If you’re serious about Disney, you want more than just the park experience – you want to explore the resorts, look for all the details, get to know the whys and hows. You want to taste the cuisine, get the back story, see what’s behind the scenes, and check out the “hidden” secrets and surprises that the Imagineers created for those who really know what to look for. Knowing that we’d want them, Disney offers a whole slew of exciting behind-the-scenes tours that offer glimpses and tastes of everything from the gardens at Epcot's The Land ride to the Behind the Steam tour highlighting Disney’s amazing trains.
Unfortunately for many of us, a lot of those fabulous behind the scenes tours come with a big price tag. However, for those of us in the know, there are quite a few behind the scenes tours and experiences that are not only well worth the time but also well worth the price – especially since they’re absolutely free of charge!
The tours below are listed on a daily basis; give a buzz to the resorts that interest you to get updated information about times and precise details. It’s important to note that these are walking tours, so if you’re not sure you or members of your group can stand and walk for the duration of the tour you might want to consider using a stroller (for kiddos) or a (free to borrow) push chair for adults.
1. Wonders of the Wilderness Lodge
If you’ve never visited the Wilderness Lodge resort, you’re in for a treat. If you have visited, you know that it’s one of Disney World’s outstanding deluxe resorts, themed around the lodges at Yosemite and other national parks of the Pacific Northwest. What you may not know is that the Wilderness Lodge, along with its DVC villas, is a veritable treasure house of authentic Native American art. There are historic works as well as treasures fabricated by Native artists specifically for the resort. The massive totem poles are just a start: many people completely overlook the incredible artistry that went into the creation of features like the Geologic Fireplace, which was fabricated with multiple layers of carefully selected rock representing the geologic layers of the Grand Canyon.
How do I know all this, you ask? It’s simple: I took the free one hour guided tour which starts, several times a day, in the lobby of the hotel. Guides show and tell you about the inspiration, design, and collections that make the Wilderness Lodge such a remarkable venue. They also give you the inside story on the Lodge’s famous geyser.
Special Opportunity: If you happen to visit in November, you can also attend (also for free) The Blessing of the Four Directions. This is a special ceremony performed each year by visiting interpreters James Hansen (Black Wolf) and Anita Hansen (Quick Silver), during which negative energy is expelled for the coming year.
2. Behind the Scenes Culinary Tours at Jiko and Boma
The Animal Kingdom Lodge is something of a Mecca for international gourmets, and the site of a free culinary tour that takes you into both Boma and Jiko. Not only do visitors get a chance to explore some of the Imagineering details of these amazing restaurants, but they also learn about – and taste! – some of Disney World's tastiest cuisine. The tours start at 4 p.m. each day at Boma’s restaurant podium, and are led by “Cultural Representatives” from African nations who can answer questions and point out hidden Mickeys. People who have taken the tour report some tasty opportunities: some have had samples of various soups, while others have been treated to Boma’s famous “Zebra Dome” desserts.
While you’re at the Animal Kingdom Lodge and looking for free tours, consider some of the resort’s unique and intriguing free programs. Check the hotel’s schedule for multimedia, personalized presentations by African staff about their home countries, meet up with a guide at 8:30 in the morning to learn about the wildlife and culture of Africa, or help an animal care expert to create and present interactive objects to the animals.