For many, character interactions are the highlight of a Disney vacation. Stopping by Mickey’s House in Toontown is practically a rite of passage, while the holiday parties bring out coveted, rarely-seen characters like the Seven Dwarfs and Jack Skellington.
You don’t have to shell out a full day’s park admission to spend time with Disney’s most popular princesses and critters, however. The hotels, restaurants, and recreation areas around Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World Resort offer a variety of unique, exclusive events that boast smaller crowds and a cheaper price point than those of Cinderella’s Royal Table or Be Our Guest Restaurant. There’s something for everyone here, from the upscale breakfast buffet at the Grand Floridian to the cozy, kitschy campfire singalong at Fort Wilderness. If you’re already planning to stay on Disney property during your trip, consider maximizing your time at the resort with these five out-of-park character experiences. (Pro-tip: Not only are you more likely to receive time with the characters while outside the parks, but you’ll free up your schedule to enjoy the plethora of attractions and entertainment once you get through those turnstiles.)
1. Chip ‘n Dale Critter Breakfast, Storytellers Café, Grand Californian Hotel
Let’s get this out of the way first: There’s a 95% chance that if you want to interact with a Disney character, whether inside or outside the parks, you’ll have to pay. While you may spot a few characters hanging around the hotel lobbies during the holidays, most only come out for character meals and other paid experiences.
This is especially true at the Disneyland Resort. Each of the current Disneyland hotels—the eponymous Disneyland Hotel, Grand Californian Hotel, and Paradise Pier Hotel—offer one or two character dining options. By far and away, the best bang for your buck is at the Grand Californian, as it’s the only hotel to consistently offer meet-and-greets with rare characters like Kenai, Koda, Terk, Br’er Bear, and Meeko in addition to more traditional characters like Chip and Dale.
If a traditional Fab Five buffet is more your style, there are several other non-park character dining opportunities: the beach-inspired Surf’s Up! Breakfast at PCH Grill in Paradise Pier Hotel and both the Good Morning Giggles breakfast and Disney’s Dinnertime Magic at Goofy’s Kitchen in the Disneyland Hotel.
2. Bon Voyage Adventure Breakfast, Trattoria al Forno, Disney’s BoardWalk
One of the obvious benefits of meeting characters over a meal, rather than in the parks, is that you get to bypass hours in line and you don’t have to feel rushed through a character interaction. (Whether or not you want to meet Rapunzel with the Swimmers Delight spinach omelet in your teeth is another matter, of course.) The downside? If it’s a particularly busy day (or an über-popular venue), you may not get to interact much with the characters of your choosing.
Character availability is always subject to change, but there are only four characters that have been featured at the Bon Voyage Adventure Breakfast so far: Rapunzel, Flynn Rider, Ariel, and Prince Eric. Given that most royal couples meet guests inside the park, this is a fairly unique opportunity, made even more so because the princes and princesses here typically interact with diners by themselves, rather than in pairs.
3. Mickey’s Backyard BBQ, Fort Wilderness Resort
While the bulk of non-parks meet-and-greets feature some combination of the Fab Five—Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto—there are a number of themed activities and dining opportunities for guests who are looking to spice up a fairly standard Disney character interaction. One such event is an all-you-can-eat BBQ at Fort Wilderness Resort, which not only features some delicious non-standard fare (Jambalaya! Honey-mustard baked chicken! Strawberry shortcake!), but live music and line dancing, too. Tickets are generally pricier for this hoedown-flavored dinner theatre, but will still come well under the price of a one-day admission ticket to the parks. Note that you’ll need to purchase the more expensive tier of tickets in order to guarantee access to a pre-show meet-and-greet, too.
Want a cheaper, more relaxed option? Try Fort Wilderness’s free Campfire Sing-A-Long with Chip and Dale, where you can roast marshmallows, sing campfire songs, and snap a photo or two with the chipmunks themselves.
4. Best Friends Breakfast, ‘Ohana, Polynesian Village Resort
Next to the princesses, there are perhaps no more popular Disney meet-and-greet characters than Lilo and Stitch. Those who don’t have the time or cash to seek out the pair in the parks (Stitch is frequently found in Tomorrowland, while Lilo does not regularly greet guests inside any current Walt Disney World park) can meet them over at the Polynesian during ‘Ohana’s Best Friends Breakfast buffet. As with most popular buffets, from Minnie’s Beach Bash Breakfast at Cape May Café to the Alice in Wonderland, Mary Poppins, and Winnie the Pooh-themed Supercalifragilistic Breakfast at 1900 Park Fare, character interactions are likely but not guaranteed. For some non-character fun, ‘Ohana also features a highly interactive dinner show later in the day.
5. Pirates & Pals Fireworks Dessert Voyage, Contemporary Resort
Perhaps one of the best and oft-overlooked aspects of a good character interaction is theming. In the parks, Disney takes great care to place characters where they most make sense: Elsa and Anna in the Norway Pavilion’s Royal Sommerhus, Ariel in her grotto, Gaston outside Gaston’s Tavern, etc. Outside the parks, however, those interactions are typically limited to various dining areas, which forces characters from different films and time periods to interact in a neutral environment.
This Pirates-themed dessert party is an unusual and delightful exception to the rule. Though there’s no sight of the Jolly Roger floating in the Seven Seas Lagoon outside Magic Kingdom, it’s a fine backdrop for the likes of Captain Hook, Smee, and Peter Pan. Following a meet-and-greet with the pirates (Peter Pan typically makes his appearance after the evening festivities), guests can also interact with non-Disney pirates named “Patch,” who are the only seafaring characters allowed to board the boats during the Happily Ever After Fireworks Spectacular and Electric Water Pageant. The cruise doesn’t come cheap, but it’s marginally more affordable than the parks and better-themed than many similar dining experiences throughout the Walt Disney World Resort.
This list only scratches the surface of the various character dining options around Disneyland Walt Disney World. Common character appearances throughout the resorts and surrounding areas have included Cinderella and Prince Charming, Aurora, Tigger, Eeyore, Pooh, Mary Poppins, the Mad Hatter, Alice, even Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox.
Do you have a go-to character spot outside the Disney Parks?