Yes, You Can Truly Have A Relaxing (and Free!) Visit To Walt Disney World!
We’ve been to Disney World a lot beginning with our honeymoon in 1993, with Rob’s parents and my Dad shortly after my Mom died in 1994, by ourselves in 2005 and again with Rob’s parents just before Christmas in 2006. Then every year since we became RV’ers in 2011.
On many of these trips we’ve raced from theme park to theme park, trying to see as many of the attractions and shows that we could in a day. But now that we’ve “been there and done that” many times and we’re a little older, a little less ambitious, perhaps a little smarter and with limited funds, racing around the parks just doesn’t excite us anymore. Our changing natures are evident in the fact that we bought two non-expiring 7 day park hopper tickets in 2011 and here we are 4 years later and we still have 4 days left!
People are often surprised when we tell them our trips to Disney often don’t involve visiting the theme parks, and if we do it is only for a brief excursion. The natural question then is “if you don’t go to the theme parks, why even bother going to Disney?” Or “what’s there to do if you don’t go to the theme parks?” What many people don’t realize is that you can still have a wonderful (and much more relaxing) time as there is so much more to a magical Disney experience than just the theme parks.
A few of the reasons are:
- Disney “theming” and exceptional attention to detail is very much alive at all the free to visit Disney owned resorts. Once you begin to notice the details it becomes apparent that a great deal of research and effort went in to the design and execution of these beautiful facilities, particularly the higher end resorts. For example the Wilderness lodge is modeled after the Old Faithful Lodge at Yellowstone Nat’l Park and incorporates elements from many other US National Parks, such as the massive fireplace that represents all the levels of rock strata found in the grand canyon and the enormous totem poles that stand watch over the lobby. The halls and public rooms are just chock full of all kinds of authentic and interesting memorabilia. Several of the resorts offer free tours that talk about all the thinking and history behind the design, as well as the often overlooked details incorporated within.
- Free Disney transportation. If you stay at Fort Wilderness or any of the other Disney properties you have free access to the Disney transportation network including boats, buses and the Monorail. (Note: I don’t know if it is officially condoned, but even if your not staying at a Disney property you can ride all the Disney transportation as well – no one has ever asked us for any sort of ID, so your only expense would be for parking. However, I do not believe any non-staying guests will be allowed into any of the resort parking lots with their own vehicles). Fort Wilderness has free boats that will take you to the Contemporary, Wilderness Lodge, Grand Floridian and Polynesian resorts as well as the Magic Kingdom. From the Magic Kingdom you can ride the monorail for free to the Grand Floridian, Contemporary, Polynesian and the Ticket & Transportation Center (TTC) where you can board another free monorail which will take you on a ride right thru the center of Epcot. And its just a short 5 minute ride from Ft Wilderness by car or Disney bus to the Port Orleans Riverside resort where you can board a boat on the Sassagoula river for a free ride to Downtown Disney. If you visit the Boardwalk area (by car or bus from Fort Wilderness) you will find boats there as well that travel between the Boardwalk Inn, Yacht Club, Beach Club, Swan and Dolphin resorts as well as Epcot and Hollywood Studios.
- Fort Wilderness itself is a pretty nice campground and has lots to do including horseback riding, Segway tours, a nice pool, campfire sing-a-long and movie each evening, Magic Kingdom fireworks visible from the marina, a paved walking/bike path (~1 mile) to the Wilderness Lodge, boat rentals, etc.
Another comment we often hear about visiting Disney is “well, that’s just a place for kids…”. We completely disagree, it seems very clear to us that Disney is very purposely designed from the ground up with adults in mind. Sure, the “kiddie” attractions will give parents the initial impetus to visit, but they will quickly realize it’s not all just for the kids – seems like a brilliant marketing strategy to me! We see lots of couples there without children. And as far as there being a lot of kids around, well sure, but we can tell you while all of them are out exhausting themselves and their parents at the theme parks, the campground and other resorts are mostly peaceful and quiet for the majority of the day.
During this visit to Disney, we talked several times about going into the theme parks but decided against it especially when we learned that Run Disney was taking place from Thursday, the 11th to Sunday, the 14th. Run Disney is a very popular event with a 26.2 mile marathon, a half marathon, 10K, 5K and kid’s races taking place within the parks and on the main roads throughout Disney. Not sure how many people there actually were but I heard a figure of 70,000 although I’m not sure if that was just runners or if it included the family and friends cheering on the runners. The good news was that the races started at 5:30 a.m. and were over by 9:00 a.m. for the shorter races and 1:00 p.m. for the full marathon.
One thing I have to say about Disney is there are always changes and improvements happening as was the case this time, maybe that’s because it’s a slower time of year. Everywhere we went there seemed to be some form of construction going on. On the nightly news from Orlando, we heard that Hollywood Studios (formerly MGM) is undergoing major changes due to the fact that it is the least visited of all the parks, falling behind Animal Kingdom last year. Tearing down of the towering sorcerer’s hat in the center of the park began the week we were there. Rumor has it that the park will feature more Star Wars attractions in the future.
So what did we do this time? Well, in one word lots!
Exploring Fort Wilderness
Walking, Walking and More Walking
Yep, my Fit Bit and I are still best friends – still going strong walking over 10,000 steps each day. Of course on a few days, I didn’t quite meet my 10,000 step goal because of lousy weather or we were traveling but guess that is to be expected. Current tally since December 10th, 2014 is 391,267 steps, 176 miles. Hubby has been in constant amazement at my new attitude especially at Disney. For example, instead of taking the boat back from Wilderness Lodge to Fort Wilderness, yours truly wanted to walk the two miles. Huh, what happened to my former wife he’s been asking. Instead of whining about how far things were, I am enthusiastically walking. Who would have thought!
Getting New Shoes
No, not for us but for the Disney horses! At the Triple-Circle-D Ranch at Fort Wilderness, we stopped to watch a farrier (a blacksmith who specializes in shoeing horses), later joined by another farrier (his father) put new shoes on a couple of the Disney horses. Both men were very willing to answer our questions and tell us about themselves and the shoeing process – they were originally from South Dakota where the father had been a farrier for 35 years, the son about 10 years.
Fascinating watching them get their new shoes! It took several “fits” using the coal fired hearth to shape the shoe to fit the hoof, and a file to shape the hoof to the shoe. We saw one of the shoes that the farrier removed – I think the horse must have had a pronation problem as one side of the shoe was worn much more than the other. When you see the long nails in the shoe, you would think that it would hurt the hooves but not so, both horses stood there patiently without a care in the world.
Eventually we left and strolled through the barn where the horses are kept. Each horse has a plaque outside his stall with the name, the breed and what type of food it is fed. What kind of horses do they have at the Ranch? Several different breeds, including the large draft horses who pull the Magic Kingdom trolleys – black, grey and dapple Percherons, Belgians and Clydesdales. The horses used for the trail rides include Quarter Horses, Arabians, Paints, a few mixed breeds, a draft horse cross and one Gypsy Vanner. The pony herd (including the sets of white ponies who pull Cinderella’s coach) is comprised of Shetlands and a few miniature horses. The horses and ponies on the Ranch are used for pony rides, wagon rides, horse drawn carriage rides, holiday sleigh rides, event parades or horseback.
Wonder how the Ranch got it’s name? Triple-Circle refers to the three circles that make the famous Mickey Mouse head silhouette and, of course, “D” stands for “Disney”.
Each night at 9:00 p.m. there are fireworks over Cinderella’s castle at Magic Kingdom. When you stay at Fort Wilderness, you don’t need to go the park to see them. Enjoy them as we did one night from the beach at the marina where there is an excellent view of the spectacular show and chairs on the beach to sit in while you watch. You won’t be right in the middle of the action of course, but then again you won’t be right in the middle of the crowds either! Disney even pipes in the audio from the performance!
Electric Water Pageant
On our last night there, we walked to the beach to see the Electric Water Pageant, featuring 14 floats with lights that depict images of sea creatures followed by the American Flag. Though it has changed somewhat since its debut in 1971, this pageant remains one of the few original opening year shows to still be running at Walt Disney World. This show makes the rounds to all the resorts on the lake in the Magic Kingdom area. If this sounds familiar, we wrote about this in a previous post during our visit in 2012.
For various reasons, this is one of our favorite things to do, walking around the resorts and hanging out in the lobby. As previously mentioned the theming is outstanding and we find new things to marvel at every time we go. Our favorite resorts are the Wilderness Lodge, Grand Floridian, Animal Kingdom Lodge, Polynesian, Port Orleans Riverside and French Quarter, Boardwalk Inn, Yacht Club, Swan and Dolphin. There are many more we have never even visited! We were surprised to see decorated Christmas trees still majestically standing in the Wilderness Lodge and the Grand Floridian.
Themed on the Victorian era of grand hotels, there was no new construction going on here. Always enjoy hanging out in the lobby, listening to the pianist playing old favorites and watching little kids running around the Christmas tree.
Usually we take the monorail from here over to the Polynesian but this year we decided to walk the jogging path past the wedding chapel and a small beach area. Very nice and scenic walk along the lake shore. Surprised that it wasn’t that far.
Themed as a tropical village resort. Lots of construction going on here. New guest bungalows on the lagoon are still under construction although they look close to being finished. The resort’s main swimming pool is undergoing a major refurbishment including the demolition of the infamous volcano slide, so the pool is closed until March 15th. The pool area is being expanded and will include a 12 person hot tub and an aquatic play area for the kids. But the biggest change that totally shocked us was in the lobby – the tropical gardens and the waterfall are gone. Wow, why did they do that I wonder!
One new addition that we enjoyed here was the Pineapple Lanai which is the new home for Dole Whip (the Dole Whip soft serve machines were formerly located in Capt’n Cook’s restaurant which has been closed). Located just outside the Ceremonial Room on the ground floor, we enjoyed a rest from our walking and shared a cup of very refreshing pineapple and vanilla soft serve swirl. Good thing we just ordered one to share – it was pretty big and oh, so yummy!
As previously mentioned themed after the great US National Parks. A few new things here since our visit last year. Outside there was a new fence surrounding the pool area. A splash pad had been added similar to the one at the Grand Floridian with buckets that fill, then dump water on the kids. Fun watching the kids laugh and scream as they get doused with water.
Inside their majestic Christmas tree and other Christmas decorations were still on display in the lobby. We wanted to take the tour of the lodge again which is on Wednesday – Saturday at 9:00 a.m. but never made it there. This is one of our favorites. Also, adjacent to the main lodge lobby is a separate building for the vacation club (time-share) villas. In the lobby here and adjacent sitting rooms is some very interesting Walt Disney memorabilia including photos and even some of the actual trains Walt built himself long before Disneyland became a reality.
Animal Kingdom Lodge
Themed on African culture and safari. While this resort is out of the way and only accessible by bus or car, it is well worth a visit. On our last day at Disney, we drove over to AKL where we have stayed several times prior to purchasing the coach. This is a very unique resort with an excellent series of “savannahs” between the room wings where the animals roam freely. When we arrived, we were surprised to find ourselves in a parking garage, taking an elevator to the lobby – don’t remember that! In the lobby, Rob kept saying that it was much smaller than it used to be. Well, it turned out that we were in a new section which opened in 2009 (our last stay there was in 2006) called Kidani Village which are villas that are part of Disney’s Vacation Club property. This was all new to us – no wonder we were confused!
We spent some very relaxing and enjoyable time enjoying the views, watching the giraffes, wildebeests, antelopes and various birds roam the savannah. Finally we left and drove over to the other section of the lodge which is where we stayed on previous visits, now called the Jambo House. Ah, yes, this was more like what we remembered. Part of the lobby was screened off as they were doing some type of construction here as well.
There are several free tours offered at AKL – a Sanaa cultural tour, an African Design Tour and a culinary tour. The last time we stayed at AKL, we took the free tour of BOMA (one of the restaurants) and got to sample a few of the dishes offered on their buffet. I would have liked to have experienced the Design Tour but it was at 4:00 p.m. and we would have had to hang around for a few hours so we didn’t. Not sure exactly when these tours are offered but based on our experience with the Wilderness Lodge, I’m sure they are quite interesting. BTW,these tours are available to anyone, not just the guests of AKL.
Port Orleans Riverside and French Quarter
As mentioned previously we stayed at Port Orleans Riverside on several occasions (it is a “Moderate” resort and lower priced) so we are quite familiar with it but after our boat ride to Downtown Disney (described below), we decided to walk the path along the river to the French Quarter since we had never explored that section of the resort before. We were surprised how big it was. And in the usual Disney attention to detail it was a pretty good representation of New Orleans complete with a small area designated as Jackson Square.
We often wondered how many rooms there are at Disney World. With a little research I found out that Disney World has over 32,000 rooms! Whew, that’s a lot of rooms! Hard to imagine that there are times when they are totally booked!
On the 7th, we drove the 5 minutes over to Port Orleans Riverside and took the boat to Downtown DIsney. Boy, a lot of changes have taken place here and from what we heard, there’s a lot more to come! Looking from the boat to the shore as we approached Downtown Disney, it was obvious there were changes underfoot – construction everywhere. Then we landed at a brand new dock – it is no longer near the Rainforest Cafe but a good distance away alleviating much of the congestion between the restaurant and the boat dock. Plus it was much bigger and much nicer – the waiting area is now covered so you don’t have to wait in the hot sun. Good move, Disney!
According to our boat captain and an article I found, there is “a three year transformation happening. Downtown Disney will be transformed into Disney Springs, a unique destination that will treat guests to significantly more shopping, dining and entertainment offerings amid beautiful open-air promenades, meandering springs and waterfront charm.”
In the end, Disney Springs will consist of over 150 shops and dining establishments with four districts: the Town Center offering shopping (including non-Disney retailers such as Apple, Dior and Brooks Brothers to name a few) and dining, the Landing with rustic buildings and waterfront views, the West Side featuring entertainment and the Marketplace offering new experiences along with classic Disney favorites. Almost near completion was a new over the water pedestrian bridge that links the Rainforest Cafe area to the T-Rex area, another great idea as this bridge will allow visitors to bypass the congestion in the shopping area.
Dining at Disney
Sorry no great breakfast reports during this stay! Unless you want to spend $20+ for a mediocre cafeteria style breakfast or a buffet at one of the resorts, which we didn’t, having breakfast within Disney wasn’t an option for us. The only breakfast we had out was on several errand days when we stopped at a nearby Bob Evans and at Waffle House. Nothing exciting to report there.
Raglan Road Irish Pub
But the chef did get two nights off from cooking! On the 8th, we drove to Downtown Disney (too chilly to take the boat as night temps were dropping into the 40’s) and had an early dinner at the Raglan Road Irish Pub and Restaurant, voted best restaurant in 2014 by Orlando Magazine. We thought we would be there in time for lunch but there was a lot of construction in the parking areas which meant a long walk to the restaurant so we didn’t arrive until 2:50 p.m. (the lunch menu ends at 3:00 p.m.). We had to wait for a table until after 3:00 p.m. so had to order from the dinner menu. Wasn’t a big deal – the menu was pretty much the same with only a $1 or $2 price differential.
Our meal started off with complemetary Guiness Irish soda bread served with a Guiness sauce. Quite different (but really good) from the soda bread I’ve had at other Irish restaurants. For an appetizer, we had an order of onion rings with a spicy remoulade sauce, then at the recommendation of our waitress, we both had the Banger & Booz – Guinness & onion bangers (sausage) on mash (potatoes), topped with caramelized onions & beef stew ($20). Delish! As we stuffed our faces, we were wishing our friends, Jim and Ann, had been able to join us for a day at Disney! Oh well, next time!
At 4:00 p.m. the entertainment arrived, on this particular night there was an Irish singing duo appearing on stage. At 5:00 p.m. there is Irish dancing but we had left by then so we didn’t get to enjoy that.
Big River Grille
On the day before our departure, we went to Animal Kingdom Lodge, then drove over to the Boardwalk area (parked at the Boardwalk Inn) where we jumped on the boat, got off at the Yacht Club and Beach Resort, then walked around the outside of the Swan and the Dolphin hotels. By the time we finished all that around 4:00 p.m. we were getting tired and hungry so we stopped at the Big River Grille back at the main Barwalk area for a bite to eat.
With the influx of people from the Marathon we weren’t sure if we would have to wait for a table or not but I guess we were there early enough so we were seated right away. I had a coupon sent by them in celebration of my one year anniversary for joining their mailing list for a free appetizer so we started off with their delicious Jalapeno Spinach Cheese Dip (spinach and onions blended with melted jalapeno jack cheese and served hot with tortilla chips). After that we didn’t want or need a big meal so we had their blackened mahi mahi sandwich which was excellent. Good thing I’m doing a lot of walking – this eating out is a killer!
So that wraps up another wonderful stay at Disney! Even though we didn’t plan on a visit this year, it was still lots of fun. And there is still a lot more to see when we visit next time! So see, you can totally ignore the theme parks, save a ton of money and still have lots of fun at Disney!
We’ll let you know where we went next in our next post. Stay tuned!
For more photos associated with this post, click here.
We did miss Disney this year! We are back in the cold north brrrrrrrr….. And trying to adjust again! Thanks for the Disney update, great job!
Great, post! Thanks for the excellent insight!
Pingback: An Oh So Magical Experience! – My Quantum Discovery