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Here’s a fact you may not know. You don’t have to shell out for Walt Disney World theme park tickets to enjoy a Disney World resort vacation. And no, this does not involve sneaking through any secret Mickey trap doors.

Disney World is actually full of fun things to do outside of the four main theme parks. Instead of waiting hours in line, spending hundreds (or thousands) of dollars in tickets and mapping out your FastPass+ strategy at exactly 30 – 60 days out, you can just show up take free drum lessons at Animal Kingdom Lodge, catch the Magic Kingdom fireworks and Electrical Water Pageant at the Polynesian Resort or get a hug from Chip and Dale at Fort Wilderness. Here are just a few of my favorite things to do outside of the Disney World theme parks.

Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy

Free Crafts, Lessons and Activities

Fancy some cookie decorating? How about a drum lesson? Or getting your face painted? Maybe animation classes? All of these and so much more are free every single day at Disney World Resorts. No tickets are required to participate. Just check the monthly recreation guides for each resort and you will never be without something fun (and often free) to do in the Disney complex.

In addition to the scheduled activities, it’s fun to just visit each hotel resort — each with its own theme. Disney excels at immersing you in a location and a feeling. From the scent of the Grand Floridian Resort (which I am sure is Crabtree & Evelyn’s Spring Rain) to the creek running through the Wilderness Lodge, you can spend an entire vacation appreciating Disney resort details.

The resorts get even more magical around the holidays (and not just Christmas, though that is a great time of year to be there). For instance, the Grand Floridian Resort presents an astounding display of crafted Easter eggs every spring.

Grand Floridian Disney Easter Egg
Photo by Dia Adams

When it comes to parking, you might want to make an advance dining reservation for a resort restaurant if you want to park there. Check out our favorite Disney World restaurants to get some dining inspiration. You can also park at Disney Springs and take the buses, monorail or ferries, if you are making a day of it.

Disney’s Wilderness Lodge (Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

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Enjoy a Character Experience

You don’t need a Disney World ticket to enjoy a character meal. You don’t even have to go on Disney property if you don’t want to. The Wyndham Lake Buena Vista has two of the Fab Five (Goofy, Donald, Pluto, Minnie and Mickey) joining guests for breakfast three days a week. Breakfast at the Wyndham is half the price of other character meals. If you are taking Disney transportation, take the bus to Disney Springs. The Wyndham is just across the footbridge next to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.

A new character meal that Mommy Points highly recommends, is the Dinner With Snow White and Evil Queen at Artist Point at Wilderness Lodge. She especially likes this one for the tween set who think they’re too cool to enjoy a character encounter.

Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy

You don’t even have to spring for a meal to meet characters. Every night (weather permitting), Chip and Dale’s Campfire Sing-A-Long is 100% free at the Fort Wilderness Campground. Best of all, you don’t have to be a Disney property guest to enjoy it, though it can be a little hard to find the sing-along site at the campground. The campground is accessible by car, ferry from Magic Kingdom or Disney World buses from Disney Springs. It starts after sunset — 7pm in winter, later in the summer.

I have never seen the sing-along too crowded, even during peak season. Chip and Dale hang around and dance with the kids (and adults too) while a cowboy sings “Camptown Races” and similar tunes. This is the only character meal I know of where you can bring your own food. There is also a small stand where you can buy hot dogs, popcorn, sodas and, of course, s’mores kits.

You are welcome to stay after the sing-along for a Disney movie shown on a big outdoor screen. Just bring a blanket and bug spray. The offerings tend to go much deeper into the Disney archive than just Frozen and Lion King at Fort Wilderness. For example, I have seen Flubber and Freaky Friday on the bill. Here is a movie schedule by date.

Campfire Sing-a-long fun (Photo by Edward Pizzarello / Pizza in Motion)
Campfire Sing-a-long fun (Photo by Edward Pizzarello / Pizza in Motion)

Mini-Golf, Imagineered

Many attractions in the parks are interactive. Being immersed in Disney is a bonus. At Fantasia Gardens and Winter Summerland mini-golf becomes so much more than just hitting the ball around because it is imagineered.

Winter Summerland is next to Blizzard Beach, the winter-themed water park. The concept of the two courses at Winter Summerland is that this is what happens when Santa goes on vacation. One course features summer fun and the other, winter activities. They are challenging, with drops, jumps and even a splash or two if you’re not careful.

Fantasia Gardens, across from the Swan and Dolphin hotels, takes Sorcerer Mickey to a new level. Older kids enjoy the Fantasia Fairways, which is a more challenging course modeled after traditional golf with sand traps and other hazards. Or you can go for footgolf, which is golf using, you guessed it, a soccer ball.

Related: The Best Credit Cards for Entertainment Spending

It is common for only one mini-golf attraction to be open while the other undergoes refurbishment. If both are open, we prefer Winter Summerland, especially for younger kids. Winter Summerland features classic Disney characters (and of course, Santa) while the Fantasia hippos and their friends might not be as familiar to the little kids. Eighteen holes will set you back about $12 per person.

Photo by Dia Adams
Photo by Dia Adams

Taking a Disney Without the Parks Vacation

I’ve taken the kids to Disney World more than once without buying park tickets. It probably wouldn’t fly for a first trip (unless the kids are toddlers or under), but a visit without the theme parks can give kids their Disney fix while you use the money you save from not buying tickets for other types of fun.

My kids, then 11 and 7, thought I was nuts when I first proposed visiting Disney World without the parks. But they were game to give it a try. I splurged on stays at the Port Orleans Riverside and Animal Kingdom Lodge using fixed-value points instead of cash. Using those credit card points for the stay and skipping park tickets entirely made the trip very affordable. Using miles from the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card could do the trick.

Animal Kingdom Lodge (Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
Animal Kingdom Lodge (Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

We swam, played pool games, rented a surrey bike at Port Orleans, matched the feces to the species (yes, you read that right) at Animal Kingdom Lodge, played Disney mini-golf and enjoyed breakfast at Kona Cafe at the Polynesian Resort, followed by Dole Whip for breakfast dessert. Because … it’s vacation.

At the end of the trip, I asked the kids to rate it from a one to a 10. The 7-year-old immediately said “10.” The 11-year-old, true to his understated form, at first said eight. Then I reminded him about the average 90-minute lines for rides in the park (I even showed him proof in the Disney World app). He changed his score to a nine. I’ll take it.

Animal Kingdom Lodge pool (Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
Animal Kingdom Lodge pool (Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

Bottom Line

Disney World is the size of San Francisco and only a fraction of that is taken up by the four theme parks. You can enjoy an entire laid-back vacation at Disney World and never set foot in a park. By enjoying what the resorts and other sites have to offer, your kids may not even miss waiting in line for Slinky Dog Dash.

For more Disney World inspiration…

Featured photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy

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