A Non-Park Disney Vacation

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As a non-Florida resident, my trips to Walt Disney World are not as frequent as I’d like. And when I get the opportunity to get to my favorite place on earth, I plan every moment of every day and pack in as much pixie dust as possible. It’s not uncommon for me to only get 4-5 hours of sleep a night as I open and close parks and fill the days with finely-tuned Touring Plans and FastPass+ reservations. These trips usually end with me in a Disney-induced coma on a plane heading back to the southwest, but completely content. I imagine it’s what marathon runners must feel like. Yeah, it can be painful, and sometimes you wonder if you’re insane for committing to this, but afterword it’s such a triumph and you can’t help but feel proud for all you’ve accomplished.

Photo - Michael Dahlgren
It’s vision that brings us all joy.
Photo by Michael Dahlgren

When I was presented with the opportunity to be in Orlando for a work conference, my heart simultaneously leapt and crashed all at once. What a great excuse for an impromptu Disney trip (especially with a flight and 2 hotel nights paid for)! But then I looked at my budget, there’s a reason I didn’t have a Disney trip in the works already – I was already over-extended and committed to other trips this year. But how could I be in Orlando – so close to the House of the Mouse and NOT go?! The mere idea violates my very nature as a Disneyphile. I confided my disappointment in friend who kindly suggested, why don’t I just pick one park to go to for a day? That suggestion is almost more unnatural. One park? How can I choose one park? That’s like choosing a favorite child! I love them all! Choose the classic innocence and magic of Magic Kingdom over the food and culture of Epcot?  Or the details and natural beauty of Animal Kingdom over the stomach churning thrill rides of Hollywood Studios? No, no – there’s no way to pick just one park! The thought then occurred to me, I could do the four-parks-in-one-day challenge. But with only one day to dedicate to parks, I couldn’t be cheated that way. And I know that there’s no way I could only do one or two attractions in each park and pass by everything else without knowing I’d be right back to really do the park justice. And the time spent traveling between parks would take up too much precious time. So, that ruled out four park hopping.

Then, I had an odd epiphany, what if I did a Disney vacation without the parks? It seems foreign right? Who would do this? And why? Why fly all the way to Orlando, stay on property and then NOT go to the parks? That’s the whole point to a Disney vacation, right? The more I thought about it, the more I started to love the idea! I’ve always loved the theme and beauty of the deluxe resorts, but am always to reluctant to spend the money on them since I know that I’m a commando vacationer and will never really have the time to truly enjoy all of those luxurious amenities. I have had items on my Disney Bucket list for years that I haven’t crossed off because I never seem to have time to do them. This could be the trip where I set aside my Touring Plan and stop and smell the roses.

Planning:

When planning my typical commando-style Disney vacation, I always usually plan for a week: two partial-travel days, one day for each park, and a bonus day to either rest or revisit a park or two. Knowing that I won’t be visiting the parks, I can instantly reduce the number of days I need to be there. I also know that the conference I have to attend is all day Sunday and Monday. Based off of the room rates and promotions offered at this time of year, it’s actually a bit cheaper for me (per night) to plan some Disney time before my conference rather than after. Looking at flights available, I figure out that I can fly to Orlando Wednesday evening, spend Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the Disney Bubble before checking out on Sunday to attend my conference. This gives me three day and four nights to start crossing things off my Disney Bucket list and experience Disney magic in a new way.

Where to Stay:

Since I won’t be going to the parks, I can save quite a bit of cash from purchasing park tickets. This also means I can justify splurging a bit on staying in a Deluxe resort, since I won’t be rushing to the parks, I’ll have time to enjoy it! The resort choice was obvious for me: Animal Kingdom Lodge. I’ve avoided this resort in the past because of how remotely it’s located. With buses being it’s only mode of free Disney transportation, the time it takes to get to and from the parks is much longer than at other resorts. But this trip is all about enjoying life outside the parks, and Animal Kingdom Lodge has some of the most unique resort experiences available.

Animal Kingdom Lodge logo
Animal Kingdom Lodge is vacation destination by itself!

Daily Agenda:

Animal Kingdom Lodge is a vacation destination on its own, but I have a little list of things I’ve always wanted to do, see, explore, or just spend more time savoring outside of the parks.  I know Disney has world-renowned golf courses, but I am mutantly unathletic to the point of downright clumsiness. So, dear reader, keep that in mind when you read on and discover that I didn’t include a day at one of the beautiful golf courses.

Day One – Thursday Exploring Animal Kingdom Lodge

The activities at Animal Kingdom Lodge seem pretty consistent, but may change seasonally. The best bet not to miss out on anything or to note any changes is to review the Activity Calendar given at check-in.

  •  9:30am               Meet a Savanna Guide
  • 10:15am               Explore lobby and watch animals on the Savanna
  • 12:00pm              Lunch at Mara
  • 12:45pm               Change and spend time at the pool
  • 1:00-3:00pm       Pool time, relax, sunbath, have a drink
  • 3:00-3:45pm      Shower and change
  • 4:00pm               African-Inspired, Disney Designed Tour of the art and design of Animal Kingdom Lodge
  • 5:45pm               Check in for dinner reservations at Boma
  • 6:00pm              Dinner at Boma
  • 7:30pm               Cultural Safari – cultural representatives give a virtual tour of their homeland
  • 8:30pm               Cocktail at Victoria Falls Lounge
  • 9:15pm                Check in for Night Safari
  • 9:45pm               Night Safari – hour long expedition to watch animals on the savanna at night
  • 10:45pm             Conclude safari and day at Animal Kingdom Lodge
Uzima pool. Photo courtesy of Disney (c)
Uzima pool. Photo courtesy of Disney (c)

Day Two – Friday at Wilderness Lodge & Fort Wilderness

This day starts pretty early. I plan to use Disney transportation to spend the day exploring Disney’s Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness.

  •  8:00-8:11am     Be at Magic Kingdom bus transportation stop at Animal Kingdom Lodge. The average wait time for a bus at this time of day is about 11 minutes, there is a 21 minute commute time putting me in Magic Kingdom between 8:21-8:31am.
  • 8:30-8:40am     Take boat from Magic Kingdom dock to Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. Boat transportation time is 13 minutes putting me at Wilderness Lodge between 8:43-8:53am
  • 9:00am               Go to Wilderness Lodge Concierge desk to take The Wonders of the Lodge Tour. Tour lasts about one hour
  • 10:15am              Check in at Whispering Canyon for breakfast reservation
  • 10:30am             Breakfast reservation at Whispering Canyon
Explore all of the details and beauty of the Wilderness Lodge
Explore all of the details and beauty of the Wilderness Lodge
  • 11:30am         Finish exploring Wilderness Lodge and take the .75 mile walking trail to Fort Wilderness
  • 1:00pm          Explore Tri-Circle D Ranch and Fort Wilderness
  • 2:00pm          Check in for Horseback Trail ride & collect ticket
  • 2:30pm          Enjoy 45 minute horseback trail ride through Fort Wilderness
  • 3:15pm          Browse Settlement Trading Post and pick up a snack
  • 4:15pm          Check in for Hoop De Doo Revue at Pioneer Hall
  • 5:00pm         Hoop De Doo Revue Dinner reservation
  • 7:00pm         Chip & Dale’s Campfire Sing-A-Long & Movie under the stars
  • 9:45pm         Watch Electrical Water Pageant
  • 10:15pm        Take boat from Fort Wilderness to Magic Kingdom
  • 10:45pm       Take bus from Magic Kingdom back to Animal Kingdom Lodge
(c) Disney
(c) Disney

Day Three – Saturday at Downtown Disney & Grand Floridian:

Another early morning starting out and ending the day at the Grand Floridian.

Grand Floridian looks regal from across the Seven Seas Lagoon
Grand Floridian looks regal from across the Seven Seas Lagoon
  •  8:00-8:11am     Be at Magic Kingdom bus transportation stop at Animal Kingdom Lodge. The average wait time for a bus at this time of day is about 11 minutes, there is a 21 minute commute time putting me in Magic Kingdom between 8:21-8:31am.
  • 8:30-8:40am     Take the monorail from Magic Kingdom dock to Disney’s Grand Floridian. Boat transportation time is 17 minutes putting me at the Grand Floridian between 8:47- 8:57am
  • 9:00am                Check in for breakfast reservation at 1900 Park Fare for Supercalafragilistic Breakfast
  • 9:15am                 Supercalafragilistic Breakfast reservation
  • 10:15am               Head over to Senses Spa and check in
  • 10:45am              Appointment for Grand Floridian Signature Pedicure
©Disney
©Disney
  • 1:00pm               Take bus transportation to Downtown DisneyWith a 23 minute commute time the estimated arrival is 1:25pm
  • 1:25-2:30pm     Head over to Splitsville for a game of bowling and lunch
  • 2:30-7:00pm    Browse around Downtown Disney, shop, watch the Raglan Road performers
  • 7:00pm              Take bus transportation back to Grand Floridian. With a 23 minute commute time the estimated arrival is 7:25pm.
  • 7:30-9:30pm     Have dinner and drinks at Mizner’s Lounge and listen to Grand Floridian Orchestra
  • 9:45pm               Go to Grand Floridian dock or beach to watch Wishes Nighttime Spectacular
  • 10:00pm            Wishes Nighttime Spectacular starts
  • 10:30pm             Take boat to Magic Kingdom
  • 10:45pm             Take bus back to Animal Kingdom Lodge
Photo by Tom Bricker
View of Wishes from across the Seven Seas Lagoon. Photo by Tom Bricker

That concludes my plans and agenda for spending three days and four nights at a Walt Disney World Resort without stepping foot in one of the parks. Though this agenda does help me accomplish quite a few of my “out of the parks” bucket list items, if you can imagine it, there are still so many more left that I’ll need to try to fit into future trips. Even without taking in some of Disney classic attractions, you can see that this trip includes plenty of activities, great food, and even some time to relax, enjoy the iconic Disney service and truly appreciate all of the details and stories Disney weaves into each and every detail.

What would your non-Park vacation look like? Do you still have non-Park experiences on your Disney Bucket List? Be sure to give your thoughts in the comments below!

Lisa Gilmore

My passion for Disney runs deep; I've got pixie dust in my veins. Everyone loves the famous Mickey Mouse, but Disney vacations host a wealth of sophisticated experiences, too. On my bucket list is to seek out and enjoy every last one of them!

24 thoughts on “A Non-Park Disney Vacation

  • February 25, 2015 at 7:46 am
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    You may want to add the free cookie decorating at AKL as well as the free culinary tour. They will showcase Boma and Jiko. I think cookie decorating is at 1:00ish and the culinary tour is at 3:45. Have a great time! We have done a few no parks trips and loved it. Also, consider going to the welcome show at MK. It’s just fun!

    Reply
  • February 25, 2015 at 7:58 am
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    This sounds amazing! Last year I was in Orlando for a weeklong training class. I spent the weekend before in the parks, but I spent the evenings exploring resorts and eating dinner there. It was a great way to see things that I don’t usually have time for on a regular trip.

    Reply
  • February 25, 2015 at 9:03 am
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    Fantastic article. I wish I was able to go to WDW more often. If I win the lottery, I wil be there all the time! Usually we go to WDW during the UK school holidays but we went in December forthe first time last year – I always prepare an itinerary before we go (to make sure we do everything we want to do and to prevent squabbling about what who wants to do what each day) – this time I wanted to see all the Christmas decorations at the resorts so I added that into the itinerary. We managed to look at most of the resorts stopping for meals and coffee breaks at one or other of them every so often. It was amazing – and so different from usual rushing from one experience to the next. The whole experience was so different as we were on our own for the first time so we could just please ourselves. I just loved the difference in pace and am desperately trying to get another trip in December arranged! Just going out to buy a lottery ticket!

    Reply
  • February 25, 2015 at 9:03 am
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    I would love to read a follow up on your experiences, especially the trail ride. We are doing one for the first time on our next trip so I would love to hear more about it.

    Reply
    • February 25, 2015 at 10:42 am
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      Hi Nicole!
      I’m sure I’ll come away from this trip with even more things added to my list than things I’m able to cross off! I can’t wait to try this new approach to Disney magic and give you all the dish when I return.

      Reply
  • February 25, 2015 at 9:20 am
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    This sounds great! I’ve thrown this idea around a couple times and been booed heavily.

    My question is what were the differences in spending from a trip w parks vs the trip you described above? Between the safaris, horseback riding, pedicure, and food/drinks did you really save a lot in this trip? (I hope you did!)

    Reply
    • February 25, 2015 at 10:59 am
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      Hi Mike,
      It’s actually about a “break-even” situation. If I was going to the parks, I’d likely have extended my trip to at least 5 days (but stayed a less expensive resort), and either needed to buy a 6-day Hopper (about $415) or renew my Annual Pass (about $590). Staying fewer days at a more expensive resort comes pretty close to the same price. And even combining the safari, horseback riding, and spa time is less than $400. I eat and drink the same way in and out of the parks, so I don’t see any increase in my meal expenses.

      Reply
  • February 25, 2015 at 10:03 am
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    Don’t forgot to try the culinary tours while you are at AKL. They have one for Jambo House that includes tours and delicious samples from both Boma and Jiko. You can also go over to Kidani Village for a tour and samples at Sanaa. And even better – they are both free!

    Reply
  • February 25, 2015 at 10:40 am
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    My Hubby surprised me with a non-park trip for my birthday two years ago. It was SO fun! And, it forces you do try things that you “don’t have time for” when you’re in the parks. Here is a list of what we did:
    1. Stayed at Coronado Springs (we usually use our DVC)
    2. Ate at Narcoosees, Wolfgang Puck (the Dining Room)
    3. Did a Monorail Bar crawl. (This was a little TOO much fun)
    4. Went to Cirque du Soleil
    5. Played mini golf at Fantasia Gardens
    6. Actually spent time swimming! (A couple days, actually!)
    7. Got a couple’s massage at Senses at the GF

    It was an amazing trip, and we have great memories. I highly recommend a non-park trip to anyone wanting to slow down just a bit and enjoy everything WDW has to offer.

    Reply
    • February 25, 2015 at 11:08 am
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      What a wonderful surprise, Ashley! I’m desperate to try fellow blogger, Julia Mascardo’s Progressive Dining ideas. She wrote some great posts on A Monorail Loop Progressive Dinner and Progressive Dinner 2: Crescent Lake Dining. One of the things I love about Disney (and what keeps me coming back) is that there’s always something new to do and new to try!

      Reply
  • February 25, 2015 at 11:56 am
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    We went to Disney 2x for Run Disney trips in 2014 and didn’t buy an actual park admission for either trip. For the Princess 1/2 trip, we just enjoyed some pool time and hung out at Wilderness Lodge. For the ToT 10 miler we did MNSSHP and a couple rides in HS after the run. Both trips were really fun and way more relaxing than park heavy trips.

    Reply
  • February 25, 2015 at 12:50 pm
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    I completely understand your desire to spend time in Wilderness Lodge and Grand Floridian. But my choice would be to spend much more of the time at Animal Kingdom Lodge. It’s awesome and the pool is amazing. Have a great trip.

    Reply
    • February 25, 2015 at 2:01 pm
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      Hey Jason,
      You’re so right – the Animal Kingdom Lodge is a destination all on it’s own. Once I get there, I may never leave – but at least I’ll have a plan, in case I’m enticed away. 🙂

      Reply
  • February 25, 2015 at 1:57 pm
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    I’m going to Orlando for a conference in May and have been making my ADR’s and planning little adventures at the resorts because my annual pass has expired and we aren’t renewing just yet (we’re saving for a trip to London). Thanks for the tips and the affirmation to know I’m not the only one who enjoys Disney so much, I go without riding a single attraction! Great ideas in this article too. I had wanted to add a Senses spa treatment, but it’s not in the budget. Still on my bucket list though, and I’ll get there someday.

    Reply
    • February 25, 2015 at 2:06 pm
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      It’s magical just being on property, isn’t it, Marion? I love that Disney planners and Cast Members can make an adventure out of a meal, like at Sanaa or Jiko. Or transport you through time, like at the Grand Floridian, enjoying tea and music from an era long-gone. Or even challenge your outdoorsy-ness with the tamed-version of the wild west at Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness. And that’s just three of their amazing resorts! A Disney vacation (with or without the Parks) is truly incomparable to anything else!

      Reply
  • February 25, 2015 at 6:22 pm
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    Animal Kingdom Lodge is a great resort, but I believe I would rather stay at the Four Seasons in this situation…Disney can’t touch the amenities and excellent service provided by Four Seasons.

    Reply
  • February 25, 2015 at 7:03 pm
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    What great ideas, Lisa, thanks for sharing. For anyone not familiar with the parks, you can take the monorail from the Magic Kingdom to Epcot and see most of the pavilions just from the monorail to get a good mental picture of Epcot’s size and scope.

    There are so many things you can see and do without a park ticket.

    Reply
  • February 25, 2015 at 7:19 pm
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    Husband and I are planning a resort day on our 25th anniversary this summer to include a round at Oak Trail, an hour at Senses, dinner at Narcoosees, and drinks during fireworks at the top of Bay Tower. Any suggestions for other things to do,mostly around Grand Florididian but pretty much anywhere on the monorail?

    Reply
    • February 25, 2015 at 7:54 pm
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      Hi Rosie,
      What a fun day you already have in store! I’m happy to offer other ideas to help you fill your day!
      Try visiting the Polynesian for Hula Dancing Lessons at the activity area behind the lobby Monday – Saturday at 3:45 p.m.
      If your “resort day” falls on a Saturday, see if you can catch the the complimentary Beer Tasting at the Wave at the Contemporary.
      Or while you’re at the Grand Floridian, walk past the Wedding Pavilion, you may see some other happy couples tying the knot, and steal a dance with your own groom in that romantic setting.
      Hope a few of these ideas spark your imagination! And talk to your concierge or other Cast Members on other “little known” resort tips.

      Reply
  • February 25, 2015 at 8:01 pm
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    This is odd, my wife and I are not Disney fans, but felt required as parents to take the kids once or twice in their lives. To be honest, reading some of the devotion people have to the place seems odd to both of us and a little cultish. Anyways, we found it very stressful but it helped that we had a free stay at the Wilderness Lodge (thanks to a boss of my wife’ who donated his DVC points). he offered them again and after a penny pinching year we decided to drive to Animal Kingdom Lodge and not go to any of the Disney Parks, and we did this last week. We did a lot of the non park things (my kids did all the bead activities, and the pirate adventure cruise) as well as SeaWorld and Legoland and Blueman Group. It was a better vacation than he one. Where we went to the Parks.

    Reply
  • February 25, 2015 at 10:36 pm
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    Great timing with this post! My son (almost 6) really wants to go to Legoland and coming from the northeast I can’t seem to make a whole vacation out of Legoland but it is also too far to go for just a weekend. I am thinking of going in the fall, staying on site in Disney for 5 days and doing a legoland day and either MNSSHP or MVMCP and not buying regular park tickets. We would use the rest of the time to explore the resorts, swim if the weather was warm, visit downtown Disney and do a character meal at one of the resorts. I was questioning this plan, wondering if this would be allowed or if people do this kind of Disney vacation. Well you completely answered those questions! Thanks for all the ideas of things to do outside the parks.

    Reply
  • February 26, 2015 at 1:04 pm
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    I’ve never done a total no-parks trip, but in December we were down for a quick long weekend to visit family in another part of Florida, but took a quick sidetrip to Orlando. We happened to time the trip with a date the Magic Kingdom was hosting the Christmas Party, so we spent the morning touring all of the Magic Kingdom area resorts to see the fantastic Christmas decorations, had a leisurely lunch, and then was able to enter the park with our party tickets at 3:30. We stayed until park closing so we got 8.5 hours of Magic Kingdom fun for 2/3 the cost of a regular 1 day ticket. Sure it was weird to go to WDW and only visit the Magic Kingdom and not the other parks, but it was also nice to be so singularly focused. I love the idea of just spending time in the resorts! Have fun on your trip!

    Reply
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  • March 6, 2015 at 1:54 pm
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    I love, love, love your plans! They sound just dreamy and surprisingly busy for not visiting the parks. The only thing I notice that may not work out too well is on the last night, when you will take a boat to MK to catch a bus back to your resort. Keep in mind that everyone else will be exiting the MK at the same time. It could be a madhouse.

    Reply

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