How to tour Disney World resorts (even if you’re not staying there)

by Shannon Albert 46 comments Like the Facebook page

(Article last updated: March 10, 2016)

howtotourresortssquareimageThe 4 theme parks, 2 water parks and Disney Springs aren't the only things to see at Disney World; there are also a couple of dozen Disney World resorts you might want to spend some time touring during your trip (especially if they are convenient to where you're already planning to be).

Today, I have some touring ideas for how to incorporate hotel visits into your trip, what to do at each one (many activities are free) and how to get there using Disney transportation.

If you're staying at 1 of the resorts, you'll have even more things to do than what's listed below (including special tours and poolside activities).

Let's get started...

How to get there

In each of the touring ideas below, I've included info on how to get there using Disney World transportation. You can also drive to the resorts and ask for a 3-hour parking pass to check out the resort or you can pay $25 to valet for the day.

What you CAN'T do

Most areas of the resorts are available to visit but you will not be able to go to the pools at the resorts as a non-guest because they require a room key (MagicBand) from people staying at that resort.

Recreation schedules for all resorts

Many of the items listed below have additional details available on the resort recreation schedules so be sure to check those for additional info.

Tour 1: The Magic Kingdom monorail loop

The resort monorail near Magic Kingdom includes stops at The Contemporary, Polynesian and The Grand Floridian.

How to get there: Go to the Magic Kingdom and then take the resort monorail to tour the resorts

When to visit: At the end of a Magic Kingdom day, as part of an afternoon break, or on arrival/departure day when you don't want to enter a park but would like to keep busy

Stop 1: The Contemporary (view the recreation schedule)
The first thing you'll notice at The Contemporary is that the monorail goes right through the middle of the building which is fun (especially for kids).

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Once you step off the monorail, you can:

  • Go downstairs to visit the big arcade
  • Head outside on the Bay Lake side to the marina where you can participate in water activities like parasailing, water skiing, wake boarding, and tubing. You can also rent Jet Skis or have guided tours of Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon. The marina is open from 9-5 in the summer and 10-5 in the winter. More info (including prices) can be found at SammyDuvall.com
  • View the Electrical Water Pageant that passes by The Contemporary a few minutes after 10 p.m. each night. You can watch it from the beach on the Bay Lake side.
  • Visit the nightly campfire which takes place on the beach (free)
  • Book the Pirate and Pals Fireworks Voyage which departs from The Contemporary ($53.99 for adults, $30.99 for kids age 3-9)
  • Watch a movie under the stars which is offered nightly (check the recreation schedule to see which movies are being shown each night)
  • View Magic Kingdom fireworks from the beach (or make a reservation at California Grill and you'll be able to watch from the observation deck)
  • During the holidays, check out the holiday village made of gingerbread and chocolate that sits near the monorail platform

Stop 2: The Polynesian (view the recreation schedule)
The next stop on the resort monorail is The Polynesian. Be sure to check the Tikiman Pages activity info for more details on the activities listed below and for other helpful info.

polynesian

Some things to do at The Poly:

  • Stop by Tambu Lounge for a Lapu Lapu, a delicious alcoholic drink served in a pineapple, or head to Trader Sam's for one of their surprisngly strong drinks
  • Get a Dole Whip, one of the most popular Disney World snacks, available at Pineapple Lanai (often much easier to get here than the Magic Kingdom location)
  • Take a walk on the beach
  • View the Electrical Water Pageant from the beach which passes by around 9 p.m. each night
  • Watch Magic Kingdom fireworks from the beach
  • Listen to Polynesian storytelling at the Grand Ceremonial House every evening at 8:30 p.m.
  • Watch the torch lighting ceremony in the Grand Ceremonial House Tuesday-Saturday at 6 p.m.
  • Take hula dancing lessons at the activity area (behind the lobby) Monday-Saturday at 3:45 p.m.
  • Join the nightly campfire at the activity area from 6-7 p.m. Marshmallows and s’mores are available for purchase.
  • Watch a movie under the stars (check recreation schedule for which movies are being shown each night)
  • Rent boats or bikes (more info here)
  • Get hair wraps from noon-5 p.m. (cost is $1.50 an inch and accessories cost extra)

Stop 3: The Grand Floridian (view the recreation schedule)
You don't have to have a grand budget to enjoy some of the activities at The Grand Floridian.

grand floridian

Here are some ideas:

  • Listen to piano music that plays in the lobby each day beginning at 3 p.m.
  • Walk on the beach and relax in a hammock or lounge chair for awhile
  • Shop at 1 of the great stores (we like Basin White for their beauty bars)
  • Watch Magic Kingdom fireworks from the beach
  • Participate in a "magical moment" at 3:30 daily in the lobby where Cinderella and Prince Charming do a waltz in the lobby and kids are free to join in
  • Visit the Wedding Pavilion which is a building within walking distance
  • Watch the Electrical Water Pageant from the beach (usually comes by The Grand Floridian a bit after 9 p.m.)
  • Get a portrait drawn in the lobby from 5 p.m. - 10 p.m. daily (pastels and charcoals available - prices start at $145)
  • Grab a drink at Mizner's Lounge as the orchestra plays Big Band music nearby
  • Rent watercraft (see details and prices here)
  • Watch a movie under the stars (check the recreation schedule to see which movie is being shown each night)
  • During the holidays, see the 16-feet-tall gingerbread house in the lobby (smaller versions are available to purchase)

Tour 2: Visit Ft. Wilderness

There's so much to do at Ft. Wilderness (not to be confused with Wilderness Lodge which is a totally separate but nearby resort) that I'm putting it in a category of its own as you could make a whole day of it.

(view the recreation schedule)
ftwilderness

Here are some of the things you can do at Ft. Wilderness:

  • Roast marshmallows with Chip and Dale at the campfire near the Meadow Trading Post. Bring your own marshmallows or buy them at Chuck Wagon. Takes place at 7:00 pm in fall and winter and about 8:00 pm in spring and summer. This event is free.
  • Go on a gentle 45-minute horseback ride at Tri-Circle D Livery. These rides are offered several times a day (weather permitting) and cost $46 per person. Riders must be 9-years-old and at least 48 inches tall. There's a maximum weight of 250 pounds per rider.
  • View the Electrical Water Pageant from the beach/marina area around 9:45 p.m. each night
  • Take part in an Archery Experience. Participants must be at least 7-years-old, experience lasts for 90 minutes and costs $39. Offered Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoons. Walk-ups are accepted or you can book 90 days in advance by calling 407-939-7529.
  • Watch a blacksmith affix horseshoes to Cinderella's ponies at The Settlement.
  • Ride a pony from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. - for children at least 2 years old, weighing no more than 80 pounds and no taller than 48 inches. Cost is $5 and only cash is accepted.
  • Go on a wagon ride at 6:00pm or 8:30pm from the front of Pioneer Hall. A fireworks wagon ride is available on some evening at 8:30pm for the 9:00pm fireworks at the Magic Kingdom (an audio track is played). The cost is $8 per adult and $5 per child (age 3-9) and availability is on a first come, first serve basis (no reservations available).
  • Take a carriage ride for a 25 minute ride through Ft. Wilderness. Rides take place from 6 p.m. - 9:30 p.m. and cost $45 per carriage. Reservations can be made by calling 407-WDW-PLAY.
  • Visit the marina between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. and rent watercraft/boats

Tour 3: The Epcot-area resorts

The Epcot-area resorts are all located around Crescent Lake and include the Boardwalk area.

How to get there: Exit Epcot through the International Gateway (between the UK and France sections) and then walk to the right, take a bus to one of the resorts, or walk/take a ferry from Hollywood Studios

When to visit: At the end of an Epcot or Hollywood Studios day, or on a non-park day

All of these resorts are accessed by walking so you can visit them in any order but I'll just start with The Beach Club which is the closest to Epcot.

Stop 1: Beach Club and Yacht Club (view the recreation schedule)

beachclubyachtclub

While The Beach Club and Yacht Club are fabulous places to stay, there isn't a huge amount for non-guests to do here, but there are a few things:

  • Ask somebody at guest services about the Disney trivia scavenger hunt
  • Grab an ice cream at Beaches and Cream
  • Enjoy a campfire and movie on the beach in the evening (check the recreation schedule for details). Marshmallows and sticks are provided but other s'mores ingredients have to be purchased separately.
  • Rent watercraft from Bayside Marina
  • During the holidays, check out lots of Christmas decorations, including a large, edible carousel at The Beach Club and an edible train at The Yacht Club

Stop 2: The Swan and Dolphin
Although the Swan and Dolphin aren't technically Disney resorts, they enjoy some of the same amenities, including being in a prime spot among the Epcot-area resorts.

Here are some things to check out there:

  • Rent a swan paddleboat
  • Walk along the white sand beach
  • Order a Smoking Sangria at bluezoo bar
  • Play miniature golf at Fantasia Gardens which is a 5 minute walk from the Swan/Dolphin

Stop 3: The Boardwalk (view the recreation schedule)
There's the Boardwalk Inn resort and then there's the Boardwalk area just outside of it. Most of the recreational activities will be located on the Boardwalk and are open to anybody who happens to be in the area.

boardwalkarea

Some things to do in the Boardwalk area include:

  • Rent a surrey bike to bike all the way around the water in the Epcot-area resorts
  • Enjoy Boardwalk entertainment that often includes midway games, jugglers, and magic shows (usually available in the evenings on Thursday, Friday and Saturday)
  • Grab something to eat at the Boardwalk pizza window or the (newly expanded) Boardwalk bakery
  • Visit Jellyrolls dueling piano bar (cover charge applies)
  • During the holidays, go inside The Boardwalk Inn to see an edible, miniature version of Atlantic City, complete with Ferris wheel, carousel, and beach which sits in the lobby alongside other seasonal decorations
  • Take the Ballyhoo Guided Tour - a free 60-minute tour that explores the history of the original boardwalk in Atlantic City that inspired the Boardwalk Resort. Tours are offered on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 9 a.m. (times and dates are always subject to changed) and meet at the Belle Vue Lounge.

Tour 4: Animal Kingdom Lodge

This resort is the most beautiful of all of the Disney World resorts, in my opinion. It also happens to have several things to do if you'd like to make the trek over there to visit.

(view the recreation schedule)
animalkingdomlodge

How to get there: You can drive or take a bus to Animal Kingdom Lodge. If you're trying to get there from another resort, you'll need to take a bus to a park or Disney Springs and then transfer to the Animal Kingdom Lodge bus (I'd recommend boarding a bus to Animal Kingdom park since AKL is located nearby but since the park closes earlier than other parks, you can only do that earlier in the day, before Animal Kingdom closes).

When to visit: At the end of an Animal Kingdom day, as part of an afternoon or evening break, or on arrival day when you don't want to enter a park but would like to keep busy

These are the kinds of activities that are often available to anybody visiting the resort (ask for a schedule at the front desk):

  • Watch the flamingo feedings at the flamingo pond
  • Participate in animal tracking at Arusha Rock
  • Enjoy music of the Savanna, wildlife games and cultural safari in the Sunset Lounge
  • View animals in the dark with night vision binoculars
  • Decorate cookies at Boma daily at 1 p.m. (and it's free!)
  • Outside at the Arusha Rock (walk through the lobby, toward the savanna), there is nightly African storytelling next to Ogun's Firepit, with storytelling held indoors in the event of inclement weather.
  • During the holidays, check out the big Christmas tree with themed ornaments decorating the lobby

Tour 4: the Port Orleans resorts

Port Orleans Riverside and French Quarter used to be one big resort called Dixie Landings, but they are now considered separate resorts. Riverside is the much larger of the 2 and has more amenities, but both have things you might want to check out. Be sure to check out the PortOrleans.org recreation info for more info.

portorleansmap

How to get there: You can drive, catch a bus, or take a boat from Disney Springs to these resorts. If you're trying to get there from another resort, you'll need to take a bus to a park or Disney Springs and then transfer to the Riverside or French Quarter bus or boat.

When to visit: If you're already planning some time at Disney Springs, you might tack on a couple extra hours to visit 1 or both of these resorts.

Stop 1: Port Orleans Riverside (view the POR recreation schedule and the POFQ recreation schedule)

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Here are some of the things to do at Riverside:

  • Check out Yehaa Bob's funny piano show (usually Wednesday-Saturday evenings)
  • Take a boat to Disney Springs
  • Book a 25-minute carriage ride for the evening ($45)
  • Stroll along the river
  • Rent a bicycle or surrey bike (more info here)
  • Watch a movie under the stars near building 90
  • Enjoy a Campfire on de’ Bayou campfire near the pool bar at dusk with stories, sing-alongs and marshmallow roasting (marshmallows and sticks are free, other s'mores ingredients should be purchased separately)
  • Go cane pole fishing early in the day (available 7 a.m.-1 p.m., costs $4/person which includes bait)
  • Visit the arcade
  • Get your hair braided at the marina from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily ($2 per inch, beads are extra)
  • Have a caricature drawn in the lobby in the evening ($15-25)
  • Send kids on a pirate adventure. Children age 4-12 can enjoy a 2-hour Bayou Pirate Adventure at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays ($34, lunch is provided).

Stop 2: French Quarter (view the recreation schedule)

You can get to French Quarter from Riverside by walking 10-15 minutes (I'd suggest walking along the river as it's beautiful).

Here's what you can do at French Quarter:

  • Order some beignets in the food court
  • Watch movies under the stars in the open area between buildings 4, 5 and 6
  • Enjoy a Cajun Campfire with roasted marshmallows, storytelling and sing-alongs in the courtyard behind building 6 (marshmallows and sticks provided for free, other s'mores ingredients should be purchased separately)
  • Play in the arcade
  • Have a caricature drawn in the lobby in the evening ($15-25)

The rest of the resorts

The remaining Disney resorts don't have as much to do but you might want to check out some of these things if you happen to be at 1 of them.

All-Star Resorts and Pop Century (view the recreation schedules: All-Star Movies, All-Star Sports, All-Star Music, Pop Century)
Take pics with the huge icons that are located throughout the 3 All-Star Resorts, visit the food court, or play in the arcade.

Art of Animation (view the recreation schedule)
Enjoy walking around the resort as it's one of the most heavily-themed and newest created, take a free drawing class in the lobby, eat in the food court, rent a surrey bike by the lake, or go to the arcade.

Caribbean Beach Resort (view the recreation schedule)
Walk along the water, relax in a hammock, rent watercraft or bicycles at the marina, eat in the food court, or visit the arcade.

Coronado Springs Resort (view the recreation schedule)
Make an appointment at the hair salon, play in the arcade, have a drink at Rix Lounge, rent watercraft and bicycles at the marina, work out in the health club, or visit the spa.

Wilderness Lodge (view the recreation schedule)
Since Wilderness Lodge is located between the monorail resorts and Ft. Wilderness, you could tack on time here if you're interested in checking it out.

While there, you could:

  • Rent a boat or bike
  • Have a caricature drawn
  • Watch a movie under the stars
  • Go to the arcade
  • Take a guided tour of the resort at 9 a.m. Wednesday-Saturday
  • View the Electrical Water Pageant from the boat dock (usually around 9:30 p.m.)
  • Check out the Lincoln Log table near Whispering Canyon Cafe
  • Watch the 120' geyser go off every hour behind the lodge from 7 a.m. - 10 p.m.
  • Look for hidden Mickeys on the Wilderness Lodge Mickey Hunt
  • During the holidays, check out the 60-feet-tall tree that fills the lobby

Note: there isn't a great view of Magic Kingdom fireworks here.

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Did you learn some new things? Or do you have additional items you'd add to this list? Feel free to share in the comment section.