Kids need time for free play, even on a Disney vacation, just as surely as parents need to sit down and relax. Disney World play areas are elaborate and fun, but it’s hard to relax when children have so much room to roam–not to mention they’re usually hot, sweaty places. Animal Kingdom’s offering, The Boneyard? Might as well be in the actual desert digging up real dinosaur bones. Disney’s Hollywood Studios‘ play area, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set Adventure? Blades of grass really don’t provide much shade, even when you’re ant-sized. And the sprawling size of these areas means sitting down and relaxing is out of the question when your little explorer is on the go.
I brought up a toddler with Walt Disney World as our backyard, and finding spots for him to play at the parks and resorts was much more fun than sitting at the tiny playground at our apartment complex. These are a few of our favorite places that let a kid shake off the structure of a theme park day, while the parents can put up their feet and relax for a few minutes.
Epcot – The Seas With Nemo and Friends. Although this pavilion opens with an dark ride attraction, its massive saltwater aquariums can be enjoyed at a slower pace–or no pace at all. Toddlers tend to love the circular observation area which juts into the main tank, and it’s often sparsely populated. This means you can settle down for a while and enjoy the dim light and air conditioning, while the little one makes fish faces through the glass. Don’t forget that you can enter The Seas through the merchandise location, bypassing the ride–just bear left as you approach the pavilion, and go through the sliding glass doors. This makes it an even more enticing attraction when all you want to do is relax for a little while without standing in another queue.
Disney’s BoardWalk Inn – the lawn. Just behind the hotel stairway down to the Boardwalk entertainment area, a wide grassy lawn with inviting benches beckons tired parents with revved-up kids. Sit back with ice cream or a refreshing drink from Seashore Sweets and let your toddler run on the grass without worrying about little knees scraped by the sidewalk. This is a great spot to make new friends–my son has joined pick-up football games, played along with girls practicing their gymnastics, and just plain run around like a crazy person while we adults relax on a park bench.
Epcot, Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom – water play areas. At each of these parks, you’ll find splash zones with fountains and plenty of opportunities to get soaking wet. Water play areas are pretty much irresistible for little kids, and usually an unwelcome surprise for parents who didn’t expect them. When our son was little, I always threw water shoes and a change of clothes into my park bag. Sometimes, an evening visit to Epcot consisted of dinner, Spaceship Earth, and a half hour kicking back on a bench while Calvin played in the water play area along the walkway to World Showcase. Plenty of fun for one night, right?
Magic Kingdom – the Dumbo waiting area. I’ll always miss the short-lived Winnie-the-Pooh playground, (replaced by Seven Dwarfs Mine Train) but this works as well. At the Dumbo the Flying Elephant attraction in Fantasyland, you can pick up a pager that signals when it’s your turn to queue up for the next elephant, and spend the waiting time in an air-conditioned circus tent, complete with an elaborate circus-themed play area for children. What happens if you just ignore your buzzer and let the kids keep on playing while you soak up some cool air? Probably nothing but a delayed elephant ride, and the free-play time is priceless–for everyone involved.
Epcot – Germany’s model railroad. “The Romantic Road,” the sign calls it, and it’s love at first sight for tiny train fanatics. The model railroad, located just south of the Germany pavilion in World Showcase, is an elaborate set-up that climbs up a terraced hillside, with several pathways criss-crossing the landscape. Although the railroad area lacks a good place to sit, a parent with a train-crazy toddler can lean on the railing, sip a German beer, and let the trains work their magic. My son’s devotion to the train was such that we actually had to structure our walks around World Showcase to avoid it if we had actual plans for the day–he would happily spend hours running back and forth, watching the little trains make their way through towns, tunnels, and forests.
Those are a few of my favorite spots to give kids non-structured playtime. How about yours? Let us know in the comments!