Whether you have plenty of time on your hands or you need a break from the parks, there is lots to do at the Walt Disney World Resort without paying a dime to access any of the four theme parks. And, no, I am not saying you should go to DisneyQuest or visit one of the two water parks.
One of my favorite thing to do is to take a boat at Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside and float down the Sassagoula River, a gentle 2½ mile waterway, which winds its way through the woods, past the Treehouse Villas and the Saratoga Springs Resort, to Lake Buena Vista and the Downtown Disney shopping, dining and entertainment complex.
Downtown Disney has lots to offer. Stroll from the Market Place to the West Side, making sure to stop for free chocolate samples at the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain & Chocolate Shop at the Marketplace. Throughout Downtown Disney, artists perform, free of charge, all year long. For little ones, it is a treat to visit the LEGO shop. Cast members engage kids in games and there is no sales pressure. If you want to do something special, I recommend the Characters in Flight balloon ride. For $18 you’ll ascend 400 feet in the air and hover over Downtown Disney in the world’s largest tethered helium balloon.
Another must-visit is Disney’s Boardwalk. It does not matter if you are a guest at the exquisite Yacht & Beach Club Resorts, you can have plenty of fun just visiting. My favorite past time is renting a surrey bike. Choose a 2-person, 4-person or 6-person surrey bike for an outing that's fun for the whole family. Prices are $20-$24 for half an hour. If you happen to stay at any of the Boardwalk resorts, check into the free recreation activities offered. The poolside activities and Movie Under the Stars are all free of charge. Enjoy your favorite Disney movie in the moonlight under the stars and let the kids see the movie while you go and snooze by the beach.
If you are into nature, I suggest you visit Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. Opened in 1994, the deluxe resort is themed after the grand forest lodges of the American Northwest. Towering pines, dense forest and the not-so-natural Fire Rock Geyser surround a 450-acre natural lake. The lobby is amazing, complete with a 55-foot authentic totem and an 82-foot fireplace reminiscent of the colors of the Grand Canyon.
If you are looking for a fun dinner, consider Whispering Canyon Café and don’t forget to order ketchup. Yours truly obviously did a lot of things wrong and therefore ended in jail!
Just a boat ride away is Disney’s Ft. Wilderness Campground. There is the daily Chip 'n' Dale's Campfire Sing-A-Long that is free. It generally begins around 7 p.m. during the fall/winter season and 8 p.m. beginning sometime in April through the summer. It is held near the Meadow Trading Post in the campfire area. The program begins with a sing-along led by a Disney cast member - if you've seen "Barney," you know these songs - and a marshmallow roast around two campfire rings. You may bring your own marshmallows or buy them at the Chuckwagon Snack Bar. Chip and Dale make an appearance to visit with guests and sign autographs. The sing-along lasts about 40 minutes. Afterwards, a Disney movie is shown on a large outdoor screen.
The African-themed Animal Kingdom Lodge is my all-time favorite place to visit. You can enjoy the beautiful views of the savannah free of charge, and it is am amazing place to relax. If you are interested in a meal, I recommend you try Sanaa for lunch and ask for a table along the windows facing the African landscape. No worries, animals will come up close and the price is right too.
And if you really want to enjoy Florida but want to spend some time without the Mouse, try the Disney Wilderness Preserve. Managed by The Nature Conservancy, the preserve is a 12,000-acre showcase for habitat restoration. Purchased to replace habitats erased by the construction of Walt Disney World, this preserve was largely a cattle ranch when it first opened. The preserve is off the beaten path. To reach Disney Wilderness Preserve, follow SR 535 south from I-4 at Lake Buena Vista. Turn right on Poinciana Boulevard after 2.9 miles. Continue 13.1 miles south, crossing US 17/92, to reach Pleasant Hill Road. You’ll pass the Osceola District Schools Environmental Study Center en route. Turn right on Pleasant Hill Road and immediately get in the left lane. After a half-mile, make the left onto Old Pleasant Hill Road. Continue another half mile to turn left into the preserve entrance. You’ll follow the entrance road for 1.6 slow miles – watch for wild turkeys, caracara and sandhill cranes along the way. Visitors can hike and bird watch, and enjoy old Florida’s natural beauty. There is no fee, although donations are appreciated. The preserve is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, but it is closed on weekends and most major holidays. Before visiting, call (407) 935-0002, as there may be limited access due to flooding or restoration activities.
And now it is time to relax, sit back and enjoy what Disney does best: Fireworks! You have a choice, the beach of Disney’s Polynesian Resort, the beach of Disney’s Grand Floridian or the fire escape on the 4th floor of Disney’s Contemporary Resort. It has seating for at least 30 people and I have yet to see it packed. Wait, there is more: the Electrical Water Pageant can be seen nightly from the beaches of the same hotels. Check with guest services for the approximate times and enjoy!
What are your favorite free Walt Disney World Resort activities?
Liliane Opsomer is the co-author of "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids," a guidebook that provides detailed planning and touring tips for a family vacation. She is passionate about travel, Disney, and hobbits. Liliane also started recently her own blog.