One of my favorite, free things to do at Walt Disney World (yes, you can go without a park ticket!) is visit some of the beautiful, immersive Disney World resorts. In the past, we’ve fallen in love with Animal Kingdom Lodge (in fact, we spent Christmas there with family), and we’ve decided our other top picks to stay at would be Yacht Club and the Polynesian Resort.
One of the reasons we keep going back to Animal Kingdom Lodge is that there’s just so much to do there. Walk into the lobby and it’s almost like a museum, with artifacts from many African countries and beautiful works of art. Walk out back and you’re on the African savannah, viewing wild animals during the day and at night too. At all of the resorts, you can take advantage of free movies and activities (we roasted marshmallows at the Animal Kingdom Lodge on Christmas), and many of the resorts have gorgeous places to read a book or have a meal.
This past week, I checked another resort off my list: Wilderness Lodge. I also returned to a favorite, Port Orleans: French Quarter. Both are beautiful places to pass some time – free! – without the busy, more stressed energy of the parks.
Wilderness Lodge is designed to feel like a grand lodge in the Northwest United States. The views inside have some parallels to the feel of the Animal Kingdom Lodge, with beautiful displays, intricate artwork and detailing and running water and a bridge in the lobby!
Outside you’ll find a waterfall, a geyser that erupts hourly and beautiful theming that makes for wonderful places to have a meal or read a book. I’ve shared some photos to help capture the atmosphere here. There is also a boat from here to the Magic Kingdom, which is a wonderful thing if you have park tickets, but a tease if you don’t!
Port Orleans: French Quarter is a wonderful moderate hotel (mid-range pricing and amenities, in Disney-speak) with fun and beautiful decor (it’s Mardi-gras coloring, and music is ever-present) and a food court that serves beignets – including gluten-free ones! You can follow a nice walking path or take a boat from the French Quarter to both Port Orleans: Riverside (a much larger resort in the same tier) or to Disney Springs, Disney’s outdoor mall area.
Horse-Drawn Carriage at Port Orleans: French Quarter
Flowers at Port Orleans: French Quarter
Frog fountains at Port Orleans: French Quarter
In search of my 10,000 steps for the day, I followed up my visit to Wilderness Lodge with a visit to the French Quarter, a walk to Riverside, a walk back and then some beignets to cap it off. You can probably tell from the photos that French Quarter’s theming is quite different from Riverside and vice versa. They’re both pretty charming, but I prefer the former.
Port Orleans: Riverside
Water at Port Orleans: Riverside
Port Orleans: Riverside gardens
Flowers at Port Orleans: Riverside
Royal chair at Port Orleans: RIverside
It’s easy to spend a day or two of your Disney vacation exploring the resorts. Heck, if you wanted to, you could spend a week without a parks visit! I don’t necessarily recommend that, of course. But there’s great food and gorgeous views and more to be had at some of the fancier resorts, and provided they have space for their guests, you’re welcome to stop by for a visit.
If you’d like to learn more about our visits to Disney, these might interest you:
If you’re considering a visit to the Outer Banks, either by RV or otherwise, you’ll want to read my guide with the highlights. Everything from the best donuts to the best beaches and historic sites is covered in my blog for Outdoorsy here.
Ross and I have been extraordinarily blessed to have family and friends visiting us throughout the time we’ve been back in Florida.
For Christmas, his sister Emily and her husband Ryan joined us, and we made the most of Disney’s options outside of the park.
Then my friend Danny visited me while he was in town (on vacation from New Hampshire), and soon my sister will be visiting too!
But since I’ve gotten to visit Winter Park twice now (once with my dad and his wife Karen, and once with my brother Robbie, his girlfriend Ria and Ross), I wanted to write about it.
Winter Park, Florida is a lovely part of Orlando, with charming streets, parks, museums and a railroad running through it all. It’s very upscale, and extremely walkable (a rarity in central Florida!), with restaurants and shops reminding me a bit of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Further explorations farther from the downtown area further confirmed the Cambridge vibe, as we found quirky vintage shops, music, gaming and an amazing ice cream shop. So here are some of the highlights we’ve gotten to experience. We look forward to more on future visits. Special thanks to all of the family who are really the reason we got to this part of Orlando!
The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art
Of everything I’ve done in this area, the Morse Museum is probably the destination I’d most recommend a trip to see. I’ve always found Tiffany’s work to be beautiful, but it was only in the fall of 2016, when we visited a museum in upstage New York with a Tiffany exhibit, that I realized how insanely gorgeous Tiffany’s stain glass work is. I’m just completely enchanted with it. The museum is a great place to spend a few hours, with audio and booklets to enhance your tour, two videos and the opportunity to step inside a recreated chapel from the World’s Fair and Tiffany’s recreated home, in part. It’s gorgeous and perhaps best of all? It’s free on Friday evenings! Tip: No food and drink are allowed, so leave them out of site or outside; and if you must wear a backpack, you’ll be asked to wear it across your front.
Bosphorous Turkish Cuisine
Well, if you’re not into good food, you can skip Bosphorous. But this restaurant is really wonderful – it must be good if Karen, a dedicated foodie, was happy to go back when I suggested it as a lunch location! They have a Winter Park location and two Orlando locations, and they have wonderful gluten-free options, but be sure to read the gluten-free menu before you go (or pull it up on your phone) because they don’t have a copy available in the restaurant. I went with lamb shanks and the dark chocolate mousse!
Kelly’s Homemade Ice Cream
When it’s got homemade in the title, it’s time to try some ice cream! Seriously, there’s lots of homemade ice cream out there, but this stuff is very, very good and sometimes exceptionally so. Homemade ice cream is impossibly difficult to find in Orlando. Make a trip for this one. My full review is here. Don’t miss the vintage shop next door!
Mead Botanical Garden
If you need a place for a picnic or to take a walk or what have you, it’s hard to beat a beautiful botanical garden. Orlando has a few options that seem promising, but this one is free, and it’s awesome. Consider some bug spray, wear some sunscreen and go have an adventure.
Cybertron Video Games
Not my thing, but this place is retro and pretty awesome. Ross was in heaven here!
gelato from France. There’s also a macaron ice cream sandwich option, although the flavors are pre-made so you’ll have limited options. Great for gluten-free folks and gluten eaters alike. I wouldn’t go out of my way for this one necessarily, but if you’re craving gelato or a macaron, it’s a great spot.
We’ve still got plenty of exploring to do in the greater Orlando area, and our time is running low, so we know we won’t be able to see it all. If you’ve got a recommendation for us or for others, please let us know!
Well, it’s arrived. The day we dreaded one whole year ago.
What is this dreaded day, you may logically be asking?
Well of course – it’s the day that our Disney World annual passes expire.
Some of you may be thinking, finally! We’ll get a break from this Disney stuff! And if that’s you, yes, you’ve got lots of non-Disney posts to look forward to. Others may be saying – wait!? Why would you let them lapse! Go renew them, and enjoy them while you’re still in Florida!
Well, we could certainly do that. And if money weren’t so tight for us, we probably would! After all, our current plans have us in the area for another month, so we’d get more use out of them for sure. But the passes, even for Florida residents, still aren’t that cheap. We pay more than $500 for annual passes. Compared to a day rate to visit Disney World, that’s pretty great (It would only buy you 5 individual tickets, at best) but for people without a lot of disposable income, $500 can go along way toward other fun adventures. (One of them will be the Kennedy Space Center!)
Plus, you may have noticed that while we’ve been in Florida, we haven’t done much that isn’t Disney. Sure, we’ve performed a few concerts, attended a few open mics, shopped for sneakers and for a video game…but have we seen a concert? Visited a state park? Checked out a museum? Negative on all fronts, so far, although we plan to do at least two out of three in the next month.
We’ve also got lots of social time scheduled with visiting family and friends, and when you’ve only got one or two days free for adventuring, that can be a challenge. Without the impetus to go to Disney and use our passes, we can visit the beach or grab lunch with friends and not feel like we’re missing out on something.
So will we miss Disney World. Yes! Definitely. But we are estimating that we’ve visited the parks at least fifty days this past year. How amazing is that!? Disney World will be there in the future. And in the meantime, we’ll be enjoying everything else life has to offer.
Hi friends! We need a few good people with an interest in good entertainment to help us out.
Will you be a beta tester for our podcast?
Ross and I have created a new podcast that centers around the idea of creating a musical theater season within certain constraints that change each week. We think it’s fun and funny, and we’d love to get some feedback on our pilot episode before we release it to the world!
If you’ve got a half hour or so to listen, and another five minutes or so to share your thoughts, we’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment here or send us a message with your email and we’ll get you on the list as a beta tester! This isn’t just for fans of musical theater, although that doesn’t hurt. We look forward to hearing from you!