As you can imagine, Orlando is an incredible place to visit and travel to time and time again (or at least it is for us Disney fans. However, I have to say that there’s far more to the town than simply the parks. Often times when you leave the parks you might just be surprised what you find in the Orlando area both on and off of Disney property. Truth be told, nothing on this list requires a Disney park ticket and quite honestly you could enjoy everything on this list even if you aren’t a Disney fan at all. I know that’s almost sacrilege to most of us die hard Disney fans but those people certainly exist and if you want them to go to Disney with you, sometimes you just have to get creative until they jump ship and join in the Disney madness (the good kind of madness).
Why don’t we just jump right into the list.
1. Discovery Cove
Personally, this is what I consider the only park to ever come close to Walt Disney World in terms of theming and the immersive environment, level of cleanliness, and utmost attention to detail that the experience brings to the table. So much so I devoted a whole article to it: An Honest Comparison: Discovery Cove From a Disney Perspective.
Discovery Cove is not cheap, but I kid you not, it is perhaps the single thing that has shocked me the most in my years upon years of visiting Orlando. Why? It exceeded my expectations in every way. I’m not a huge SeaWorld fan, and I’m not a huge Universal fan because I think they lack a bit of character, and a bit of the finer details that allow a family with guests of all backgrounds and desires to enjoy what Disney brings to the table time and time again. It’s not quite the same family friendly park at those other destinations. If we’re all honest, it’s true no matter how much you love Universal or SeaWorld. Disney is simply the go-to family vacation destination. They’ve perfected it in every way.
Discovery Cove however is my sole exception to that rule. Hang with me here because I’m about to make a bold claim. I had more fun at Discovery Cove than I have ever had at either of Disney’s waterparks. I know it’s kind of like comparing apples to oranges here because Discovery cove truly isn’t a “waterpark” per say but it is a water based themed experience.
Here’s my deal and why I’m kind of beating this topic to a pulp. Discovery Cove is what feels like a luxury experience. You pull up to the property, it looks like you’ve stepped out of Orlando and into this tucked away tropical hideaway as soon as you pull in the parking lot, and as soon as you enter the door you know this is going to be something special.
Each guest gets their own custom name badge upon arrival, each guest is fitted to a required vest style wet suit, each ticket includes breakfast and lunch (both which were wonderful and all you care to eat), and free snack stands are at your disposal all day long. This place is a tropical oasis that makes you feel hundreds of miles from Orlando (in a good way) and it transports you to a tropical destination full of life, animals, and a riveting experience. It’s like nothing I’ve done anywhere else. Coming from the “Disney Guy” you have to realize how much that is saying. If you can work out the costs and logistics, Discovery Cove is more than worth a visit. Keep in mind, this is not a cheap day, but is well worth the experience for a special occasion and everything except souvenirs are included when you walk in the door.
2. Disney Springs Dining (Mostly These Select Options)
Now that we’ve knocked the one specific “non-Disney” item off our list, let’s go back on property (that was probably scary for some of our regular readers lol).
What better place is there to start than at Disney Springs but more specifically, I highly recommend these options.
Polite pig is a fairly budget friendly counter service dining location that is great for the whole family. The pulled pork sandwich they offer is truly one of my favorite quick meals on Disney property and the quality of food here vastly outweighs what you’d expect from a quick service style destination. If you go early enough in the day, they even have some unbelievable chocolate chip cookies but they do tend to sell out rather quickly!
The Boathouse I admittedly have a small scale attachment to. I was lucky enough to meet the founder Steven Schussler and he’s genuinely one of those people that you could listen to tell stories for hours on end. His commitment to this restaurant and the level of detail is largely unparalleled. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it time and time again, the Boathouse is a beach style retreat in the heart of Walt Disney World.
It feels like you’re right there sitting by the ocean and even though you’re next to a lake, the theming, excellent food, and welcoming environment is something that really transports you mentally to such a wonderful place. As you sit down here for a meal and the sun sets outside and the artistic collection of boats sits on the water just beyond the windows, you feel so immersed in the experience. Couple that with an impressive menu of both affordable and more higher end offerings and you’re set for the start (or end) to an incredible night. Be sure to save a little room for dessert as well, because it’s just as amazing!
T-Rex (for kids and kids at heart)
While also another Schussler creation, this one more so aims to please a younger audience or those of us like me that are creative and just big kids at heart who like to have a bunch of fun. T-Rex is genuinely a cool experience. If you’ve ever been to a Rainforest Cafe destination, this is a similar experience, but in my opinion the food is better.
T-Rex is just as visually immersive as Rainforest Cafe but unique in that it’s full of dinosaurs, larger than life creatures, and even has an ice cave that glows throughout the dining experience. To the kids and kids at heart, you will be blown away by this place.
Sure, this isn’t where you might go for a luxury meal in a suit and tie, but it is a place that you’ll be talking about with your friends when you return home because you’ll be hard pressed to find a dining location like this anywhere else. Kids absolutely adore this place.
On the less extreme side of things, take a stroll down the path into a classic dining experience representing down home southern cooking at Chef Art Smith’s Homecoming Kitchen. If you like heavy food, fried chicken, and wonderful desserts, this is the place for you. Once again, like everything on our list, you wont need a Disney park ticket to dine here and it’s an experience all on it’s own in Orlando.
Perched on the edge of the artificial blue springs of Disney Springs, this is the pinnacle of Southern Charm in the Orlando area and I could eat here every single week. Come hungry and you’ll leave happy. The pleasant staff tend to make all the difference in the world as well!
On the simpler side of dining, D-Luxe Burger offers up an excellent quick service burger and a variety of unique topping options in a quaint little springs side dining location that once again is full of rustic southern charm. The food is a tad pricey for quick service but some of the more recent offers for two guest meals make it a much more budget conscious location than it once was. For on property Disney food, it is still a little high for burgers and fries but this is a far better burger than you’ll find at any typical fast food or quick service offering elsewhere. Plus, an outdoor seat overlooking the water on a warm spring or summer night makes for such a pleasant meal it’s nearly unbelievable at times.
3. Rooftop Dining Just About Anywhere
I mention this because more recently I’ve become border line obsessed with Disney’s new and growing array of roof top dining offerings. Perhaps my favorite of those (mostly for the view) is Toledo at Disney’s Gran Destino Tower at Coronado Springs. The view is spectacular and if you can time your meal to around 8:00pm you’ll be able to see bits and pieces of fireworks from your seat and it truly is a special view from the 15 floor tower! Either way, the view over Hollywood Studios and Galaxies Edge is truly spectacular! The food is wonderful as well!
Other rooftop dining areas include California Grill at the Contemporary, Topolino’s Terrace at the newly debuted Riviera resort, and even a few other gorgeous views exist from smaller resorts like Ohana on the second floor of the Polynesian.
4. Disney’s Boardwalk
I adore the Boardwalk on Disney property. I say it constantly here on this site but I do believe it is the single most underrated gem in all of Walt Disney World. The details here, the experiences this place holds, and the atmosphere this area creates is second to none. It is literally like stepping out onto a waterfront boardwalk along the lakes edge (just steps from Epcot – you can even see fireworks) where you can take in the glowing lights of the walkway, peer out towards the Yacht and Beach Club lighthouse, sit by the beaches across the lake, enjoy an incredible meal at Flying Fish, or simply catch a snack at a waterside stand.
It’s a multi sensory experience that is oh so vastly overlooked.
5. Finding Your Quiet Spot
I leave this one for last on this list because it probably is the most unique thing you’ll find on my list compared to any list about Orlando anywhere else on the internet. I preach this harder than anything else to travelers and it simply is the message to find the spot that makes you feel like there’s no place you’d rather be. If you find it, you’ll know exactly what I mean. For me, it’s the Boulder Ridge Villa lobby at Wilderness Lodge.
You might ask why and truthfully I’ve been asking myself that for years. I don’t know if it’s the big wooden rocking chairs, the warm fireplace, the beautiful decor, or even simply the aroma of the destination and that subtle woody, yet smoky, scent that wafts in the air. There’s just something about it that lets me sit back, breath, and escape every single little worry in life. There’s no other place or thing quite like it in my life. I can’t explain it but I don’t really want to be able to explain it either.
I’m not saying this is your spot, but seek the opportunity to enjoy something and to be present in the moment in a way that so many guests to Orlando and in particular Disney tend to miss from time to time. If you open your eyes, listen oh so carefully, and open your heart just a little bit, you’ll find your spot. As sappy as it sounds, it will stick with you forever.
That might just be the ideal way to round out our list tonight, and I ask that you do one thing for me after you read this. If you enjoyed it, please reach out to a friend that needs a little happiness in their life and invite them to join in this community of Disney fans with us by sharing with them your favorite article here. It would mean the world to me, but it may just also help someone else find a needed escape from reality that we all need in our lives from time to time. Thanks for being here!
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 here and one that listens. Thanks for reading and have a wonderful day wherever you are!
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Ready to Plan?
Last but certainly not least, if you’re starting the planning process, a great place to start are with some of our top planning articles! Looking for dining? Check out Disney World Dining Tips For 2019. Want to start with some more tips? 44 Excellent Disney World Tips for 2019 or Disney World Planning Guide and Tips For 2019 are a great place to begin!
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