I shudder to think how many years ago it was that I took my first standardized test, but I recall the first question like it was yesterday: “A zoo without animals is like a library without _____.”
I run this one by my kids every now and then to see if I can divert their attention from the television. After they shout out “Books! Give us another one!” I sometimes wonder how they’d respond if the second half of that question was “like Walt Disney World without _____,” because in my family, at least, “rides” has not always been the knee-jerk answer.
If you’re planning a Walt Disney World trip with particularly young kids — which I’ve done three times in recent years — or a large-party multi-generational trip, in which I was also a participant, you may need to contemplate the unthinkable: how to have a Disney park experience that’s not focused on rides.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Petting Zoo. Photo Credit Paul Eisenberg
Tips for visiting Walt Disney World
Embrace the spontaneous
If you’re traveling to Disney with a child who’s three or younger, as I did on two occasions, she may be too young or small or scared to ride many of the rides. During our first visit to the parks, my wife and I began kicking ourselves for not anticipating how limited our 3-year-old’s experience would be ride-wise. And then something unexpected happened: we chanced upon a parade, and we enjoyed it. After that first time, we learned to show up at park parade routes at scheduled times to get good spots, which also enabled our youngest to remain in her stroller. One time she fell asleep before the parade started, which frustrated me, at which point another parent turned to me and imparted a valuable tidbit: she’s not going to remember that she didn’t see it.
Spectator attractions pack appeal
It was on that first Disney trip that we also discovered the wonderful 3-D movies available at the parks. While some of them ended up having scary moments, they are all fairly benign as well as accessible for park goers of all ages. And if you’re rolling with family members who are young at heart but can’t manage the rides, live interactive shows like Turtle Talk with Crush are crowd pleasers. During our showing, Crush, an animated turtle voiced by a live actor, asked a woman her name. When the woman answered “Grandma,” Crush replied “That’s a literal name, dudette.” Good stuff.
Another winner: the quaint but charming “Carousel of Progress,” a technology-through-the-ages show performed on a moving carousel stage that according to Disney has had more performances than any show in the history of American theater. As the stage revolves it’s a real kick to watch the animatronic actors “age” as the gadgets in their apartment get increasingly futuristic. While the magic during our performance was marred by an audience member screaming at another to hang up her cell phone (ironically a gadget that had not been invented at that particular point in the performance), our party of 16 — ranging in age from 3 to 65 — enjoyed the show.
Do the “forgotten” park
A lot of families who are deliberately not focusing their Disney experience on the rides sing the praises of EPCOT because the park’s focus is almost entirely on spectator entertainment. And I adore EPCOT for that reason. But there’s also a reason why a popular translation of the EPCOT acronym is “Every Person Comes Out Tired.” The park requires a fair amount of walking, especially if you’re determined to make your way around all the country pavilions, and that proved taxing for the youngest and oldest members of our multi-generational group. A better bet is what I call the “forgotten” Disney park, Animal Kingdom, which emphasizes nature and exploration over thrill rides. Its climbing structures vary in difficulty and thus pack appeal for multiple ages. And who knew Disney had a petting zoo? There’s one here.
Actually spend time at your Walt Disney World hotel
When you go to Walt Disney World park, particularly the Magic Kingdom, deciding which ride to do when can feel like a paramilitary operation and, in fact, you ought to have a plan if you’re hoping to either hit the popular rides before the crowds or judiciously make use of Disney’s Fast Pass system. Our first two Disney trips involved a lot of this stressful strategizing. Many a night we’d return from the Disney parks and hear kids cavorting in the pool, yet our family was often too exhausted from a day of rides to go. But if you’ve already decided that you’re going to have a largely rideless experience, give your kids time to swim, explore the lobby, and avail themselves of other simple “hotel pleasures” that they enjoy on other trips but which might go underappreciated when your focus is on tackling the rides. Most Walt Disney World hotels are packed with great diversions and attractions.