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Park Wise

Disney Off the Beaten Path

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by , 05-23-2012 at 06:48 PM

You hear it all the time, that there's so much to do at Walt Disney World you can't possibly do it all. It really is true: I've lost count of how many times I've visited and there are still things I haven't done. I do promise that I'll try something I've missed each visit, but there's something to be said about chucking your to-do list and taking the road less traveled. Here are a few of my personal favorites that are just off the beaten path.

Tom Sawyer Island.

If you ask, chances are your friends will tell you they skipped Tom Sawyer Island on their last visit to Walt Disney World. While this is unfortunate for them, it’s what keeps Tom Sawyer Island special. When the Magic Kingdom is crowded, this tiny spot of shady land filled with trails, caves, bouncy bridges, and a fort where kids (and grown ups) can explore provides low-tech adventure.

While we tend to think of being in a Disney park as non-stop fun, the truth is there's a lot of rules and waiting that can be tough for kids to handle: How many times have you told your kids to stay off the ropes or stop touching something? Tom Sawyer Island invites you to get out and stretch your legs. Most everything is hands on, so kids (and you) can relax and enjoy without worrying about minding your best theme park manners.

Tom Sawyer Island is a good place to lose your schedule. In fact, it can be one of those places where it’s difficult to get the kids to leave, so it’s best to visit after you’ve done your must-do attractions. If you’ve got a picnic lunch, grab a seat at Aunt Polly's, a now-defunct counter service location that offers a pretty view of Liberty Square and the Haunted Mansion.

Get Park Wise: If you’re traveling with a kid with sensory issues, Tom Sawyer Island can be a welcome break from all the sights, sounds, and people that pack the Magic Kingdom. Keep in mind that the boat ride over to the island can be a little scary for some kids, so make sure your child is okay with it before you proceed. You can get a good view of the boats from the shore, so they’ll know what to expect.
Try a Date Night.

Yes, we’re those parents: My husband and I have gotten “the look” more than once from other parents because we’ve hired sitters while visiting Disney World, but hear me out. Parents who wouldn’t think twice about hiring a sitter on a Saturday night when they’re at home often balk at the thought having a parents' night out while on vacation. A family vacation, they reason, is about being together. Well, that’s all well and good, but the fact is you’re probably spending twice as much time together while you’re in Disney World than you normally do at home and, added to that, unless you’re staying in a large villa, you’re sharing much closer quarters at night. You may not just want a break after a few nights--you may actually need one!

A lot of first-time guests are shocked to learn that many experiences on Disney property are best left to adults or older children. While most signature restaurants are fine for young children, restaurants like Citricos or Bistro de Paris appeal mainly to adults, with more refined menus and quiet surroundings. Epcot's Food and Wine Festival is fun with kids, no question, but it’s a very different experience when you’re kid-free even for just a few hours. And while you don’t have to do a “monorail pub crawl,” a lot of adults enjoy trying out different resort bars; that bus back to your resort was never such a great idea.

If you have younger children, as we do, you may find yourself staring longingly at rides they’re either too small for or too afraid to go on. We spent a couple of trips doing just this before we figured out a solution. We pick one night when our favorite park, the Magic Kingdom, is open late, and we hire a sitter. We'll go out for a nice dinner and then head over to the park and visit attractions we would otherwise have to split up to enjoy. The best part is that when we come back, the kids are asleep and they haven’t missed out on anything.

Unless you’re traveling with family or friends who can babysit, you have two childcare options: Hire a sitter to come to your room or use one of the Kids Clubs. Disney recommends Kids Nite Out, which comes directly to your resort room and stays as long as you need. If you have children ages 3 – 12, they’re eligible to use Disney's Kids Clubs for a fee of $11.50 per child per hour with a two hour minimum. These clubs are located in Disney’s deluxe resorts but you do not need to be a guest of the resort, or even a guest staying on Disney property, to use them. The hourly fee includes dinner and all activities. In my experience, the cast members at the kids clubs are very good at keeping children entertained without resorting to television or movies.

Get Park Wise: Do the math before you hire a sitter. It can be cheaper to hire an in-room sitter if you have two or more children, but make sure you factor in the small transportation fee, feeding the sitter (always a smart thing to do), and the amount of hours you require.
Explore Fort Wilderness.

Fort Wilderness is about as "off the beaten path" as you can get in Walt Disney World, with over 700 acres of cabins, campsites, and lush vegetation. The good news is that you don't have to be a guest to take advantage of the wide variety of activities available. Rent a canoe, try horseback riding, play tennis, go kayaking--you can even visit a petting zoo. At night, all Disney resort guests can gather around the campfire at the Meadow Trading Post to roast marshmallows and attend a free campfire sing-along with Chip and Dale. Later, enjoy a movie under the stars.

Get Park Wise: Fort Wilderness is a popular destination for “snow birds” during the winter months, northerners who escape the cold for sunny Florida. Some of them visit for the entire holiday season and decorate their campsites to the nines! Make sure you check out these incredibly fun displays at night.
Go Resort Hopping.

I’ll admit to being extremely biased about this one: It’s one of my favorite activities. I’m often surprised to learn that many visitors don't know that you can explore Disney's resorts even if they're not staying on property. In fact, Disney makes it quite easy to do so, since you can use any form of transportation on property, even if you're not holding a park ticket. So don't be afraid to hop on the monorail and check out the Polynesian or take a Friendship boat from Epcot to the Boardwalk to see the sights.

In many ways, the resorts are attractions by themselves. It's easy to forget this with so much going on in the parks, but you miss a lot if you don't slow down and explore them. Each resort's theming tells a story with intricate details, period pieces, and artifacts. You'll even find hidden Mickeys throughout. Some resorts, such as Animal Kingdom Lodge, offer free guided tours that tell the story behind the resort. Others, like Wilderness Lodge, have self-guided tours where kids can try to find hidden Mickeys.

A deluxe resort may be out of your budget this trip, but you can still enjoy the public areas of any resort on property. If you're coming for dinner, consider staying for the fireworks; the Polynesian has some great spots on the beach that provide fantastic views of Wishes. Don't forget that lunch can often be slow time at Disney's resorts, with short lines and quiet spots to relax. It's just quick monorail ride from the Magic Kingdom to the cool of the Grand Floridian, where you can listen to a live band play in the lobby most nights. Or you can walk or take a boat from Hollywood Studios to the Boardwalk, check out the sights during the afternoon, and then head back to the park for an evening of fun.

Finally, the holidays are a great time to resort hop, so much so that some guests set aside one day of their trip to enjoy the unique decorations that each resort has on display. Don't miss the life-sized gingerbread house at the Grand Floridian or the soaring Christmas tree at the Wilderness Lodge. It's fun to see how Disney Imagineers have found smart ways to incorporate a resort's theme into its Christmas decorations.

Get Park Wise. Feel free to eat, shop or find a cozy spot to watch the fireworks while you visit, but you can't pool hop, that is, use another resort's pool if you're not a guest--no matter how tempting it is!
Stay in the Park After Closing.

No, I’m not suggesting a covert mission where you don night vision gear and sneak into the new Fantasyland expansion after closing, although that idea does have its merits. (Note to self: Purchase night vision gear.) This is perfectly legal. Many guests don’t know that the parks stay open an hour after closing. While you can’t get in line for any more attractions after closing time, you can shop or just wait for the crowds to die down at the end of the night. I like to find a bench in front of Cinderella Castle and watch the castle lights turn color. Crowds will gradually dwindle on Main Street in about a half hour, at which point I start walking towards the exit and maybe even shop a bit on the way.

There’s something really special about this time of night. Seeing an almost-empty Main Street, the cast members, tired but suddenly energized one last time to be closing up for the day, sleepy children being pushed in strollers down Main Street. If you stay long enough, you’ll even get a special treat, the Kiss Good-night. Running three times a night most nights starting 30 minutes after closing, the Kiss Good-night is a short light and sound show on the castle that sends guests and cast members home. After all that you get the best gift of all: Virtually empty buses.

Get Park Wise: The extra hour to shop doesn’t apply during special parties like Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party or Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. On these nights, shops close promptly at midnight. You may still take your time leaving the park, however.
What about you? What are your favorite "off the beaten path" tips at Walt Disney World?

Park Wise is written by Chris Wood.

You can find her at Everything Walt Disney World.

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If you have any specific questions you would like me to tackle, please leave me a comment!

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Updated 05-24-2012 at 04:21 AM by Park Wise



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  1. ImagiNERDing's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Park Wise
    Thank you, I'm going to check it out. I'll see if I can find it when I'm there next month.
    Sadly, we lost that area when they demolished the Skyway building and built the new Tomorrowland bathrooms. It was such a cool place to hang out and get some nice, quiet time!
  2. Dustysage's Avatar
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    I know next to nothing about Fort Wilderness except for the Hoop Dee Doo Musical Review and the Haunted Carriage Ride at Halloween. Thank you so much for these great tips. You've inspired me!
  3. marclichon's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ImagiNERDing
    It took me almost 20 years to make my way to Fort Wilderness and I wish I had visited it sooner! It was always one of the last bastions of 1970s Walt Disney World.

    I love the idea of slowing down and enjoying the different areas that might go unnoticed.
    I couldn't agree more; Ft. Wilderness is a sanctuary in WDW. We visited one time and that flipped-the-switch for us to finally buy a camper, then a year later we camped there and now it's the bar by which all other campgrounds are measured!
  4. Park Wise's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dustysage
    I know next to nothing about Fort Wilderness except for the Hoop Dee Doo Musical Review and the Haunted Carriage Ride at Halloween. Thank you so much for these great tips. You've inspired me!
    Thank you.
  5. originaljahwoo's Avatar
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    the resort hopping...has ALWAYS seemed like a given to me...I've never been to Disneyworld but I've never understood people who go to the disney property in Orlando and don't get the most out of it...Why would you go and only go to the parks when there is SO MUCH to do on the disney owned property? Often in the past I've talked to people about how long it would take to experience everything and they all seem to say you can do everything with a day per park....they all seem to think that the resort actives that are there for everyone aren't....for everyone.

    staying in the park after closing...the last time I went to Disneyland (well actually I had gone to go to California adventure...but ended in Disneyland since they were open for a couple hours more). I actually had taken the greyhound from Oceanside to Anaheim to spend the day at seeing as the bus back wasn't coming until 530 am or something like that...I milked every last minute I could out of disneyland...followed by wandering around downtown disney and the disneyland hotel....until finally having to find my way out ((which is hard to do when it's your first time to the newly enclosed disney properties))....long story short ((sorry))....I always close down a place...even if it's not because I have to kill as much time as i can.... It just feels right to get the most for my money...or to get the most for the day i have at wherever it is.

    anywho. Great tips for those who don't already think of those type of things

    Okay so I'll add after reading a few other comments...maybe it's not nearly as exciting to visit he resorts as I might think...but I think that remains one of those things that someone should learn for still a good tip
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