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Monday, February 10, 2020

Out of the Theme Park Box: Unique Ways to Spend Your Disney Visit

by Beth Keating
February 10, 2020

Disney World is soooo much more than thrill rides. In planning Disney vacations, our family always tries to find at least one activity that we have never tackled before – the more unique, the better.  It keeps the park visits feeling new and magical, and let’s face it, you could spend a month at Disney and never do everything that there is to be done. (But wouldn’t you like to give it a shot?)  If there’s one thing that Disney excels at, it’s creating new venues for enchanting their guests.    

In previous trips, our family has embarked on the “Pirates and Pals Fireworks Dessert Voyage,” enjoyed a two-hour quest on the “Family Magic Tour,” and gone into a sugar coma at the "Happily Ever After Fireworks Dessert Party."  

Animal Kingdom Lodge

The number of distinctive opportunities at Disney World is many and varied. One of the best tours I ever took at Disney was the FREE tasting tour at Animal Kingdom Lodge. Did I mention it was free?  How often does that happen at Disney?  

It was a fabulous tour that was led by a cast member who was from Africa. She was not only knowledgeable about the different dishes our group was being introduced to, but had wonderful stories about the traditions behind the dishes, and the Imagineering decisions that surrounded us in the décor and construction of the restaurants. Our group of a dozen guests met at Jiko in the late afternoon, and had the opportunity to chat with chefs in the open kitchen as they prepped the evening meal, offering us samples along the way, including the bread service.  They discussed not only the styles of food we were experiencing, but also their own backgrounds and what it was like being a culinary expert working at Disney.  So cool!  

After being encouraged by our cultural guide to try the dishes some of us were a little shy about, we headed over to Boma, the buffet restaurant at Animal Kingdom Lodge that features food from more than 50 different African nations. Once again, we were offered samples of the dishes being prepared, including a lovely creamy butternut squash soup, bobotie, and – cue the angels singing- the legendary zebra domes, something that had been on my personal Disney bucket list. Again, our guide shared with us the Imagineering decisions that created the colorful marketplace-inspired restaurant, including the thatched roofs, special tables, kraal “fencing,” and the welcome ceremony that opened the restaurant for dinner. The tour was well worth the time spent.

If you enjoy Animal Kingdom Lodge, and want to explore the facility a little more in depth, Disney offers several unique AKL opportunities. The "Wanyama Safari" at Animal Kingdom Lodge is certainly not cheap at $209 per person, but it is an elaborate opportunity to sample the food at Jiko as well as enjoy an evening escorted safari tour on the savannas at the Lodge. In addition to getting a chance to get up close to the animals living there, you get an excellent meal with wine pairings, and you also get a cool swag bag after dinner!  The “Starlight Safari” at $74 is an hour-long safari tour at Animal Kingdom Lodge that takes you out in a safari vehicle with night vision goggles. There’s also the opportunity to “Dine With An Animal Specialist” at Sanaa. Priced at $59.99, this four-course lunch allows you to chat with the people who care for the permanent residents of the Animal Kingdom Lodge, as well as pay a short, up-close, accompanied visit to some of the animals after the meal.  

Haven’t had your fill of animal experiences yet?  Try the “Wild Africa Trek,” a three-hour tour through Animal Kingdom (starting at $189 per person), featuring crossings over rope bridges and unique photo opportunities that are included in your price.  Nighttime dining adventures also are available at Animal Kingdom, with “Circle of Flavors: Harambe Nights.”  This is a progressive dinner experience that starts at the train station for a short reception with live music and snacks, where you’ll then board the Wildlife Express, head to a second location where you’ll enjoy meet and greets with characters from The Lion King, have a few more snacks, and then return to Harambe for a street-fest style party featuring yet more treats, food stations with themed foods, desserts, live music and activities.  

Still want more animals? Try “Savor The Savanna: Evening Safari Experience,” a premium tour at $169 per guest, which gives you a privately guided trip to a secluded viewing area of the Harambe Reserve, complete with a selection of African foods, and beer and wine offerings as you take in the gorgeous scenery and watch the sunset on the savanna.  “Caring for Giants” is a more pocket-friendly tour for your family if you prefer studying big game. At $30 per person, this hour-long tour gives you a close encounter with the elephants at Animal Kingdom, as well as a chance to talk to the animal care specialists and find out how they take care of these creatures. A similar hour-long tour that takes you backstage with the White Rhinos ($40) is also available. Along the way, you’ll learn a lot about Disney’s conservation efforts.

Living Seas
Head over to the Living Seas at Epcot if you prefer your creatures to be water-based, with “Dolphins in Depth,” a 3-hour animal encounter ($199). The adventure includes 30 minutes of in-water dolphin interaction time, with tours of backstage areas, and training and research sessions with expert trainers and researchers. SCUBA certified? Then you might enjoy the $179 DiveQuest Adventure at Epcot, where you’ll spend 40 minutes of your 3-hour program in the 5.7-million-gallon, 6,000 sea creature saltwater aquarium at Epcot. Your family (and other park guests) can watch you through the giant windows of the tank.

Dinner with an Imagineer

Food is also a frequent focus of the specialty tours at Disney.  Another tour that we have tried  - and failed - to book on several different trips is the “Dine With An Imagineer” event at the Hollywood Brown Derby.  The four-course meal at $59.99 limits your group to a dozen diners, and you get to enjoy not only a yummy meal, but terrific stories, fun facts, and background histories about the most magical place on earth from the people who make it happen.  (A similar offering is also available at Cítricos at the Grand Floridian.) We tried for weeks beginning at our 180 day ADR window to try and snag a reservation for the special meal at Brown Derby (during several different trips, in fact) but no joy. Maybe one of these days. How fabulous would it be to have the opportunity to talk one-on-one with the creative minds who bring the Disney parks to life?

Speaking of multi-course meals, though, there’s another dining opportunity you might enjoy. The “Highway in the Sky Dine Around” is a progressive dinner that takes place at each of the Walt Disney World Resorts on the monorail route ($170). Stopping at the Polynesian, the Grand Floridian and the Contemporary, you can indulge in a bounty of differing cuisines and courses as you resort hop to gather your meal.

Desserts, Please!

Want to make your own food? Visit Amorette’s Patisserie in Disney Springs to take a cake decorating class. For $169, you can enroll in a 90-minute decorating class which allows two guests to decorate one cake. (The small group lesson has a limited capacity of 14 guests). You’ll learn a variety of techniques, and be treated to refreshments along the way…. Refreshments in a bakery?  Yes, please! If you are interested in learning a new skill, Disney periodically offers additional hands-on learning opportunities. It isn’t currently listed on the Disney website, but we have signed up for photography tours at Epcot in the past. Keep your eyes peeled, particularly at the Festivals, where classes in everything from horticulture to culinary creations and wine pairings are offered.

On the sugary-treats front, there is a series of delicious dessert parties that might be an interesting add-on for your family.  The “Happily Ever After Dessert Party” comes in three available formats. The “Fireworks Dessert Party at Tomorrowland Terrace” is a before-the-fireworks dessert buffet ($99), and features a variety of both sweet and savory options, as well as action stations, themed desserts and hot and cold beverages.  Your dessert party includes reserved seating on the covered terrace for the fireworks show, a huge benefit during crowded park times! 

Also available is the “Fireworks Dessert Party with Plaza Garden Viewing,” a $79 ticket which actually includes the same dessert buffet as the previous entry, but just before the show, you are escorted out to a reserved seating area in the Plaza Garden viewing area.  “Seating” is a very loose term here, because there are no chairs – just grass – and you are subject to the elements (you know, typical Florida rain or heat!). It’s actually a “standing area” though, because once the fireworks begin, everyone jumps to their feet anyway. Disney has figured out how to get yet a third seating out of this one show by also offering an after-the-fireworks dessert buffet, cleverly titled, “Magic Kingdom After-Fireworks Dessert Party,” for $89.  You will share the Plaza Garden reserved standing area with the before-the-show buffet attendees, and then use your special wristband to attend the dessert buffet post-fireworks.  There is a distinct advantage to this last option.  While the hordes of guests head to the exits and busses after the fireworks, you can leisurely stroll over to your buffet and take your time enjoying the desserts without having to either rush out to your fireworks viewing spot, or battle the masses on the way to transportation.  It also gives you a really great photo opportunity to take a castle picture in a nearly empty park when your dessert buffet is over.  Most guests don’t even know about the “Kiss Goodnight,” and this is a chance to be there to experience a little extra pixie dust.

If you are more of an Epcot fireworks fan, the “Frozen Ever After Dessert Party” ($99) treats guests to Frozen themed desserts and reserved seating on the World Showcase lagoon, perfect for watching the Epcot fireworks show.  The party is followed by an included ride on Frozen Ever After in Arendelle post-show.  

Hollywood Studios more your jam?  The “Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular Dessert Party” supplies Stars Wars themed sweets and savories ($89), while offering the chance to watch the Wonderful World of Animation and Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular from a reserved viewing location (plus you get a nifty souvenir to take home.) Fantasmic!, also at Hollywood Studios, has the least expensive dessert option, because it is not an all-you-care-to-enjoy buffet, but rather, a prepacked box of treats that you carry to your VIP viewing seat ($39).  

Oops, almost forgot desserts at Animal Kingdom.  The “Rivers of Light: We Are One Dessert Party” runs $89, and provides a colorful array of goodies before sending you off to reserved seating for the Rivers of Light display.

For Green Thumbs

Got a green thumb?  If the “Behind the Seeds” tour at Epcot is more your thing, the $25, hour-long walking tour of the four greenhouses in the Land Pavilion might fit the bill, and you might just see your dinner being grown. The “Gardens of the World” tour specializes in the designs and gardens for the Epcot International Flower and Garden festival ($85), and not only treats you to a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how the Festival comes to life, but how you can use their tips and tricks at your own home.

Appreciating the Magic

Several years ago, our family took the two-hour “Family Magic Tour” ($39), which served as a type of clue-solving scavenger hunt throughout the park, complete with lots of Disney facts and fun from our tour guide (and a special meet and greet), but a three-hour “Walt Disney: Marceline to Magic Kingdom” walking tour is also available for $49, focusing on how Walt’s early life inspired his future creation of Disney World.  It’s an “insider’s look at the history of the Magic Kingdom.”  

Also available is a longer five-hour “Keys to the Kingdom” tour for $99.  Yup, this is the one that takes you down into the utilidors, and even includes lunch along the way.  “Backstage Magic” is even longer at 7 hours, with a hefty $275 wallet. It’s a peek at the Imagineering, costuming, technology and craftsmanship that helps bring the Disney stories to life (with lunch thrown in!)

A Pirates’ Journey

Several years ago, we joined a ship full of other Disney guests on the “Pirates and Pals Fireworks Voyage.” A pre-sail dessert buffet of light snacks including Mickey bars, specialty cupcakes, assorted drinks, and a meet and greet with Captain Hook and Mr. Smee set the tone for the evening.  Then we followed Pirate Patch off to our ship for a voyage on the high seas. The sail, full of bad jokes, Disney trivia, and rousing singing, travelled past the Electrical Water Pageant before anchoring in front of the Magic Kingdom just in time to view the Happily Ever After Fireworks. Our return to the dock was met by a specialty guest for yet another meet and greet. The evening was well worth the price ($83.83 per person), as we had a terrific time, though the desserts were somewhat lackluster.  

In addition to Pirates and Pals, “The Ferrytale Fireworks: A Sparkling Dessert Cruise” also takes place on select nights. Scavenger hunts for the kiddos, storytelling, Mickey Vision glasses, and specialty treats and drinks are included in your $99, and after cruising the Seven Seas lagoon, your boat eventually settles into a prime viewing location for the Happily Ever After Fireworks.

Dozens of Specialty Tours

There are literally dozens of specialty tours for all ages and interests. This is only a very small sample.  We didn’t even mention the tethered hot air balloon ride at Disney Springs, fishing excursions on Bay Lake, the carriage rides at Port Orleans or the wagon rides at Fort Wilderness (especially fun around the holidays when they become “sleigh” rides), the Wilderness Back Trail Adventure Segway rides at Fort Wilderness, or the surfing lessons at Typhoon Lagoon.  To paraphrase a quote you’ve probably heard before, “If you can dream it…” Disney will probably help you do it.  For a price, of course.

All prices listed above are for adult participants (many events also have child prices, and some offer discounts for annual passholders), and prices are subject to change – as they often do in the world of Disney! Check the Disney website, particularly under the “Events and Tours” and “Enchanting Extras Collection,” for the latest days, times and price offerings. Carriage rides are temporarily on hiatus while the Tri-Circle-D Ranch is relocating.  They are expected to reopen in  the Spring.

Beth Keating is a regular contributor to DisneyBizJournal.

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