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50 Bucket List Travel Experiences for Disney Fans
Grab your mouse ears and cross these iconic adventures, rides and behind-the-scenes tours off your list.
For a fairy tale Disney vacation, experience these once-in-a-lifetime activities.
There's nothing wrong with classic character meet-and-greets or whizzing around iconic rides. But if you're a Disney devotee who's already hit the big-name attractions, watched elaborate parades and fireworks displays and enjoyed a little pixie dust, consider ticking these quintessential attractions, high-octane coasters and backstage tours off your bucket list. From an out-of-this-world 3-D "Star Wars"-themed ride in Disney's Hollywood Studios to dining at a AAA Five Diamond restaurant to an open-air safari in a wildlife preserve where you can spot elephants, lions and giraffes, there are plenty of exclusive, one-of-a-kind Disney adventures for kids and nostalgic grown-ups alike. For an unforgettable vacation in the Happiest Place on Earth, bookmark these ultimate Disney experiences.
Get an insider perspective with a Backstage Magic tour.
For a behind-the-scenes walking and bus tour of Disney World, book a Backstage Magic tour, advises Jason Cochran, editor-in-chief of Frommer's.com and author of "Frommer's EasyGuide to Disney World, Universal and Orlando 2018." While the seven-hour tour comes with a $275 admission cost, participants have the opportunity to explore the famous tunnel system underneath Magic Kingdom known as the "utilidor" network. Plus, "it takes you to the mechanism for the American Adventure inside Epcot," Cochran explains, highlighting the chance to learn about the technology, artistry and engineering behind the Audio-Animatronics performances as especially memorable. The tour also gives visitors an up-close view of the Central Shops and character artists who craft Disney's ornate stages and costumes across the park.
Experience Disney World at Christmas.
A fan favorite for avid Disney visitors for good reason, Disney at Christmastime is magical, says Karen Cicero, senior travel editor at Parents magazine, highlighting the elaborate lifesize gingerbread house display at the Grand Floridian as unforgettable. And of course you can't skip the special parades, holiday-centric events and time-honored traditions during the winter holidays, she adds. You'll want to carve out some time to admire the brilliant fireworks, twinkling lights and ornate classic and themed events across the park, including the annual Mickey's Very Merry Christmas celebration in Magic Kingdom, which includes a character-filled parade, fireworks display, meet-and-greets and plenty of entertainment, decorative garlands and holiday sparkle.
Take a behind-the-scenes VIP tour of Disney World.
To circumvent heavy lines and enjoy top attractions on an exclusive tour, hire a Disney VIP Tour Guide, Cicero says. While expensive – tickets cost $425 to $600, depending on the season – it's an enticing option for multigenerational groups who want to bring along grandparents who may not be able to easily navigate all four Walt Disney World parks. Nanci Weinstein, a travel agent with Moments of Magic Travel, an authorized Disney vacation planner, also recommends booking a VIP Tour Guide for added convenience, whether you want to dodge lines or park-hop to headliner attractions with ease. "With a VIP tour guide, you will also enjoy VIP viewing areas for parades, select shows and nighttime entertainment," she adds.
Reserve a meal at a chef's table.
For an unforgettable 10-course meal, splurge for a table at Victoria & Albert's in Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, Cochran says. The three-hour experience is expensive at $250 per person (excluding wine), but it is a consistent AAA Five Diamond Award recipient. If you're looking for a truly out-of-the-ordinary Disney dining experience, Weinstein suggests splurging for a meal at the chef's table – available for up to eight guests for a single seating each night – where "you and your party can dine like royalty," she says. Just keep in mind reservations can be booked 180 days in advance, and patrons must be age 10 and up, so this exclusive experience is best for grown-ups and food-loving teens.
Learn to surf at Disney's Typhoon Lagoon.
If you're a seasoned Disney visitor who's already splashed around major theme park pools, consider learning to hang 10 with a group or private class at Disney's Typhoon Lagoon Water Park. "Beginners can learn to ride their very first wave, and those with more experience will enjoy their very own four-hour session with 100 waves," Weinstein explains. What's more, "Typhoon Lagoon can be programmed to produce 6-foot swells with the direction in which the waves break at the request of the surfer," she adds. Private lessons start at $165 per person, last for three to four hours and are hard to get, so make sure to reserve your spot months in advance of your trip.
Explore Frozen Ever After at Epcot.
If you're traveling with Anna and Elsa fans, you can't skip visiting Epcot's new Norway Pavilion, where you can embark on a boat ride to Queen Elsa's frosty ice palace paired with favorite "Frozen" musical numbers. After the excursion, little ones can enjoy character meet-and-greets at the Royal Sommerhus. Or, for a VIP experience, join a Frozen Ever After Dessert Party (for $79 per adult and $47 for kids ages 3 to 9) with a prime viewing location for the fireworks display along the World Showcase Lagoon at Epcot followed by themed sweet treats such as Elsa's Blue Velvet Cupcakes and Olaf's Warm Double Chocolate S'mores Pudding Cake. For more "Frozen"-themed adventures, visit Disney's Hollywood Studios for photo ops with Olaf.
Enroll in the Jedi Training academy.
From wielding lightsabers with Jedi Masters to battling villains in secret Jedi temples, young "Star Wars" fans ages 4 to 12 are sure to stay engaged with the immersive Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple experience in Disney's Hollywood Studios. "If your kids are into 'Star Wars,' this is such a bucket-list experience for them," Cicero explains. She recommends getting to the park in the morning and registering as early as possible, as availability is based on a first-come, first-served basis. And if little ones want to experience more of the galaxy far, far away, there are plenty of exciting attractions, including Star Tours – The Adventures Continue, an immersive 3-D ride with Audio-Animatronic characters.
Meet your favorite Disney characters.
Maybe you've already met beloved fan favorites such as Mickey, Minnie and Goofy. If you're looking for an outside-the-box interaction with favorite characters, consider checking out the stimulating exhibits and character experiences at Epcot, where you can meet Joy and Sadness from "Inside Out," or interact with "Frozen" cast members Anna and Elsa at the Royal Sommerhus. Other can't-miss characters at Epcot include meeting Baymax at Hiro's Workshop, Mulan in China and Snow White in Germany. After mixing and mingling with favorite characters, you can discover new and noteworthy exhibitions, attractions and international culinary experiences, or tag along on a seasonal behind-the-scenes tour.
Book a Keys to the Kingdom tour at Magic Kingdom.
If you don't want to shell out $275 per adult for an exclusive, seven-hour behind-the-scenes Backstage Magic tour of the extensive underground network known as the "utilidor" passageway, you can still book an exhilarating five-hour walking tour that takes you to the underground tunnel for a fraction of the cost. For $99 per adult (you must be 16 or older to join and present a valid photo ID), you can hear secrets and lesser-known facts about Disney with a knowledgeable guide, and learn about how cast members travel to different parts of Magic Kingdom as you tour the utilidor's expansive network. You'll even collect a keepsake after the tour.
Glide above the park at Epcot.
From an out-of-this-world 3-D attraction to a real-life safari on open-air vehicles, Walt Disney World has no shortage of bucket-list attractions, but a rising crowd favorite is Soarin' at Epcot. On the adrenaline-pumping ride, which has a high-tech, 180-degree, 80-foot IMAX projection dome that mimics the movement of a hang glider, you can zip above the world's most awe-inspiring landscapes, from the Iguazú Falls to the Great Wall of China. Before crisscrossing the globe on the sky-high adventure, youngsters can stay enriched with geography-, culture- and history-driven trivia questions in a preflight game. Just keep in mind that the ride is popular, so you'll want to strategically use your allotted Fast Passes to avoid long hours in line.
Dine with Cinderella.
Little princesses (and grown-ups reliving their childhood memories) are sure to squeal with delight posing for photos with their favorite princess during a memorable meal at Cinderella's Royal Table. The dining experience (reservations are available 180 days in advance) is a cult favorite with its dreamy surroundings – compete with elaborate stained-glass windows, graceful archways and a palatial staircase – and, of course, autograph signings and photo ops with beloved characters. To elevate the experience, you can purchase special accessories, flowers and balloons, among other themed surprises. And for a special occasion, you can book enhancements like the Glass Slipper Engagement, which includes dining, a celebratory toast and a glass slipper and rose petals strewn across a bed – creating a fairy tale backdrop for a proposal.
Embark on a Wild Africa Trek tour.
While there are benefits for embarking on any behind-the-scenes Disney tour, the Wild Africa Trek and the Ultimate Nights of Adventure VIP tour stands apart from the pack, Weinstein says. On the Wild Africa Trek, you can get an up-close glimpse of hippos, giraffes and more wildlife on an exclusive three-hour expedition along a rope bridge and grassland trail with an insightful guide in Disney's Animal Kingdom (from $189 to $249 per adult). After the real-life safari in the Safi River Valley, which mirrors the habitat of an African savanna, you can sample African-influenced cuisine, such as marinated tandoori shrimp and fruit topped with ginger and mint. After the excursion, participants can download images capturing their wildlife encounters.
Explore Animal Kingdom by night on a VIP tour.
If you've already discovered can't-miss attractions in Animal Kingdom by day, such as up-close wildlife excursions where you can spot hippos, giraffes and gazelles on a safari or ascend the sky-high Himalayan mountains on Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain, consider a twilight excursion for a fresh perspective. With the Ultimate Nights of Adventure VIP Tour, you'll embark on a four-hour nighttime tour through Animal Kingdom with expedited access (for $249 per adult) that includes entry to Dinosaur, Avatar Flight of Passage, Expedition Everest, the Na'vi River Journey, Kilimanjaro Safaris and the Rivers of Light evening spectacle. On the group tour, grown-ups can enjoy alcoholic beverages and youngsters can delight in snacks and soft drinks.
Stay at a bungalow at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort.
For an unrivaled view, book an overwater bungalow facing the Magic Kingdom at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort. Each overwater bungalow can accommodate eight guests and comes with two bedrooms and a kitchen. Plus, each bungalow-style room "boasts a private plunge pool to make cooling off and escaping the hot Florida sun exceptionally easy," Weinstein says. Each bungalow overlooks the Seven Seas Lagoon and Magic Kingdom, offering an ideal perch for taking in the nightly Magic Kingdom fireworks show and Electrical Water Pageant on Seven Seas Lagoon. Another perk is the property's Aloha Dinner show with a lively performance and luau. What's more, the property offers a convenient location along the monorail track.
Visit Disney’s ‘Star Wars'-themed attractions.
While the long-awaited Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge attraction at Hollywood Studios won't open until 2019, there are plenty of other out-of-this-world rides and experiences that merit a visit this year. Aspiring Jedis will want to check out Star Wars Launch Bay to interact with Kylo Ren, Chewbacca and BB-8 before learning the ways of the force at Jedi Training Academy. And for an unforgettable adventure, take to the seas. For select Star Wars Day at Sea Caribbean itineraries aboard Disney Cruise Line ships from January to April, fans can interact with their favorite saga villains and characters (think: Darth Vader, Chewbacca and R2-D2). On the special voyages, characters can even watch themed shows, film screenings and elaborate fireworks displays.
Discover in-park events after dark at Disneyland.
While special events and tours are ever-changing at Disney, an exciting new attraction worth bookmarking is the After Dark series, which will launch Jan. 18. The event series will include a '50s- and '60s-themed Throwback Nite with vintage-inspired costumes and after-hours rides on Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan's Flight and other classic attractions. Grown-ups looking to relive their childhood memories can also enjoy character sightings, old-fashioned snacks and dance parties at top park attractions, including Sleeping Beauty Castle, the Disneyland Railroad and the Mark Twain Riverboat. Plus, visitors can snap photos with vintage-themed attraction posters and catch the Fantasy in the Sky fireworks display, which dates back to 1958.
Splurge for a stay at Disneyland Hotel.
For fairy tale-like accommodations with whimsical – dare we say it? – pixie dust-sprinkled touches, it's hard to match Disneyland Hotel. Outfitted with character etchings, Disney furnishings and even glowing Sleeping Beauty Castle headboards, the property is especially memorable for little princes and princesses. If you're looking to splurge, book one of the elaborate Signature Suites on the 11th floor (think: Pirates of the Caribbean, Adventureland and Mickey Mouse Penthouse), where you can immerse yourself in your favorite Disney backdrops and enjoy getting treated like royalty. During your stay, you can also enjoy family-friendly perks, including monorail waterslides and an extensive collection of Disney memorabilia.
Check out the Radiator Springs Racers at Disney California Adventure.
While there are plenty of headlining attractions at Disneyland, the Radiator Springs Racers attraction at Cars Land at Disney California Adventure Park – Disneyland's sister theme park – stands out as a can't-miss experience, Cicero says. The ride is "very immersive," she adds, noting that the landscape at Cars Land looks like it was plucked straight from the 2006 Disney Pixar film and offers youngsters the chance to whizz around a six-person vehicle on a race track. Along the way, you can catch sight of beloved characters – from Doc Hudson to Lightning McQueen to Sally to Luigi. Best of all, the route is modeled after the iconic Route 66, and the ride is suitable for kids, tweens and grown-ups.
Explore the highlights of Magic Kingdom.
With plenty of exciting themed roller coasters, 3-D attractions and shows throughout all four Disney World parks, it's easy to overlook the opportunity to experience a behind-the-scenes tour. With the Ultimate Disney Classics VIP Tour (for $199 per adult), Disney fans of all ages will appreciate special access to 10 quintessential attractions at Magic Kingdom Park – from Peter Pan's Flight to Pirates of the Caribbean. If you've already crossed these perennial favorite rides off your list, splurge for the seven-hour Ultimate Day of Thrills VIP Tour (for $299 per adult) for expedited entry to top attractions throughout Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios. On the tour, you can experience classic attractions like Splash Mountain, Soarin' and Star Tours – The Adventures Continue.
Visit during Halloween.
Celebrating Halloween at Disney parks is a must for those looking to trade spine-tingling chills and thrills for spirited parades, candy collecting and time-honored traditions. Cicero highlights the Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party as a fun extravaganza for little ones with its holiday-inspired fireworks spectacle, special effects, colorful characters and Mickey's Boo-to-You Halloween Parade. During the fete, revelers can trick or treat across the park, attend a magic show and enjoy a spellbinding soiree hosted by the Sanderson Sisters at the Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular in Magic Kingdom. Disneyland also hosts a series of legendary ghoulish events at It's a Frightfully Delightful Night with a party, themed mansion and glowing jack-o'-lanterns.
Take a wildlife-viewing expedition with Kilimanjaro Safaris.
Animal lovers of all ages will appreciate embarking on a real-life safari on a 110-acre wildlife reserve featuring grassy wetlands and a savanna reflecting the landscape of an East Africa savanna. Participants ride in an open-air car with a knowledgeable guide, where they can look out for 34 species, including antelope, cheetahs, zebras, gazelles and lions. Best of all, the 18-minute excursion is available with a FastPass+ reservation and is open to all ages. Prefer to explore after hours? Night owls can join nighttime safari tours and learn about the animals' nocturnal patterns on an expert-led caravan in the reserve, as they keep their eyes peeled for hyena, hippos and elephants, among other wildlife.
Catch a live performance.
While inventive, limited-time shows like La Nouba by Cirque du Soleil thrill guests with flying trapeze acts, talented acrobatics and choreographed stints, there are a few tried-and-true spectacles Disney enthusiasts should cross off their lists. "Beauty and the Beast-Live on Stage" at the Theater of the Stars in Disney's Hollywood Studios a must with its classic revues that feature elaborate costumes and backdrops. Another must-see is "Finding Nemo – the Musical" (closed from February to March 2018) at Animal Kingdom, which includes lively puppets in a 40-minute spectacle. And a rising newcomer is the "For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration" at Disney's Hollywood Studios, a 30-minute performance with stories and popular musical numbers.
Consider an Adventures by Disney trip.
For an unforgettable trip with a knowledgeable tour guide, consider a behind-the-scenes Adventures by Disney trip in Southern California or Orlando, Cicero says. On the trips, kids have the chance to connect with peers in the tour group, while adults have the chance to enjoy exploring cultural attractions beyond the parks. With the seven-day Hollywood & Disneyland Tour (starting at $3,129 per person), for example, you can explore top LA attractions, with a private walking tour of Hollywood, a stroll down the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a trip to Walt Disney Studios. And at Disneyland, you can enjoy exclusive experiences such as an Imagineering tour, a behind-the-scenes tour and a prime viewing area for the nightly parade and fireworks show.
Discover top in-park dining spots at Disney World and Disneyland.
If you don't want to spring for a high-end meal at Victoria & Albert's – a AAA Five Diamond award recipient – and you've already splurged for a themed meal at Be Our Guest Restaurant, there are plenty of other restaurants in and around the parks that make for memorable dining experiences. At Epcot, consider Restaurant Marrakesh for shish kebab, lamb shank and Moroccan pastries. Another top dining spot is the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant at Disney's Hollywood Studios, where you can delight in St. Louis-style ribs in a 1950s-themed setting that's decked out with a 50-foot film screen playing horror movies and convertible car-themed tables. And at Disneyland, a must-visit is Blue Bayou Restaurant, which dishes out New Orleans specialties (think: jambalaya and gumbo).
Attend the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival.
If you're a food-loving Disney fan, you won't want to skip this annual summer extravaganza with guest chefs, cheese tastings and seminars, book signings, cooking lessons and other gastronomy-focused events. During the culinary festival, you can explore marketplace tasting booths, attend a concert series and splurge for a specialty wine and craft beer pairing selected by a sommelier or chef as you delight in globally inspired cuisine. For a convenient home base for the event, consider springing for a club-level room at Disney's BoardWalk Inn, which is a stone's throw from Epcot and Hollywood Studios and boasts amenities and privileges like refreshments at the exclusive club-level lounge, unobstructed boardwalk views and personal concierge service.
Book a dessert party.
From the Fireworks Dessert Party at Tomorrowland Terrace in Magic Kingdom to the Frozen Ever After Sparkling Dessert Party at Epcot, there are plenty of worthwhile sweet-themed events at the Happiest Place on Earth, Weinstein says. And though these events can be pricey, with admission costing up to $79 per adult and $47 per child ages 3 to 9, they afford exclusive access to stellar fireworks viewing locations, and give you – and the kids – the chance to unwind after a fun-filled day at the parks. At Tomorrowland Terrace in Magic Kingdom, for example, you can delight in Disney-themed treats and chocolate-dipped strawberries as well as hot chocolate and sparkling cider. Then you can retreat to the patio to catch the fireworks over Cinderella Castle.
You can't visit Animal Kingdom without crossing the epic, blood-curling Expedition Everest - Legend of the Forbidden Mountain coaster off your list. The immersive attraction, which cost an estimated $100 million to create, launches riders into the sky-high Himalayas in pursuit of a life-size yeti. Along the way, you'll zigzag past a temple, tackle a steep incline through bamboo forests and suddenly come to a halt – twisting and circling before plunging 80 feet down a mountain. Just keep in mind the ride is popular, so you'll want to use your FastPass strategically to sidestep mind-numbing wait times.
Spend the holidays at Disneyland Resort.
During the winter holiday season, Disneyland transforms into an elaborate winter wonderland. For the annual extravaganza, 2,000 ornaments and 70,000 lights deck the 60-foot-high Christmas tree in the Town Square. And whether you're a first-time Disney-goer or a veteran Disney visitor, there are plenty of ways to embrace the holiday spirit, from the "Believe … In Holiday Magic" fireworks display to the decked-out "it's a small world" holiday seasonal serenade at the A Christmas Fantasy Parade, when favorite Disney characters and Santa Claus celebrate with yuletide cheer and music along Main Street U.S.A. Another highlight is the World of Color - Season of Light spectacle at Disney California Adventure Park, which includes classic holiday music from "Beauty and the Beast" and "Frozen."
Enjoy an enchanting meal with Belle.
A rite of passage for Disney fans, the Be Our Guest Restaurant in the Beast's castle – one of the most coveted dining venues in the parks – requires thoughtful prior planning, but is a quintessential experience. Reservations are available 180 days in advance, so it's wise to book far in advance to secure your spot. "If you do have kids who love the princesses, this is your guaranteed meet-and-greet," Cicero says, noting that you can plot the perfect photo op with the Beast. The sit-down dinner also affords the chance to admire the graceful ceilings of the Grand Ballroom, Belle's lovely castle library and the tucked-away West Wing with the legendary red rose.
Stay at the Cinderella Castle Suite at Magic Kingdom.
If you've ever dreamed of sleeping like a princess, you'll feel like royalty in the VIP Cinderella Castle Suite. The 17th-century châteaux features stained-glass windows, fairy tale mosaics, a requisite glass slipper, a fireplace and even a telescope, among other regal touches. The caveat: The coveted accommodations at Disney are out of reach for many. While you can't pay for a stay in the extravagant suite, you can enter to win a five-day stay at random or be selected by exclusive invitation from Disney.
Sail on the Grand 1 Yacht.
If you're ever dreamed of organizing a private seaside soirée for a special occasion (with a butler included), consider booking the Grand 1 Yacht, Cochran says. It's an ideal way to experience a private viewing of the fireworks display without the crush of tourists in Magic Kingdom, he adds. Weinstein also highlights chartering a sunrise, sunset or fireworks cruise on the Grand Yacht 1 as an ultimate VIP experience at Disney World. "This beautiful 52-foot watercraft can accommodate 18 passengers," she explains. Renting the Grand 1 starts at $399 per hour and includes soft drinks and snacks. You can also add private onboard dining and other perks for an extra cost.
Visit outside-the-box attractions for one-of-a-kind character sightings.
If you've already taken budding princesses to Be Our Guest Restaurant to dine with Belle and enjoy white-glove meal service in the Beast's castle in Fantasyland at the Grand Ballroom, the Castle Gallery or the West Wing, forgo splurging for this hard-to-get-into restaurant (reservations open up 180 days in advance) and think outside the box for immersive character experiences. For those who love to participate and volunteer, the Enchanted Tales with Belle attraction in Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland offers the chance to check out Maurice's workshop and cottage, peruse the Beast's library and enjoy prized moments with Belle. For the "Beauty and the Beast" aficionado, you also can't miss attending the live Broadway-style revue at Disney's Hollywood Studios.
Reserve a private meal at 21 Royal in Disneyland.
This lavish residence above the iconic Pirates of the Caribbean attraction offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The exclusive space set in a secret location "was originally intended to be Walt and Lillian Disney's private residence," Weinstein says. Today, you can book the palatial apartment – for a cool $15,000 – for a private dinner with up to 12 guests. "This experience comes with a price, but the memories are sure to be priceless," Weinstein adds. After arriving at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, guests are escorted to the event, where they can savor cocktails in the salon, explore the property and enjoy white-gloved meal service with two master chefs followed by dessert on the balcony to view the nightly entertainment.
Board the Highway in the Sky at Disney World.
Grown-ups age 21 and up looking for an elevated dining experience can board the resort monorail for a five-course progressive-style meal for $170 per person. Starting at Disney's Contemporary Resort, passengers are treated to American fare paired with specialty cocktails followed by a trip to Disney's Polynesian Village Resort for South Pacific-influenced appetizers. Then, passengers are transported to Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa to savor Champagne, charcuterie and a selection of cheeses followed by a meal at Cítricos. After the meal, you'll wrap up the dining experience at Disney's Contemporary Resort's patio to finish on a sweet note with desserts and coffee and an enchanting location for watching the fireworks display.
Mix and mingle with favorite Disney characters at a themed meal in Disneyland.
Young first-time Disneyland visitors won't want to pass up the chance to interact (and snap a few photos) with beloved Disney characters. And there's no better way to ensure quality character sightings than with a planned character meal. Spring for the Surf's Up! Breakfast with Mickey and Friends at Disney's Paradise Pier Hotel, and you'll be treated to a variety of picture-perfect photo-ops and autograph signing with Mickey, Minnie and other characters as you fuel up for the day with a hearty meal. Menu items include everything from parfaits, frittatas and smoothies to Disney-inspired creations for kids, such as Minnie pancakes, Mickey-shaped waffles and peanut butter and banana with chocolate-stuffed French toast.
Visit a Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.
For aspiring princesses and knights looking for the ultimate fairy tale experience, it's hard to match playing dress-up at a Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique at Cinderella Castle in Disney's Magic Kingdom or the Once Upon a Toy store at Disney Springs Marketplace, Cicero says. The salon's fairy godmothers-in-training use a little pixie dust and Disney magic to give kids their desired hairstyle, braid or up-do, along with a sash. With the Castle Package ($199.95, excluding tax), little ones can enjoy hairstyling, a crown, a wand, a princess necklace and sash, shimmery make-up and a Disney princess gown. And with the Deluxe Knight Package ($79.95), princes receive a sword and shield, confetti, hairstyling and a prince costume.
Take a behind-the-scenes themed VIP tour at Disneyland.
If your fairy tale Disney vacation does not include long attraction wait times, mini-meltdowns and months of prior planning, consider a personalized VIP tour guide. With a VIP tour, you'll be granted a personal concierge to guide you to character meet-and-greets, performances and priority entry to more than 30 attractions at Disneyland Resort. Even better, you can take advantage of stellar viewing areas for nighttime performances, parades and other shows and enjoy unlimited PhotoPass downloads and stay engaged with tales and insider recommendations from a knowledgeable guide. The catch? The exclusive tour – and royal treatment – does come with a high price tag, with six-hour VIP excursions for up to 10 guests starting at $2,550.
Check into the Art of Animation Resort.
If you don't want to break away from the fantastical landscapes of Walt Disney World, consider splurging for a stay at a hotel with movie-themed suites to bring the quintessential charm and magic of Disney back to your guest room. If you're bringing kids who adore a certain themed character, checking into a themed suite inspired by "The Little Mermaid" or "Finding Nemo" offers an unforgettable experience, Cicero says. Nightly rates for the Finding Nemo Family Suites, which can sleep up to six adults, start at $330. Meanwhile, nightly pricing for The Little Mermaid Standard Room, which can accommodate up to six guests, start at $132. The property also boasts Cars Family Suites and Lion King Family Suites, along with two themed pools.
Experience the World of Color extravaganza in style.
For a captivating nightly performance – filled with classic Disney soundtracks, live-action film screenings a kaleidoscope of color – make your way to Disney California Adventure Park's Paradise Pier. During the event, water bursts 200 feet into the air above about 1,200 fountains, paired with high-tech fire, fog and pyrotechnic effects. Though viewing areas are standing only, with a World of Color dining package, you can snag a primo spot after enjoying a three-course, prix fixe meal ($49 for grown-ups; $25 for kids ages 3 to 9). Meanwhile, with the World of Color Dessert Party (for $79 per person), you can savor decadent sweet treats along with prime seating for the evening display.
Stay in a savanna-facing room at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge.
"There's a few iconic hotel views depending on your bucket list," Cochran says. If you're an animal lover, it's hard to beat staying near a wildlife preserve. With a savanna-facing room, which can accommodate up to four guests (prices start at $487 per night), you can see a giraffe from your window, he explains. And since the animals tend to be active in the early morning, you'll better your odds at catching sight of the 30-plus African species on the preserve, including gazelles, zebras and flamingos, by staying at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge. Primo wildlife-viewing aside, the property also boasts an 11,000-square-foot pool and a supervised kids club with age-appropriate activities such as crafts and film screenings.
Attend a lesser-known seasonal event or festival.
It's no secret the Disney knows how to host an elaborate, over-the-top holiday celebration filled with yuletide cheer, spectacular gingerbread houses and ornately decorated attractions. But for an out-of-the-ordinary experience, consider arriving at an off-peak time during annual festivals for unique time-limited activities, Cicero says. For example, from Jan. 12 to Feb. 19, you can attend the Epcot International Festival of the Arts, which boasts a concert series featuring talented stars off of Broadway. The festival also includes photography, calligraphy and animation drawing workshops and seminars, among other immersive workshops. Meanwhile, the International Flower & Garden Festival from the end of February to May 28 includes a concert series in a waterfront venue, special tours, seminars and demonstrations, along with colorful Disney-inspired topiaries.
Whizz around quintessential (and new) rides at Disneyland.
Though veterans and first-timers flock to new and noteworthy attractions, there a few perennial fan favorites that merit the long wait times. Kids can't skip whizzing around the beloved Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride in Fantasyland and older kids, tweens, teens and grown-ups will want to ride Peter Pan's Flight for a classic ride with an all-ages appeal soaring over London to Never Never Land. Other must-dos for adventure-seekers include the Pirates of the Caribbean boat journey and the Indiana Jones Adventure filled with temple traps and Hollywood lore. And in 2018, you won't want to skip catching the Pixar Play Parade at Disneyland Park or the elaborate Pixar Incredibles-inspired ride at Disney California Adventure's Paradise Pier.
Explore Toy Story Land.
In summer 2018, the long-awaited Toy Story Land will debut at Disney's Hollywood Studios after undergoing a large-scale transformation. Highlights of the 11-acre whimsical space (one-day tickets will cost $99) will include a Slinky Dog Dash roller coaster, the Alien Swirling Saucers ride and an upgrade to the fan favorite Toy Story Mania. Another highlight will be the chance to dine at Woody's Lunch Box – a themed quick-service venue dishing out old-school soda floats. And of course guests will be able to meet beloved larger-than-life "Toy Story" characters such as Buzz, Woody and Rex.
Discover the world of Pandora.
For "Avatar" fans of all ages, Pandora –The World of Avatar in Animal Kingdom offers an immersive and exhilarating experience that's well worth the wait time. On the 3-D Avatar Flight of Passage ride, you'll think you're soaring over the verdant jungles of Pandora on a mystical expedition over a banshee. Another must-do is the Na'vi River Journey, which mirrors a bioluminescent rainforest. And after the adventure, you can watch a drum circle or climb mountains in the whimsical Valley of Mo'ara.
Stay at Disney's Contemporary Resort.
If your kids love trains, there's no better place to make their dreams come true than Disney's Contemporary Resort, Cicero says. With the whizzing Resort Monorail crossing through the hotel, little ones can ooh and aah over the train (and easily get to Magic Kingdom and Epcot in a breeze). Stellar location aside, the property also boasts the California Grill. The dining venue offers a one-of-a-kind viewing location for watching the evening fireworks display over the Seven Seas Lagoon and Magic Kingdom, Cochran says. For the ultimate viewing experience, book the Celebration at the Top – Sip, Savor and Sparkle package to take in the Happily Ever After spectacle on a private observation deck for $99 per person.
Meet and dine with a Disney Imagineer.
For a walk down memory lane and the chance to learn about the park's creative visionaries known as Imagineers (imagination engineers), grab a bite at the Hollywood Brown Derby in Hollywood Studios. Patrons age 16 and up can sit around a table with an Imagineer for a four-course meal at the elegant Bamboo Room. Another participating restaurant, Cítricos at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, offers guests the chance to learn about the inspiration, design, engineering and architectural feats of the designers of the state-of-the-art theme parks.
When you need a break from the chaos of the parks, Weinstein suggests indulging in a spa day at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort’s Senses spa in Orlando or in Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa in Anaheim. While the Grand Floridian spa offers services such as Swedish massages, coconut body treatments and antioxidant-inspired Berry Bliss facials, the Grand Californian's Mandara Spa offers Balinese massages, hot stone therapies and detoxifying body wraps. Best of all, there are plenty of enticing packages if you're interested in spending a full day getting pampered. For instance, the five-hour Signature Senses Package at the Grand Floridian includes a pedicure, massage and facial for $475; kids can also get pampered with pedicures for $50.
Book an in-room add-on at Disneyland.
If you're looking to gift the avid Disney lover in your life a one-of-a-kind and unexpected experience and amenity, Weinstein highlights Disney-inspired personalized In-Room Celebrations add-on as a choice option. For example, the Anna & Elsa’s Warm Welcome Frozen In-Room Celebration surprise (for $375) includes a banner, snowflake confetti, an autographed book, a themed tote, blanket and pillowcase and sweet treats. Meanwhile, the Mickey and Minnie's Birthday Celebration package (for $325) add-on includes a door banner, cake, a mouse ears-shaped birthday hat and bins stuffed with sweet treats.
Float over Disney in a hot air balloon.
If you've ever wanted to soar above Disney with your closest friends and family members and beloved Disney characters, the Characters in Flight At Disney Experience ($20 per passenger for age 10 and up and $15 for children ages 3 to 9) offers an unforgettable adventure. Dumbo, Aladdin, Buzz Lightyear and Tinker Bell are a few familiar characters who join the eight- to 10-minute adventure. Best all of all, from 400 feet high above, you'll have a birds-eye view of the scenes below, affording ideal angles for memorable family vacation photos.
Go on a Jungle Cruise.
Though there are dozens of world-class attractions and rides jockeying for your attention at Disney World's Magic Kingdom and Disneyland's Adventureland, this classic adventure-packed cruise has won over Disney patrons since its debut in 1955 at Disneyland Park. On the quintessential 10-minute boat tour, you'll weave past canopied trees, orchids, plummeting waterfalls, elephants, hippos and replicas of the Nile, Amazon and Mekong rivers. Best of all, the leisurely ride is slow-moving, suitable for all ages, easy to reserve with FastPass+ and is accompanied by a skipper relaying punchy jokes throughout the trip.
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