Intro: Best FREE Things to Do at Walt Disney World
Imagine this scenario. You may have gone through this same scenario yourself (although not necessary as extreme)...
You are going on a trip to Orlando, Florida with your family of four. Your main destination here is Walt Disney World. Your lifelong dream of being able to hug Mickey Mouse, show off your Pooh tattoo to the "real" Winnie the Pooh, and to get punched by Tigger will finally come true. You are extremely happy about your trip. You plan on spending two weeks on Disney property without leaving. For weeks before you leave, you dream happy thoughts about your trip every morning as you eat your breakfast consisting of mouse-shaped waffles and drink your Disney brand coffee.
Then one day you get the travel information that you ordered from Disney's website. Your dreams are suddenly squashed like Jiminy Cricket under Pinocchio's wooden foot. Your happy thoughts fly out the window as you realize that Mickey Mouse really doesn't care about you, all the rat really cares about is your money.
A one day ticket into one of Walt Disney World's four major parks is $75.62 each (last time I checked). That means that if you and your family go into one of the major theme parks for one day, it would cost you $302.48. So if you spend your entire two week Walt Disney World vacation at the theme parks without planning and buying a new ticket every day, it will cost you $4234.72 in admission tickets alone. There are several discounts available to lower this high price such as multi-day tickets, park hopper passes, Florida resident tickets, and even annual passes if you're going to enter the parks enough, but despite any savings, your vacation will still be expensive regardless. Be sure to research the different ticket deals before you go on your vacation to get the best deal. Then add in the cost of getting to Orlando, transportation, a place to stay, food, parking fees, and everything else, you realize that Mickey Mouse doesn't just care about your money. He loves your money. You know you can't afford it, but due to your unhealthy Disney obsession, you plan on making your pilgrimage to the happiest place on earth regardless...
Perhaps you are not as obsessed as the person described above but are still planning a Walt Disney World vacation. Disney will charge you the same amount of money, regardless of your sanity and level of obsession, and a visit can get very expensive. And that is why this Instructable may be helpful to you. In this Instructable, I will show you a few of my favorite things to do at Walt Disney World that are completely free. This way, your Disney vacation won't hurt your wallet quite as much and you can put your money towards better things. Like the gas required to get to Disney...
Step 1: Visit Disney's Entertainment Complexes
Walt Disney World's biggest and most popular entertainment complex is called Downtown Disney. It is currently under major construction as it is transformed from Downtown Disney to Disney Springs. It formerly consisted of three sections called The Marketplace, Pleasure Island, and the West Side. It's hard to say what's going to happen to these areas once the renovations are complete, but so far we know Pleasure Island won't be returning. With all the construction going on, everything about this place can change very quickly. Here's what's at Downtown Disney currently:
The Marketplace is filled with mostly stores. The majority of this area is nothing more than a massive Disney Store, only with better decorations. These stores are filled with lots of eye candy to look at to keep you entertained, such as stuff like animatronic pirates. The major restaurant in the Marketplace is a Rainforest Cafe. It's overpriced tourist food, but since you are about saving money, just go inside and wander around the gift shop and seating area. It's filled with giant aquariums and all sorts of animatronic animals. Once you have had your fun, walk out and move on. Also be sure to visit the Ghiradelli store. They always give free chocolate samples!
What was Pleasure Island is currently nothing but construction walls.
The West Side is filled with most of the expensive stuff in Downtown Disney. They have a Cirque du Soleil show that is awesome, but is also very expensive. Disney Quest is a virtual reality theme park. It's a whole lot of fun, but since it's in Disney, it is also costs to get in. There are more overpriced restaurants here, and some higher end shops. These are fun to look around in...
Walking through all of Downtown Disney is a nice walk, and if you don't eat here or buy anything, it's a free way to spend a few hours of your Disney vacation.
Disney's Boardwalk technically doubles as one of Disney's many hotels (more on hotels later) as well as an entertainment complex. There are lots of restaurants here as well as two nightclubs, but they all cost money. During the day there really isn't too much to do here if you don't want to spend money on renting bicycles or eating. It's a nice mile walk around the lake that the Boardwalk is built around. In the evening, the free entertainment picks up a bit. Every night there are several different street performers that rotate through their acts. These acts are normally somewhere between 10-15 minutes long and can be anything from juggling to magic to a guy playing a piano on a bicycle. Some nights the acts are good. Other nights they are a waste of time. But don't complain, because they are free!
The Boardwalk is located right next door to EPCOT. At 9:00 each night, EPCOT explodes with their fireworks show. Since you are right next door, you can see some of the show over the trees if you find a good spot. It will be far from the full show, but again, it's free! More on how to see fireworks for free later.
Step 2: Ride a Monorail...
The Disney theme parks are famous for their monorails. This futuristic form of transportation travels between the Magic Kingdom, it's hotels, and EPCOT. The best thing about the monorails are that it won't cost you anything to go for a ride.
Since the monorails travel to all of the hotels surrounding the Magic Kingdom, all you need to do is visit one of these hotels (more on hotel visits coming later). Go to the Magic Kingdom toll booth where they would normally collect an insane amount of money from you to be able to park your car. Tell the toll collector that you are going to either the Grand Floridian, The Poloynesian, or The Contemporary Hotel. They will give you directions and wave you through. Go to the hotel of your choice and tell the guard at the hotel entrance that you are going to have dinner at the hotel. They won't question you (unless it's a holiday and all restaurants are booked) and will wave you through. Chances are you will get hungry by the time you're done and Disney hotels generally have very good food, so you probably won't be lying about eating either. Walk into the hotel and find the monorail station. Take a ride around, but avoid switching to the EPCOT monorail unless you have a ticket to the parks. They may give you some problems on your ride back without a ticket.
If alcohol is your thing, also consider the Monorail Bar Crawl:
Step 3: Go for a Boat Ride
Walt Disney World has all sorts of water on their property. There are several good sized lakes as well as miles of man-made canals. With all of this water, what Disney wants you to do is pay lots of money to rent a boat.
Renting a boat is expensive, so why not turn Walt Disney World's free water transportation into entertainment. From almost every location on the property that has water, you can probably take a boat somewhere else for free. Explore where you land for a bit, then get back on the boat and enjoy your cruise back to your starting location. Nobody ever asks where you are going, so you don't need to be a hotel guest or any of that stuff. Sometimes they ask to see a photo ID before letting you board a boat, but once you show it to them, there isn't ever any problems.
Some of my favorite free boat rides are:
*Downtown Disney to the Port Orleans Hotel- It's a nice long ride, starting in Downtown Disney's lake. You then enter a canal and travel past the Saratoga Springs Resort, through golf courses, past the very cool condemned Tree House hotels (although they are in the process of reopening), and then finally arriving at the hotel. Get out and explore a little, then take the ride back. If you get a good driver, the whole trip will be narrated too, with all of the good stuff being pointed out along the way.
*Seven Seas Lagoon Boats- To get to the boats here, follow the same method to get through the tolls for free that you use when riding the monorail. Then take the monorail either to the front entrance of the Magic Kingdom or to the parking lot. Get off and pick your boat. The big boats here are the ferries that transport people from the Magic Kingdom parking lot to the Magic Kingdom park entrance. These are some of the largest boats on Disney property. They are two levels, and you are free to walk around whatever level you choose while the boat is moving (always go for the second floor). There are some great views of the lake, it's many islands, and the surrounding sights. There are several smaller boats that go to some of the hotels that are on the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake that are fun to ride too. Board these by getting off of the Magic Kingdom monorail station, and pick your boat. Taking a boat to the Wilderness Lodge is always fun, mostly because it is a nice long ride that takes you through the Seven Seas Lagoon, into a canal that passes over a road, then into Bay Lake.
If taking a boat here after dark, it's possible to see the Magic Kingdom Fireworks from the water and keep a lookout for the Electrical Water Pageant, which is a illuminated light show that floats across the Seven Seas Lagoon on barges.
*EPCOT Waterway Boats- These boats travel from the back entrance of EPCOT, up a canal into the lake surrounded by the EPCOT hotels, into another canal to the Swan & Dolphin Hotels, and then up to the entrance of Hollywood Studios (formerly MGM), and then turning around and repeating the whole trip. It's a nice long ride, but with all of the stops, it's quite slow going. There are pathways along the whole route so you can walk back if you choose not to ride round trip.
Step 4: Explore the Hotels
Just like when riding the monorail, when entering a hotel, if there is a toll booth, say you are going to eat dinner at the hotel. If you feel like a big over achiever, know the name of a restaurant, but this isn't necessary. The guard will most likely ask for photo ID and will copy your name down, and then will wave you through as easy as that. Once in, you are free to roam around the hotel. You probably will get hungry eventually, and Disney hotels have very good food, so chances are that you won't be lying about eating dinner there.
Here is a list of some of my favorites and some of the highlights of the free things to do at each one:
*Animal Kingdom Lodge- This is one of my favorites. It is built next to the Animal Kingdom Theme Park, and carries over an African theme. The massive lobby is filled with cool stuff like bridges spanning with width of the room between the upper floors and giant ostrich lamps. All of that is good, but the best part about the Animal Kingdom Lodge is by far the animals. The hotel has it's own recreated African Savannah, so the hotel guests can see gazelles and zebras grazing outside of their rooms. For the people that aren't staying at the hotel, you can walk around the outside of the hotel and some of the indoor hallways and get wonderful views of the animals. It's like a free zoo. If you pay admission into Animal Kingdom next door, you'll get to see one of the world's best zoos, filled with all sorts of impressive animals. Here you are limited to slightly less exciting animals like zebras, giraffes, and other grazing animals. It's not quite as exciting, but it's still pretty cool, and it's free!
*Wilderness Lodge- Another one of Disney's Lodge hotels. This one is themed to be somewhere in the American Northwest, specifically around the national parks. The setup of the hotel is very similar to the Animal Kingdom Lodge, only without the animals. It also has a massive lobby filled with all sorts of good stuff like giant totem poles, fireplaces, and hot springs. These fake hot springs bubble up into pools inside the lobby and then flows into a stream. The stream flows out of the lobby, where it forms a larger river outside. The river passes over several waterfalls and then flows into the Wilderness Lodge's swimming pool. It doesn't end there either. The water then flows out of the pool into another stream, and eventually flows out into Bay Lake. This whole water system is one of the highlights of the hotel, and it is very interesting to follow the flow of the water along it's whole path. Behind the hotel, along Bay Lake, there are some nature trails to walk around, and then their is the geyser. The geyser erupts every half hour and is a nice free show...
*Contemporary Hotel- This is one of the oldest hotels at Walt Disney World, but it still very cool to walk around. The Contemporary is one of the Magic Kingdom hotels, built between the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake. The hotel was built using modular construction, meaning the frame of the building was constructed here, while all of the rooms were constructed off site. The rooms were then lifted up to their proper place with a crane and slid into the frame. This was done to make renovating the hotel easier when it started getting old since they would be able to pull out an old room, and slide a new room in. It turned out that the building settled after construction though, making this impossible.
The Contemporary has a large open lobby, with all of the rooms on the upper floors above. The monorail passes and stops right in the lobby. Perhaps my favorite part of the Contemporary is the buildings stairs and rooftop. On the top floor of the hotel, there is a very expensive (and good) restaurant called the California Grill. Surrounding the restaurant, there are pathways going out onto the roof of the hotel, providing great views of the surrounding area. Depending on the time of the day, the hotel's elevators do not always go up to the top level of the building, and that's where the Contemporary's very cool stairs come into play. On each end of the building, there are two sets of stairs that go up to the top of the building. These dizzying stairs wind up the slanted outside walls of the building all the way up to the pathways going across the Contemporary's roof, even when the California Grill elevators aren't running.
*The Boardwalk- I already discussed what happens here. See step 1.
These are a few of my favorites, but there are plenty more Disney hotels to explore. There are the very cool Swan & Dolphin hotels, the Coronado Springs Hotel with it's Mayan Pyramid, the Pop Century hotels. The list goes on and on...
Step 5: Watch the Fireworks
Don't waste your time attempting to watch Hollywood Studio's Fantasmic firework show from outside of the park. You won't see much since this show is set in a stadium and really has very little fireworks. All you may see from outside of this park is maybe a few fireworks passing over the treeline in the direction of stage while hearing blasting Disney movie music.
EPCOT's Reflections of Earth Firework show can be seen from the bridge near the back entrance of the park in the Boardwalk hotel. You will see a lot more fireworks from this show for free than you would at Hollywood Studios, but it still isn't ideal. This show involves a whole lot of video on a floating globe that isn't visible outside of the park for a good part of the show. You will get to see some fireworks in the beginning of the show, a big break in between, and then some more fireworks at the finale. You'll be able to hear some drifting audio, but nothing great.
Wishes at the Magic Kingdom is the ideal Disney firework show to watch for free. Go to one of the Magic Kingdom hotels as described in the previous step. The Contemporary is my personal favorite to watch the show from. The Polynesian Hotel and the Grand Floridian Hotel both provide about equal view of the show. In the Contemporary, go outside on the side of the building facing the Magic Kingdom anywhere from the bottom of the staircase up to the roof. You will not be alone when doing this and some of the better spots on the side of the building fill up fast, mainly the floors close to the lobby and the rooftop. They play the audio for the show, although I have noticed it is never loud enough to hear clearly at this hotel. It is very cool though to be higher than where most of the fireworks are exploding...
In the Polynesian or Grand Floridian, head towards the beaches on the lake. On most nights audio is played and it is normally much clearer than at the Contemporary. Most of the restaurants on the lake have view of the show and also play the audio.
If you happen to go on or near the Forth of July or New Years Eve, you may get a special show where the fireworks are launched from several additional spots in the Magic Kingdom and also from some of the islands in the Seven Seas Lagoon. It's a very cool show, although it's a bit tricker to get into the hotels without restaurant reservations on these nights (it is possible though).
Here is a video of Wishes on New Years Eve 2007 from the Polynesian Hotel...
Step 6: Go to Celebration
In the 1990s, the Walt Disney Company decided to get into urban planning again and built the city of Celebration. Celebration is very much the opposite of what EPCOT was originally designed to be. It was designed as a very low key town, with the plan to provide people with a nostalgic fuzzy feeling for a time they can't remember. The city consists of mostly houses, but also has a small downtown. This downtown is a fun place to walk around and explore for an afternoon. There are some fairly decent restaurants, a tiny movie theater, as well as other pointless shops that don't sell anything anyone really needs. There are often events downtown, so if you're lucky you will have a little more to do. Be sure to go in December and see the fake snow on Market Street...
I've also seen several of the houses in Celebration with Christmas lights set to music in the style of the famous Wizards of Winter videos...
Step 7: Free Stuff in the Parks...
Once inside the theme parks, you won't get much for free that wasn't covered in your price of admission. Food, drinks, and everything else will cost you high theme park prices in most cases, although there is the rare exception. In fact, I can only think of one exception that is always available...
In EPCOT, there is a place called Club Cool nearby the big fountain in Future World. In this Coca-Cola sponsored exhibit, there are free flowing, self serve samples of Coke products from around the world. Some of the sodas are horrible, while others are very tasty. Whenever I am at EPCOT, I never buy any sort of drinks. I make a point to pass through this exhibit as many times as possible to get all of the free beverages possible!
Step 8: Free Admission...
If you are a tourist visiting Walt Disney World, chances are you won't have a way to get any free tickets into the parks, but they are out there.
Disney employees hardly make any money, but one of the perks is that they are given free tickets into the parks. On occasion these employees don't have time or don't want to use their free tickets, and they are often passed on to non-Disney employees. If you are friendly with any Walt Disney World 'Cast Members', be sure to give them a call and see if they can supply you with any freebies.
NEVER (unless you know what you're doing) fall for any of the scams that you will see outside of Disney, mostly on International Drive and 192 offering you free tickets to the theme parks. If these places are giving you real tickets, you will need to sit with a high pressure timeshare salesperson for hours that will do their best to keep you at the sales pitch until they make you feel guilty enough to make a purchase. These timeshares will often have problems actually giving you the tickets that they lured you into the sales pitch with in the first place, not to mention the fact that places are known to give unsuspecting tourists used or counterfeit tickets.
Just remember that if someone you don't know is offering you free tickets, it's probably too good to be true...
Step 9: Explore Beyond the Walls of Walt Disney World
And that's my list of things to do at Walt Disney World for free. Enjoy your trip, and I hope this list will save you some money by giving you some ideas of what do do besides going to the theme parks.
If you're feeling really brave, I also recommend that you leave Disney property on your vacation, although the person I described in the Introduction wouldn't do that. There is a whole city outside of Disney's walls, filled with lots of things to see and do! Go explore Downtown. Go swim in a natural springs. See some wild alligators. Go to a museum. There is lots of other stuff to do in the Orlando area!
And most of all, have fun on your trip...
Third Prize in the
Lonely Planet Travel Tips Contest