Thursday, March 13, 2014

How to Experience Disney Magic for Free

I’ve never stayed at a Disney resort, and I don’t have the money to go to Disney without a really good deal, but living in Orlando has its perks. Our family can’t quite afford annual passes to Disney World, but we have discovered a way to go and not pay a penny. It’s a great activity if you have out of town friends coming to visit, if you don’t have an entire day or a ton of energy to spend at Disney, or if you’re tight on a budget.

I would say it doesn’t involve visiting any of the parks, but that wouldn’t be entirely true.

I would say we don’t get to ride any Disney rides, but that wouldn’t be entirely true either.

In short, it’s a magical phrase called “resort hopping,” which involves being immersed in several Disney themes, traveling via Disney transportation, and noticing the Disney details everywhere.

This is how my family does it.

Drive toward the Magic Kingdom, and get to the far right lane when you approach the parking payment booths. Simply tell them you’re visiting the Polynesian, and they’ll direct you! At the Polynesian Resort entrance, you’ll be required to present a valid photo ID, but unless it’s a really busy season, they’ll welcome you with an “Aloha!” and you can park for free!

Go inside and explore the tropical island paradise of the Polynesian Resort. The lobby boasts 4 waterfalls, several gift shops, various priced restaurants, comfy chairs to people-watch in, and… if you come at the right time… hula dancers! Also, if you go up to the concierge desk and ask for a lei, they will totally give you one, whether or not you are staying there.

Don’t forget to go outside and check out Luau Cove, where you can catch a glimpse of Cinderella’s Castle in Magic Kingdom! Then walk upstairs (inside) to catch the monorail, or enjoy a leisurely, scenic walk over to…

Modeled after a turn of the century health resort, everything about it screams opulence. When you walk into the lobby, you have to catch your breath – it is magnificent!

I won’t spoil all the surprises, but check out the grand staircase, take in the flowery fragrance, peek at the menu for Victoria & Albert’s (the most expensive restaurant ever… but oh so highly rated), and if you come at the right time, you can hear live music by a big band. The lobby also holds a ton of comfy chairs and couches, including miniature ones where kids can watch vintage Mickey Mouse cartoons!

Enjoy sauntering around outside and just taking in the magnificent views! Then go back upstairs in the lobby to ride the monorail to the next stop…

Although it’s my least favorite, it’s still pretty awesome! The monorail goes right through the lobby, and there’s a giant mural reminiscent of “It’s a Small World” artwork (think 1970s… which is rather ironic considering the name of the hotel it’s in). Here's a fun account of things to do at the Contemporary Resort.

The gift shop and restaurants are fun though, and there’s also a little breezeway you can walk across to more hotel rooms – from the walkway you can see Space Mountain, Cinderella’s Castle, and more of Magic Kingdom (though they blocked off part of the view so the parking lots weren’t as visible – oh Disney!)

Then go downstairs and outside to the boat docks behind the resort (making sure to stop and get a self-portrait with Mickey on the way) for the next leg of the journey…

4th Stop: Wilderness Lodge

This one can’t be reached by monorail, but Disney provides regular boat launches that ferry guests back and forth all day. It’s a relaxing 5 minute ride to the Great Northwest!

As you leave the boat dock, take the fork to the left and walk past the geyser. Pass by the pool, café, and bike rentals and continue to the villas. Those are the deluxe rooms with an incredible (and incredibly relaxing) lobby area. It’s usually pretty deserted, so you can enjoy fireplaces, rocking chairs, and games to your heart’s content before moving on to the main lobby (just walk all the way through to the covered walkway, then inside past the gift shop).

The main lobby of the Wilderness Lodge was built to impress. The layers in the 7-story fireplace are reminiscent of the different sedimentary layers of the Grand Canyon. Look up and take in all the animals carved into the wooden structure of the building, and relax in all the comfy chairs and couches!

But then take the hallway around to head outside, where you’re back at the pool and you can see a huge waterfall! Once you’ve enjoyed the view from below, walk around to the stone wall and climb the stairs to appreciate the waterfall from above!

Further Options…

From here, you have 2 choices – return via boat launch to the Contemporary and continue the circle back around to the Magic Kingdom, or, if you have time, go visit…


There are several ways to get there – another boat launch, Disney bus, or our personal favorite – a walk! We saw so many deer on this short hike between Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness, which is where people can camp, set up their RVs, and rent small cabins.

If you walk the nature trail over (it’s not a strenuous hike at all), you’ll enter via the horse ranch. (The horses have Mickey Mouse shaved into their hair!) They also have a petting zoo, restaurants, gift shops, and bus service from one end to another (because it’s a rather large establishment!) Quite a place!

From there you can either take a Disney bus or boat launch back to the Contemporary Resort, and continue on to Magic Kingdom’s Transportation & Ticket Center via monorail. Here’s a quick overview of Disney transportation, obtained via this pin.

At the TTC, you will be faced with a choice – continue back to the Polynesian Resort (where you parked), or transfer monorails and take a quick jaunt to…


The nine minute monorail ride to Epcot is relaxing, and then once you arrive, you get to ride around all throughout the inside of the park before the monorail turns around to return to Magic Kingdom.

Once when we rode through at nighttime, we caught the fireworks show! Awesome!

When you get back to the Transportation & Ticket Center (which incidentally has photo opportunities of its own), just look for the small sign saying “Resort Monorails.” This will take you back to the Polynesian Resort where you parked (for free, remember?!)

More Thoughts

A word of caution: there are occasions where parking at the resorts is limited to registered guests only, usually for large crowds. (Example: we tried to go on New Year’s Eve and after waiting for 2 hours at the Magic Kingdom parking booth, there were signs at every resort that parking was only for registered guests.) We’ve been several Saturdays with no problems though, and I imagine weekdays would be even less busy, unless it is a holiday season.

Let me reiterate that this entire experience only costs you the gas to get out there and any food or souvenirs you decide to purchase along the way. Disney transportation is entirely free and provided with a smile. Even if you’re not staying at any of the resorts, you still get to take in quite a bit of the awesomely themed atmospheres without paying a penny. I’d say that’s a pretty good deal!

Disney has over 20 resorts in the area, all beautifully themed and available for visiting, but these are the most convenient to travel between with the monorail and boat launches. We’ve gone in the morning, afternoon, and evening, all of which are fun times. Do you have any special Disney memories?

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