THE REST OF THE WORLD - Fodor's Walt Disney World with Kids (2015)

Fodor's Walt Disney World with Kids (2015)

Disney World is more than theme parks. Way more. Savvy visitors have discovered a whole host of entertainment options available without setting foot in a park. Want to try surfing? A Hawaiian luau? A tea party with Alice and the Mad Hatter? An afternoon in the spa? Or even more shopping? Don’t worry, Disney has you covered!

If you’re looking for a unique blend of shops, restaurants, and entertainment that doesn’t require a theme-park ticket, head to Downtown Disney. Here you’ll find shopping, bowling, movies, and nightclubs—as well as DisneyQuest and Cirque du Soleil.

And if you’re all too pooped to venture out or you have younger kids who need a rest, not to worry. The Disney hotels offer their own entertainment and sporting options. Water sports and boating can be enjoyed by all ages, and daredevils in the group can try parasailing along Bay Lake. There’s also tennis, biking, and golf, including two of the most innovative miniature golf courses in the world.

Repeat visitors might be interested in trying something different within the theme parks, such as a tour that takes you behind the scenes or one of the special holiday parties held during Halloween and Christmas. The point is that even when you’re sure you’ve “done Disney,” there’s always still a little more Disney to do.

Getting to the Rest of the World

Staying on-site? Although the Disney transportation system does a good job of shuttling guests between the on-site hotels and the major theme parks, it slows down a bit when it comes to the minor parks. Consult the transportation guide you’re given at check-in for the best route from your resort to anywhere on Disney property. If the trip involves two transfers and you don’t have a car, consider taking a cab. They’re easy to get from any on-site resort, and the cost of being hauled from one end of Disney property to another is around $15-$20.

Staying off-site? If you have your own car, use it. Off-site hotels rarely offer shuttle service to anything other than the major parks. If you don’t have a car, call a cab.

Getting to Downtown Disney

On-site hotels have direct bus service to Downtown Disney. The buses make two stops, which means a fairly lengthy commute, especially to get to DisneyQuest or Cirque du Soleil, which are far from any bus stops. Those staying at Port Orleans, Saratoga Springs, or Old Key West have boat service directly to the Marketplace.

In addition, on-site and off-site guests with cars can drive directly to Downtown Disney. There’s no charge for parking.

Getting to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex

The fastest route is to drive your own car. Buses are an option, but few run to this out-of-the-way location. Check your transportation guide for the best route from your resort; if more than two transfers are involved, take a cab.

Going Between Resorts

On-site guests with their own cars can simply drive to any new resort and inform the guard they’re visiting for dinner or another activity. If you don’t have your own car, your simplest option is to take a cab. Your cheapest option is to use the theme park that’s closest to you as a transfer station. For example, if you’re staying at the Grand Floridian and have dinner reservations at the BoardWalk, take the monorail to the Magic Kingdom and catch a bus to the BoardWalk from there.


Character Breakfasts (if you have kids under 9)

Cirque du Soleil

DisneyQuest (if you have kids over 10)

Downtown Disney

Downtown Disney

The enormous entertainment, dining, and shopping complex known as Downtown Disney is packed at night. Families who’d like to visit when there are fewer crowds should show up in the afternoon and eat dinner relatively early, like at 5 pm. It’s a great spot for the first afternoon or evening of your vacation. It doesn’t require a ticket but still has plenty of Disney spirit.

“We didn’t want to buy a ticket for our first day, since we were landing in Orlando around noon,” reported one woman who visited with her husband and 14-year-old sister. “Instead we went to Downtown Disney, and had a great meal and then did some shopping. It was a low-key, perfect introduction to Disney World.”

Off-season, Downtown Disney sections open at staggered times. If you have questions about hours, check with Guest Relations (a.k.a. Guest Services) at your hotel.

Downtown Disney Marketplace

The Marketplace section of Downtown Disney, not surprisingly, is full of shops. A good place to start is the World of Disney, the largest Disney store on Earth and the best place to find that perfect souvenir. Little girls will freak out at the sight of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, where they can purchase princess costumes, then have their hair, makeup, and nails done. Packages range from $50 for hairstyling and makeup to over $190 for a complete photo portfolio and costume you can keep. Kids must be at least three years old to participate, and you can make appointments 180 days in advance by calling 407/939-7895 (407/WDW-STYLE).

Warning: Once you go princess, it’s hard to go back. “We were arriving in Orlando in the afternoon,” wrote a mother from New York, “and as you suggested we went to Downtown Disney, so we wouldn’t burn a day on our theme-park tickets. We thought it would be cute to have our 5-year-old daughter Kate outfitted at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique to kick off her Disney vacation, but as it turns out, she was so enchanted with her new look that she refused to take down her hairdo, change clothes, or wash her face for the next seven days. In pictures we took near the end of vacation, Kate looks like Belle on crack.”


The Magic Kingdom boutique—while undeniably glamorous—requires theme-park admission. To maximize your expensive tickets, spend your day in the Magic Kingdom enjoying attractions, and visit the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique at Downtown Disney on your day off or the first evening you arrive. That way you’re not burning a day on your ticket.

Another must-see is Once Upon a Toy, the ultimate shop for Disney-theme toys. Kids also enjoy Team Mickey’s Athletic Club, which sells sporting equipment and clothes, and the Days of Christmas. The LEGO Store is just amazing, with enormous LEGO sculptures scattered around the lagoon, as well as a play area where kids can build their own models. Of course, without a budget, this can get out of control very fast. “I do have to take issue with your description of Downtown Disney as ‘free,’ ” wrote one mother from Virginia. “We ended up spending more there than we did in any of the theme parks!”

Stop by the Art of Disney, where you can view limited-edition animation cels and other collectibles. Scrapbook hobbyists will enjoy Disney’s Wonderful World of Memories, which is next door.

The Rainforest Café is great fun because birds and fish (real) and rhinos and giraffes (fake) surround your table while you eat. Check out the bar stools with their flamingo and zebra legs. T-REX, with a dinosaur theme (duh), is also oriented toward families. You’re greeted by a life-size T-Rex as you enter and walk through a prehistoric environment with waterfalls, geysers, and a fossil dig site.

The part of Downtown Disney known as Pleasure Island is in transition; this area will reopen in stages. Right now it looks a bit like a ghost town, but two restaurants—the popular Irish pub Raglan Road and the Latin-theme Paradiso 37—are both open and well worth the walk.


Look closely at the fountains near the entrance to the Downtown Disney Marketplace. Does the shape look familiar?

Also, between Pleasure Island and the West Side is a tethered hot-air balloon known as Characters in Flight as a tribute to Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, and some of Disney’s other lofty stars. The balloon gently lifts 400 feet into the air for a great view of the surrounding area. Prices for a ride are $18 adult, $12 child. The cost is a bit steep (no pun intended) for the experience.

Downtown Disney West Side

The West Side is home to a variety of shops and restaurants, a 24-screen AMC theater, a 30-lane bowling alley called Splitsville, and two major attractions: DisneyQuest and Cirque du Soleil.

Bongos Cuban Café offers an Americanized version of Cuban dishes, a wild tropical decor, and throbbing Latin music. Crossroads at House of Blues serves up Cajun and creole cooking along with live jazz, country, and blues music. The Gospel Brunch at 10:30 am and 1 pm on Sunday is an especially good choice for families. Prices are $46.50 for adults and $28.25 for kids three to nine. Call 407/934-2583 (407/934-BLUE) or visit to buy tickets.

Wolfgang Puck Café serves terrific pizzas and sushi downstairs. Request the upstairs dining room for tonier adult dining. The giant blue globe of Planet Hollywood holds movie props, and even the menus—printed with high-school graduation pictures of stars—are entertaining.

Splitsville, in addition to its 30 bowling lanes, features billiards, live entertainment, and its own restaurant, which serves pizza, sushi, and sliders. One mother described Splitsville as “the nicest and most expensive bowling alley we’ve ever seen. An hour of bowling cost us $80.” And be warned: After 8 pm Splitsville caters to an adult crowd. Visit in the afternoon or early evening.


Most people call DisneyQuest an arcade—and within its five levels you will, indeed, see classic arcade games. But you’ll also find high-tech interactive experiences that almost defy description.


Downtown Disney is on the verge of a major expansion. When the new waterfront section called Disney Springs is complete, it will nearly double the number of shops and restaurants, bringing the total to 150.

Favorite games include Pirates of the Caribbean, where you take the deck to battle phantom buccaneers, and Virtual Jungle Cruise, an exhausting river-raft ride in which you paddle through the rapids of a prehistoric world. During your stay you can also fight comic-book villains, shoot foam balls at your competitors in a bumper-car war, and become a human joystick in a hockey-style pinball game.

Time-Saving Tip DisneyQuest gets crowded in the evening, on weekends, and on rainy days. To make sure you have the chance to try out everything, visit at opening time on a weekday, which is usually around 11:30 am. The hours of operation vary seasonally, so check My Disney Experience for info on the date you’ll be visiting.

The centerpiece attraction of DisneyQuest is CyberSpace Mountain, in which you design your own virtual roller coaster. You can build in as many flips, spirals, and hills as time and distance allow; program in the speed of the car; and even get to name the sucker. When you’re finished, your coaster is given a scariness rating from 1 to 5, meaning that you can either design a gentle, rolling grade-1 coaster suitable for kids or a flip-you-over, slam-you-down grade-5 coaster. (If your coaster gets a rating that’s too mild or too wild, you can always redesign it.) Then you enter a booth where you’re strapped into a capsule to ride a virtual re-creation of your design.

Needless to say, preteens and teens can get hooked on this stuff very fast, and DisneyQuest is primarily designed for the age 10-20 set. But there’s entertainment for younger siblings as well, and any age can enjoy the arcade games or the Create Zone where you can design your own toy or learn to draw a Disney character.

TIP No strollers are allowed inside DisneyQuest, and there are a lot of stairs. Plan accordingly.

A single entry price ($47 for adults, $40 for kids 3 to 9) lets you play as long and as much as you like—an alarming thought for the parents of a 12-year-old boy. Admission is also included with the Water Park Fun & More option and, if you’re willing to buy in advance, online discounts are often available as well.


DisneyQuest is large and loud, and each play zone has steps leading to other levels. In other words, it’s easy to lose your kids. If you’re going to let older kids and teens explore on their own, pick a designated time and place to regroup.

Cirque du Soleil

After a week at Disney World, probably the last thing you’re itching to do is buy an expensive ticket to watch an acrobatic show, but the Cirque du Soleil show La Nouba positively wowed the families we surveyed.

Although the athleticism and agility of the troupe will amaze you, it’s their ability to use props, sets, costumes, and their bodies to set a mood and tell a story that makes Cirque du Soleil unique. Don’t expect any elephants or people being shot out of cannons—Cirque performances are more like theater than a traditional circus. Cirque du Soleil can best be appreciated by kids age eight and up.

Cirque du Soleil has a multitier pricing structure. Depending on where you sit and when you visit, general tickets range from $80 to $155 for adults and $64 to $126 for kids ages three to nine. The 90-minute show normally runs Tuesday through Saturday, twice daily at 6 and 9 pm. For reservations, details, and specific pricing for the dates you’ll be visiting, visit or call 407/939-7600.

It can take quite a long bus ride to get to Downtown Disney West Side (where Cirque du Soleil is located), even from an on-site hotel. Buses will drop you off at Pleasure Island and you then walk. Since the resorts often share buses to Downtown Disney, you’ll have to sit through several stops before you arrive. The moral? Drive if you can, but if you’re taking a bus to Cirque du Soleil, leave your hotel an hour and a half before showtime.

The BoardWalk

Not up for the sprawl of Downtown Disney? At night, the shops, restaurants, and nightclubs in front of the BoardWalk Resort take on a whole new glitter. You can find plenty of low-key entertainment—face painting, hair braiding, midway games, and sometimes comedians and magic acts—along the waterfront. Eat dinner at the Flying Fish Café if you’re feeling fancy, then rent a surrey bike ($20-$28 for 30 minutes, depending upon bike size) for a lap around the lagoon.

The ESPN Club contains a broadcast and production facility, so celebrity athletes are sometimes on hand. It also serves up—and I quote—“the best ballpark cuisine from around the country.” This bold claim translates into sandwiches, salads, and burgers, all sized for hearty appetites.

Two BoardWalk clubs are open strictly to adults 21 and older. The Atlantic Dance Club changes format frequently but is presently offering DJ-spun Top 40 dance music without a cover charge on some nights. Jellyrolls is a sing-along piano bar with lots of audience participation.

The fact that the BoardWalk isn’t as vast and crowded as Downtown Disney appeals to many visitors; you can have a good meal and some entertainment without getting back into the mouse race. And at night, with the glowing Yacht and Beach clubs visible across the water and the fireworks of Epcot in the distance, the BoardWalk ranks as one of the most beautiful spots in Disney World. Pull up a rocker and let the world go by.

On-site guests can take monorails or buses to any theme park and then transfer to the BoardWalk bus. If you’re staying at the Yacht or Beach clubs, the Swan, or the Dolphin, just walk. Off-site guests can either park in the BoardWalk lot or pay for the $12 valet parking, which is worth it on weekend evenings when the regular lot is crowded.

Disney Extras

Dinner Shows

Disney has three major dinner shows, some offered nightly and some a few times a week. Book any dinner shows you would like to attend before you leave home by calling 407/939-3463 (407/WDW-DINE). Reservations are accepted up to 180 days in advance and range in price depending upon the time of year you’re visiting.

Allow plenty of time to get to your dinner show. If you’re relying on Disney transportation, your journey begins at the Magic Kingdom. For the luau, take the resort monorail from the Magic Kingdom to the Polynesian and follow the signs to the beach. For the Hoop-Dee-Doo or the barbecue, take the ferry from the Magic Kingdom to Fort Wilderness. Either way, you’re in for a lot of walking. “It takes too much Hoop-Dee-Doo just to get there,” wrote one reader from California, who is still steaming over missing her appetizer. If you have a car, obviously driving is easier. Or take a cab.

Money-Saving Tip Disney has recently required a credit-card guarantee for most of their sit-down restaurants, including dinner shows and character meals. You must cancel reservations at least 48 hours in advance to avoid being charged.

The Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue

This show plays three times nightly (at 4, 6:15, and 8:30 pm) at Pioneer Hall in the Fort Wilderness campground. You can dine on ribs, fried chicken, and strawberry shortcake while watching a lovably hokey show that includes lots of audience participation. The cost is $55-$70 for adults, $28-$36 for children three to nine. Fort Wilderness Resort, 3520 N. Fort Wilderness Trail 407/939-3463 (407/WDW-DINE).

Mickey’s Backyard Barbecue

Presented on select nights (usually Thursday and Saturday) at Fort Wilderness, the barbecue features a country band, line dancing with the characters, and picnic food such as barbecued ribs, roast chicken, and corn on the cob. Prices are $51-$57 for adults, $30-$33 for children three to nine. The barbecue is decidedly rowdier than other Disney dinner events. A mother of four from New York wrote, “The closest we came to a never-again moment was Mickey’s Backyard Barbecue. It was a free-for-all with characters and kids running loose on the dance floor. On the other hand, the Polynesian luau was a delight, with plenty of entertainment for the kids but a much calmer atmosphere.” Fort Wilderness Resort, 4510 N. Fort Wilderness Trail 407/939-3463 (407/WDW-DINE).


Kids under three get into the parks for free, but what’s the deal with character meals? Historically the buffets are more liberal than the sit-down venues about comping the under-three set, but don’t assume: Anytime you book a character meal, ask the restaurant to spell out its policy about who, if anyone, eats for free.

The Spirit of Aloha

Disney’s luau dinner is presented seasonally at 5:15 and 8 pm in the open-air theater in Luau Cove at the Polynesian Resort. The luau features hula dancing, music, and a “Polynesian feast,” which translates as fruit, chicken, pork ribs, and pineapple bread. The cost is $59-$74 for adults and $30-$39 for children three to nine. “The Polynesian is a beautiful setting,” wrote one family from Connecticut, “but we expected more of a traditional luau. Just be aware that this show has a modern story line.” Disney’s Polynesian Resort, 1600 Seven Seas Dr. 407/939-3463 (407/WDW-DINE).

Character Dining

The character meals are time-consuming and expensive, but families with young kids give them very high marks. It’s not about the food, although that’s usually fine; it’s about the chance to have the characters actually visit your table so that there’s plenty of time for pictures, hugs, and autographs. Reservations can (and should) be arranged 180 days in advance by calling 407/939-3463 (407/WDW-DINE). Any character meal that takes place inside a theme park requires theme-park admission.

The character meal that gets the most attention is Cinderella’s Royal Table, which is always booked months in advance—despite being by far the most expensive. Granted there are some little extras (like a photo) included in the cost, but the drastic price jump is a clue to the popularity of this venue; people are willing to pay almost twice as much as the typical character meal just to get their children inside the castle. During the on-season it is often sold out within minutes of the reservation line opening. Your best bet is to call 407/939-3463 (407/WDW-DINE) exactly 180 days in advance and precisely at 7 am (EST). In general, dining reservations can be made online, but in the case of this popular venue, calling is best. And if you still can’t get in, be prepared with a backup plan in the form of either the Princess Storybook Dining at Akershus in the Norway pavilion at Epcot, which features almost every Disney princess except Cinderella, or 1900 Park Fare at the Grand Floridian, which offers Cinderella’s Happily Ever After Dinner.

Don’t forget: If you’re going to dine with royalty, it’s only fitting that little girls dress for the occasion. If you think the full princess outfit is too much for a day in the parks, change your girl back into casual clothes after the meal.

Character-meal times, places, prices, and the characters featured change often, so call to confirm the information before you book the meal. If your child has his or her heart set on meeting a particular character, be sure to verify that the character will actually be there when you visit. And confirm pricing when calling—meals are sometimes cheaper in the off-season.

The experience usually takes between 90 minutes and two hours, so plan accordingly. Families who have scheduled character breakfasts on the last day of their visits have also noted that a long breakfast coincides well with the usual 11 am check-out time at most Orlando hotels.

In the Resorts

Cape May Café

Seaside picnic breakfast buffet with Goofy, Donald, and Minnie. Breakfast only: adults $27-$31, children (3-9) $14-$17. Beach Club Resort, 1700 Epcot Resorts Blvd. 407/939-3463 (407/WDW-DINE).

Chef Mickey’s

Party with Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto, and Goofy. Breakfast: Adults, $33, children, $18. Dinner: adults $41-$47, children $20-$23. Contemporary Resort, 4600 N. World Dr., Magic Kingdom Resort Area 407/939-3463 (407/WDW-DINE).

My Disney Girl’s Perfectly Princess Tea Party

For the ultimate princess experience, pull out your wallet, take a deep breath, and head to the Grand Floridian for the Perfectly Princess Tea Party. The tea party includes a meet and greet with Princess Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, plus storytelling, sing-alongs, and a princess parade. (Needless to say, all little girls suit up in princess gear for this one.) Tea-party guests receive a special My Disney Girl doll dressed like Aurora, a ribbon tiara, bracelet, and princess scrapbook. The cost is $250 for one adult and one child aged 3-11. Additional adults are $85 each, and an additional child is $165. The tea party is offered from 10:30 to noon every day but Tuesday and Saturday. Lunch is served, but with all the excitement, don’t be surprised if no one eats it. Grand Floridian, 4401 Floridian Way, Magic Kingdom Resort Area 407/939-3463 (407/WDW-DINE).

1900 Park Fare

Breakfast with Mary Poppins, Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter, and Winnie the Pooh and dinner with Cinderella, Prince Charming, the Evil Stepmother, and the Stepsisters. Several of our readers have given a special shout-out to Lady Tremaine and her daughters. “The evil stepmother is the only person in Disney who isn’t constantly smiling,” a dad from New York noted approvingly, while a mom from Virginia added, “The stepsisters were loud, obnoxious, graceless, and a lot of fun.” Breakfast: adults $23-$27, children $13-$15. Dinner: adults $39-$43, children $19-$22. Grand Floridian, 4401 Floridian Way, Magic Kingdom Resort Area 407/939-3463 (407/WDW-DINE).


Luau breakfast with Lilo and Stitch as well as Mickey and Pluto. Breakfast: adults $23-$27, children $12-$15. Disney’s Polynesian Resort, 1600 Seven Seas Dr. 407/939-3463 (407/WDW-DINE).


The fact that the ’Ohana breakfast is the only character meal featuring that prankster Stitch makes it especially lively—and a good choice for boys who may have seen one princess too many. “Stitch took my brother’s Buzz Lightyear gun and engaged Pluto in a stickup,” one boy happily reported. “It’s a memory my family will cherish forever.”

In the Magic Kingdom

Cinderella’s Royal Table

Medieval banquet meals in the perfect setting. Cinderella greets you downstairs and poses with you for a portrait, which is included in the price, along with wands for girls and swords for boys. After the royal greeting, you’re escorted upstairs to meet the Fairy Godmother and at least two other princesses. Disney rotates them, but Snow White, Belle, Aurora, and Jasmine are often featured. Be sure to confirm all this when you book because of the insane popularity of Cinderella’s Royal Table. Disney has changed this character meal more frequently than most, trying to figure out how to move people through more efficiently. If it’s any consolation, most of the families surveyed think it’s worth the trouble, using terms like “magnificent” and “unsurpassed.” Breakfast: adults $52-$57, children (3-9) $34-$36. Lunch: adults $56-$61, children $34-$39. Dinner: adults $66-$71, children $39-$42. Magic Kingdom, Cinderella Castle 407/939-3463 (407/WDW-DINE).

Crystal Palace

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffets with Pooh and friends. “The food was OK,” said one mother from New Jersey. “Nothing special, but they did have a separate buffet for the kids filled with things they would eat. What really made our character meal worth it is that the Pooh characters came around to our tables and our 3- and 5-year-olds didn’t have to fight for their attention. The servers did a good job of keeping things orderly. When Tigger was visiting our table, a child from another family got so excited he ran up to join in. The server gently steered him back to his own seat, explaining Tigger would be there next.” Breakfast: adults $25-$29, children $14-$16. Lunch: adults $27-$31, children $15-$17. Dinner: adults $40-$44, children $20-$22. Magic Kingdom, Main St. 407/939-3463 (407/WDW-DINE).


Rumor has it that the ultimate princess rock stars, Anna and Elsa from Frozen, will be appearing in Norway soon; be sure to check when you book, especially if your kids are Frozen fans.

In Epcot

Akershus Royal Banquet Hall

Norway—breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffets in a castle setting. At present, Snow White, Mulan, Mary Poppins, Belle, Aurora, and Jasmine show up at breakfast. At lunch and dinner you’ll meet Belle, Jasmine, Aurora, Alice in Wonderland, Pocahontas, and Ariel—who, we’re happy to report, is walking just fine in a ball gown. The princesses are sometimes reshuffled, so if your child has a preference, confirm who’s expected to appear. Breakfast: adults $40-$47, children (3-9) $25-$28. Lunch: adults $41-$50, children $25-$29. Dinner: adults $47-$56, children $25-$30. Epcot, Norway Pavilion 407/939-3463 (407/WDW-DINE).

Money-Saving Tip When you enter a character meal, you’ll probably be ushered into a line where families are waiting to have their pictures taken with the characters by a professional photographer. These shots can be added to your PhotoPass or, if you want to save a few bucks (not to mention the wait in line), ask to be shown directly to your seats. There will be plenty of time later for you to take your own pictures with the characters as they visit your table.

Garden Grill

This rotating restaurant offers Epcot’s only evening character dinner, with Mickey, Pluto, Chip, and Dale. They’re dressed in cute farmer clothing, in a nod to the agricultural theme of the Land pavilion. Dinner: adults $37-$42, children $18-$21. Epcot, The Land 407/939-3463 (407/WDW-DINE).

In Hollywood Studios

Hollywood & Vine

A changing roster of current stars from Disney Junior television shows meet and greet guests during breakfast and lunch, so it’s a good choice for the two-to-five set. Breakfast: adults $27-$31, children (3-9) $15-$17. Lunch: adults $31-$36, children $17-$19. Hollywood Studios, Hollywood Blvd. 407/939-3463 (407/WDW-DINE).

In the Animal Kingdom

Tusker House

Mickey, Donald, Daisy, and Goofy appear at a safari-themed breakfast. This one gets high marks from our readers for both the food and the general cuteness of the presentation. Breakfast: adults $29-$33, children (3-9) $16-$18. Lunch: adults $39-$45, children (3-9) $17-$19. Animal Kingdom, Africa 407/939-3463 (407/WDW-DINE).

Special Holiday Parties and Events

Disney World is at its most magical during the holidays. Hours are extended, special parades and shows debut, and the parks and hotels are beautifully decorated.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is the absolute busiest of the year at WDW, but it’s possible to celebrate the holidays at Disney without being caught in the crush. Decorations go up just before Thanksgiving, and the special shows and parades debut shortly thereafter. The first two weeks of December are among the least crowded of the year—perfect for celebrating Christmas at Disney (assuming that your child’s school schedule can accommodate the trip).

Each resort puts up its own decorations—a nautical tree for the Yacht Club, seashell ornaments at the Beach Club, Native American tepees at the Wilderness Lodge, an enormous Victorian dazzler at the Grand Floridian. These decorations are so gorgeous that holiday tours of the Disney hotels are popular among Orlando locals.

Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party

On select evenings during September and October the Magic Kingdom hosts Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. As the name implies, this celebration is geared toward younger kids, with fortune-tellers, face painters, and trick-or-treating throughout the park; parades featuring the characters in costume; and a special fireworks finale. Be sure to bring along everyone’s Halloween costumes.


If you have preteens and teens who are up for a gorier scene, check out the super-scary Halloween Horror Nights event at Universal Studios.

Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party

Christmas at Disney World is lovely all on its own, but Disney also offers a special ticketed party event on select evenings in the Magic Kingdom with holiday-themed shows and parades. Tickets for Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party ($64-$68 adults, $54-$63 children 3-9) should be purchased well in advance, either online at or by calling 407/934-7639 (407/W-DISNEY). Military discounts are sometimes available, so be sure to ask.

Advance tickets for Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party are a must, so visit or call 407/934-7639 (407/W-DISNEY) before you leave home. The party is offered on up to 20 dates throughout September and October, but the October 31 party always sells out first. Tickets cost $55-$65 for adults and $49-$59 for kids three to nine.

Tours for Kids and Families

Most of Disney’s behind-the-scenes tours require that guests be 16 and up to participate, but there are two programs at the Grand Floridian that are specifically for kids and one tour in the Magic Kingdom designed for families.

Family Magic Tour in the Magic Kingdom

Everyone gets into the act on this tour; although the activities are geared to kids ages 3 to 10, parents and both younger and older siblings can come along. The only rule is that you have to be willing to act silly.

Your tour guide meets you at Guest Relations in the Magic Kingdom and sets up the premise of the tour. Perhaps Peter Pan has stolen Captain Hook’s favorite hook, and the captain is so furious that his band of buccaneers is threatening to take over the whole Magic Kingdom. To stop him, you must follow a map that takes you around the park—hopping, skipping, hiding, and keeping an eye out for each new clue.

At the final stop of the tour, you meet up with a character or two for a closing surprise. The tour is a great option for families who have been to the Magic Kingdom several times and are looking for a new spin. It’s less appealing for first-time visitors who are itching to get on the rides.

The Family Magic Tour is held daily from 10 am to noon, and the cost is $34 per person, regardless of age. Call 407/939-8687 (407/WDW-TOUR).

Pirate Adventure

This rollicking two-hour boat tour takes kids on a treasure hunt across the Seven Seas Lagoon with stops at all the Magic Kingdom resort marinas. Counselors help kids collect clues and complete a map that leads them to buried treasure. It’s a good choice for active kids from age 4 to 12. A snack is served on the pontoon boat after the last stop, and everyone leaves with a bag of treasure. “My 6-year-old son loved the Pirate Adventure at the Grand Floridian,” reported one mom from New York. “It’s very reasonably priced, and since I’m a single parent, I have to confess it was wonderful to just have a couple of hours to lie by the pool while he was on tour.”

The Adventure, which costs $34, currently departs the Grand Floridian marina at 9:30 am daily. Reservations are a must because this program fills up fast; call 407/939-3463 (407/WDW-DINE) 90 days in advance.

The Pirate Adventure at the Grand Floridian is so popular that three more adventures have been made available. The Port Orleans Riverside now offers its own Bayou Pirate Adventure; Caribbean Beach features Tales of Old Port Royale; the Yacht and Beach clubs feature The Legend of the Albatross. The stories have different themes, but the rest of the excursion is very similar, and the price is the same.

Wild Africa Trek in the Animal Kingdom

Kids eight and up who are really into animals (or who need to do a serious project to make up for the school days they’re missing on this trip) will enjoy the Wild Africa Trek, which is offered daily in the Animal Kingdom. This three-hour tour takes you behind the scenes of the park, then on a special safari through the savanna led by knowledgeable guides. Unlike the Kilimanjaro Safaris, which must keep moving, the Wild Africa Trek vehicles stop at several points along the journey to allow plenty of time for animal viewing and pictures.

The behind-the-scenes part of the Trek is really a blast, and that’s one of the reasons why this tour, despite the cost, has become so popular Disney is upping the number of trips per day. The highlight is a shaky walk across a “broken-down” bridge extended high in the air above a river full of dozing crocodiles. You’re carefully tethered, of course, but it’s still enough to get the pulse racing. And they serve you a truly terrific lunch on a viewing platform right in the middle of the savanna.

The cost is $189-$225, and, owing to the construction of some of the transportation vehicles and bridges, participants must weigh between 45 and 300 pounds. Call 407/939-8687 (407/WDW-TOUR) for details or reservations.


Looking for a way to kill an hour or two while the kids participate in one of the Grand Floridian programs? The spa is just around the corner.

Wonderland Tea Party

Kids join Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter for a tea party held at 1900 Park Fare in the Grand Floridian. The table is festively appointed, and kids decorate their own cupcakes. Since this is pretty much all they eat, expect an afternoon sugar high. Afterward, the characters lead them in a variety of games, and each child leaves with a souvenir photo of him- or herself with the characters.

The Wonderland Tea Party is served weekdays from 2 to 3 pm for kids ages 4 to 10 (no moms!), and the cost is $40. For reservations, call 407/939-3463 (407/WDW-DINE) 90 days in advance.

Water Sports

Most on-site hotels have lovely marinas with a variety of watercraft for rent, but the major water-recreation area of WDW is the Seven Seas Lagoon in front of the Magic Kingdom. Marinas at the Grand Floridian, Polynesian, Contemporary, Fort Wilderness, and Wilderness Lodge all service the lagoon, and you don’t have to be a guest of the resort to rent watercraft (although you’ll need to show either a driver’s license or a resort ID).

Reservations are a good idea, especially in the on-season, and it never hurts to confirm prices before you go. Call 407/939-0754 for more information.

Boat Rentals

The Disney fleet includes mini-speedboats called Sea Raycers, canopy boats, sailboats, pontoons, pedal boats, and kayaks. The marina staff can help you decide which watercraft best fits your needs; pontoon boats are a good option for younger kids, and the whole family can take a 30-minute ride for $48.

The best place to rent the Sea Raycer mini-speedboats is the Seven Seas Lagoon. You have plenty of room to explore and can really pick up speed. The boats are for rent at the marinas in the Contemporary, Polynesian, and Grand Floridian resorts or Wilderness Lodge. At present prices are $34 for 30 minutes. Drivers must be at least 14 years old and 5 feet tall, although kids of any age will enjoy riding along with Mom or Dad.


Fishing equipment for an afternoon of catch-and-release is for rent at Port Orleans and Fort Wilderness Campground starting at only $4 for 30 minutes. If you’d like more action than simply dropping a line, fishing tours depart from water locations throughout WDW. Groups of up to five can book the elaborate two-hour tour for $270. Reservations can be made up to 180 days in advance; call 407/939-2277 (407/WDW-BASS) for exact times, locations, and prices.

Parasailing and Waterskiing

Another high-thrill activity is parasailing. Excursions leave daily from the Contemporary Resort marina, and the regular flights cost $95 for one person or $175 for two riders in tandem. That’s enough for most people, but the truly adventurous can fly longer on the deluxe flight, which costs $130 for a single rider and $195 in tandem. At your top height of 600 feet above the lake you’ll see all four parks. Sammy Duvall’s Watersports Centre also offers waterskiing, wakeboarding, knee boarding, and tubing. For reservations or more information call 407/939-0754.

Specialty Cruises

Two of the greatest ways to spend an evening in Disney World are watching the Magic Kingdom fireworks or the pyrotechnics of IllumiNations at Epcot. And there’s no classier viewing spot than aboard your private boat. “We called before we left home and rented a pontoon boat to see the Epcot fireworks,” wrote one father. “What a treat. We had a great captain who drove us around then ‘parked’ under the bridge so we could see the show. It was great floating there, sipping a drink, while others were jam-packed in the park … and probably trying to figure out how they were going to exit along with thousands of others.”

The fleet includes yachts and pontoons that can accommodate groups of 7 to 14 people. Factoring in the size of your party and where you’ll be sailing from, the prices vary. To give you an idea, an hour-long cruise in a simple pontoon boat holding up to 8 people may start at $299; in an elegant yacht that accommodates up to 12, it’s $695. When you factor in how many people can participate in the experience, the specialty cruises are actually a (somewhat) cost-effective way to create a memorable evening for the whole family. Just be sure to reserve 90 days in advance by calling 407/939-7529 (407/WDW-PLAY).


Surfing lessons are offered at Typhoon Lagoon on select mornings before the park opens. Participants must be at least eight years old and strong swimmers. For those up to the challenge, this clinic ($165 per person) is one of the most fun things to do in all of WDW. Call 407/939-7529 (407/WDW-PLAY) for details, and always confirm prices when booking.

Sports on Land


Bikes are for rent at most on-site hotels at a cost of $18 a day; helmets are included.


There are six courses on WDW grounds with twilight fees starting at $69 on weekdays for Disney World resort guests. The rates go straight up from there, topping out at $199. If you’re beginning golfers who just want to give it a try, the Oak Trail, a 9-hole walking course, costs $38 for adults and $20 for kids three to nine. Clubs and shoes are available for rent. Visit or call 407/939-4653 (407/WDW-GOLF) to reserve tee times and confirm rates.

Health Clubs and Spas

The Contemporary, Grand Floridian, Swan, Dolphin, Yacht and Beach clubs, BoardWalk, Animal Kingdom Lodge, Coronado Springs, Old Key West, and Saratoga Springs resorts all have health clubs. The most complete workout facility is at Saratoga Springs.

There are full-service spas at the Grand Floridian, Saratoga Springs, and Animal Kingdom Lodge. “My 7-year-old daughter had her first manicure at the Grand Floridian spa and was in heaven,” a mom from New York wrote. “She felt very grown-up, and the manicurist was the sweetest cast member I’ve ever met—even at Disney World, where everybody is nice!”

Horseback Riding

Guided 45-minute rides circle the wooded trails of Fort Wilderness daily. Children must be at least nine to ride, but the horses are gentle and the pace is slow. The price is $46 per person, and the ride should be booked at least one day in advance.

Younger kids can ride around the stables at the Fort Wilderness Petting Farm while older siblings are on the trail ride. Children two and over and up to 80 pounds are welcome. Fort Wilderness also offers horse-drawn wagon rides departing from Pioneer Hall nightly, $8 for adults and $5 for guests three to nine.

During the holidays the options are jazzed up a bit. Nightly 25-minute “haunted carriage rides” are available during the month of October, and “sleigh rides”—sans snow, of course—are offered in December. Call 407/939-7529 (407/WDW-PLAY) for prices and details.


Fantasia Fairways is too tough for golfers under 10, and even Fantasia Gardens is a fairly difficult course. Winter Summerland is a better choice for the preschool and grade-school set.

Miniature Golf

Fantasia Gardens, just across from Disney’s Hollywood Studios, is real eye candy—an 18-hole mini-golf tribute to the movie Fantasia with dancing hippos, orchestrated fountains, and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice running the whole show. A second course, Fantasia Fairways, is a miniature version of a real golf course, with sand traps, water hazards, and roughs. Although you play with a putter, the holes are 100 feet long and difficult enough to drive a veteran golfer to curses.

The second miniature golf complex at Disney World is Winter Summerland (beside Blizzard Beach), where you’re greeted with the question “Would you like to play in snow or sand?” Your first clue that there’s strange weather ahead is that Santa, his sleigh pulled by flamingos, has crash-landed on the roof and skidded through a snowbank-sandbank into the wackiest campground on Earth. You can opt to play either the icy white “greens” of the winter course, where you can find a hockey rink, a snow castle, and slalom ski runs, or the sandy shores of the summer course, where the Beach Boys serenade you amid pools, waves, and barbecue pits. Although both of the Winter Summerland courses are child-friendly, the summer course is harder. Must be all those sand traps.

Rates at Fantasia Gardens, Fantasia Fairways, and Winter Summerland are $14 for adults and $12 for kids ages three to nine. Reservations aren’t necessary.


Trails cut through the grounds of nearly every Disney resort. Consult Guest Relations for ideas on the best route around your particular hotel. Wilderness Lodge, with its invitingly shady trails, is an especially good choice if you’re visiting in summer, when even morning runs can be steamy.


Several on-site resorts (the Contemporary, the Grand Floridian, the Yacht and Beach clubs, BoardWalk, Old Key West, Saratoga Springs, the Swan, and the Dolphin) have tennis courts, and the Contemporary also offers clinics for guests 10 and older. There’s considerable variation in rental rates and reservation policies, so call 407/939-7529 (407/WDW-PLAY) for details.

ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex

This multimillion-dollar sports complex hosts competitions and tournaments, with facilities to accommodate 25 different kinds of sports, including the ever-changing roster of Disney-sponsored race events. It’s also the spring training camp of the Atlanta Braves. You can have lunch or dinner at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Grille, a sports bar with multiple screens and interactive games.

Activities at the Wide World of Sports vary widely, so call 407/939-4263 or visit before you leave home to find out what will be going on during your visit. Admission varies with the event, but averages $14 for adults, $10 for kids ages three to nine.