With all of the shows, attractions, and entertainment contained within 40 miles of property, (including 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, and a downtown district) it’s easy to get overwhelmed on your first vacation to Disney World. As a Cast Member, I’ve had the opportunity to see all sorts of resulting family dynamics. I’ve seen individuals practically tripping over themselves, running to the most popular attractions as soon as the park opens, dragging their disoriented children behind them, completely missing what Disney’s about. There are times families forget that their travels to “the most magical place on earth” is supposed to be just that, a magical vacation where they can spend time together and enjoy moments as a family. I think what draws me into the parks the most is not the main events or attractions, but the underlying opportunities that, unless you slow down and look around, you miss. As a child, my favorite moments were not necessarily the ones spent on an attraction, but the times surrounding those moments; the times we spent simply enjoying the magic of being together and carefree. Walt Disney once said, “Laughter is timeless. Imagination has no age. And dreams are forever.” Disney World is meant to be a place where families with children of all ages can temporarily escape the everyday hustle and bustle and simply enjoy the moment. Here’s a list some of the best non-attraction activities I think Disney offers for families with kids:
1. Kids’ Discovery Clubs (Animal Kingdom)
As a Conservation Education Presenter, I’m rather partial to the Kids’ Discovery Clubs (or KDC’s). Many quickly come to the conclusion that Animal Kingdom is a half-day park, meaning that you can see everything there is to see by noon, but that’s so far from the truth. It’s all a matter of perspective, and the KDC’s are a great example of that. There are 6 KDC’s in the various lands of Animal Kingdom: one in Camp Minnie Mickey, Africa, the Conservation Station, Asia, Dinoland, and Discovery Island. If you look at a park map, each of these locations are marked with a red K. (If you have any difficulty locating them, the nearest Cast Member would be more than willing to point you in the right direction). At each of these KDC’s, children (and adults) are invited to participate in a nature related activity. For example, in Asia, you identify various animal calls. After participating in the activity, Cast Members generally engaged Guests in a conversation about conservation or discuss various ways to lessen human impact on the environment. Regardless of which KDC you choose to begin at, you will be given a Kids’ Discover Club Membership Card. Upon completion of each KDC you will receive a stamp on your membership card, with the goal of collecting a stamp from each location. Once you collect all of your stamps, you will receive the holy grail of KDC stamps…. the Rafiki Ya Wanyama Stamp! Believe it or not, Rafiki Ya Wanyama can actually be translated from an African language into a message… but you’ll have to collect all of your stamps to find out exactly what that message is! Not only are the KDC’s a great way for families to learn a bit more about the environment and conservation, but it’s a great way to dig a little deeper into your adventures at Animal Kingdom and even learn about activities that you can take home with you to your own backyard or local park.
2. Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure (Epcot)
Epcot is one of my favorite parks, but it wasn’t always that way. I can remember walking around the World Showcase with my parents, thinking that the 1.2 mile promenade would stretch forever. Epcot, however, has changed since then. I haven’t participated in the new Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure, but I did have the opportunity to try out when it was in its Kim Possible phase. Basically, you sign up for the World Showcase Adventure at one of the various stations around the park. There, you are transformed into “secret agents” and receive a cellphone-like device that sends you on various missions around the World Showcase. The overall goal is to help Agent P stop the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz. Along the way, you solve clues and interact with the various aspects of each of 7 country pavilions. For example, in Mexico, (at least in the Kim Possible Version) you would use your phone (or F.O.N.E., Field Operative Notification Equipment, as they’re now known) to make a volcano erupt in the distance. Your F.O.N.E. explains the storyline and what’s happening along the way, automatically providing you with your next clue. These adventures provide another layer to the World Showcase for children (and adults) to enjoy and explore. There are also multiple versions of the game, so you can play a few times without repeating yourself. It makes Epcot more interesting and interactive for children who find themselves more drawn to attractions such as Test Track versus the cultural depth of the World Showcase.
3. Kidcot Fun Stops (Epcot)
Disney is also fond of the word “edutainment,” meaning that they like to entertain people while also teaching them something. The Kidcot Fun Stops are a great example of this. As you walk around the World Showcase, you will find 11 different Kidcot Stations located in Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, American Adventure, Japan, Morocco, France, United Kingdom, and Canada. Cast Members representing each country are there to talk to Guests about their homeland. Kids are given masks and can collect stamps and charms from each station around the showcase. If you ask, they’ll even show you how to write your name or a phrase in each respective language. Some of the Kidcot Stations also offer other crafts that you can take home with you. It’s a great way to encourage children to learn about other cultures while still enjoying their vacation and making the World Showcase a little more interesting.
4. Miyuki (Epcot)
Epcot has a lot to offer from the entertainment aspect. In almost every country there is some sort of performance, and Miyuki is a must-see. Found throughout the day in the Japan pavilion, Miyuki performs, molding a “clay” of soft rice dough into various animal sculptures. Her work is beautiful, and she is the only female trained in the art. She usually asks a child in her audience to choose any animal. Once they have made their decision, she takes a base of white rice dough, dyes it the color the child desires, and magically transforms the dough into the respective creature. It’s amazing to watch as a dragon appears before your eyes or as the wing of a flamingo fans out from under her hands. Adults and children alike find her work mesmerizing and enchanting. If you have a child, and would like to get your request in, it’s usually best to show up early and sit in the front. You can check your Times Guide to see when she will be performing or ask the nearest Cast Member.
5. Sorcerers of Magic Kingdom (Magic Kingdom)
Magic Kingdom has a lot to offer. There are rides, shows, character meals, street performances, parades, fireworks, and more, but Sorcerers of Magic Kingdom is another recent addition that, unless you take a moment to look around, you might miss. You begin the game by receiving a Sorcerers Key Card, Spell Cards, and map at either the Main St. Fire Station or a small stand behind the Christmas shop in Liberty Square. As you begin your game you learn that Hades and the other Disney Villains have taken over the Magic Kingdom, and it’s your mission to stop him. There are various portals located around Main Street, Fantasyland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, and Adventureland. You are assigned a specific portal to begin in and defeat one villain in each land. As you approach the portal, you will see a lock symbol. You hold up your Sorcerers Key Card to the lock in order to activate the portal. Once activated, a screen appears (sometimes seemingly out of nowhere) and explains what Hades is up to. Regardless of the current problem or situation, you usually have to hold up one of your Spell Cards in order to stop him or one of the other villains before being informed of your next portal destination. Once you have defeated all 8 villains, you can return to one of the 2 starting stations to receive new Spell Cards. These cards have become quite the collectors item and, when I tested out the game, I saw several adults sitting at a table discussing their trading options. I actually saw more adults than kids playing the game when I was there, and though the game is great for kids, it’s also an interesting way for Guests who have experienced the Magic Kingdom countless times to enjoy the parks in a new light. You can play as an individual or with friends and family. The experience is self-guided and totally up to you.
6. Star Wars: Jedi Training Academy (Hollywood Studios)
For kids ages 4-12 the Jedi Training Academy is an exciting show. I’m not exactly sure how you sign up to become a participant, as the process has changed multiple times, but about 15 children are invited to come up on stage. There they are given robes and a lightsaber and undergo Jedi training. Once their training is complete and they understand how to defeat the dark side, Darth Vader makes and appearance and battles each child in turn. At the end of the 30 minute show, when Darth Vader has been defeated, each participant is given a certificate to take home with them. If you have a child who is interested in participating, I would suggest showing up to the park as early as possible (even a bit before park opening) and asking a Cast Member about the show.
7. Searching for Hidden Mickeys (everywhere)
Hidden Mickeys can be a lot of fun. There are websites, books, and groups dedicated to the art of finding these mysterious little forms. Throughout the parks and resorts, Disney Imagineers have hidden various images of Mickey (and sometimes other characters) for the viewing pleasure of Guests. It’s like a massive scavenger hunt, without clues to follow. The most common form is the classic 3-circle appearance, with one large circle for the head and 2 smaller circles for the ears. They can, however, be in the image of Mickey’s entire body or any other form as well. According to Steve Barret, author of Hidden Mickeys, the official definition is “a partial or complete impression of Mickey Mouse placed by the Imagineers and artists to blend into the designs of Disney attractions, hotels, restaurants, and other areas” Cast Members are a great resource as far as finding them, or I would recommend checking out Steve Barret’s book and website at hiddenmickeyguy.com. You can even buy his book in the parks, and it’s an entertaining way to kill time while waiting in lines or find something to do during the more crowded seasons.
8. Pin Trading (almost everywhere)
Pin trading has become quite popular over the years. You can purchase Disney pins from most gift shops and several specialty shops throughout the pars and resorts. All of these pins are tradable and some people get really into it. There are several pin trading events held during the year, and any Cast Member wearing a lanyard with pins will trade with you as well. It’s another great way for kids to get engaged, because they’re not only walking from one attraction to the next, but looking for lanyard and pins they want to collect. It gives them the opportunity to socialize with Cast Members and maybe even learn something new about the area around them. When I worked as a Cast Member, we wore a lanyard while working at the animal stations, so not only did the child receive a pin, but I was able to point out the hiding animal or teach them something new about the species. There’s often more than meets the eye at Disney parks.
9. Miniature Golf (Fantasia Gardens or Winter Summerland)
Disney offers two miniature golf courses for families and friends to enjoy. They’re somewhat off the beaten path, so often easy to overlook, but they’re lots of fun (especially when the parks are crowded). Fantasia Gardens is located near the Boardwalk area, sort of behind the Swan and Dolphin Resorts. They offer a more child friendly option or a challenging course for those who fancy themselves more on the pro side of miniature golf. There’s also Winter Summerland, which is located by the entrance to Blizzard Beach. You can choose the Summer or Winter course, and enjoy putting your way through the Christmasy atmosphere. These courses give families a chance to get out of the hustle and bustle of the parks and take a breather in their day, and who doesn’t love mini golf?
10. Taking Time to Slow Down and Relax (anywhere)
Beyond the parks, Disney World has so much to offer. Every resort has a pool, and almost every pool has activities scheduled throughout the day and a Disney movie playing at night. After a hot day in the parks, those movie nights are a wonderful chance to cool down and refresh before nighttime festivities or the next day. The Wilderness Campground (and several other resorts) offer a bonfire and sing-along before playing a movie. Don’t worry if you forgot your hot dogs and marshmallows. There are usually some for sale. The Campground also offers canoe and kayak rentals. Port Orleans Riverside has a small fishing hole where you can toss a hook into the water for a small fee. Sometimes even watching Magic Kingdom’s fireworks on the beach of the Polynesian or Grand Floridian Resorts can give families a great view without all of the crowds. The resorts all have something to offer, and if you’re interested in finding out more about your specific resort, Cast Members will be able to fill you in on all of the details.
Disney is more than just a theme park; it’s a place where families can take the time to connect and relax. Many of the best activities are often overlooked in the shadow of the major, thrilling, attractions. By taking the time to slow down, step out of a rigorous schedule, and relax, you can truly enjoy your vacation to its fullest extent. This list is by no means complete, and these activities are not always included on everyone’s must-do list, but that’s what makes Disney wonderful. They do offer something for everyone to enjoy, sometimes you just have to take the time to look.