dinner at 1900 Park Fare set us pack $85 ($42 per adult and $25 per child plus tax and tip). But it was way cheaper than visiting the Magic Kingdom for a day – which would have been $225 for us both – and the food was excellent!
Here is a summary of which characters you can meet at which locations outside of the parks:
- ‘Ohana (breakfast only) – Polynesian – Mickey, Pluto, Lilo, Stitch
- Chef Mickey’s (breakfast, brunch, dinner) – Contemporary – Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, Pluto
- Cape May Cafe (breakfast only) – Beach Club – Minnie, Donald, Goofy
- 1900 Park Fare (breakfast and dinner) – Grand Floridian – Mary Poppins, Alice, and the Mad Hatter at breakfast; Cinderella, Prince Charming, Lady Tremaine, Anastasia, Drizella at dinner
- Garden Grove Cafe (breakfast only) – Swan – characters vary (note that this location is not owned and operated by Disney)
- COMING SOON: Trattoria al Forno (breakfast only ) – Boardwalk – Ariel & Eric, Rapunzel & Flynn, and more
#3: Some of the best dining is found outside of the theme parks
For lots of folks, dining at Disney World is a huge part of their vacation experience (check out the Disney Food Blog if you need any convincing). While there are lots of dining options inside the theme parks, some of the best dining can actually be found at the Disney resort hotels.
Most Signature restaurants (high-end table-service spots with seasonal menus) are found at the resorts, which means you don’t need a park ticket to dine there. My family’s favorites are California Grill at the Contempory Resort, The Flying Fish at the Boardwalk Resort, and Jiko at Animal Kingdom Lodge.
Some excellent table service restaurants at resorts that aren’t Signature restaurants include Boma (Animal Kingdom Lodge), ‘Ohana (Polynesian), Whispering Canyon Cafe (Wilderness Lodge), and all of the restaurants at the Swan and Dolphin resorts.
You can also find excellent counter-service restaurants at the Disney resorts. On our recent trip we took a taxi over to the Art of Animation resort to have dinner at the Landscape of Flavors food court. Yes, this food court is worth going out of your way for! I’d also recommend Captain Cook’s at the Polynesian, The Mara at Animal Kingdom Lodge, and Contempo Cafe at the Contemporary.
Here’s one caveat: getting from resort-to-resort at Disney World can be a bit tricky if you don’t have your own car. We flew into Orlando and relied completely on Disney Transportation. Getting to dinner at the Polynesian required both a bus trip and a monorail ride. We thought is was fun, but if you are looking for speedy transportation you’ll have to cough up some extra money for a Uber or taxi ride. We took a taxi several times, with trips between resorts ranging from $6 – $13.
There are also many great new restaurants to check out at the reimagined Disney Springs. My personal favorite is Blaze Pizza, which serves up custom fast-fired pizzas for under $10.
#4: Monorails and boats are “rides” to little ones
I think visiting Disney without theme park tickets is a great option for certain visitors. I would make the strongest pitch for skipping the parks to families with kids under six. With little ones who need naps, can’t stay up late for nighttime entertainment, and don’t appreciate being dragged around all day, I think it makes a lot of sense to save your money until the kiddos are a but older.
Kids under three and under don’t require a park ticket, so if you want to visit the parks I suggest taking them before they turn three! I have taken our daughter to the parks when she was under three and still free, but looking back I really could have waited until she was older.
Actually, I’ve noticed that riding the monorail is as exhilarating to the littles as the theme parks rides are to adults! Plus, they usually have no idea what they are missing by not visiting the theme parks. I say let them enjoy the thrill of the monorail and boats, and wait until they are six or older to pay for park admission.
Tip: When you take the monorail from the Transportation and Ticket Center back to Epcot, the monorail swings through Epcot for a few minutes. You can actually be inside Epcot’s park gates without a ticket, though your feet will never touch the ground!
#5: Disney Springs and the Water Parks are attractions unto themselves
Lastly, there is more to do than hang out at your resort and visit other resorts at Disney World. You can also easily head over to Disney Springs on the bus and check out all of the new dining and shopping there. Here is an awesome resources for 10 Free Things to Do At Disney Springs from Sunshine and Hurricanes.
Or if your kids love the water and have tired of the resort pool, consider heading to one of Disney’s water parks. Tickets are around $60 each, so substantially less than the theme parks. The two water parks (Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach) are huge, well-themed, and offer something for every age group. If you are interested, check out these 10 Tips for Visiting Disney Water Parks from WDW For Grownups. And don’t forget that Disney has two mini-golf courses as well!
I’ve already mentioned that I think a trip without park tickets would make sense for families with small children. My sister and I had so much fun with our three- and one-year-olds on our trip. Every day was packed with fun stuff to do at our resort and we ate a bunch of fantastic food. I did long to set foot inside the Magic Kingdom when we passed by on our way to dinner, but that’s just because I usually go there on every trip.
I would also suggest skipping the parks to folks who have been to the parks a lot and find that they enjoy hanging out at their resort and dining more than anything else. My husband and I love Animal Kingdom Lodge so much (read my full resort review here to learn why) that we don’t want to leave it to visit the parks. We vowed that we wouldn’t get park tickets on our next visit there.
Would you ever consider staying at Walt Disney World without visiting the theme parks? Please leave a comment below!