Home » The 10 Things You NEED To Know About Walt Disney World, Beyond the Parks

The 10 Things You NEED To Know About Walt Disney World, Beyond the Parks

Walt Disney World is primarily known for its four iconic theme parks. However, visitors may not realize just how much there is to explore outside of the parks.

Walt Disney World was built to be an all-encompassing destination—that you really could spend an entire week there without leaving Disney property. Whether you choose to spend a day or two of your vacation away from the parks or just cap off some of your park days with extra recreation, there really is something for everyone at Walt Disney World beyond the parks.

Part of the fun of visiting Walt Disney World is the joy of exploring, and much of that exploration can be found outside of the parks. We do want to raise one important disclaimer before we proceed, however—pandemic closures hit Disney’s out-of-park experiences particularly hard. While more and more Disney experiences continue reopening, a significant number of the resort’s out-of-park experiences are still affected by closures. Despite this, we included many of these in our guide since policies are changing regularly and experiences continue to return.

Maybe you’re planning your first Walt Disney World vacation, or it’s been a while since your last visit. Alternatively, maybe you’re a longtime fan who has friends and family wanting to go, and you wish there were some way you could quickly sum-up the key “need-to-knows” for an amazing Disney vacation.

This guide is sixth in a series here at Theme Park Tourist to fulfill that need—sharing the basics to make the most of a Walt Disney World vacation. Our goal is to prepare you for what to expect, as well as help you avoid the snags that spoil too many potentially great vacations.

In our first installment, we focused on what you need to know about Walt Disney World overall—give that piece a read if you haven’t yet as it covers the “big picture” facts about visiting The Most Magical Place on Earth. Since then, we’ve taken a look at all four Disney parks in depth: Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Epcot, and most recently, Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

So what exactly is there to do at Walt Disney World outside of the parks?…

AN IMPORTANT NOTE: Take some time to research Disney’s latest pandemic policies. These are frequently changing, and many policies are still in place at the time of this writing, including that you cannot enter a Disney park without a Disney Parks Pass reservation. You can find information on the latest developments here at Theme Park Tourist and at Walt Disney World’s website.

1. Disney’s Water Parks

Walt Disney World is home to two incredible water parks: Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. Both are excellent parks with impressive theming and a similar number of attractions.

Currently, Blizzard Beach is the only Disney water park open. Themed after an ill-fated ski-resort that melted, it’s arguably the more kid-friendly of the two (with the exception of its stunningly-terrifying flagship slide, Summit Plummet—the third tallest and fastest speed slide in the world). It has an excellent array of slides and attractions, along with a bobbing style wave pool and an over-the-water obstacle course specifically with pre-teens in mind.

Typhoon Lagoon is themed after an island that was transformed after being hit by a typhoon—it may feel a little more familiar in setting as far as water parks go. Along with an excellent lazy river and good range of slides, the park is particularly known for its incredible wave pool, which regularly blasts guests with waves so strong you can actually surf them (an activity sometimes available as a special experience outside of park hours).  If Summit Plummet is a little too-much speed, Typhoon Lagoon offers Humunga Kowabunga, its own smaller speed slide, as an alternative.

Both parks have their strengths and are enjoyable for all ages—the closure of one for a season isn’t anything new, despite pandemic shifts. Most of the time, the parks operate on a seasonal schedule, with Blizzard Beach open early in the year, Typhoon Lagoon later in the year, and both operating during the summer. We aren’t sure if Disney will return to this staggered after 2021, but it is a possibility.

2. Disney Springs

Walt Disney World’s expansive shopping and entertainment district has been known by many names over the years—the latest of which is Disney Springs.

Disney Springs covers over 120 acres and includes over 150 shops, restaurants, and other venues. Whereas the district once mostly featured Disney-centric shops, it now includes a whopping selection of popular retailers, including some you won’t find anywhere else in the region like Uniqlo. We’ve used the phrase “something for everybody” a lot when it comes to Walt Disney World, but this especially applies to Disney Springs: you may stroll past high-fashion venues like Na Hoku Jewelers, Anthropologie, and MAC cosmetics one minute, then find yourself perusing the World of Disney (Disney’s largest store on the planet) or Amorette’s Patisserie the next. Fans of Star Wars, Marvel, Lego, and more will find plenty to explore throughout the district.

Disney Springs is also houses a significant range of dining and entertainment options, including restaurants from five James Beard award-winning chefs including Jaleo, Terralina, Art Smith’s Homecoming, Frontera Cocina, and Morimoto Asia. Entertainment choices include regular live musical acts, AMC Theaters, bowling at Splitsville Lanes, hot air balloon rides, the NBA Experience, and eventually the return of Cirque du Soleil.

Do note that Disney Springs is extremely popular both with locals and visitors. Expect heavier crowds on weekends, in the evenings, and especially around major holidays.

3. Disney’s Boardwalk

Disney Springs isn’t Disney’s only entertainment district. It has a smaller cousin situated snugly next to the Epcot resort hotels: Disney’s Boardwalk.

The Boardwalk offers a different sort of draw than Disney Springs—it’s a fantastic place for a leisurely stroll or to catch a meal. Currently, Trattoria al Forno and Big River Grille are the primary dining options available, but we are eager to see the return of The Flying Fish, arguably one of the best restaurants on property, as well as the ESPN Club. For a more casual stop, pick up some ice cream or a pastry at Boardwalk Bakery or Boardwalk Ice Cream. Guests can also enjoy some fun diversion via fairway style games, surrey bike rentals, or casual shopping.

4. Disney’s resorts (and all they have to offer)

In truth, many of Disney’s incredible resort hotels are attractions in and of themselves.

You don’t have to be a guest at Disney’s resorts to enjoy their benefits—with the exception of occasional limits on pool areas, visitors are free to explore and enjoy Disney’s resorts with little restriction.

Some of Disney’s best resorts for resort-hopping are the Magic Kingdom resorts. Each holds individual charms, from the Grand Floridian’s enchanting grounds to relaxing in a deck chair at Disney’s Polynesian to watching Magic Kingdom fireworks from the decks of the Contemporary Resort. Epcot’s resorts are also delightful destinations to explore (the Java Bar at the Walt Disney World Swan remains the best place we’ve found to get a cup of coffee at Walt Disney World). Further away, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge is a particularly nice stop with its roaming animals and impressive selection of restaurants.

Another reason to visit Disney resorts: de-stress with a trip to the spa! The most well-known are Disney’s two Senses Spa locations at the Grand Floridian and Saratoga Springs resorts. Both are excellent—unfortunately, neither has reopened fully since closing for the pandemic. The good news is they aren’t the only spas at Walt Disney World—both the Mandara Spa at the Walt Disney World Dolphin and the spa at the Four Seasons Orlando (nestled in Disney’s Golden Oak neighborhood) are currently open for treatments, offering access to relaxing spa facilities throughout the day of your visit.

5. Dining

Some of the best dining locations at Walt Disney World are actually found outside the parks, mostly at Disney’s resorts and entertainment districts. We already mentioned some of the options at Disney Springs and Disney’s Boardwalk, but those are just the beginning.

Disney’s resorts offer an incredible selection of dining option. Some favorites, including Jiko and Boma at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, the Yachtsman Steakhouse at the Yacht Club, and Grand Floridian’s famous AAA Five Diamond winner, Victoria & Alberts, remain closed following the pandemic. Fortunately, many other excellent resort dining locations have opened up, including Sanaa at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, Narcoosee’s and Citricos at the Grand Floridian, Ohana at Disney’s Polynesian Resort, and the California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort.

Disney’s resorts are also a great spot to visit for more casual meals. Kona Grill at Disney’s Polynesian Resort is famous for its breakfast (particularly the Tonga Toast), and the Cape May Café at Disney’s Yacht Club continues to offer incredible seafood dining. Need to catch a bite to eat at odd hours? We recommend visiting Picabu Market at the Walt Disney World Dolphin. This nearly-24-hour eatery is a little challenging to find but offers some of the best counter-service options at any Disney resort including a noteworthy taco and burrito bar.

6. Water recreation

Walt Disney World sits on over 25,000 acres of land—much of which is actually made up of conserved Florida wetlands.

Guests can enjoy Disney’s expansive system of waterways through several forms of water recreation. Boat rentals have historically been the most popular means. During normal seasons, guests could rent pontoon boats, Sea Raycers, and Montauks from several Disney resorts to explore Disney’s waterways at your own pace.

At the time of this writing, motorized boat rentals are still limited, but there are other ways to get out on the water. Canoe and kayak rentals are still available from Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort, as are “Amphicar” guided tours from the Landing by The Boathouse in Disney Springs. Guests of the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin can also rent paddleboats for free as part of their daily resort fee. Guests can also book a catch-and-release fishing excursion with Disney.

7. Golf, golf, golf,

If golf is your cup of tea, Walt Disney World will be your new Most Magical Place on Earth—the resort is home to three championship golf courses (all of which were previously part of the PGA tour), as well as a walking course, and three mini-golf courses.

The three main courses are Disney’s Lake Buena Vista course (near Disney Springs), the Disney Palm (near the Shades of Green resort for U.S. Military families), and Disney’s Magnolia (the resort’s longest course). Disney also offers a walking course, Oak Trail. All of Disney’s golf courses have undergone recent renovations and improvements in previous years, resulting in superb playing conditions.

Care for something a little more lighthearted? Disney is also home to three mini-golf courses: Fantasia Gardens and Fairways (near the Walt Disney World Dolphin) and Winter Summerland (near Blizzard Beach and Disney’s All Star Sports resort). While the Fairways course is a little more reserved, the other two courses are whimsically themed with impressive holes and obstacles for guests to navigate. We’ve always enjoyed our visits to Fantasia Gardens, in particular—a fun way to spend an evening away from the parks.

8. Fort Wilderness

Fort Wilderness has often been described as one of Walt Disney’s World’s most underrated gems—it is largely known as Disney’s official campground, offering both cabins and campsites for tent and RV campers. What most people don’t realize is it is an impressive recreation destination, even for guests not staying there.

Fort Wilderness offers some truly magical recreation options with delightfully rustic roots. Without even getting into paid activities, guests can enjoy movie nights under the stars, sing-alongs over s’mores, jogging trails, playgrounds, and arcades. Guests can also book special experiences like horseback riding, archery, or canoe / kayak rentals via Disney recreation or by stopping at the Tri-Circle-D Ranch.

9. Disney’s Wide World of Sports

Despite a lengthy closure due to the pandemic, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention Disney’s expansive sports complex—the ESPN Wide World of Sports. This 230 acre complex hosts an eclectic range of sporting events throughout the year, including national championships and RunDisney events.

At this time, it’s unclear what Disney’s plans are for the Wide World of Sports—the facility is still being used for special events, but it isn’t quite the draw for casual guests that it used to be. Still, if you are a major sports fan and things reopen, taking a tour of the facility could be quite the enjoyable experience.

10. Behind the scenes tours and special experiences

There’s no question—pandemic closures have hit Walt Disney World beyond the parks hard. While Disney still has a lot to offer outside of the parks, we’re still waiting with bated breath for many of the resort’s previous experiences to reopen.

One category of these experiences are Disney’s behind-the-scenes tours . While V.I.P. tours of the parks are still available, Disney’s general tours are not. These delightful experiences have allowed guests for years to get a glimpse behind the magic, such as through touring the secret Utilidors of the Magic Kingdom or meeting animals behind the scenes at Disney’s Animal Kingdom or Epcot’s The Seas. Over the years, Disney has also offered many unique dining experiences as part of this same program like fireworks cruises, dessert parties, and Safari dinners.

Our experience with these offerings over the years has been largely positive, particularly for longtime Disney fans or guests of an inquisitive nature. I’ll admit that my own experience on Disney tours played a part in me eventually becoming Disney parks writer. While these experiences currently remain unavailable, we hope they return soon as another option for guests looking to enjoy Disney magic beyond the parks.

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