Travel

A Disney Skeptic’s Guide to Surviving the Most Magical Place on Earth

Here's how to have a decent time at Disney World-even if you're not a fan.

Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World

To some, it’s heaven on Earth, but Walt Disney World can also be outrageously hot, expensive, and crowded. For those of us who are adults but not  Disney adults, there’s an inclination to wonder: Is Disney World a loud, overwhelming, and garishly joyful circle of hell?

As someone who’s regularly dragged along to experience the alleged magic of Disney, my answer is yes.

But even though there’s a lot to dread about Disney, it doesn’t have to be a miserable experience. Sure, self-described Disney haters may never adore the parks, but some of the most frustrating aspects can be sidestepped by those in the know, and there’s certainly fun to be had, too. From the best places to eat and drink, to how to avoid the long lines at the gates, consider this your survival guide for your next trip to Disney World.

Flickr/imfaral
Flickr/imfaral
Flickr/imfaral

Avoid peak Disney season

Planning a Disney trip starts months in advance and can require months of saving. The cost of a one-day park pass ranges from $109 to $159, depending on the time of year. And highly coveted Disney experiences, like Park Hopper passes (to avoid ride lines) and certain meal reservations, need to be secured up to six months in advance.

If you’re not much of a planner, the amount of pressure Disney puts on you to plan ahead can feel absolutely bonkers. It may even have you feeling like a bad parent. But don’t fall for this (Mickey) mouse trap. Instead, visit the park when it’s less crowded and easier to navigate.

First, avoid major holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day. Same goes for major Disney festivals, like EPCOT’s Food and Wine Festival, or Disney’s Festival of Holidays. Whatever you do, avoid Spring Break (March and April) at all costs. This is when park passes and reservations are truly difficult to come by.

In general, the best time to visit Disney is in the fall when the weather is cooler and the park is significantly less crowded. While attendance rates are a closely guarded secret at the Mouse House, a few obsessive Disney adults have put together a 365-day calendar mapping visitor volume and traffic at specific theme parks. Use Magic Guide’s Walt Disney World Crowds Calendar before planning your next trip to spare yourself the headache of long lines and packed parks.

Capa Steakhouse & Bar
Capa Steakhouse & Bar
Capa Steakhouse & Bar

Eat and drink outside the parks

Disney World has iconic food that enthusiasts love, but as a professional food writer, I think you’ll find better meals outside of the parks. To be clear, you may find it convenient to eat some meals inside Disney, but you’ll get more bang (and flavour) for your buck at Disney-adjacent hotels.

Sip and savour tiki-style drinks, tasty sushi, and pork tacos at Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. Or opt for a Michelin-starred steakhouse with an extensive wine list, plus the most magical view of nightly fireworks, at Capa, located at the Four Seasons Hotel Orlando at Disney World Resort.

Trader Sam's Grog Grotto
Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto
Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto

Not to mention, there are several celebrity-chef driven concepts to be sampled at Disney Springs, from the Spanish influences of Jaleo by José Andrés, to Masaharu Morimoto’s namesake sushi flagship Morimoto Asia and Chef Art Smith’s down-home comforts at Homecomin’ Kitchen.

Because park hopping and reentries are permitted, taking a break from the theme parks to enjoy a great meal is always an excellent way to take a break.

Flickr/trvlto
Flickr/trvlto
Flickr/trvlto

Rideshare to the theme parks

Lots of people drive to Disney or take the Disney shuttle bus, but parking can be a pricey nightmare, and you’re sure to lose it while waiting to board the shuttle bus to or from the theme parks. In addition to long lines, these buses run approximately every 20 minutes, and can have you waiting in the Florida heat and humidity.

The easiest, cheapest way to save sanity in Disney is ridesharing. Most of the parks have drop-off zones adjacent to the gates, making ridesharing an accessible and convenient option. The exception is Magic Kingdom where Lyft and Uber drivers will drop you off at the Disney Ticket and Transportation Center, requiring a monorail transfer. But you can bypass this if you know Disney’s side door entrances (more on that later).

Ridesharing is also an excellent idea if you’re travelling from Orlando International Airport, since Disney recently ditched its free airport shuttle.

Flickr/frankfranc
Flickr/frankfranc
Flickr/frankfranc

Enter through the gift shop

Yes, you can do Disney through sneaky side doors. While tourists gravitate to main entrances, parks like EPCOT, Magic Kingdom, and Animal Kingdom have smaller side entrances, making it a lot easier to skip lengthy ticketing queues.

The best way to beat the line at Magic Kingdom is by ridesharing to the adjacent Contemporary Resort. From there, you can cross the street and look for the pedestrian walkway to the park. This leads you to a separate-and much smaller-security line that will save you time when entering.

At EPCOT, the International Gateway, located between the United Kingdom and France pavilions, is a lesser-known side entrance. It’s serviced by a pedestrian boardwalk, or by Disney water taxi or gondola (also known as the Skyliner).

Last but not least, at Animal Kingdom, be sure to slip into the Rainforest Cafe before you hit the main gate. There you can exit through the gift shop and reach a separate set of turnstiles that will get you into the park faster.

Also, keep in mind if you’re staying at a Disney property, you have the benefit of being able to enter parks a half hour early. On certain days, you can take advantage of special late-night hours, too.

Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin
Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin
Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin

Be smart about your hotel choices

If you’re trying to be a little thrifty with your accommodations, you may want to avoid staying at hotels inside Walt Disney World Resort. Why? Because Disney hotels are frequently some of the most expensive accommodations in Orlando.

Compare these costs to those of offsite hotels or Airbnbs, which come loaded with private amenities (minus resort fees), including pools, water parks and fitness centres, and it’s pretty clear it’s possible to save big on a Disney vacation.

Alternatively, if you’re enrolled in rewards programs at hotel chains like Marriot and Hilton, you can play the points game and stay onsite. Both brands have hotels within walking distance to the park, including Marriott’s Swan and Dolphin adjacent to EPCOT, and Hilton’s Buena Vista Palace next to Disney Springs.

Unsplash/Matt Popovich
Unsplash/Matt Popovich
Unsplash/Matt Popovich

Chill out a little

Which brings me to my last point. When you visit Disney World, you absolutely must chill out and enjoy the scenery. Some of it is even free-a welcome relief for anyone paying $35 for Mickey ears.

The Disney Boardwalk is a whole new vibe, designed to make you feel as if you’ve been transported to Atlantic City. You can also sneak EPCOT’s fireworks display from here for free.

Near Magic Kingdom, the Seven Seas Lagoon is another tranquil waterfront. There are three different resorts to explore, each with their own beach, plus additional viewing spots to watch the nightly fireworks. Just remember, no swimming is allowed in the lake… because alligators. If you time your visit right, and you may also watch the fireworks from the monorail or ferry-those boat rides are also complementary across the lake.

And stay for another free nightly attraction: s’mores and a character meet-and-greet at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground. There you’ll find Chip and Dale roasting mallows by the fire and leading Disney-style sing-a-longs, followed by a free Disney movie, screened outdoors under the stars.

Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort
Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort
Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort

Last but not least, while it may cost you, it’s worth ducking away from the crowds to experience two exceptional spas that are conveniently located at Disney. I’m talking deluxe massages, facials, mani/pedi treatments, and access to hot tubs, steam rooms, and saunas. You’ll have to make reservations in advance if you want to enjoy a spa treatments at Disney’s Grand Floridian or the Four Seasons Resort Orlando, but both make for an excellent way to relax in the park.

After all, if you’re visiting Disney against your wishes, you might as well make yourself comfortable.

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Tim Ebner is a food and travel writer who married into a Disney family. He will absolutely opt for a 90-minute massage over a 90-minute wait to ride Space Mountain. Follow him on Twitter @TimEbner.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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