My Favorite Disney Off-Day Ideas

If you’re spending more than one day at a park at Walt Disney World, you’re going to need an off-day.

For me, a Disney off-day needs to be not-at-all related to Disney, so I wasn’t interested in the nearby putt-putt offerings, the Disney water parks, or Disney Springs. When I need a Disney break, I need to completely get out of the Magic Zone.

Read on for my favorite Disney World off-day ideas.

Taking a day off from Disney World? Here's a list of things to do when you're not at the Magic Kingdom, including nearby beaches, adventures like ziplines & museums. #Orlando #Florida #familytravel

These are easy day trips from Orlando, some require more driving than others. You’ll need a car to get to them (and bring money for tolls).

Disney World Off-Day Ideas

Disney Off-Day Beaches - Tips for visiting beaches near Disney World like Cocoa Beach #Florida #Beach

Beach Trips From Disney World

Get an early start to your day and drive to the coast from Orlando to hit a beach. On the Tampa Bay side, we visited Fort Desoto, Treasure Island, and Clearwater Beach. My favorite, by far, was Fort Desoto. The waves were gentle, the sand was powder sugar soft. It was less touristy with no hotels on the waterfront, but that also meant less dining options. Shell hunting was a lot of fun here. We rented two chairs and an umbrella for $16. Well worth it.

Distance: 100 miles

Treasure Island and Clearwater Beach are in more populated areas, which is good and bad depending on whether or not you like touristy beach areas. Clearwater Beach is a great choice, and it’s home to a restaurant we really liked, Frenchy’s.

Distance: 90 miles

Treasure Island had bigger waves, which is a plus for some, but the sand consisted of crushed shells and it hurt to walk on.

Distance: 95 miles

On the east coast of Florida, you can visit Cocoa Beach. This was a family favorite. The waves were big, but not too big, for small children, making boogie boarding a fun activity.

Distance: About 65 miles

Disney Off-Day Adventure - Tips for things to do when you're not visiting Disney World. Try a zipline, airboat ride or canoeing! #Orlando #Florida #familytravel

Adventure Trips From Disney World

Head to North Orlando for two very memorable activities with the kids.

Kids as young as 4 can do the ZOOmAir Treetrop Adventure Park low-to-the-ground zip line course at Central Florida Zoo in Sanford. Adults can do a more challenging one. Plan on at least an hour.

While you’re there, you might as well visit the zoo! There is a fun splash garden there, so pack a swimsuit. For more details, read my posts about the Central Florida Zoo and ZoomAir Adventure Park ziplining.

Distance: 40 miles

A word of advice before you set out on an adventure in Florida: Bring a swimsuit. Marisa from Adventures of Tampa Mama told me that useful tip before our first Florida visit. She wasn’t kidding. It seems you can’t go to any attraction in the state without encountering a splash garden.

Wekiva Island is a exotic gem in the middle of a city. We canoed with the kids, stopping at Wekiva Springs State Park, which has a water hole where a lot of people were swimming.

We were short on time, and so we skipped the swim and hiked a little. Keep in mind, this is Florida and you’ll spot native wildlife there. Keep a respectable distance from animals and you’ll be fine.

I recommend packing snacks and water. It gets hot and if you’re not used to paddling, you’ll get tired. You also have the option of kayaking or trying standup paddleboards. For more details, read my post about about Wekiva Island.

Distance: 35 miles

There are so many airboat opportunities within about an hour or so from Walt Disney World. We visited Black Hammock Adventure, where we got to ride an airboat at dusk.

It was also a place where the kids got to hold a baby alligator and, rather morbidly if you think about it, taste fried alligator. (It was delicious)

Distance: 35 miles

Disney Off-Day - Tips on things to do when you're taking a day off from Disney World. Nearby attractions include MOSI and Clearwater Marine Aquarium (home to Winter!) #Florida #familytravel

Disney Off-Day To See Animals

Some of our favorite places to visit in central Florida had mostly indoor activities. Head to MOSI, the Museum of Science & Industry, for hands-on learning for all ages. There’s even an outdoor ropes course. Read about our visit to MOSI here.

Distance: 65 miles

Florida Aquarium in Tampa is popular with kids for good reason. The sting ray touch tank was memorable. Bring a bring swimsuit for the kids because the splash garden is amazing there. Read my post about the aquarium for more details.

Distance: 70 miles

In Clearwater, young Winter the dolphin fans will want to visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. It’s a different kind of aquarium than the Florida Aquarium – think: marine hospital.

Distance: 90 miles

Get even more ideas by reading My Adventure In Central Florida and Two Days in Tampa Bay With Kids.

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4 Tips For Large Group Dining At Disney World

Disney Restaurants for Groups

Traveling to Walt Disney World with a large group can be a wonderful thing, and wonderfully frustrating thing.

When it comes to a large group dining at Disney, it pays to plan ahead (especially if you go over the holidays).

Nine families dining together at a restaurant at Coronado Springs Resort in Florida
Large group dining at Disney World is possible, but not always easy.

Here are some tips to make sure your large group can enjoy a meal together:

1. Plan ahead

If at least one member of your party is staying on Disney property, he or she can make a reservation at 180 days in advance. Read blog post by WDW Prep School has a great list of restaurants at the Disney World that can accommodate large groups (and includes max size of groups). It helped me plan our trip!

2. Speak with a person to book it

My Disney Experience app does allow booking a fairly good-sized group – I’ve been able to book for 10 people. If you don’t have the app, get that on your phone pronto.

I’ll wait.

Got it? 

When we tried to get a table for 36, we had to speak with a person.We used the app to book three separate, staggered reservations at Maya Grill at the Coronado Springs Resort. When we arrived early, we asked the restaurant staff to seat all of us together. They could accommodate us since we were the first reservations at the restaurant.

If you’re planning ahead of time, though, it’s even better to call to set it up (407-939-5277). Keep in mind that our reservation was right when the restaurant open – any later and it wouldn’t have helped.

Note: I would not recommend Maya Grill for large groups.

3. Be ready to reserve a meal at an odd time

Even when planning 180 days in advance, some of our reservations had to be made for atypical dining times. For a party of 16, we got a reservation at Be Our Guest at the Magic Kingdom, we had a reservation time for 11:30 a.m., but for the Akerhus Royal Banquet Hall at Epcot at Epcot, our lunch for 11 people was at 2:30 p.m.

4. Group size could change the experience

We had a large party reservation for 16 people at 50s Primetime Café at Hollywood Studios. I’d heard great things about the experience there. There’s a lot of humorous interaction with the waiters. But, it was lost when our waitress tried to get the orders of 16 people.

Granted, part of the problem was that two of the families in our group didn’t speak English as a first language, and maybe the sass was lost of them.

Recommended restaurants

Disney Restaurants for Groups - Tips for planning meals out for big groups at Disney World restaurants #Florida #Disney #familytravel #grouptravel

Here are three restaurants where I had a good experience dining with a large group. Keep in mind, we were traveling with younger children, which may or may not be a detail that you are also taking into account.

– The Quick Service restaurant Be Our Guest at lunchtime was efficient and spacious enough for us to find tables next to each other, even for a group of 16. On the Disney dining plan, it is one Quick Service Credit per person. Reservations are a must.

– The Storybook Dining lunch at Akerhaus Royal Banquet Hall in Epcot was wonderful for meeting princesses. If you’re on the dining plan, it is one Table Service dining credit. Our group of 11 was seated together. The food was great.

Chef Mickey’s at the Disney’s Contemporary Resort accommodated a group of seven together. It is a buffet and rather hectic, but it’s another great character meal. We were there for breakfast. If you’re on the dining plan, it is one Table Service dining credit.

– I would not recommend Maya Grill at Coronado Springs Resort for a large group. Our entire party, 36 of us, had a dinner there and it was a three-hour comedy of errors. On the positive side, we were able to make a reservation there just the day before and we were seated all together.

What are your favorite Disney restaurants? Would you recommend them for groups?

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5 Star Wars Experiences At Disney World

Updated May 3, 2018

I braved Disney World during the holidays, and survived to tell you all about it. What I didn’t mention in that post was that I was traveling with two young Star Wars fans, so our first day in Orlando, we went to Hollywood Studios to take in all the Star Wars Disney experiences we could fit into one day.

5 awesome Star Wars experiences at Hollywood Studios #Disney #Florida #StarWars #FamilyTravel

Here are the five Star Wars Disney experiences that were the biggest hits with my young kids. I can’t wait to add Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge when it opens at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 2019. Here’s a sneak peak of what’s planned for Galaxy’s Edge (published April 2018).

Jedi Training

My 5-year-old daughter got to take on Darth Vader at Hollywood Studios during Jedi Training.

A rare freebie at Disney World, your kids have the chance to take the stage and battle the likes of Darth Vader. Training is held several times each day. However, this is extremely popular. You must arrive to the park before it opens and then zip over to the Indiana Jones area to get in line to sign up. Bonus: Since we missed prime ride time, a cast member kindly gave us some Fast Pass+ tickets good for up to five people for one ride.

Jedi Training involves a march to the stage, where costumed cast members teach them some basic moves with light sabers. Then, the kids take turns battling Darth Vader or another baddie. There’s a bit of theatrics to watch, and it’s all pretty entertaining. Disney has photographers there to capture the entire experience.

Boys holding light sabers during Jedi Training at Hollywood Studios
My son was really into learning the moves of a Jedi.

This is kinda intense for some youngsters, so know your kid’s comfort level. They are on stage without you and Darth is an imposing figure. If your kid is uncomfortable spending a lot of time away from you, this might not be a pleasant experience. Also, take into account your kid’s natural energy level. I signed mine up for training right in the middle of their usual nap time. We were on the verge of a meltdown the entire experience.

Character Interactions

Girl meeting to Chewie at Hollywood Studios
Meeting Chewbacca was a highlight of character meet and greets.

Head to Star Wars Launch Bay to meet Chewbacca, Kylo Ren and a Jawa.

Tip: Plan ahead and have something to trade with a Jawa.

Heads up, though, Kylo Ren is an intense character. My usually afraid-of-nothing daughter was totally scared of him. It didn’t help that he zeroed in on her and said he’d been waiting for her. Chewie, on the other hand, was fun and huggable.

You will likely see Storm Troopers throughout the park. Occasionally they interact with you. They interrogated my teen niece.

Side notes about the Launch Bay: When you arrive, you have the option of going straight to the characters or watching a short documentary first. Skip it if you’re with small children. There are displays of movie memorabilia at the Launch Bay, and fans are going to want to take the time to check it all out. There are also some video games to play there.

Family looking at light sabers on display at Hollywood Studios
My friend Cat and her boys looking at light sabers at Star Wars Launch Bay.

Star Wars: The Adventure Continues

Things you see while waiting to ride Star Wars: The Adventure Continues Ride at Hollywood Studios
There is a lot to look at if you wait in line for the Star Wars: The Adventure Continues Ride. That line is going to be long, though, without a Fast Pass+ time.

One of the kids’ favorite rides of all the parks was Star Wars: The Adventure Continues. You’ll want to get Fast Pass+ times because this will be a long wait otherwise.

The “ride” is actually a 3-D simulation of flying or being chased through space. There are dozens of variations so each ride will be different. There is a height restriction as the simulation can be intense for itty bitty ones.

Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away

Fireworks at the finale of "Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away" at Hollywood Studios
The ending of Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away is memorable.

This short, live theatrical show is held several times a day. It involves some favorite characters re-enacting scenes from the franchise. Stick around for the end. They light off a couple fireworks.

There’s also a nighttime show called Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular. We didn’t catch it on our trip, but no doubt it has show-stopper moments.

Star Wars Penny Press

All the Disney World theme parks have penny presses. My kids had sorted their coins before the trip (I was inspired by this post).

Star Wars penny presses can be found at the Star Wars Launch Bay. Penny presses, costing two quarters and the penny you press, are a lot cheaper than most souvenirs, don’t you think?

But just try getting your kid out of the stores at Hollywood Studios without a new stuffed Ewok or light saber (they can even build their own). The Force was strong with my kids and they got their bonus souvenirs.

What are some of your favorite Star Wars experiences at Disney?

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Surviving A Disney World Christmas Trip

“We’re going to Disney World this Christmas. What tips do you have?” I asked a coworker who had once worked at Epcot.

“Pick another time to go.”

Planning a trip to Disney World at Christmas? Here are some tips to make your dream vacation go as smoothly as possible during Disney's peak season #familytravel #traveltips #travelhacks

Helpful, right? The two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s is one of the busiest times of the year to go to Walt Disney World, but I had no choice. I was locked into the dates because of a family reunion.

With a lot of planning and patience, we survived enjoyed Christmas at Disney. Here’s what I learned from our trip so that you too can experience Disney magic even during the busiest time of year:

Pre-Trip Survival Tips

1. Plan early. Plan obsessively.

Even if you’re a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants traveler, Disney is not the place to do it, especially during the holidays.

Unless you like eating popcorn for dinner and spending $100+ per person to ride three rides.

I used to plan each day and I highly recommend the site. For a small fee, you can customize each day, to minimize walking and wait times. The site’s algorithms calculate wait time for the date you picked, too.

Here’s what part of the touring plan looks like. The first row of numbers is for estimated arrival time, the next is for wait time, then duration of the ride, and the last two rows are for free time and walk time to the next attraction.

Even on busy days at the end of December, our wait times were pretty accurate when we followed the plan, and of course, when we strayed from it, it wasn’t.

And, Pinterest is going to be your new best friend when it comes to planning.

2. You will be able to make meal reservations 180 days in advance if you’re staying on property. Do it.

Meeting Donald Duck during Chef Mickey's character breakfast
It was pretty fun meeting Donald Duck and the gang at Chef Mickey’s, a buffet character meal at the Contemporary Resort.

If you know what day you’ll be at each park, you can reserve tables at preferred restaurants and maybe at typical meal times. Yeah, yeah, planning a meal six months out is hard—I don’t even know what I want to eat for dinner tonight—but it was totally worth it. We reserved the following places I really wanted to dine in:

–  Three character meals: Breakfast Cinderella’s Royal Table at Magic Kingdom, lunch at Akerhus Royal Banquet Hall at Epcot and breakfast at Chef Mickey’s at Contemporary Resort.

– Late lunch for a large group at 50’s Prime Time Cafe at Hollywood Studios.

Tip: Do not make reservations chronologically, but in order of priority. The first reservation made was for Cinderella’s Royal Table, so that we could have one of the first breakfast times available. I waned shots of Main Street without the crowd, plus the chance to get a head start on rides once we were finished eating.

3. Book your Fast Pass+ rides early.

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in Disney World
Fun story. Every Disney ride we went on, I managed to block Mr. Wonderful’s face.

If you’re staying at a resort, that is 60 days in advance. If you made your touring plans for each park, you already know what rides you plan on doing and when, so that makes things pretty easy.

Without our Fast Pass+ times, we would’ve had to wait 150 minutes for the Seven Dwarfes Mine Train and 120 for Space Mountain. Fast Pass+ is still free, so don’t miss out on securing yours.

Tip: Like meal reservations, book the priority Fast Passes first no matter which day of the vacation they fall on.

4. Pack for cold weather.

We’re used to cold in Omaha. But seriously, Florida can get chilly. Pack a sweatshirt and jeans, just in case. We needed them for one day in December. On our Epcot day, the high was 63 and I regretted only bringing a light cardigan. By nightfall, it was in the 40s and I was tempted to buy gloves.

Mornings were rather cool, too, so a sweatshirt was needed for the kids. By noon most days, we were all in shorts and T-shirts.

Photo in front of iconic Spaceship Earth at Epcot at Christmas time
With two cardigans layered, I wasn’t even remotely warm when I took this photo with my son. It was chilly even for Nebraska standards.

During the trip

1. Be there at rope drop.

Rope drop is lingo for when the park opens. That makes for ridiculously early mornings, but you can ride a lot of rides before the parks start becoming really crowded (which is around 10 a.m.).

Tip: If you’re staying at a Disney resort, plan on trying to catch the Magic Express bus about 45 minutes to an hour before park opening. There may be traffic, even at 7 a.m.

2. If you’re getting up early anyway, take advantage of Extra Magic Hours.

We went to the Magic Kingdom at 7 a.m. one day. By the time lunch had rolled around, we rode most rides on our two-day touring plan. We just had our Fast Pass+ rides to do after lunch.

Tip: If you aren’t going to get up early, do not go to the park with Extra Magic Hours that day. It will be really crowded by the time you get there.

3. Reconsider that break mid-day break from the park.

Disney World Main Street decorated for Christmas
Main Street at Magic Kingdom on January 1.

Parks can reach capacity during the holiday season. Magic Kingdom reached capacity on New Year’s Eve in 2016. If you try to return early enough in the day, you may not get back in. My nieces returned to Magic Kingdom late at night and had no problem, though. With two little ones, that wasn’t an option for me.

Disney Expectations

Funny family photo in front of Disney World castle
Visiting the Magic Kingdom between Christmas and New Year? Have realistic expectations: It will be crowded and you will be exhausted.

1. Have realistic expectations: There will be waiting.

It’s going to suck. Expect the worst so you may occasionally by pleasantly surprised. Might as well expect a little wait time for your meal reservations, too.

I also assumed I wouldn’t check everything off my touring plans. Because, well, kids.

2. Sneak in Breaks. Disney during the holidays is overwhelming and tiring. There aren’t a lot of places to escape the crowds. At the Magic Kingdom, there’s a nice seating area by the Swiss Family Robinson Tree House that felt slightly removed from the bustle, as did Tom Sawyer’s Island.

At Hollywood Studios, Mooch and I chilled at the Art of Animation. I had heard it was a quiet, not-too-crowded spot. Well, it was crowded (thanks a lot, Moana), but at least it was more subdued than outdoors.

Your turn

I want to hear from you. What are your tips for surviving Disney World during the busy season?

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Thinking about booking a cheap flight to Orlando, Florida? Here’s what you need to know before booking Allegiant!

Tips for visiting Disney World during the holidays #Christmas #WDW #familytravel #Florida