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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.


Like Everything Walt Disney world on Facebook.


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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. mratigan's Avatar
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    Thanks
  2. jcruise86's Avatar
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    Chris, I thought I knew all the insider tips, but you gave me several ideas that will improve our next WDW vacation. THANK YOU, thank you very much!

    Specifically, I love Disneyland after it closes though they sometimes clear it out pretty quickly, besides Main Street, so I'll try to hang out at the Magic Kingdom after it closes while the stores are still open. It sounds worth it for the empty busses & to remember Disneyland before and after the guest hours when I worked there.

    And the free campfire at Fort Wilderness sounds fun.

    And (unlike StevenW below) I too love visiting the impressively themed resorts, especially walking from the Grand Floridian to the Polynesian, the boardwalk area next to EPCOT, and the Wilderness and Animal Kingdom Lodges.
    Updated 05-24-2012 at 07:45 AM by jcruise86 (Replaced the nicer-sounding British use of "holiday" with the more American "vacation," which sounds awful, btw.)
  3. DisneySam's Avatar
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    Oh how I wish that more people were like you and hired a sitter for their children before going to one of the nicer restaurants on property. My wife and I enjoy Citricos very much (it was where I proposed to her) and we go back quite often on our anniversary. Nothing can ruin an evening at this wonderful restaurant like some very tired and cranky kids and parents who just don't care whose dining experience they are disrupting. I know it would never happen but I wish that Disney would have an age limit at some of their finer dining spots.
  4. ImagiNERDing's Avatar
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    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.
  5. jcruise86's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DisneySam
    Oh how I wish that more people were like you and hired a sitter for their children before going to one of the nicer restaurants on property. My wife and I enjoy Citricos very much (it was where I proposed to her) and we go back quite often on our anniversary. Nothing can ruin an evening at this wonderful restaurant like some very tired and cranky kids and parents who just don't care whose dining experience they are disrupting. I know it would never happen but I wish that Disney would have an age limit at some of their finer dining spots.
    DisneySam, good post, and it's great when guests can afford a private sitter (perhaps for far less than the cost of a kid's meal at Citricos) AND find one they TOTALLY trust while they are away on vacation; or--better yet--drop them off at a Disney kids club. But, if you haven't noticed there are quite a few kids at Walt Disney World. Some might even argue that WDW was created with families in mind. Yes, screaming/crying kids are out of place at a nice restaurant (or in almost any theater! Grrrrrrr!), but I've used the Blue Bayou at Disneyland to help teach my daughter how to behave at a nice restaurant. She was, of course, perfect. But cut families a little slack at Disney World. Or maybe be more realistic in your expectations, or try one of the many resorts or restaurants not in WDW that cater almost exclusively to grown ups. I think that Disney Resorts, even the nice restaurants, should be family friendly. Again, take out the screaming and crying kids, but remember that those tots are going to pay your social security one day. If I win that dinner with Presidents Obama and Clinton, my wife and I are bringing our six-year-old, and I bet Barack & Bill will be just fine with that, as the Bushes would be.
    Updated 05-24-2012 at 06:34 AM by jcruise86 (typo)
  6. StevenW's Avatar
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    There are lots to do if it is worth doing. Sorry, wasting time is not the best way to use your time at Walt Disney World. Exploring resorts is only worth doing if you like walking long distances to see some interesting attraction that's usually in the hotel lobby, courtyard, or garden. There isn't much substance and it only takes a few minutes of ooh ahs, unless you combine it with a pricey dinner or lunch at the resort, or take up a cocktail and appetizers. And those "tips" at Fort Wilderness to rent canoes, the petting zoo, or ride horse are just bad ideas. You can certainly do those things elsewhere without Disney premium prices. Since you're on vacation, I suppose you do have cash to burn.

    A nice empty park and resorts is why there is an off season.
  7. TOMCROSSMAN's Avatar
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    There is another place in the Magic Kingdom that I know. There's a little hidden plaza between Space Mountain and the Restrooms. There's usually no one there.

    Thanks for the article!
  8. Park Wise's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mratigan
    Thanks
    Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.
  9. Park Wise's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jcruise86
    Chris, I thought I knew all the insider tips, but you gave me several ideas that will improve our next WDW vacation. THANK YOU, thank you very much!

    Specifically, I love Disneyland after it closes though they sometimes clear it out pretty quickly, besides Main Street, so I'll try to hang out at the Magic Kingdom after it closes while the stores are still open. Empty busses are remembering Disneyland before and after the guest hours when I worked there.

    And the free campfire at Fort Wilderness sounds fun.

    And (unlike StevenW below) I too love visiting the impressively themed resorts, especially walking from the Grand Floridian to the Polynesian, the boardwalk area next to EPCOT, and the Wilderness and Animal Kingdom Lodges.
    Wow, thanks so much., I appreciate it.
  10. Park Wise's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DisneySam
    Oh how I wish that more people were like you and hired a sitter for their children before going to one of the nicer restaurants on property. My wife and I enjoy Citricos very much (it was where I proposed to her) and we go back quite often on our anniversary. Nothing can ruin an evening at this wonderful restaurant like some very tired and cranky kids and parents who just don't care whose dining experience they are disrupting. I know it would never happen but I wish that Disney would have an age limit at some of their finer dining spots.
    Thank you. Citricos is definitely one of those restaurants what, while they have a kids menu that is very good, it's not really set up for younger children. When we did the math, we realized it was less expensive to take them to the kids clubs and let them spend a couple of hours there, where they get can food they actually like to eat. The biggest issue we've had with the kids clubs is they never want to leave and my oldest child (who is nine) always asks to go back when we're planning a trip!
  11. Park Wise's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TOMCROSSMAN
    There is another place in the Magic Kingdom that I know. There's a little hidden plaza between Space Mountain and the Restrooms. There's usually no one there.

    Thanks for the article!
    Thank you, I'm going to check it out. I'll see if I can find it when I'm there next month.
  12. Park Wise'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.
    Thanks, George.
  13. jcruise86's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by StevenW
    . . . Sorry, wasting time is not the best way to use your time at Walt Disney World. Exploring resorts is only worth doing if you like walking long distances to see some interesting attraction that's usually in the hotel lobby, courtyard, or garden. There isn't much substance. . .
    As long as you're sorry.
    I added my polite dissent to this post to my first post above, but I'll just add that for me, atmosphere & theming are the substance of Walt Disney World. No substance to architecture?

    But you might be right that renting canoes, horses, and going to a petting zoo (extra charge?) could be done at home to focus more time on WDW's unique experiences.
  14. Park Wise's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by StevenW
    There are lots to do if it is worth doing. Sorry, wasting time is not the best way to use your time at Walt Disney World. Exploring resorts is only worth doing if you like walking long distances to see some interesting attraction that's usually in the hotel lobby, courtyard, or garden. There isn't much substance and it only takes a few minutes of ooh ahs, unless you combine it with a pricey dinner or lunch at the resort, or take up a cocktail and appetizers. And those "tips" at Fort Wilderness to rent canoes, the petting zoo, or ride horse are just bad ideas. You can certainly do those things elsewhere without Disney premium prices. Since you're on vacation, I suppose you do have cash to burn.

    A nice empty park and resorts is why there is an off season.
    Steven, I appreciate your comment but I think for guests who live relatively close and or who visit often, there's a desire to try out new things and slow down. Of course, as I mentioned I am biased. I love to resort hop!
  15. Park Wise's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jcruise86
    DisneySam, good post, and it's great when guests can afford a private sitter (perhaps for far less than the cost of a kid's meal at Citricos) AND find one they TOTALLY trust while they are away on vacation; or--better yet--drop them off at a Disney kids club. But, if you haven't noticed there are quite a few kids at Walt Disney World. Some might even argue that WDW was created with families in mind. Yes, screaming/crying kids are out of place at a nice restaurant (or in almost any theater! Grrrrrrr!), but I've used the Blue Bayou at Disneyland to help teach my daughter how to behave at a nice restaurant. She was, of course, perfect. But cut families a little slack at Disney World. Or maybe be more realistic in your expectations, or try one of the many resorts or restaurants not in WDW that cater almost exclusively to grown ups. I think that Disney Resorts, even the nice restaurants, should be family friendly. Again, take out the screaming and crying kids, but remember that those tots are going to pay your social security one day. If I win that dinner with Presidents Obama and Clinton, my wife and I are bringing our six-year-old, and I bet Barack & Bill will be just fine with that, as the Bushes would be.
    I totally get what both of you are saying, but there are some places that work better for older kids. Citricos is one of them, as is Bistro de Paris. I also think it depends on the kids. I have 2 wild boys and one slightly less crazy daughter--they would be fine at California Grill because it's loud, but bored to tears at Citrocos. However, my husband and I had our anniversary dinner at Citricos and there was a sweet little girl at the table next to us who couldn't have been more well-behaved.

    I agree on the sitters. We usually just work it into the budget, but there have definitely been trips (like the one in December) where we were like "Um, let's cancel that sitter." It's costly.
  16. Park Wise's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jcruise86
    As long as you're sorry.
    I added my polite dissent to this post to my first post above, but I'll just add that for me, atmosphere & theming are the substance of Walt Disney World. No substance to architecture?

    But you might be right that renting canoes, horses, and going to a petting zoo (extra charge?) could be done at home to focus more time on WDW's unique experiences.
    I'm on the fence on the last part--it can be a nice break from the parks to get out on Bay Lake in a canoe, but again, it really just depends on how you tour the parks.


    I'm just going to say that everyone is right!

    Oh, and thanks for your support on resort hopping.
  17. jcruise86's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Park Wise
    Wow, thanks so much., I appreciate it.
    You're welcome!

    Anal retentive P.S. I fixed an embarrassing (for me) error at the bottom of my second paragraph about the empty busses and remembering working at Disneyland in a park without guests.
  18. peanutj's Avatar
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    I'm surprised no one has mentioned Victoria & Albert's at the Grand Floridian. It's an ultra-fine dining restaurant at The Grand Floridian and they don't allow children under 10. Of course, you may have to sell one of your kids to afford the meal.

    Quote Originally Posted by DisneySam
    Oh how I wish that more people were like you and hired a sitter for their children before going to one of the nicer restaurants on property. My wife and I enjoy Citricos very much (it was where I proposed to her) and we go back quite often on our anniversary. Nothing can ruin an evening at this wonderful restaurant like some very tired and cranky kids and parents who just don't care whose dining experience they are disrupting. I know it would never happen but I wish that Disney would have an age limit at some of their finer dining spots.
  19. sir clinksalot's Avatar
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    Great article. We've only done a couple of these on our trips to the resort but I hope to do a few more on our next trip.

    One thing we did when we had WDW AP's is instead of the "Date Night" we did a "Date Weekend". It was nice to enjoy the resort as a couple, meet some friends for dinner, etc. We spent about 8 hours just exploring World Showcase and it was FANTASTIC!!!
  20. StevenW's Avatar
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    [QUOTE=Park Wise;bt23845]Steven, I appreciate your comment but I think for guests who live relatively close and or who visit often, there's a desire to try out new things and slow down. Of course, as I mentioned I am biased. I love to resort hop![/QUOTE] Is that the definition of slowing down? Going to resorts is not necessarily slowing down. It is time taken to visit the resorts, which may not necessarily have much to do, but you're busy going there and seeing if there's anything to see. That's why I mentioned having a lunch or dinner so you can at least experience the resort.

    I should have mentioned that I speak of experience. I done the resort hopping myself and didn't have any lasting impression. The photos make the resorts seem grander than the reality. They are really just places for people to stay. The architecture is not distinctive since Disney doesn't offer anything new. Disney brought existing concepts and Disneyfied them to a smaller scale.

    I don't think Disney has attempted to make the resort/attraction concept that we see in Las Vegas where you can visit each resort and experience the attractions. It would be nice to see if that happens in the future.
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