Disney World doesn’t have hotels, they have sprawling resorts. And just like the parks, they are full of hidden magic, little known things to do and plenty of free entertainment. If you’re staying on property, plan some time to explore the magic of your Disney World resort.
Magic Kingdom Resorts
Every night bit of magic floats by each of the resorts surrounding Magic Kingdom. Its old school but still captures that Disney wonder and fun. The Electrical Water Pageant is Disney World’s night time water parade. The calm darkness of the water makes the perfect backdrop for the lights and music as it passes slowly by. Best watched from the beach outside your resort.
Monday and Fridays at 8am the Parasol Parade begins. The housekeeping staff, in uniform and sporting pink parasols, meanders through the resort’s grounds. To make it extra special, a child or two staying at Grand Floridian are chosen to lead the parade.
If your little girl doesn’t get picked to lead the parade, no worries. The Ivy Trellis Salon at Grand Floridian has a little known princess makeover package. This is a great alternative to the Biddibi Bobbidi Boutique in Magic Kingdom. Its cheaper, easier to book and doesn’t require park admission.
The Grand Floridian is connected to Magic Kingdom via the monorail, bus and a water taxi. This is a small craft that ferries just a few dozen people from the resort to the park and back. Its quiet, peaceful and a welcome change of pace.
If you only go to the lobby to check in you’re missing out! There is excellent live music at different times of the day, the building of a gigantic gingerbread house over holidays (with free samples) and the floor is absolutely full of Hidden Mickeys.
Most guests staying at the Polynesian enjoy the island theming and laid back atmosphere. But few guests get to experience the tropical culture and entertainment of the resort.
If you’re near the lobby around 6 pm listen for the wail of a conch shell being blown. That’s the call to come and watch the Torch Lighting Ceremony. Drum beating follows, along with a traditional fire-knife dance and the lighting of the torches that line the entry way to the Great Ceremonial House.
Before bed, bring the little ones down to the lobby to listen to the authentic Polynesian storytelling.
And to fully immerse yourself in the island experience, make sure to take advantage of the free Hula lessons given daily. Best done with the whole family involved.
Perhaps the best kept secret about the Poly is the terrific view from the beach of the fireworks show in Magic Kingdom. Its not the same without the music you say? Not to worry, the sounds of the show are piped in through speakers throughout the grounds of the resort.
While you’re there, the beach is also a great place to catch the Electrical Water Pageant.
Like the Grand Floridian, the Polynesian also has a water taxi service that takes you right to Magic Kingdom. But unlike the Grand Floridian, the Polynesian has a little known path that leads right to the Ticket and Transportation Center. Very convenient.
If you are craving a Dole Whip, but aren’t going to Magic Kingdom, make a stop at the Poly, the only other place in Disney World where you can get this sought after treat.
The Polynesian is also home to Tonga Toast, the best kept secret when it comes to breakfast in Disney World. Deep fried thick cut bread, stuffed with bananas, covered in cinnamon sugar then drizzled with syrup or strawberry sauce. Magical.
Since being renovated, the Polynesian has a new bar called Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto. Ordering certain drinks will trigger special effects within the bar, like an exploding volcano or a Polynesian goddess coming to life. The Lapu Lapu – a rum based drink served in a whole pineapple – is a special effect in and of itself.
Money Saving Tip
If resorts like the Grand Floridian and Polynesian are out of your price range, read our post about the secret of renting DVC points. Its a little-known way to significantly cut the cost of staying at a Deluxe resort.
The Contemporary is home to a small butterfly garden. Most guests walk right by it on the way to the pool. At the right time of year it is teaming with butterflies and flowers. This is an excellent spot for children and adults to take a break from the rushed pace of the parks.
Of course the monorail runs directly through the Contemporary. Guests exit directly into the lobby. There you will likely notice several large murals. These were created by Mary Blair, the designer of Its a Small World. Take a close look, and you might spot the goat with 5 legs.
If the monorail is too crowded, why not just take a leisurely stroll to the park? The contemporary is the only resort with its own walkway to Magic Kingdom.
Every morning a Flag Family is chosen to raise the flags above Wilderness Lodge. Early in the morning, your family will be guided to the roof by one of the Rangers. Once there you will get to raise the American flag along with several others. But the view of the rest of Disney World from the roof is what makes this a truly special experience.
Hint: Ask at check in to be the Flag Family. Guests with longer stays have the best shot at finding an opening.
Wilderness Lodge was built with an extremely high level of theming and back story, much of which is easily missed. Fortunately Wilderness Lodge is home to one of the few free tours in Disney World. Its about an hour long, and will appeal best to those who love hidden details and American history.
Don’t miss Fire Rock Geyser, modeled after Old Faithful, which shoots a plume of water 120 feet into the sky every hour on the hour.
If you’re looking for a rowdier, funnier, louder type of restaurant experience, head over to the Whispering Canyon Cafe at Wilderness Lodge. Expect antics. Sharing a bottomless milkshake is grounds for time spent in jail. The hokey pokey breaks out spontaneously. If all you want is a nice, peaceful dinner DO NOT ask for a straw, ketchup, or for a refill on your drink. And whatever you do, do not drop your fork.
Port Orleans is really 2 resorts in one, French Quarter and Riverside. The two are connected by trail, bus, boat and carriage, allowing guests at Port Orleans to have double the amenities. In fact, Port Orleans is the only resort where pool hopping of any kind is allowed, as guests staying here are free to use either pool.
Perhaps the most secret parade in Disney World takes place in Port Orleans. Its the very easy going, fun filled Mardi Gras Parade. Every year the resort’s cast members decorate their own floats, dress up in costume and march through both resorts. This is a very unofficial parade, and too few people get to watch it. And that’s too bad because the atmosphere is fun, the floats are creative and the whole event is down to earth.
Overlooked by most guests, the Sassagoula River Cruise is a wonderful, free river boat taxi that ferries guests from Port Orleans to the shopping and entertainment of Disney Springs. With stops at both Riverside and French Quarter, the cruise meanders past the Treehouse Villas and Saratoga Springs Resort and on to the final stop at Disney Springs. The cruise is a great way to relax and feel immersed in the ‘world’ that is Disney, and is a peaceful alternative to the drudgery of fighting traffic and searching for a parking space at Disney Springs.
A little known hidden gem at Port Orleans Riverside is the Fishin’ Hole tucked behind Old Man Island. There you can rent cane poles and fish the stocked waters from the rustic, scenic docks.
For those wanting a bit more of a challenge you can get out on the water via the guided bass fishing excursions, also available at Riverside.
If you’d like to enjoy the outdoors, but fishing isn’t your thing, Riverside has horse drawn carriage rides as well as small boat, kayak and bike rentals.
If you need to unwind after a long day in the parks, head down to the lounge at Riverside. There you’ll discover the legend that is “Yehaa” Bob Jackson. This incredibly talented musician has been entertaining resort guests since the 90’s. His shows are just plain fun. Expect catchy tunes, a bit of comedy and plenty of audience participation. He’s still a bit of a “best kept secret” after all these years, so there’s usually an open seat. And best of all, the show is entirely free.
If you’re looking for entertainment with a more “New Orleans” feel, there’s live Jazz music over at Scat Cat’s Club in French Quarter.
In addition, both resorts have themed pool side bars. Here’s a fun tip: you’re allowed to take your drinks along the trail connecting the resorts, making it easy to pool and bar hop at the same time.
Trip Planning Tip
In general, Disney World resort rooms are refurbished every 3-5 years. Disney’s resorts have high occupancy rates and get plenty of wear and tear. If you are trying to decide between two different resorts, find out which will be recently renovated right before your trip. It makes for a much nicer stay.
Animal Kingdom Lodge
Animal Kingdom Lodge is home to many large African animals, at times visible from the balcony outside your room. However most guests miss out on much of the activity, since the animals tend to be more active at night. We say ‘most guests’ because a few know that there is a nightly viewing of the animals using night vision goggles. Best part is, its free.
Speaking of free fun, check out the cookie decorating activity. Kids are given a sugar cookie and plenty of toppings and icings to decorate it with. Great for a little downtime from the crowded parks.
Well that’s great for the kids, but what about Mom and Dad? No worries, there is half hour long Culinary Tour that takes you through Boma and Jiko(the hotel restaurants) and includes free samples. Best part is, this is free too!
Another little known – and still free – activity is animal tracking game. A stuffed Disney character is fitted with a radio collar and hidden in the resort by one of the cast members. The kids then get to use an electronic device to ‘track down’ the animal, just like researchers do in the wild.
Even the resorts are home to Hidden Mickeys. Here are a couple easy ones…
And a couple harder ones…
Art Of Animation
Disney’s Art of Animation resort draws you into the the lost world of hand drawn cartoons. Throughout the day, there is a Disney animator sketching out characters in the lobby. A TV screen displays their sketch pad so you can watch them work.
This may inspire your kids to take up sketching. No problem. There is a daily Draw Class where kids, and occasional parents, are taught, line by line, how to sketch a Disney character. Pencils and paper are provided. And its free too.
Now if your kid shows promise, encourage them to enter their work in the Sketch Artist of the Day competition. Children are invited to submit their best pencil sketch of a Disney character. The winner’s masterpiece is displayed in the lobby for all to see. The young artist is also given an official, dated certificate declaring them ‘Sketch Artist of the Day’. A prized souvenir no doubt.
For a lot of kids, the theme parks are nice, but the pool is the main attraction. If that sounds like your kid, Art of Animation is their Never Never Land.
That’s because Art of Animation is home to the largest resort pool in Disney World. But what makes this pool a best kept secret are the underwater speakers. Dunk your head under and you can hear conversations from Nemo and his friends in between favorite Disney songs. The pool is home to tons of activities, including a nighttime movie that can be watched while in the water. This is also the only zero depth entry pool in the Value resorts.
And if that’s not enough to wow your kid, there’s also 2 more large pools themed after Cars and Little Mermaid. Plus there is a sprayground. Why bother with park tickets?
Wouldn’t it be nice if the stuff you bought in the parks was magically transported back to your hotel, so you didn’t have to lug it around all day? Well, that’s one of the perks of staying at a Disney resort. Anything you buy in the parks can be delivered to your resort, free of charge.
We’ll be adding more secrets to this post weekly…