Cool pools and sangria school: 12 things non-Disney people can do at Disney World
I wear my love for Disney with pride. I visit Disney World multiple times per year, know some of the park's best-kept secrets and have made it my job to help people make the most of their time at Disney. But I haven't been so blinded by Tinkerbell's pixie dust to lose sight of the fact that not everyone feels the same way I do about Disney World vacations.
I also know that non-Disney fans sometimes reluctantly find themselves at Disney World with well-meaning friends or family hoping to convert them into Disney fans. But I'm not here to convert you. Rather, I'm here to provide you with 12 activities that will make your time at Disney more enjoyable ... no Mickey ears or theme park tickets required.
Visit a pool or water park
While the rest of your family battles the crowds, lines and blazing sun at the theme parks, you can stay cool by the pool. All on-site Disney resorts have pools (and equally important, poolside bars), but the available amenities vary per resort tier.
Related: Magic at every budget: These are the best hotels at Walt Disney World in 2022
Disney's value resorts have pools, but the theming is minimal compared to the higher-tier resorts. Moderate and deluxe resorts have even more immersive theming, hot tubs and waterslides. If you are planning on spending a lot of time by the pool, Stormalong Bay (shared by Disney's Yacht Club and Beach Club resorts) is essentially a mini water park. The 3-acre pool complex has a lazy river, sandy beach, a 230-foot waterslide, kids slide and play area and swirling whirlpools.
You could also visit one of Disney's two actual water parks, Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. Blizzard Beach's 3,000-foot-long Cross Country Creek takes about 30 minutes to traverse and is one of the longest lazy rivers in the U.S. If it's thrills you're after, Typhoon Lagoon has a 300-foot-long water coaster called Crush 'n' Gusher and a rapid raft ride called Miss Adventure Falls that's as well themed as any ride inside the parks.
The water parks do require a separate admission unless you purchase a ticket type that includes water park access.
Go on a 'bars and bites' Monorail crawl
The Walt Disney World Monorail has three lines. The Express Monorail and the Epcot Monorail transport guests parking at Disney's Transportation and Ticket Center to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, respectively, and the Resort Monorail shuttles guests staying at Disney's Contemporary Resort, Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa and Disney's Polynesian Village Resort to the Magic Kingdom (where they can also catch a connection to Epcot).
If you are avoiding the parks, you can also utilize the Resort Monorail to "hop" between the resorts for a drink, a bite to eat ... or both. If you are starting from the TTC, your first stop will be Disney's Contemporary Resort.
My recommendation here would be Steakhouse 71 Lounge for the loaded macaroni and cheese or bacon and eggs and a Citrus Grove cocktail or a glass of beer from a local brewery. From there, you'll head to Disney's Polynesian Village Resort, where you can try to snag a spot at the bar in Trader Sam's Grog Grotto. This tiki lounge is on the small side, but you can get the same exotic cocktails and island-inspired bites outside at Trader Sam's Tiki Terrace. My favorite menu items are the chicken lettuce cups and the spikey pineapple (order it "extra spikey" for an additional splash of rum). Your last stop is Disney's Grand Floridian Resort, where you can grab house-made truffle fries or a charcuterie board and one of many variations on a classic martini at the Enchanted Rose lounge.
You could do a similar (and more budget-friendly) Skyliner gondola crawl. The Disney Skyliner connects Disney's Riviera Resort, Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort, Disney's Pop Century Resort and Disney's Art of Animation Resort with Epcot and Hollywood Studios. You can hit up the pool bars or quick-service restaurants and sample various dishes and drinks at each location while exploring the different resorts.
Learn to paint or make sangria
All Disney on-site hotels offer activities like complimentary nighttime movie screenings, scavenger hunts and pool games, but some take it a step further with opportunities to flex your creative muscles or brush up on your bartending skills.
At Disney's Coronado Springs Resort, you can paint your own Disney-inspired masterpiece, create a Spanish mosaic keepsake or learn how to craft the perfect glass of sangria at Sangria University (you can attend even if you aren't a guest of the resort). Other resorts offer similar arts and crafts activities like ceramic castle painting at Disney's Contemporary Resort or custom wine glass decorating at Disney's Riviera Resort. Not all of these are listed online and you can request an activities schedule when you check in to your resort.
Go horseback riding at Tri-Circle-D Ranch
While people don't often take Disney at a leisurely pace, there is a quiet, secluded spot where you can do just that. Even better, you can do it on horseback. Tri-Circle-D Ranch, home to the horses who live at Disney World, offers horseback trail rides through the wooded areas surrounding Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort.
Advance reservations are encouraged. If you are more comfortable on your own two feet than atop a horse, you can also walk through the ranch and visit with the horses.
Book a spa day
There's certainly something to be said for a rejuvenating foot massage after a day spent logging miles around Disney, but you don't have to partake in the parks to enjoy Disney's full slate of relaxing spa treatments and pampering salon services.
The Grand Floridian Spa at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort offers head-to-toe treatments including haircuts, facials, massages, manicures and more. Before or after your treatment, you can unwind in the spa's relaxation lounge.
Go for a bike ride
If you couldn't fit your own bike in your carry-on bag, you can rent one at Disney World. Many of Disney's hotels have bikes available to rent and tranquil paths where you can ride them.
My favorite areas to explore by bike are Disney's Port Orleans Resort French Quarter and Riverside and Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort. If you want to share a scenic ride with your friends or family, cruising along Disney's BoardWalk area on a two-, four- or six-person surrey bike will magically transport you back to a lively turn-of-the-century beach town.
Check out Disney's nightlife
Nightlife at Disney can be difficult to find, but it does exist and most of it has a decidedly un-Disney vibe. When day turns to night at Disney's BoardWalk, the lights that illuminate the promenade beckon the over-21 crowd toward dancing, drinks and dueling pianos.
You'll find a DJ spinning tunes at Atlantic Dance Hall, talented pianists taking your requests at Jellyrolls (be forewarned, they'll probably play a Disney tune or two) and bartenders slinging curious concoctions like the Parlor Trick and The Conjurita at the magic-themed AbracadaBar.
Stroll the wildlife trails at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge
You don't have to brave the crowds at Disney's Animal Kingdom to behold the more than 30 species of African animals who call Disney World home. The nearby Animal Kingdom Lodge has multiple savanna viewing areas where you can spot wildlife (and helpful cast members to point you in the right direction if you are having trouble finding any). You can also pick up a field guide in the lobby to keep track of which species you spot.
If you want to get a bit closer to the animals, you can book a Starlight Safari. During this nighttime excursion, you'll be provided with a night vision device to help see the animals as you tour the savanna in an open-air safari vehicle.
You do not have to be a guest of Animal Kingdom Lodge to visit the savanna viewing areas or take part in the Starlight Safari.
Play a round of golf
What's a world-class theme park without a world-class golf course (or four)? Disney has three 18-hole courses and one 9-hole walking course. Walk-ups are allowed, but advance reservations are recommended.
If you need to brush up on your golf swing, Disney offers golf lessons with PGA professionals or you can opt for miniature golf or foot golf if you don't know the difference between a birdie and a bogey.
Rent a boat or go fishing
From the Seven Seas Lagoon near Magic Kingdom to Crescent Lake near Disney's BoardWalk area, there are numerous waterways you can explore by boat at Disney World. If you are comfortable behind the wheel of a boat, you can rent a pontoon (no reservations required) from various Disney resorts or you can go the nonmotorized route and rent a canoe or kayak at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort.
Anglers of all experience levels can rent a rod and reel for dockside fishing at Port Orleans and Fort Wildnerness or set out on two- or four-hour guided fishing excursions.
Stay at a Disney hotel that doesn't feel like a Disney hotel
For some, the in-your-face theming at Disney's on-site hotels is one of the perks. For others, it can feel like a constant reminder that there is no escaping Disney's world of princesses and larger-than-life mice. One of my favorite hotels that fits the "non-Disney at Disney" bill provides an escape from the hordes of anthropomorphic animals, but is actually one of the closest hotels to two of Disney's theme parks.
The Walt Disney World Swan, Dolphin and Swan Reserve resorts have modern, upscale decor, resort-style pools and vibrant lobbies with lively lounges. All three resorts participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program so you can earn or burn hotel points and because the resorts are technically on Disney property, you can take advantage of benefits like complimentary theme park transportation and early entry. It's a win-win.
Visit 1 of Disney's fine-dining restaurants
Most Disney guests are clamoring to dine with Mickey and Minnie or snag a coveted reservation inside the castle at Cinderella's Royal Table, but it is possible to find character-free fine dining at Disney World. Some of these restaurants are inside the parks, but my favorites that don't require a park ticket are California Grill at Disney's Contemporary Resort, Jiko — The Cooking Place at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge and Yachtsman Steakhouse at Disney's Yacht Club Resort.
If budget is not a concern, Victoria & Albert's at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa is in a class by itself when it comes to dining at Disney. This AAA Five Diamond fine-dining restaurant is a four-hour culinary experience where every dish is artfully prepared, plated and (optionally) paired with complementary wines.
As much as I love Disney, I know there are people who end up there who would rather vacation anywhere else, but are nice enough to play along with their Disney-loving friends or family. If you do find yourself in that situation, you now have more than a few backup plans to keep you busy when your travel companions ask if you want to join them for a day in the parks.