10 Ways to Enjoy Walt Disney World Magic Without Paying Park Admission
A trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando comes with a bit of sticker shock, but you can still put a smile on your face at the Happiest Place on Earth without spending big every day. Keep these ideas in mind for the last days of your vacation when your park passes are done—but the fun must go on.
Catch the glow of amazing fireworks
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You don’t need to pay the $100 park ticket to experience some Disney magic. Every evening, a dazzling fireworks show takes place in the Magic Kingdom and a parade of glittering boats floats across the waters around Disney’s Contemporary, Polynesian, and Grand Floridian resorts. You don’t have to enter the Magic Kingdom or pay a cent to watch the show. In fact, you can only spot the Electrical Water Pageant from the beaches outside the three resorts, and the fireworks can easily be seen from these areas as well.
Our favorite viewing spot is from the Polynesian’s soft sand beach amidst the palm trees and the tiki torches. Order a cult favorite pineapple whip at the Pineapple Lanai stand (a treat that many people think you can only order inside the Magic Kingdom) for a sweet treat while you watch the show. Bonus for adults: Trader Sam’s Tiki Bar, tucked away on the first floor, has the best tropical drinks in Orlando. (Here are more don’t-miss tastes of Disney.)
Enjoy an African safari
Did you know you can view real African animals roaming the Savannah for free? Simply visit the incredible African-themed Animal Kingdom Lodge, where the lush landscaped outdoor area behind the hotel is home to 30 species of wildlife including grazing giraffe, impala, and zebra. Animal experts are always on hand to answer any questions and there are often cultural programs—from drumming to storytelling—taking place in the soaring lobby. At night there’s an outdoor bonfire and a chance to rent a pair of night-vision glasses to view nocturnal animals. While you’re here, don’t miss Boma—Flavors of Africa, a massive buffet filled with authentic tastes of the African continent ranging from Moroccan couscous to South African bobotie (a version of Shephard’s pie).
Dine with Mickey and pals
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Want to have breakfast with Mickey or dinner with a princess? Some of the best Disney character dining experiences are actually at Disney’s properties outside the theme parks. The big-eared star can be found every morning at Chef Mickey’s in the Contemporary Hotel alongside his pals Pluto, Goofy, and Donald. Mickey often says hello at the ‘Ohana character meals at the Polynesian, where Lilo and Stitch welcome kids of all ages for breakfast and dinner. You can also have breakfast with Mickey’s pals at the Cape May Café at the Beach Club and the Four Seasons Orlando Resort, and at Garden Grove at the Swan Hotel for dinner every night and breakfast on weekends.
Ariel and Rapunzel come to breakfast at the Boardwalk Resort’s Trattoria al Forno; Mary Poppins steps in time at the Supercalifragilistic Breakfast at Disney’s Grand Floridian; and there’s no better way to spend an evening for princess lovers than at Cinderella’s Happily Ever After Dinner at 1900 Park Fare at the Grand Floridian. (By the way, you can now buy Disney princess-themed wedding dresses for your big day.)
Spend a magical day at Disney Springs
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Looking for the perfect Mickey-themed gift? Stroll through Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) to shop in Orlando’s largest Mickey-themed gift shop, World of Disney, or pop into Disney’s Days of Christmas for holiday shopping year-round and The Art of Disney for high-end collectibles. For princess aficionados, the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique offers Disney princess makeovers and swag (the only other Orlando location is in the Magic Kingdom, and that one’s perennially packed).
Disney Springs isn’t all shopping, you’ll be able to watch live performers (for free) and eat at a slew of fabulous and unique Disney dining options, too. But wait, there’s more! Disney Springs is also where you’ll find Disney’s coolest new attraction outside the theme parks: Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, an immersive virtual reality world that lets you step into the Star Wars action. These are the Star Wars quotes you need to know in the meantime.
Ride the monorail
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One of the most iconic Disney experiences is actually outside the theme park pay-wall: Riding the sleek, above-ground Monorail is completely free. Hop on anywhere the elevated train stops (the Contemporary Hotel is an especially scenic option) and ride as long as you’d like.
Here are more ways to save money on a Disney vacation.
Go wild wild west
Disney’s Wilderness Lodge transports you to Yellowstone National Park, complete with an outdoor reproduction of Old Faithful that shoots water an impressive 120 feet into the air (catch the free show on the half hour from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.). After you visit the Lodge, head back to Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, where nearly 800 acres of sprawling pine trees and oaks create a cool respite from the Florida heat. You can stroll through the walking trails to spot wildlife such as deer, ducks, armadillos, and rabbits for free, or saddle up at the stables to ride the range or even take a Segway tour of the area for a fee.
For a western-themed evening, head to the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Review, a Disney classic where chuck wagon grub (think ribs in a pail) is accompanied by lots of old-fashioned entertainment such as vaudeville, singing, and dancing. Or head to Mickey’s Backyard BBQ to meet Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and Chip n’ Dale while you chow down on a buffet of BBQ faves.
Celebrate Mardi Gras in New Orleans
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Hop on a free water taxi from Disney Springs to cruise along the Sassagoula River, which starts to feel just like the Louisiana Bayou as you reach the closest thing to New Orleans in Orlando: the Port Orleans Riverside and French Quarter Resorts. Here, the cobblestone streets are filled with gas lamps, wrought-iron balconies, and delicate magnolia blossoms while colorful Mardi Gras decorations and live jazz keep things hopping. Order some powdered-sugar drenched beignets or try some N’awlins favorites like gumbo and jambalaya for a taste of the Louisiana Bayou at Boatwrights Dining Hall.
For a fee, you can also take a horse-drawn carriage ride along the river for a truly immersive bayou experience.
Step back in time on a classic boardwalk
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Disney’s Boardwalk Resort sits on a replica of a turn-of-the-century Boardwalk, with family-friendly bike and surrey rentals, decadent boardwalk snacks, and even a dance hall to add to the classic Atlantic City atmosphere (think: atmospheric roaring 1920s AC). A new addition for adults is the AbracadaBar, a cocktail lounge that combines actual sleight of hand magic with Disney magic you’ll only find here.
Play Mickey minigolf
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Good news for lovers of Disney’s one-of-a-kind fantasy and theming: The two miniature golf courses that are part of Disney World have prices as small as their greens. For just $14 for adults and $12 for kids (and 50 percent off for a second round), you can play 18 holes of fantasy-themed putt putt at either Winter Summerland (which sports sparkling fake snow and a Christmas theme) or at Fantasia Gardens which celebrates the animated classic Fantasia. Here are other fun ways to stay active on your vacation.
Celebrate in Celebration
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Disney’s residential community has a charming downtown that feels like it was plucked from the set of a ’50s movie. Stroll around the lake and manicured streets with an ice cream from Kilwin’s, get a bite to eat, or follow the neon marquee to the classic movie theater. During the holidays, there are snow days (free) where the wintery white stuff falls across the town to give it a postcard perfect look; enjoy a classic snow ball under Orlando’s sunny skies.