Off Disney's beaten path
As Florida residents, we've probably all been to the Disney parks a few times. Or perhaps there's someone in your family who isn't convinced that spending the day at a theme park is their idea of fun. Either way, I'm here to tell you there is so much more to the Walt Disney World Resort than just "It's a small world." In fact, it's quite a large world. Here are some of my top picks for some Disney-fied fun that's off the beaten path (and away from the crowds).
Miniature Golf: The House of Mouse actually has two miniature golf locations. Down the road from Disney's Hollywood Studios entrance is Fantasia Gardens which features, as you might guess, a Fantasia-themed mini-golf experience. I can tell you I've spent many an afternoon cursing those dancing mushrooms. (Sherry's been there and thinks it has a little too much cement and pavement for her family's tastes). Over at the Disney's Blizzard Beach water park is the Winter Summerland miniature golf. You don't have to go to the water park to play golf. Here you get to choose which theme you'd prefer to experience -- a sand course or a snow course. Each of these four 18-hole courses is open from 10 a.m.-11 p.m. at a cost of $12 ages 10 and older and $10 ages 3-9. The best part is for the littlest golfers, they do have small plastic clubs. And guess what? Walt Disney World annual passholders get 50 percent off admission for up to three guests. My advice is to get there right when they open or after the sun sets to avoid the warmest temperatures of the day.
Characters in Flight: Over at Downtown Disney West Side, there is a big yellow balloon waiting to take you on a unique voyage 400 feet up. This over-sized helium balloon is decorated with iconic Disney character silhouettes and is usually visible as you drive by from the highway. Weather permitting, $18 gets a ride for ages 10 and up, while kids 3-9 fly for $12. Kids 2 and under are free. This is definitely on my must-do list, in the daytime or at night for amazing views up to 10 miles away.
Watercraft Rental: Also over in Downtown Disney Marketplace, you can rent boats and even head out on fishing excursions. Captain Jack's Marina rents individual watercraft -- or Water Mouse -- for around $35 for a half hour. For fun that includes the whole family, pontoon boats are available as well at around $48 for a half hour. These watercraft are also available at many of the Disney resort hotels, including those lining Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon by the Magic Kingdom, which provides a different perspective of the familiar scenic vistas. Just call (407) 939-7529 for more information and availability.
While we're on the topic of watercraft, there are some more extravagant options as well. The Sammy Duvall company offers parasailing, wakeboarding, waterskiing and other personal watercraft rentals directly from the Contemporary Resort Marina. These excursions can vary from $95 to upwards of $200 for a truly one-of-a-kind experience at Walt Disney World. Call Sammy directly at (407) 939-0754.
Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort: If you're looking for something a little slower-paced and relaxing, this is the place for it in an Old West setting. You don't have to be a resort guest to take part in these activities -- just drive over and let the guard at the gate know you have recreation reservations, or take a boat directly from the Magic Kingdom. Once at Fort Wilderness you can enjoy any of the following low- or no-cost activities:
Archery class: You'll be instructed in the use of a compound bow then head out to the range to try your hand at making a bullseye. Archery class is held from 2:45-4:15
every Thursday, Friday and Saturday for ages 6 and up at $25 plus tax. Make your reservations at (407) 939-7529 and head over to the Bike Barn to check in when you arrive.
Horseback riding: Beginners ages 9 and up can hop aboard a friendly horse at the Tri-Circle D Livery stables for about $42 for a 45-minute ride. Pony rides are also available from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for children ages 2-8 who weigh no more than 80 pounds. Cost is $4 and children must wear closed-toe shoes to ride the ponies. There's also a free petting zoo called the Pony Pond.
Catch and Release Pole Fishing: Available at Fort Wilderness and Disney's Port Orleans Riverside, cane fishing poles and worms are provided for about $4 an hour or up to six people can take part in family fishing for $12.50 an hour.
Campfire Sing-a-long with Chip and Dale: If you're making a day of it at Fort Wilderness, why not make a night of it too? The campfires are lit about 7:30 each night and S'mores making kits are available for purchase or you can bring your own supplies. Chip and Dale come out and start the sing-a-long and it's followed up by a Disney movie under the stars. These movies are available at other Disney resorts as well, but without the sing-a-long and great theme provided by Fort Wilderness.
Finally, if you're looking for another free activity at Walt Disney World, you might want to track down some Hidden Mickeys. Started as a way for Imagineers to bring some classic Disney presence into Epcot at its creation, Hidden Mickeys are now seen in every Disney park and resort if you keep your eyes peeled. Check out Steven Barrett's Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to Walt Disney World's Best Kept Secrets, now in it's fourth edition, or the Hidden Mickey's website linked above to start the search.
This is really just a starting point to the endless activities outside the theme parks -- I didn't even mention golf, tours or spas. For even more ideas, check out Disney's extensive list. Hopefully one of these secrets will become a must-do for your family.
-- Suzannah DiMarzio
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