If you’re vacationing to Walt Disney World, there’s a good chance that’s all you’re doing. However, there’s a lot to do in Central Florida and Orlando outside of the Disney parks. This list takes a look at 50+ options for things to do near Walt Disney World, broken down in two categories: things at Walt Disney World that are outside of the parks, and things outside of Walt Disney World, completely.
The second half of this post consists of entirely non-Disney things to do in Central Florida. Many of these things we’ve done, while some remain on our bucket list. As we’ve been staying off-site more recently, we’ve begun to see Florida outside the parks. In so doing, we’ve realized just how many amazing things the state has to offer that we had missed out on during our past trips. We’ve started to spend time outside of Walt Disney World, but still not nearly enough.
Some of the Walt Disney World options we cover in our 1-Day No Parks Itinerary for Walt Disney World, and others are mentioned on our Free Things at Walt Disney World post. However, this time we wanted to present more options (there are several days’ worth of entertainment here, many of which are not free) without the constraints.
The current marketing might suggest otherwise with such an intense focus on the four main theme parks, but Walt Disney World is still the Vacation Kingdom of the World with myriad entertainment options outside of the parks. I don’t have any way of proving this (and I doubt you have any way of disproving it, so I guess we’re at an impasse!), but I think you could spend a few months at Walt Disney World without going to the parks, and still keeping things fresh. As far as vacation destinations go, that’s pretty impressive.
Here are some highlights–consider this a work in progress as we discover other possibilities (perhaps through your feedback?) and try to fill a full year outside of the parks! 😉
Electrical Water Pageant — A little light parade on Bay Lake outside the Magic Kingdom that runs as follows: 9 p.m. at Disney’s Polynesian Resort, 9:15 p.m. at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, 9:30 p.m. at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, 9:45 p.m. at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground, and 10 p.m. at Disney’s Contemporary Resort.
Fireworks — The best place to watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks is from the Ticket & Transportation Center, near the ferry entrance. The Halloween and Christmas party tickets are expensive, making this is a great way to watch those shows for free. The BoardWalk is a good spot to view Epcot’s IllumiNations fireworks, too.
Miniature Golf – Winter Summerland and Fantasia Gardens are themed miniature golf courses at Walt Disney World that each have 18 holes. Not that we are mini-golf aficionados or anything, but these are the two nicest courses we’ve ever seen, with fun Disney details and obstacles, and well-maintained courses. Admission here is included with some ticket and vacation packages, but even out of pocket it’s fairly inexpensive.
Golf – Disney’s Palm, Magnolia, and Lake Buena Vista gold courses are championship-caliber 18-hole courses. Oak Trail is a 9-hole course aimed at intermediate and beginner players. Get even more out of your day by taking advantage of their (surprisingly) reasonably-priced “Sunrise 9,” which includes 9 holes of golf plus breakfast and a beer.
Tennis Lessons – Several courts have clay and/or hard courts for tennis, lessons from a professional are actually available (for a fee, naturally) at the Grand Floridian.
Spa Day – From the priciest options at the Grand Floridian or Four Seasons, to more affordable options in the Wyndham, Hyatt, and other third party hotels, there are a surprising number of spa options available in and around Walt Disney World. (I guess a lot of people need some tension relief after a busy day in Magic Kingdom!)
Monorail Bar Crawl – For us, the monorail is a great “attraction,” and riding it around the resort loop is a relaxing and fun activity…and even more fun when you’re drunk! ‘Suit up’ or dress down for a crawl of the Magic Kingdom Deluxe Resort bars & lounges, riding the Highway in the Sky between stops.
Surrey Bike Rental – Explore your resort hotel with your group by pedaling your way around on a surrey bike. These are popular around the Crescent Lake Resorts (watch out for the big hill over by Yacht Club!), but several other resorts have them as well. They are especially useful for exploring spread out areas, like the Port Orleans resorts.
Go Running – Don’t have any friends? Explore your resort by foot instead of on a surrey bike. I prefer this option, especially in the pre-sunrise hours when the weather is cool and there’s a crisp dew in the air. Most resorts having dedicated running paths (my favorites are at the Poly/Grand Floridian and Caribbean Beach).
Water Parks – I don’t write enough posts about them, but I love Typhoon Lagoon (here’s our guide to it) and Blizzard Beach (read our guide to it). I’d go as far as to say that Typhoon Lagoon is the only park at Walt Disney World that still executes perfectly on its theme (and Blizzard Beach is still close behind). Both are must-dos, in my book. If I were a local, I think I could spend the better part of my summer in the Typhoon Lagoon wave pool and lazy river. Along those same lines…
Private Surfing – If you want more of a unique experience, try surfing at Typhoon Lagoon. There are lessons (for beginners) or private sessions (for experienced surfers) that are held prior to park opening. While pricey, these are very limited in size (12-25 people), so it’s an intimate experience.
Bass Fishing Excursions – If you’d rather spend your time on the water pulling animals out of it than being the animal in it, consider a 2-hour guided bass fishing trip. They depart from any of the resorts with a marina, and all tours include reels, bait, and beverages.
Disney Springs – This area has made significant strides as it has transformed from Downtown Disney to Disney Springs. After Pleasure Island closed, it was a place we ignored for several years, but that has all changed in the last couple of years. New restaurants like Morimoto Asia and The Boathouse are seriously good, and other venues like the Edison and Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar offer bona-fide nightlife options.
Parasailing – Ever since seeing publicity shots when I was a kid, I’ve wanted to go parasailing at Walt Disney World. Now, the idea of unique aerial photos has me even more intrigued. Waterskiing, wakeboarding, tubing and personal watercraft rental are all also available at Disney’s Contemporary Resort via Sammy Duvall’s.
Art Classes — Disney’s Art of Animation Resort offers free drawing classes that are open to any Walt Disney World resort hotel guests. These classes currently occur at 11 am, 2 pm, and 5 pm.
Horseback Riding – If you are a fan of “doing things,” Fort Wilderness is a great resort for you. The next several entries on the list are all options available there. The first of these is horseback riding, available at the Tri-Circle-D Ranch. (You can also see a free little exhibit about horses there, pictured above.)
Fort Wilderness Archery Experience – File this under “things I can’t believe they still do.” Don’t get me wrong…it sounds like an awesome activity for kids, it just seems surprising that modern day Walt Disney World would still offer something like this. Then again, there are a lot of pleasant little surprises like this at Fort Wilderness.
Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Campfire Sing-Along – A nightly campfire show at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground, and is the only free way of meeting the characters outside the parks (to our knowledge). Port Orleans Riverside and Animal Kingdom Lodge also have nightly campfires with storytellers, albeit no character.
Wilderness Back Trail Adventure – Continuing the list of “fun things to do that you might not know exist at Fort Wilderness” is this guided tour on a Segway X2 (that’s the off-road edition) through rough trails of the resort. Training comes first, presumably so you don’t Segway right into the lake or something.
Christmas Sleigh Rides – Yet another option at Fort Wilderness is a Christmas sleigh ride that offers excursions through the “unspoiled beauty of the woodlands” surrounding Fort Wilderness. Or, maybe you can elect to go through the unspoiled beauty of the RVs decked out in festive lights and campsites filled with majestic, inflatable Christmas decor. (Port Orleans also offers carriage rides, year-round.)
Boat Rides — Few things are as peaceful as a Friendship boat ride around Crescent Lake or a Sassagoula River Cruise from Old Key West to Disney Springs. While these are technically transportation (just like the monorail), they are a fun and relaxing way to see Walt Disney World by water…and get from point A to point B.
Pirate Cruises – There are several pirate cruise options departing from different exotic “Ports of Call” (read: Disney hotels), and they’re all for kids aged 4-12 (no adults) and offer an opportunity to search for treasure.
Pirates & Pals Fireworks Voyage – We assume no adults are allowed on the pirate cruises because they are so unbelievably cheesy that no one over the age of 8 could possibly enjoy them. A good alternative might be this fireworks cruise, which is themed to pirates and offers something more entertaining for the entire family.
IllumiNations Cruise – An alternative to that doing a private IllumiNations Cruise on a pontoon that accommodates up to 10 guests, plus a drive. The pontoon has a canopy, and drink holders…but no pirate entertainment, which is sort of a deal-breaker, in my opinion.
DVC Tour – Not for those who have trouble saying “no” or are prone to impulse buys, but we found the Disney Vacation Club tour to be very enjoyable (~2 hour tour) and nothing like other high-pressure timeshare sales pitches. To be sure, you absolutely should read about the pros & cons of buying DVC before taking the plunge, but it’s a fun experience…and ends with free ice cream. (We should’ve led with the free ice cream bit–what matters besides that?!)
Restaurant Tours — The restaurants at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge offer free 30-minute tours focusing on the culinary selections and architecture.
Resort Tours — “The Wonders of Wilderness Lodge” tour is a free tour open to any Disney resort-hotel guest, and it details the inspiration of Wilderness Lodge and its many details. At present, tours are also offered of Animal Kingdom Lodge, BoardWalk, and perhaps other Deluxe Resorts(?). Check with your hotel front desk for times and availability.
Signature Dining – Some of Walt Disney World’s best restaurants are in the resort hotels, including Yachtsman Steakhouse and California Grill. If you really want to TREAT YO SELF, go all out and do Victoria & Albert’s. Totally worth the money for a special occasion.
Dine with an Imagineer – The more well-known version of this occurs at the Brown Derby in Disney’s Hollywood Studios every day at lunch, but on select evenings, you can dine with an Imagineer at Citricos for dinner.
Afternoon Tea – The Garden View Lounge at the Grand Floridian offers a high-brow afternoon tea service. Sarah has been keen on doing this for a while, so it’s on our shortlist of things to do soon. For kids and less sophisticated adults, the Wonderland Tea Party and My Disney Girl’s Perfectly Princess Tea Party are also options.
Character Dining – Want to knock out something you might otherwise spend time doing in the parks on one of your non-park days? Try a character breakfast (or dinner at some spots) in the hotels! Chef Mickey’s at the Contemporary, ‘Ohana at the Polynesian, Cape May Cafe at Beach Club (our favorite), and 1900 Park Fare at the Grand Floridian are all options.
Animal Viewing — Grab a seat on the balcony outside the lobby of Animal Kingdom Lodge or walk outside and watch the animals. Cast Members who are knowledgeable about various species can share information, and it’s a relaxing experience, especially around sunset.
Hula-tainment – The Spirit of Aloha at the Polynesian is one of two dinner show options at Walt Disney World. The other, Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue is far more popular (and another show I loved growing up), but it seems like half this list is things at Fort Wilderness, so it gets second billing here.
Movies Under the Stars — Most Walt Disney World resort hotels hold an outdoor screening of a Disney film each night that is free to attend if you’re a hotel guest. Weekly schedules are available at the front desk of your hotel. Disney Vacation Club members can also rent DVDs from their resort for free. Not quite as unique of an experience as Movies Under the Stars, though.
BoardWalk Entertainment – Particularly on weekends and during busier times of year, the BoardWalk comes alive with jugglers, acrobats, and other entertainment. Stroll along the BoardWalk and enjoy this entertainment after dinner (a meal of fine cupcakes at BoardWalk Bakery is as good as it gets!).
Near Walt Disney World
Universal Orlando Resort – We’ve been visiting Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure with regularity for the past few years, and really enjoy both of these parks. Although we’ve yet to do it, Volcano Bay water park also looks pretty cool now that it’s gotten past its first-year hiccups. For first timers to Orlando, we’d (potentially) go as far as recommending either (or both) parks over a day at Disney’s Hollywood Studios until Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge construction is finished.
For more tips on visiting, read our Universal Orlando Trip Planning Guide. Other popular parks, including SeaWorld, Busch Gardens Tampa, and Legoland Florida don’t make the list because they don’t hold much interest for us, personally. (Although I’d love to revisit Busch Gardens, I’m interested in the Williamsburg version.) Also, it doesn’t make sense to have a list of things “outside the parks” include a ton of other theme parks.
Discovery Cove – With a more intimate experience than SeaWorld, Animal Kingdom, or just about anywhere else, for that matter, Discovery Cove is intriguing. Much of that intrigue is killed for us by the price (and I’d rather swim with manatees), but this remains a ‘someday’ item for us.
Bioluminescent Kayak Tours – Tired of waiting in line for Pandora’s N’avi River Journey? There’s already a bioluminescent boat ride in Central Florida. These nighttime kayak tours through Indian River Lagoon sound really fascinating (and potentially gorgeous) to us.
Madame Tussauds Orlando – This one definitely is not for everyone. I’ll admit that I don’t really “get” the appeal of this place, but cannot deny that I know others who have had a blast here. I also cannot deny the quality of the work. Each Madame Tussauds wax figure is truly a work of art, involving teams of professional artists and sculptors who spend months on extensive research. From that perspective, I have to give props to Madame Tussauds, even if I have no desire to go back. Your mileage may vary.
Orlando Magic Game – I remember becoming a fair-weather fan of the Magic as a child in the 90s as Shaq-mania swept Florida during our vacations. I had largely forgotten about that until recently watching ESPN 30 for 30’s “This Magic Moment” (highly recommended for Disney fans, even those who don’t like the NBA–it’s streaming on Netflix).
Dinosaur World – We recently lamented the lackluster showing of dinosaurs in Walt Disney World and other theme parks. Dinosaur World Florida doesn’t do much to reverse that trend, but it is a neat low-budget place to explore and wander through a forested park.
Coca-Cola Orlando Eye – The butt of jokes when it first opened for its views of nothing in particular, the Orlando Eye “observation wheel” is nonetheless the tallest observation wheel on the East Coast of the United States.
Disney Character Warehouse Outlets – I cannot stand outlet malls (95%+ sucker customers into thinking they are getting deals on inferior products), but the Disney Character Warehouse outlets are an exception to this in that they are actual clearance centers for items that didn’t sell in the parks at a significant discount. Some of the merchandise is there for a reason, but there are some real gems to be found, too. For reasons unknown, Derek Burgan does a monthly report on the Disney outlets that offers a glimpse of the good, bad, and ugly sold at these outlets.
Zipline – I’ve never gone ziplining, and although I’m really intrigued by the experience, I’m also worried of a “that was it?” feeling afterwards. Forever Florida’s zipline “course” that combines multiple lines along with sky bridges seems like a good way around that feeling.
Airboat on Lake Tohopekalgia – If it’s my time to go, I want it to happen during a quintessential FloridaMan experience: while my toothless airboat guide fights a gator over a can of Busch Light. This has been something I’ve wanted to do for a while–as crazy as it might seem, it also sounds pretty exhilarating.
Disney’s Vero Beach Resort – We did our first stay at Vero Beach in January 2018, and absolutely fell in love with this tranquil seaside resort. It has all of the charm and character of the resorts built during the Disney Decade (think BoardWalk or Beach Club) plus the actual beach. It’s a real winner.
Kennedy Space Center – I was hardly deprived as a kid, as we regularly visited National Parks and Walt Disney World, but one thing I always wanted to do–but never did–was Space Camp. A recent visit to the Space Shuttle Endeavour reminded me that we still haven’t seen Kennedy Space Center as adults, which seems borderline criminal given how much we are in Florida.
Wekiwa Springs State Park – From birding to hiking 13 miles of trails to swimming in a 72-degree spring to wildlife viewing, it seems like Wekiwa Springs checks off several boxes in showcasing the natural world of Florida. After seeing so much of the developed side of things, I’m curious to see more of this.
We headed to Blue Spring State Park since it’s about half the distance of Crystal River, and we were floored by what we saw. It was a chilly day, which is the prime time for manatee-watching as the sea cows seek warmth in spring water, and there were 308 manatees counted that day. Above is the video we posted of them on our non-Disney Facebook page for TravelCaffeine.com.
With Crystal River being fairly remote (nearly 2 hours) from Walt Disney World, it’s about the farthest spot on our list of things we want to see and do in Central Florida. There are a lot of things worthwhile things to do in Florida that we’ve left off the list. For example, I still haven’t done Everglades National Park (4 hours from WDW), Dry Tortugas National Park, or Biscayne National Park. Visiting the Florida Keys would also be high on my list. And, of course, going on a Skunk Ape Hunting Expedition is something on everyone’s bucket list…right?!
Anything else you’d recommend doing outside of the parks at Walt Disney World or in nearby Central Florida? Anything you would recommend not doing? Do you agree or disagree with our tips? Share any questions, tips, or additional thoughts you have in the comments!