Our Favorite “Hidden Gem” Spots in All of Walt Disney World – 2018
Most of the time when you see a title like this you’ll be met with “favorite” attractions with short wait times or even quite possibly a few dining locations thrown in the mix, but today I want to do something a bit different and hopefully something a touch more creative. Today, I hope to share quite the opposite perspective and share a few of the somewhat “little known” locations at Walt Disney World that aren’t attractions, stores, or even dining locations (which will be hard to leave out!) in order to focus on an even simpler aspect of the parks and resorts in the realm of not only theming but setting and experience beyond what you may expect. So, rather that trying to explain what I mean, it’s a bit easier if I just show you and bring you along on a photo journey through “spots” I consider to be hidden gems of Walt Disney World.
You see, about 8 months ago I started photographing the Disney parks. While at first it was just something I wanted to try, I slowly realized that the age old saying of “a picture being worth a thousand words” is not only true but rather an under exaggerated statement that should potentially carry more weight that it does. As I started sharing photos from the parks, the response was different that what I expected. Not only were readers incredibly complimentary (which I truly appreciate as a very amateur photographer) but many mentioned how the photos took them back to Disney and made them feel like they were there for even just a fleeting few seconds.
From the beginning that concept was something I wanted to bring to this site/blog (or whatever you’d like to call it). I wanted to create a place that took you back to the parks for even just a brief few moments somehow or some way each and every day. So, when I thought up this concept for an article my mind didn’t entirely go straight to attractions but rather to those photos and those “spots” at the parks and resorts that so many guests overlook entirely. To me, it’s those more creative and perhaps less iconic photos that I enjoy sharing more that anything else, because if you know these spots and you know that experience as a whole they have a way of taking you back to that moment no matter what the quality of the image may be. A picture may be worth a thousand words but at the same time it captures a story that transcends my own personal experience and opens the door to the stories I get to hear from readers. We all perceive things just a touch differently, but at times those differences allow us to see things in entirely new ways.
That concept is my goal for this article more that anything else. If I can share just one new hidden gem “spot” for you to explore and create a story of your own in experiencing it for the first time, it will be a success in my mind. Before I officially “begin” I do have to add that some of these are far more “hidden” that others and truthfully what may be “hidden” to me may very well be a staple of every trip you’ve ever taken to Walt Disney World. My goal is a variety spots that give every guest something new to look forward to and a good blend of truly unique spots with a couple I simply see as underrated or under appreciated. With that out of the way, let’s jump right into it! (If you’re on a mobile device and want to see these photos in higher quality, simply tap the photo).
1. East Center Street
In the early years of Walt Disney World, Main Street U.S.A. was a very different place that what it is today. Many of the storefronts were actual stand alone shops, and the layout lended itself to a city style atmosphere that was a touch more eccentric in shopping offerings for lack of a better word. From the Hallmark Card Shop to the House of Magic and those massive plants sold at the Greenhouse Flower Shop, Main Street was a different world but the true change arrived when West Center Street was officially filled in. Truthfully I can only vaguely remember seeing West Center Street in person because it really wasn’t around that long in the time period when I was old enough to remember it. After closing for the expansion of the emporium in 2001 the entire street was essentially lost. However, a casual hidden gem remains on the east side of the cross street splitting Main Street U.S.A. (ironically named East Center Street.) The street is a touch tucked away but the history it holds and shares with guests in an oh so subtle way is hard to put into words.
From a views standpoint it truly is spectacular at night. The glistening lights of Main Street and the guests strolling about completely unaware of this little side street makes for an excellent location to sit back and relax for a few moments as the music plays and the sights and sounds of main street surround you.
2. The Gardens of Japan
Epcot’s Japan pavilion is perhaps one of the more unique hidden gems on this list for a couple of reasons. One, you wont find it laid out specifically as an “attraction” on any park map and two, because it’s one of those things many locals know about and would love to keep to themselves. I’m not a local but can completely understand why they would want to keep this spot a hidden location in Epcot. On any given day you enter the main area of the Japan pavilion, take a few steps off to the left hand side and up a short hill to be surrounded by a gentle flowing stream, grab a quick snack (the more popular area of the garden), and enjoy a few quiet minutes taking in the sites and sounds of the garden.
You can see Spaceship Earth in the distance but it’s largely a transformative experience and one that makes you feel, even for the briefest of minutes, that your away for the hustle and bustle of the parks and Orlando as a whole to enjoy a few minutes of peace. It sounds so strange but this little garden area has a very calming essence to it and is one of many places at Walt Disney World I’d love to have the time one day to just sit down and enjoy for a few hours. Of course, that luxury of time is something only a select few have as we tour the parks and resorts, but nonetheless a cool spring or fall night in this spot for a few hours will always be a “wish list” item for me if I ever end up being a local.
3. The Boulder Ridge Villa Lobby
As many of you may know, this is and likely always will be my favorite hidden gem in all of Walt Disney World. I’ve raved about this little quiet spot for well over a year here on the site and I don’t see the praise stopping anytime soon. To me, this “hidden” simple experience is one that every true Disney fan should experience at least once and one that only the most obsessed of us will likely appreciate at first glance. It is, without a doubt, the definition of a hidden gem.
The Boulder Ridge Lobby is spectacular in a very subtle yet vastly recognizable way. As soon as you step through the doors (just a short walk from the main Wilderness Lodge Lobby) you’re surrounded by a quaint woodsy feeling lobby with a high peaked ceiling and recognizable smell that is incredibly difficult to appreciate without experiencing it first hand (“smellovision”, or rather “smellonet” in this case, can’t come soon enough!). The beauty of the lobby paired with large soft chairs, ample seating and a crackling fireplace lends itself to a sensory experience that is rivaled by very few.
As wonderful as this location really is, miraculously it’s vastly overlooked by nearly every guest visiting wilderness Lodge that isn’t staying in the villas. It’s a bit amazing really. even with hundreds of guests making their way to their villas each night, it’s rare to see more that four or five guests sitting in this spot. Perhaps it simply gets overshadow by the far larger and slightly grander lobby just a short walk away in the Wilderness Lodge, but to me this smaller area has so much more character that it’s “larger brother.”
On top of all that, there’s a certain history to this place that is perhaps the reason I appreciate it so much in the first place. As mentioned in my Outstanding Disney History Hiding in Plain Sight: The Carolwood Room article, this is one of the very rare places in Walt Disney World where you can actually see something that Walt physically laid his hands on and something that wasn’t necessarily about the parks but rather his personal joy and passion from his daily life. You see, all the attractions and all the details Disney can develop in the parks can show you so many things and take you to so many different places, but only one is dedicated to Walt’s personal passion and a part of something that was once in his very own back yard. This room, attached to the lobby is a window into Walt’s life and a window that opens the door to the exploration by guests into who Walt really was. It gives perspective to the statue on Main Street so many guests pose for photos with each day, and it allows guests to uncover something truly unique. In my opinion that’s the true essence of a “hidden gem” in it’s finest form. So many guests have sat in this room or walked by this seemingly simple display of props but only a select few dive deeper and uncover a piece of the true Disney Magic hiding in plain site.
4. The Boardwalk at Sunset
Moving in a slightly different direction, if you’ve never took the time to step away from the parks and catch a sunset at Disney’s Boardwalk Resort area, it is worth every second of your time. I don’t know why and I don’t know how but sitting on that Boardwalk and those carefully placed wooden planks over the water sets up the most picturesque sunsets you’ll ever witness in your life. It’s not every night, but as if by clockwork, if there’s clouds in the sky you can expect a truly spectacular unveiling of colors across the sky. With the view over the Yacht and Beach Club in the distance, and the Swan and Dolphin perched high on their accompanying resorts, the light reflects off of the buildings and the water and the worries of the world seem to slip away as the sky explodes with color. On our last trip I spent a little over an hour trying to capture this setting in a photo and thatkfully ended up with two that come somewhat close to sharing those fleeting minutes of color with you all in a photo. It’s impossible to fully capture but hopefully these encourage you to take that leap and step away from the parks to enjoy a more laid back night embracing the beauty of Walt Disney world in an entirely new way. (Again, feel free to click on the photos to see a higher resolution image on mobile.)
5. Magic Kingdom After Close
As perhaps the most obvious of locations on our list, Magic Kingdom after close makes you rethink Disney in a way that only a few truly appreciate time and time again. A few of you might be wondering how it is possible to get in after the park closes for the day, but in reality you just postpone leaving as long as possible. As ridiculous as that sounds, it’s quite normal for Magic Kingdom to be open up to two hours after the posted closing time. Slowly but surely they clear the lands but Main Street U.S.A. is open for quite some time. If you can stick it out and wait until the bitter end, you’ll be surprised at how the Magic Kingdom transforms. For the nostalgic Disney fan it’s a dream come true. The crowds slowly trickle out of the park and while a few late diners or final riders of the day wrap up, you can walk around a fairly empty hub, enjoy a quiet Cinderellas castle view and enjoy a moment you never thought you’d get to. It is, in its simplest form an “empty” Magic Kingdom and for a brief few minutes you get to feel what Walt must have felt as he walked through Disneyland late at night as his dream slowly but surely became a reality. Security can be a touch aggressive at times and on rare occasion a bit touchy, but if you’re friendly and non-confrontational, savoring those final minutes of the night can be one of the most memorable moments you’ll ever experience at Walt Disney World.
You see, often times a “Hidden Gem” spot can be something oh so incredibly simple and I’m a firm believer that the simplest moments tend to be the things we remember the most years down the line. It’s what keeps us coming back and trying new things in a way that is incredibly difficult to describe without experiencing it first hand. Enjoy every little moment because you never know what will stick with you years down the road.
I am far from a professional photographer, but I hope at the very least these photos help put you in the scene for even just a brief moment and may have even taken you back to a moment in time where you experienced your own iteration of these stories portrayed by our “hidden gem” spots. Perhaps more importantly, I hope this gives you something to look forward to in the future and a look behind the lens (for lack of a better word) at some of the stories behind my various photos shared over the last month or so on Facebook and Instagram. If you have questions or simply would like to contact me directly, feel free to email me at email@example.com with photography questions, comments about this post, or any suggestions you may have for the site. This isn’t my site, it’s yours in every way shape and form and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Have a question about planning or while on your trip? Feel free to send that my way as well!
As always, if you have thoughts, concerns, questions, or even some tips of your own to share, don’t hesitate to reach out to us on Facebook or your favorite social media platform. Give us a follow while you’re there, and we’ll keep the conversation going in the future. We’re not the largest Disney community, but we’re one that’s there and one that listens. Thanks for reading and have a wonderful day wherever you are!
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A few short years ago, I was sitting in a college apartment trying to figure out what was "next" and came up with this idea to share my accumulated knowledge of the Disney Parks and Resorts with others. The end goal was to help others make the most of their Disney experience and it's been quite the journey!