How to go to Disney without Mickey
Mission impossible: A Walt Disney World vacation with no kids, no parks
Occasionally, journalists are required to embed themselves in a story to deliver the truth to readers. It’s a risk that’s sometimes necessary if an important issue is to be brought to light. I have recently taken this risk.
The mission – to discover if it’s possible to vacation at Walt Disney World, leave the kids at home, and never set foot in one of its theme parks.
The short answer: Of course it is. But more importantly, will it be a rewarding experience worth the time and potentially considerable finances? As Parenting NH’s Dad on Board columnist and an unrepentant Disney fanatic – a Mousejunkie, as it were – this question became a personal quest. Just days ago, I emerged from the vacation kingdom and can now report my findings.
Arrival Day (sort of)
In theory, this vacation would be different. We’d leave our daughter behind with my in-laws and not even set foot on Main Street USA. There would be no Mickey shaped ice cream, no character breakfasts or otherwise typical theme park activities. It seemed to be an interesting concept full of previously unexplored possibilities. Until the guilt hit.
The Mom on Board and I have traveled to Walt Disney World several times a year since 1998, and for all of our daughters nearly 17 years. We’ve created scores of amazing memories as she grew up in the shadow of Cinderella Castle, and as we drew closer to departure, every single one of them began assailing my sentimental psyche. Was I making a mistake?
With a virtual pocket full of JetBlue points ready to transport us to Orlando, we arrived at Logan International Airport in plenty of time for our flight. Which was delayed. Lesson no. 1 – if you travel in the summer, thunderstorms may interrupt your plans. During our idle time, two main themes presented themselves: we greatly prefer Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, and it seems like traveling with a dog is now mandatory. I love dogs, which is great because the dog scene at Logan was outstanding.
Another interesting thing occurred during our wait. The guilt went away. Our daughter was in great hands at her grandparents’ house (likely being spoiled and loving every minute of it) and my wife and I would be enjoying a fun getaway. The purpose wasn’t to get away from our kid – far from it. She’s an easy, fun teen who loves Disney as much as I do. However, it’s good for parents to spend some time together. Even if that time was eating pre-made cold cut sandwiches amidst a large group of similarly inconvenienced travelers (and their dogs.)
Eventually, we were in the air, and a quick three hours later on the ground in a very quiet, dark terminal. Disney’s Magical Express, a bus that whisks you from MCO’s terminal B to your resort, wasn’t doing that much whisking at the time of night, as additional flights arrived and fellow vacationers filled the seats. The clock had just turned to 3 a.m. by the time we dropped our luggage and fell into our room at Disney’s All Star Sports Resort. In a few hours we’d be up, moving to our more permanent quarters and embarking on a kid-free, park-free and evidently guilt-free exploration of the Walt Disney World resort.
But first, sleep.
A no-kids WDW itinerary, day-of-arrival:
- Just sleep, because arriving at 3 a.m. isn’t an ideal start
Day 1 – A move, a windfall and oysters
We were up just a few hours later. Breakfast was a blueberry muffin and a large coffee in the food court at this value-level resort. We’ve stayed at all of Disney’s All Star Resorts – Music, Movies and Sports – and always found them clean, colorful, fun and equally reflective of the top-notch customer service found at any on-site deluxe resort. But thanks to the generosity of a friend, we’d be spending the bulk of our time at a resort closer to activities more fitting a non-kid, non-park Disney trip.
Mid-July in the Orlando area is typically warm and humid, and we stepped out into the moist air to summon an Uber that would take us to Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa. This Vacation Club enclave, themed to look like the New York horse racing Mecca, is located just across from Disney Springs. Victorian style buildings in pastel colors and bright, elaborate trim line walkways along rolling golf fairways and wind around pools and the spa. And it all sits just across Lake Buena Vista from Disney Springs – which is why we chose this resort.
Depending on where in this expansive resort your room is located, Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) is a bus, boat ride or walk away. Disney Springs is an outdoor dining, shopping and entertainment complex with dozens of activities available, making it perfect for a kid-free stay. We’d be free to visit Disney Springs’ varied districts: The Marketplace, The Landing, Town Center and West Side, completely at our leisure. So we did.
Our room wasn’t ready, so we hopped a boat across the water to The Landing. We opted to grab some lunch at Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar – a spot themed to tell the story of the barnstorming pilot who spirited Indiana Jones away from danger in the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Classic cocktails and 1940s-era aviation décor line the walls and shelves, creating a fairly convincing atmosphere of exotic exploration. We ordered some wings and drinks at the bar, which is topped by an intentionally designed concrete top stained with rings and smudges and chips, giving the impression it had been there for decades. Our server let us in on a secret about that bar-top. Just as the new spot was preparing to open four years ago, Disney’s Imagineers created a specific and artistically-crafted worn look, installed the bar top and heading home for the day to let it cure before sealing it. That night, the cleaning crew arrived and went to work scrubbing every carefully-created imperfection from the signature ‘dive bar’ fixture. The next day, according to our server, managers arrived to find a note from the disgruntled cleaners that said because the project was so challenging and labor-intensive, they’d need allowances for additional cleaning solution and the extra effort. Some quick work restored the look of the distressed bar top, and the illusion remains intact.
It was here we encountered our first windfall of the day. As our order made its way from the front-of-house to the kitchen, it was lost. After a bit of a wait, this snafu was discovered, and the food and beverage manager graciously comped our chicken wings. Served with St. Augustine Datil Pepper sauce and lime sour cream, the wings were outstanding – seasoned with an extra serving of free.
Our second lucky encounter occurred just after lunch. We returned to the lobby of the Saratoga Springs Resort to rest until our room was ready. Seconds after sitting on one of the many overstuffed couches, a Disney Vacation Club representative chatted us up. (Disney Vacation Club is a way of pre-paying for future vacations by investing in a real estate concern on Disney property – not completely unlike a timeshare.) Long story short – if we agreed to take the Disney Vacation Club tour, we’d find ourselves in possession of three FastPasses (though, in theory we wouldn’t need these,) and a $150 gift card. The DVC approach is very low-key and friendly, and just 30 minutes later our MagicBands (the wristlets that contain everything from your room key to your credit card information) were loaded with said FastPasses and my email inbox contained a $150 windfall, which would allow us to dine on Disney for the night.
On previous trips, we’d stroll through Disney Springs with our eye on a restaurant called The Boathouse, a nautical-themed eatery known for its seafood and aged steaks, among other items. It sits right on the water, and an adjacent ramp sends a fleet of Amphicars down into the lake with a splash. It’s exciting, tempting, upscale and a bit pricey, which has normally kept us away. But now that dining funds were procured, it seemed time to sample this fine establishment’s board of fare.
We come from the land of amazing seafood, so opting for the lobster bake (half of a Maine lobster, Andouille sausage, corn on the cob, little neck steamers) and an array of oysters from Cape Cod seemed unnecessary. However, ‘unnecessary’ seemed to be the very definition of this journey, so we signed-on. I added an order of filet mignon sliders – unadorned aside from splashes of maître d’ butter – to add some turf to the surf. The oysters, which can be chosen one at a time and from a variety of different locations, ranged from briny to sweet, and were as good as any found in shacks and eateries along the New England coast. The restaurant, which comes highly-recommended, lived up to every rave. The service is attentive, everything about the food is outstanding and the atmosphere mashes-up maritime with nostalgia.
A stroll through Disney Springs to catch some of the many street musicians put a perfect cap on the day, and even took my mind off the fact that we hadn’t yet visited a theme park. I could feel the pull of the Mouse, but giving in felt like it would’ve been a little excessive given the experiences, the service and the luck we had stumbled into on our first full day at Walt Disney World without a child in tow.
A no-kids WDW itinerary, day 1:
- Take a boat ride across Lake Buena Vista
- Shop at Disney Springs
- Dine at Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar
- Walk from the Marketplace to the West Side
- Enjoy live music performances throughout Disney Springs
- Try a wide array of oysters at the Boathouse raw bar
- Take a ride on an Amphicar at The Landing
Day 2 – In which curry was consumed and hats were worn
The beauty of traveling to Walt Disney World without kids is that mornings can be lazy, sleep can be plentiful and naps can be had. Unlike many of our previous Disney vacations, this was actually feeling like a vacation. Typically, our Disney days include getting up with the sun, walking for miles, jockeying for position in attraction queues and snagging dining reservations.
This day, however, started later. A hastily purchased Rice Krispy treat from the night before served as breakfast – it’s basically cereal on a stick, I argued – and in-room coffee was made. A stroll around the beautiful grounds ate up much of the morning before lunch. Another quick boat ride found us back at Disney Springs. With dining options plentiful, we opted for burgers at D-Luxe Burger. She went for a traditional burger and I went with the Southern Burger – with a fried green tomato, pimento cheese, onion and bacon. The sauce is the thing, here. There’s a wide selection of different types, ranging from chipotle mayo and horseradish to the king of the condiments (an official proclamation, according to Dad on Board,) curry ketchup. The hand-cut fries are merely delivery media for this tomato and curry-based perfection. The burgers? Completely unremarkable in every way. Here’s a pro-tip from a burger guy: Go to Vibes Gourmet Burgers in Concord, NH. It’s right on South Main Street, and you don’t need airfare. Choose the Concord’s Own (bacon, cheddar, sliced apple, maple syrup drizzle) or the Godfather (topped with sweet Italian sausage, grilled peppers and onions, provolone and Sriracha) and talk about your next Disney trip.
A tradition in the Dad on Board family is that we must have Vacation Hats. As soon as the hat goes on, vacation is in effect. And there’s no better place to choose a new one than at Chapel Hats near The Landing at Disney Springs. Top hats, floppy hats, scally caps, steam punk toppers – from floor to ceiling, this shop is a must-do for those looking to adorn their head (or protect it from the strong rays that’ll fry your scalp if you’re not careful.) If you can get over the idea that most of the hats within arm’s reach have probably spent some time on someone else’s head, it becomes a fun exercise in testing out what looks best. Or most comfortable. Or weirdest.
The walk back to Saratoga Springs brought us past Sprinkles Cupcakes. While I’m not normally a Disney-cupcake fan (too sugary, rather insubstantial,) Sprinkles is another story entirely. Baked fresh daily with unique flavors, these are the exception. Coming in at just under $5 a pop, they’re a little expensive, but since we were on a grown-ups Disney trip, we promised not to tell anyone. Two cupcakes secured and it was back to the room for some sittin’ time on our veranda.
A nap became necessary, because we’d soon need enough energy to make our way back to Disney Springs for dinner at Raglan Road Irish Pub and Restaurant. A longtime favorite, this Irish pub-themed restaurant offers amazing food, a wide range of beers, cocktails, Irish whiskey, live Irish entertainment, step dancers and some deep cuts filling in the spaces when the band is taking a break (think: Ronnie Drew, Christy Moore, etc.) It has literally everything a would-be Irishman could want – with the added benefit of being at Walt Disney World.
Our no-kids/no-parks Disney luck continued. On this night we scored the best table in the house. It’s a small, two-seater with a pair of large leather chairs looking out into the large main room. There was soda bread, a flight, fish and chips and bangers and mash. It was the highly sought-after seating that won the evening, however. Comfortable, unrushed and immersed in theming perfection, I have requested that my Social Security be sent to this spot in a few years.
A second full day spent at Walt Disney World, and we hadn’t set foot on a bus, stood in a single line or questioned our decision to go on It’s a Small World even once. But I was weakening. The siren call of Cinderella Castle was drawing me toward its spires. And while our stated mission was to skip everything theme park-related, I was beginning to doubt we could do it.
A no-kids WDW itinerary, day 2:
- Choose a Vacation Hat from Chapel Hats
- Sample the dipping sauces at D-Luxe Burger (but just get the French fries because the burgers are mediocre.)
- Try the Sprinkles Cupcakes vending machine at Disney Springs
- Tour the Saratoga Springs Resort
- Sample a flight of traditional Irish libations, catch some live Irish music and Irish step dancing at Raglan Road
Day 3 – The mini golf Masters and the great stormtrooper massacre of 2019
There are few places on earth that I find more relaxing, satisfying and where I feel more at-home when I’m away from home than Disney’s Boardwalk Resort. Built to resemble turn-of-the-century Atlantic City, this waterfront hotel blends with several restaurants, shops and a humming nightlife to create its own bright, lively world around Crescent Lake – just steps from the International Gateway entrance to Epcot. In fact, the infectious vibe is enough to make you skip the theme parks entirely – which is kind of the mission of this experiment, anyway, so it made sense to head that way for breakfast at Trattoria al Forno. Since we didn’t have advanced dining reservations, we ate in the separate annex a few doors down – though we could hear the festivities based around the Rapunzel/Flynn Rider character breakfast in the restaurant proper. The breakfast calzone – eggs, sausage, sausage gravy encase in a flaky calzone and served in a tomato sauce – is worth the Uber trip alone.
A long sit just outside after breakfast turned out to be the perfect way to burn an hour or so. The sun rises behind the Boardwalk, casting the adjacent Swan and Dolphin hotels in a glow, as flocks of birds hop around the iron tables and chairs hoping for a few scraps. The boardwalk begins to awaken, as runners whiz by and families scurry off to early dining reservations, proving this unique area never really completely sleeps.
A mid-morning test had been arranged: A Danville, NH native who recently relocated with his family to Tampa – we’ll call him Kevin, because his name is Kevin – would soon arrive to tackle the Fantasia Gardens Miniature Golf Course, located just on the other side of the Swan and Dolphin hotels. 18 holes of creative mini golf pits participants against challenging (and sometimes moving) obstacles straight from the minds of Disney’s Imagineers, ranging from fountains and indoor pathways to surprise traps and several punishing uphill approaches.
Confident in my skills, we set out onto the course ($14 for 18). Shockingly, Kevin came out on top, besting both the Mom and Dad on Board easily. We shall speak no more of this travesty.
From there, it was back to Disney Springs for an early afternoon of foiling the Sith at The Void: Secrets of the Empire. This virtual reality experience, ($29.95 for a roughly 30-45 minute experience) drops would-be rebels into the world of Star Wars inside an utterly convincing VR complex. Participants don a 25-pound vest and VR helmet, which transports them onto the molten planet of Mustafar, where they must recover Imperial intelligence and battle stormtroopers and lava monsters.
Good news: the vest is quite slimming. It’s sort of space-Spanx.
Also, the tracking in the VR is quite accurate. The only glitch I experienced is giving the thumbs up to mini-golf champion/fellow rebel Kevin, which through my visor looked as if I was just pointing at him. With the flick of a switch (I assume) we were instantly transported to the world of Star Wars and led through our mission. You actually walk through the completely immersive environment, interact with fellow gamers and villains and eventually come to a room lined with stormtrooper blasters. Without hesitation, Kevin bounded across the room, grabbed his weapon and led us into battle. In the end, I’m not sure if we ever completed the stated mission. As we retreated from a dangerous overhang just feet over a lake of lava, I noticed a pile of stormtroopers laying on the perch across from us – we had done our job, as far as we were concerned. Much of the time we spent fighting Imperials and marveling at the tactile elements of the experience. While it is pricey, it is a completely convincing way to spend part of an afternoon off-planet.
A quick drive to Disney’s Contemporary Resort brought us to dinner at The Wave… Of American Flavors – a somewhat hidden gem. It lacks the vivid flair of a character meal, but it more than makes up for the typical Disney fireworks with some of the best food on-property. Mom on Board ordered the filet mignon with a perfectly-paired wine (thanks to the expertise of our server,) while I ordered the Bacon and Eggs – which is actually not anything like you might have for breakfast. Think, instead, of maple-lacquered pork belly with a painstakingly-cooked ‘perfect egg’ atop Tillamook smoked cheddar grits. There may be no more perfect edible on the planet.
While the dinner was outstanding and the service was unmatched, the evening posed a slight challenge. The Contemporary Resort sits just feet from the entrance of the Magic Kingdom. The sounds and lights of this world-renowned theme park called to me, making it rather difficult not to toss responsibility to the wind and run carelessly into the iconic vacation destination.
However, we had just one day to go. We had all but completed what may have previously been unthinkable – an entire Disney vacation without kids and without visiting a theme park. Just one day more.
A no-kids WDW itinerary, day 3:
- Visit Disney’s Boardwalk for breakfast
- Tackle 18 holes at Fantasia Gardens Miniature Golf Course
- Foil the Empire at The Void: Secrets of the Empire VR experience
- Try some fine dining at The Wave… Of American Flavors
Day 4: Failure. Glorious failure
Crash and burn. We went to Epcot.
In my defense, I started the day with the best of intentions. I rose early, determined not to miss a beautiful Florida sunrise over the Saratoga Springs Resort. Iced coffee, a few bats and the rumbling of delivery trucks across the small pond in front of our patio were my only companions as I took in the surroundings. It was a perfect morning.
After that, I’m not sure what happened. It was a bit of a blur, but the next thing I knew we were outside the gates of Epcot with a loaded MagicBand and Walt’s view of the future laid out in front of us. Besides, Epcot isn’t just a theme park, it’s somewhat of a giant open air food court. Along with out transplanted Danville friends, we toured Future World, headed out into the World Showcase, and put more than 7 miles on my FitBit.
At Epcot, there are numerous activities that make it a perfect park if you’re visiting without kids. There are ample opportunities to sample cocktails and food from around the world, and spend the day lazily wandering the colorful, buzzing walkways that wind from Spaceship Earth to the American Adventure pavilion and back again.
I can’t say I feel any regret about the decision to not stick strictly to our plan. There are all kinds of benches perfect for watching the day pass by, and there may be no better Disney theme park for peoplewatching.
I’m a frequent visitor to Walt Disney World, and it’s become a way to mark the passage of time. Our trips started before we were parents. Many Disney vacations ago, my wife and I were walking through Epcot when we sat down on a bench near a group of kids splashing around in a fountain. As we watched them play, we started to dream about starting a family. We wondered if we’d have kids, how many, and if we’d take them to Walt Disney World. That’s all in the rear-view mirror now, as we have learned the answer to those long-ago questions. But every time we walk from Futureworld to the World Showcase, we pause at that bench – just as we did again on this trip – and remember when our family was just a dream.
Would I recommend Walt Disney World without kids and without theme parks? Sure. There’s plenty to do, and it doesn’t hurt to spend a little focused spousal time. But here’s a note to my kid: Next time, I’m taking you along.
A no-kids WDW itinerary, day 4:
- Go to Epcot
- Sample food and drink from around the world
- Spend some quality bench-time at various spots around the park
- Figure out when I’m coming back to WDW.
- The answer to that last bullet item is October. See you then, Mickey.
Bill Burke is the Dad on Board columnist for ParentingNH magazine. He is also the Managing Editor of Custom Publications for McLean Communications.