With some 20.5 million visitors strolling through its gates each year, the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World has the highest attendance of any theme park in the world. The three other gates at the Florida megaparkalopolis, Epcot, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, each rank among the world’s top ten most visited parks and collectively bring in another 33.5 million guests.
Chances are you’ve been among the hordes taking rides on Space Mountain and the Tower of Terror. You may not realize, however, that there is much more fun to be had at the vast resort than the theme parks. Once you’ve given Dumbo a whirl, here are some of the great other things you might want to consider for your next visit to Disney World.
Slide into one of the water parks
Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon are two of the biggest and best water parks in the nation. They are also among a handful that remains open most of the year. As you’d expect from Disney, the parks are whimsically themed and lushly landscaped. Both offer adrenaline-charged water slides as well as more laid back ways to enjoy the refreshing water. Disney World recently changed its admission policy and now allows guests to visit both Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach with one water park ticket. You may want to set aside a whole day and spend it in your bathing suit.
The featured attraction at Typhoon Lagoon is its enormous wave pool. All guests can body surf in it. But if you want to try and challenge six-foot waves by hanging ten on a surfboard, the park offers lessons before it opens to the public on select days. Advance reservations are required.
Spring for some doodads, food, and fun
After a makeover and expansion, the resort has rechristened Downtown Disney as Disney Springs. The vast shopping, dining, and entertainment center has loads of stores and restaurants to visit, including many that recently opened. There are plenty of other diversions such as interactive gaming at DisneyQuest, a movie theater, live entertainment at House of Blues, and bowling.
Marvel at La Nouba
Cirque du Soleil, the Montreal-based theater company that produces shows filled with physics-defying circus acts and lots of razzle-dazzle, has a resident troupe that performs in a permanent tent at Disney Springs. La Nouba is enchanting, and some of the feats it presents are breathtaking.
Dine at a hotel
The parks have some wonderful places to nosh, but the hotels at Disney World offer some of the resort’s best eateries. For example, the California Grill, located atop Disney’s Contemporary Resort features creative dishes inspired by the Golden State and striking views that overlook the Magic Kingdom. As a special treat, book a dinner reservation, and catch the park’s nightly fireworks show with synchronized audio broadcast into the restaurant. Other great hotel restaurant choices include Citricos at Disney’s Grand Floridian and Boma, Jiko, and Sanaa, all at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge.
Break bread with Mickey
One of the best ways to meet Mickey and the gang at Disney World is to make a reservation at one of the restaurants that offers character dining. You could try some of the eateries within the parks, but there are quite a few locations outside of the parks as well. Characters make the rounds each evening for the Garden Grove dinner buffet at the Swan Hotel, for example. Among other dining spots, Chef Mickey presides over his namesake restaurant at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, and royal characters visit aspiring princesses each morning at the Garden View Tea Room in Disney’s Grand Floridian.
Trek into the African forest
This one breaks the beyond-the-theme-parks rules a bit here, since the Wild Africa Trek takes place inside one of the parks, Disney’s Animal Kingdom. But the special three-hour adventure takes guests off the beaten path – way off. The small-group walking tours venture deep into the woods and offer up-close encounters with hippos, crocodiles, and other animals. It concludes aboard a safari vehicle for a journey through the park’s savannah that is more intimate and extensive than the one offered to regular park guests.
Do the Dee-Doo
There is a completely different theatrical vibe at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground, but the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue is compelling as well. The Wild West vaudeville show will have you laughing at the hopelessly corny jokes – especially after you’ve imbibed on the unlimited beer, wine, and sangria that is included with the dinner show. Vittles include fried chicken, baked beans, and strawberry shortcake served family-style.
The resort offers guided fishing excursions as well as dockside fishing. It’s catch-and-release only, but should you give it a try, you probably wouldn’t want to let Nemo or Dory know.
Disney World offers some championship golf courses that enthusiasts would want to try. Just about everyone, however, would have a ball at either of the resort’s two mini-golf attractions. Winter Summerland has a Christmas-theme, while Fantasia Gardens uses the classic Disney animated film as its muse. Both are charming and rigged so that they are a bit easier than a standard course. (Shh! Don’t tell your kids as they triumphantly master the mini-golf holes.)
Ride real horses
Sure, you could ride the painted ponies aboard the Prince Charming Regal Carrousel at the Magic Kingdom. But did you know that you could saddle up on actual animals? The Tri-Circle-D Ranch at Fort Wilderness offers horseback trail rides, pony rides, and horse-drawn wagon and carriage rides.
Take a wild ride on Bay Lake
Splash Mountain offers big thrills, but you could also make quite a splash at Sammy Duvall’s Watersports Centre. Located at the marina at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, options include parasailing, wake boarding, water skiing, tubing (guests careen across the lake in a giant raft that is pulled by a motorboat), and you-drive-’em mini speedboats.
Get a lakeside seat for the pyrotechnics
You could jam in with the multitude of folks jockeying for position at the Epcot or Magic Kingdom fireworks shows. Or you could set sail on a fireworks cruise and catch the dazzling display aboard a pontoon boat.
Arthur Levine, Special for USA TODAY