Q: Why do lots of people without kids visit Walt Disney World if they think it’s for the preschool set?
A: They’re getting paid to be there.
My first visit to Walt Disney World as an adult was for a convention. According to Disney Meetings, Walt Disney World is home to over over 700,000 square feet of meeting space. Six of Disney’s own hotels include convention space, and that doesn’t include the on-property Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin resorts, which add 329,000 square feet to that total. Hundreds of thousands of additional conventioneers visit Orlando each year to attend events at the Orange County Convention Center and many other hotels in the area. In other words, if you are a professional who hasn’t attended a conference in Orlando yet, you probably will soon.
However, not everyone visiting central Florida wants to be immersed in Mickey and pals. If you are visiting Walt Disney World as part of a business trip, you may be worried that your visit will be a nightmarish cacophony of cartoony characters.
You can certainly get your fill of characters in Walt Disney World if that’s your thing, but you can also avoid them entirely. This post will explain where to stay during your trip to maintain an oasis of calm in Mickey Central as well as how to fill your leisure time in Walt Disney World without getting too much pixie dust on your clothes, and where you can have a dignified, character-free meal.
Part 1: Where to Stay
You should probably start by planning where not to stay. Avoid Disney’s on-property Value Resort Hotels: Pop Century, Art of Animation (obviously), All-Star Sports, All-Star Music, and All-Star Movies. All five of these resorts rely heavily on three-story-tall models of animated film characters and movie scenes for their theming. If you like Disney characters, this is a great way to feel entirely immersed in Disney branding. If you don’t, it will be a particularly exotic form of torture. These are the least expensive rooms on property, with rooms at All-Star Sports starting at about $99/night in Value Season, so if you are price sensitive, consider looking at off-property hotels.
You should also avoid certain room categories of other resorts. Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside Resort’s exteriors showcase the beauty of their natural surroundings, but inside its Royal Rooms, princess portraits, Disney film references, and regal crowns dominate. And unless you want to spend your trip staring down a skull and crossbones, the Pirate Rooms in Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort are probably a bad bet. Even the Deluxe properties have a fairly high degree of Disney theming: many, including Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort, Yacht Club Resort, and Boardwalk Inn include character art or furnishings in-room. And despite the fairly bland “theme,” the atmosphere of Disney’s Contemporary Resort is shaped by the presence of the boisterous Chef Mickey’s restaurant in the hotel atrium.
However, if your conference’s room block is in Disney hotels — or you want to take advantage of on-site guest benefits — Disney’s Moderate Resort Hotels are probably the best category for minimal theming. Sure, they lack immediate proximity to any of the theme parks, but if you are trying to avoid characters, it’s not worth the extra cost to stay within eyesight of Magic Kingdom.
In fact, if you are visiting for a conference, you may already have a reservation at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort. This property is the only Moderate to feature a convention center, and is also the only one to offer a fitness center to guests. The only overt Disney theming is some Three Caballeros decor in the main building. Rooms there start at about $188 per night in Value Season.
Disney’s Vacation Club Villas also tend to be more subtly themed, especially those that don’t adjoin a non-Vacation Club resort (i.e., Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa and Old Key West Resort). These are somewhat more expensive than Coronado Springs Resort, starting at $368 per night at Saratoga Springs Resort in Value Season. However, most of these properties offer non-bus transportation to at least one park or Downtown Disney, and feature Deluxe-level amenities.
If you really want a mellow oasis for your trip, consider non-Disney owned resorts. While this does mean that you lose some Disney resort benefits (including Magic Bands, the ability to book your Fastpass+ selections 60 days out, free airport transportation on Disney’s Magical Express, and in most cases, access to Extra Magic Hours), you can get a tranquil experience, and better value for the money. If you can do without those resort benefits, a non-Disney hotel is for you.
Staying at an “off-site” property doesn’t even necessarily mean leaving Walt Disney World, either. The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin resorts are Starwood properties, but are an easy walk to Disney’s Boardwalk, Epcot, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Both are popular convention venues, and the shared campus includes a Mandara spa, elaborate pool space, and several non-character-meal restaurants. Rooms start around $188 per night, although your conference may offer a more competitive rate.
Another great value is the joint Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek/Waldorf Astoria Orlando campus. These two hotels share facilities and are just down the street from Disney’s Pop Century and Art of Animation, but a world away in terms of look and feel. These properties together include a lazy river, several restaurants, a spa, and are still within the confines of Walt Disney World property. Rooms at the Hilton start at about $159 per night, and the Waldorf Astoria at about $179 per night.
Ultimately, you can have a relaxing experience in-room at most Walt Disney World resort hotels. But if you would like a more traditional conference-hotel experience, with the level of service typical of three and a half or four-star resorts in the “real world,” you will get the best bang for your buck at non-Disney resorts by the chains you know. Just be prepared to rent a car or take a taxi!
Part 2: What to See and Do
Outside the Parks
You can absolutely visit Walt Disney World and not go into a park. In fact, if you are visiting for a conference, it will be fairly easy to avoid doing so. However, there are still plenty of things you can enjoy on-property without paying the high cost of an admission ticket. Disney enthusiastically promotes its Downtown Disney (soon to be renamed Disney Springs) recreation area, which is a convenient mix of “normal” restaurants, stores, and entertainment venues (including hot-air balloon rides!) in an outdoor plaza. Downtown Disney does contain a dizzyingly large World of Disney store, but you can also find surf wear, running supplies, and even barware shops scattered throughout.
Many of Disney’s resorts also have on-site amenities to help you while away the hours. All of the Disney resort pools compare favorably to hotel pools elsewhere, and all have ample lounge chairs and at least one pool bar – more than enough to keep many people happily occupied for their entire stay. If you prefer to relax indoors, Senses spas at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa and the Mandara spa at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel are all full-service day spas, while fitness centers at other resorts offer massage treatments by appointment. Treatments begin at about $130 for a 50-minute massage, with many add-ons available.
All Magic Kingdom-area resorts, as well as Disney’s Yacht Club, have lakeside marinas with rental boats of varying sizes available for a spin on the water. Sammy Duvall’s Watersports Centre at the Contemporary Resort also provides options like tubing, water skiing, and parasailing. And I’ve never swung a golf club that wasn’t aimed at a tiny windmill, but serious golfers have a whopping four golf courses on property to choose from.
Inside the Parks
However, even though you don’t have to visit a park while at Walt Disney World, I really encourage you to try. If you are part of a conference, your event organizer probably offers you discount full or part-day tickets not available to the general public. These tickets are a great way to have a bite-sized experience of Walt Disney World, and with planning, you can easily visit a Disney park and not be overwhelmed by in-your-face characters and movie tie-ins.
One of the best parks to visit for non-character fans is Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It is inherently less character-driven than other parks — the park is full of real animals, doing normal animal things. The best portions of the park for a non-Disney fan are the Africa and Asia lands, where most of the larger animal exhibits are located. The park’s Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction is a non-corny attraction in actual animal habitats, offering a unique experience of many of the park’s animals that changes on each subsequent ride-through. The Pangani Forest Exploration Trail and Maharajah Jungle Trek are walk-through attractions that rival any zoo. The park’s one major roller coaster, Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain, has no connection to Disney’s movies, but is lovingly themed inside and out, offering the chance to appreciate Disney Imagineering without getting a movie song stuck in your head. Unfortunately, the park’s two air-conditioned shows (Festival of the Lion King and Finding Nemo – The Musical) are both movie focused, but the other stage and street performances in the park are focused on real animals and world musicians.
However, the best bet for the reluctant Disney parks visitor is Epcot. Epcot’s roots are firmly in “edutainment,” and even though characters have begun to permeate the park in the years since its opening, it remains one of the better parks for non-Disney enthusiasts today. In Future World, attractions like Living With the Land, Mission: Space, Spaceship Earth, and Test Track are free of cartoon characters or fairy-tale imagery. World Showcase is an oasis of largely un-Disney-branded space in the Walt Disney World parks. Other than Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros, Epcot’s World Showcase is a playground for adults. You can purchase authentic imports from national pavilions, watch street performers, browse cultural exhibits, and watch theater-style attractions without a single animated character in them (unless we’re counting Japanese anime!). At night, Illuminations: Reflections of Earth is both my favorite night spectacular, easier to see than any of the others, and not only has no characters, but has no Disney references at all.
If you happen to be in Walt Disney World during Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival, you are in even more luck. You can easily spend a full day roaming the Food and Wine booths in addition to the normal Epcot attractions, plus the seasonal “Eat to the Beat” concerts nightly in the America Gardens theater. Similar programming is available during Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival in the spring, with fewer crowds, but you may find the character topiaries scattered throughout the park a bit cloying.
You’ll probably want to give Magic Kingdom a pass — while it is a wonderful theme park, it is also bursting at the seams with pixie dust and fairy tales. It has two castles. Likewise, Disney’s Hollywood Studios relies heavily on Disney’s film intellectual property for content, and most of the attractions and entertainment are centered around characters. If you are dragged by coworkers or family to these parks, don’t panic. First and foremost, all Walt Disney World parks now have Starbucks locations, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios even has several bars. If your loved ones insist upon spending time with you visiting attractions, steer them towards those that haven’t had movies made about them – Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Jungle Cruise, and the Hall of Presidents in Magic Kingdom and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster in Disney’s Hollywood Studios are both Mickey-free. If you like fireworks, but don’t like sentiment, try catching Wishes, Magic Kingdom’s fireworks show, from outside the park. The explosions are still great, the crowds are smaller, and in most places, there’s no soundtrack.
Disney’s Imagineers create some of the most richly-themed amusement park environments in the world, and even if you are skeptical, it’s worth it to try at least one. Even if you can’t stomach the idea of skipping merrily through Cinderella’s Castle, take some time to immerse yourself in the market in Harambe, the back streets of Morocco, or the boisterous pub in the United Kingdom — you’ll be glad you did.
Part 3: Where to Eat
Out of all the aspects of planning a low-key, minimal-character trip to Walt Disney World, this is the easiest. Despite what you might expect, Walt Disney World has a number of adult-oriented dining options, and the restaurants with less theming tend to focus more on the quality of meals. You can have a great meal without overdosing on Disney characters, even inside the parks. And I promise: no Mickey-shaped food!
First and foremost (and hopefully obviously), avoid restaurants with character meals. At places like Chef Mickey’s, Crystal Palace, or Cinderella’s Royal Table, even if you ask to have the characters skip your individual table, the meals are regularly interrupted by parades, processions, or napkin-twirling jamborees. For similar reasons, you may want to avoid overtly family- and child-focused dining options that feature gimmicks, such as the Whispering Canyon Cafe, 50s Prime Time Cafe, or Rainforest Cafe. These locations are character-free, and great if you are looking for a goofy, highly-interactive meal — and awful if you want to enjoy your food in peace.
If you want something a little unusual, but without the hijinks, look at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater, which has an elaborately-themed “movie set” atmosphere and plenty of B-movie clips to watch, but few interruptions from staff or animatronics. However, don’t go here expecting fine cuisine – this is a place where you can get a burger with a hot dog on top (for about $18). In Epcot, many of the World Showcase restaurants manage to be both entertaining and less indigestion-inducing, particularly those not directly owned and operated by Disney. For example, Restaurant Marrakesh, in the Moroccan pavilion, features entertainment from a bellydancer during the meal. And while it is standard teppanyaki, Teppan Edo in the Japan pavilion is a solid choice for a fun dinner out with family or a group of coworkers. Expect to pay a little more than you would for teppanyaki in your hometown — entrees are about $30 a person.
A better bet is to eat at a resort restaurant, particularly if you are staying in the Walt Disney World Dolphin or Swan Hotels. If you can get reservations or are willing to wait, Todd English’s bluezoo in the Dolphin offers well-prepared fresh seafood entrees at $35 a person and up, including a whole fresh fish served tableside. If you don’t want to want to wait, or your budget isn’t up to the full restaurant, a bar menu is also available and provides the same ambiance. Surprisingly, the poolside lounge at the Dolphin is also an excellent spot to have a laid-back meal. The Cabana Bar and Beach Club overlooks the posh lap pool at the shared Dolphin and Swan pool complex, and offers fresh options like sushi and fish tacos in addition to hot sandwiches and cocktails.
Finally, it’s hard to cover classy, character-free dining without mentioning the Grand Floridian. Ignoring the character meals at 1900 Park Fare (and the characters inlaid in the marble floor of the lobby!), the Grand Floridian is the place to go for an adult night out. Each of the “monorail restaurants” (Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Polynesian Village Resort, and Grand Floridian Resort) host their own lounges and casual restaurants, but the Grand Floridian offers three deluxe dining options, complete with dress codes, on top of that. Cítricos, Narcoossee’s, and Victoria and Albert’s (the only AAA five-diamond restaurant in Orlando) will all provide reliably elegant, and accordingly expensive, evenings out. Strangely, the one likeliest to feel the most “Disney” is Victoria and Albert’s — because the restaurant’s harpist or violinist may play arrangements based on Disney themes! However, at $150 and up per person, hopefully you will be too busy enjoying the meal to care. (Note that due to their cachet and location, restaurants in the Grand Floridian require reservations in advance — far in advance.)
If you didn’t make those plans and you are at a loss for where to eat, another good strategy is to use the My Disney Experience app for last-minute reservations. Generally, the first restaurants to book up are those you won’t want to visit anyway – the character meals and reliably rowdy family establishments. You will always be able to book a last-minute table somewhere on property, and usually, those tables will be at quieter, mellower spots a little further off the beaten path.
Attending a conference at Walt Disney World is a wonderful experience, and may just open you up to the wonders of a Disney theme park, even if you don’t like that kid stuff.