Walt Disney World is called the most magical place on Earth…so, can that magic turn your stay at a bustling theme park into an exciting outdoor adventure?
The answer is yes. Covering 25,000 acres, Walt Disney World is more than just Space Mountain and firework shows. Plus, much of Disney World was actually inspired by nature, meaning that, even within the busy parks, you’re still able to find yourself exploring jungles, climbing mountains, or diving under the sea.
From a campground you probably never knew existed to watching zebras walk by your hotel room, here’s how to turn your Walt Disney World vacation into an epic outdoor adventure.
Where to Stay
Walt Disney World has no shortage of places to stay. From themed resorts like the New Orleans-inspired Port Orleans and the tiki-filled Polynesian Village to luxurious stays like the Grand Floridian and the Contemporary, visitors of all styles can find a resort that fits their vibe.
The same goes for anyone looking for some outdoor adventure. Numerous Disney accommodations are inspired by nature and the wilderness, and thanks to years of planning and design by Disney’s Imagineers, at these properties, you really do feel like you’re thousands of miles away from Disney, camping in the woods, exploring the Californian mountains, or even taking an African safari…
1. Fort Wilderness
Most people are completely unaware that Disney actually has its own campground, and it’s located right on a lake, just a short boat ride away from the Magic Kingdom park. Fort Wilderness is a secluded little slice of nature that offers visitors the true camping experience. At the campground, you can take archery lessons, go on a guided horseback riding tour, rent a bike and peddle along the trails, or simply enjoy being out in the woods. Deer and turkeys freely roam through the property (as do raccoons at night, so treat this like a real campsite and dispose of all trash properly), and the surrounding woodlands will make you completely forget you’re at Disney.
Camping and RVing are both allowed on the property, but the cabins are the true highlights. Timber upholstery and surprisingly nice bathrooms give you the feeling of staying in a hotel, and each unit comes with a full kitchen and its own outdoor grill (which is a godsend if you don’t want to pay a premium at Disney restaurants).
2. Wilderness Lodge
For a more ritzy experience, there’s Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. Located just down the road from Fort Wilderness, also on the lake, Wilderness Lodge is inspired by grand National Park lodges like the Old Faithful Inn and Many Glacier Hotel, and its stunning lobby is complete with a roaring stone fireplace, timber rafters, totem polls, and cozy furnishings.
Best of all, because it’s located right by Fort Wilderness (it’s only about a 5-minute bus ride away), guests at Wilderness Lodge can easily partake in all the nearby camp activities, or simply stay at the hotel for nightly stories and s’mores around the firepit.
3. Animal Kingdom Lodge
If you really want to make your Disney trip wild, book a stay at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Inspired by African safaris, the Animal Kingdom Lodge is easily the resort’s most unique hotel. Its grand, four-story lobby is adorned with African artwork and furnishings, and has massive floor-to-ceiling windows that help give you excellent views of the giraffes and zebras outside.
Yep, you heard that right. The lodge sits right on an animal sanctuary run by Disney’s veterinary and zoology team and is home to giraffes, zebras, kudus, impalas, gazelles, and more. You can even book a savanna-view room and wake up every morning to the sight of African animals just a few feet from your balcony.
What to Do
Technically speaking, all of Walt Disney World is a resort, and staying in one of the many Disney World hotels grants you access to special perks like extended park hours.
Another perk is that you have access to the other Disney World resorts and the activities they offer. No matter what resort you stay at, you can simply hop on the bus, monorail, or gondola to another resort and book classes, rentals, and experiences there. So, even if your hotel doesn’t offer outdoor activities, it’s easy to find one that does.
1. Camp Activities at Fort Wilderness
What fun would a campsite be without proper summer camp activities? At Fort Wilderness, you can spend the day taking archery lessons, going horseback riding, renting a bike, or simply walking the trails to explore the surprisingly massive campground.
If you visit during the holiday season, be sure to visit Fort Wilderness at dusk to see the whole campground light up. Many Fort Wilderness campers visit yearly and a massive competition between them has emerged of who can deck the halls the best. Expect to see RVs covered in twinkling lights and nearby pine trees meticulously decorated for Christmas. Also, expect to see lots of inflatable Christmas characters.
As surprising as it may sound, numerous Disney resorts offer fishing. From renting a pole and trying your luck in rivers that run through resorts like Port Orleans, to guided fishing excursions out on the lake, like those offered at Fort Wilderness and Wilderness Lodge, Disney World is actually a fisherman’s dream.
Other resorts that offer fishing include the Polynesian Village, Grand Floridian, and more. Better yet, thanks to Disney using gates and fences in their waterways to keep gators out, the resort’s ponds and lakes can produce some pretty good-sized fish.
3. Paddling and Boating
Another activity that is surprisingly plentiful at Disney World is paddling and boating. Because many of the resorts are situated on creeks, rivers, and lakes, they’re perfect for getting out on the water. Plus, without having to worry about gators as much as you would in most other Floridian waterways, it’s also a safer spot to take younger ones out on the water. Kayaks and canoes can be rented at Fort Wilderness.
If you want to hit the water, but don’t feel like paddling, pontoon rentals are also available at numerous Disney resorts. Seating up to 10 guests, they’re a fun way to get the whole crew out on the water. Pontoon rentals are available at the Grand Floridian, the Contemporary, Disney’s Yacht Club, and more.
What to Ride
Walt Disney had many interests, with nature, futurism, and transportation being three of his most passionate. His love of trains and transport gave birth to Disney’s famous monorail system, his obsession with futurism led to EPCOT, and his love of nature helped produce theme parks that are surprisingly lush and green.
His love of nature and adventure also helped give rise to attractions like the Matterhorn Bobsleds and Tom Sawyer Island, which transport guests to far-reaching jungles, mountains, swamps, and more. Throughout the years, the outdoors has continued to play a massive role in theming for many Disney rides, with everything from Splash Mountain to the Na’vi River Journey using the outdoors as its setting.
For anyone who wants to go on an epic adventure (but still enjoys the thrill of a theme park ride), here are a few you need to check out.
1. Expedition Everest
Inside Disney’s Animal Kingdom park, you can hop on a train that is making its up way up into the Himalayan Mountains towards the base of Mount Everest. However, the train soon encounters a yeti pulling the track apart. Suddenly, an exciting journey up the mountain turns into absolute calamity as the train falls backwards, zooming riders through pitch-black tunnels, before finally turning forward again once again…just in time to dive down the mountainside.
Being Disney, the ride spared no expense and for over a decade it held the Guinness World Record as the most expensive roller coaster ever built (costing $100 million in 2006 at opening). The result is a meticulously themed ride that is literally built into a mountain. For adventure-seekers, this ride is for you.
2. Kilimanjaro Safari
Guests who aren’t staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge can still get a safari experience thanks to the Kilimanjaro Safari in Animal Kingdom, where you can hop into a safari jeep and explore an animal preserve built right into the back of the park.
Plus, this preserve is much bigger than the one connected to the hotel, meaning many more large animals can call it home, including predators like lions and hyenas, as well as hippos, baboons, rhinos, and more. The safari is treated just like a ride, despite the tour lasting 18 minutes (way longer than your average roller coaster), so either get to the safari early in the morning or make sure to use a lightning lane pass for it. Otherwise, you could be waiting for an hour or two.
If you don’t want to wait in line, directly next to the safari entrance is the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail. The trail is just under a half-mile and allows you to walk through enclosures with zebras, meerkats, hippos, and reptiles. But the real treat is the enormous gorilla habitat that’s home to a troop of western lowland gorillas. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for Ada, the newest member of the family who was just born in 2021 and is still an infant. You can often spot her clinging to the back of her mother.
3. Jungle Cruise
At Magic Kingdom, one of Disney’s oldest rides is still one of its best if you want to feel like you’re cruising through a tropical rainforest. The premise is that you’ve hopped aboard a tour with a boating company in a far-off, fictional British colony in the 1930s. Throughout the ride, you explore numerous rivers, discovering animals and artifacts along the way. Each section is inspired by real tropical rivers around the world, from the Amazon to the Nile and Mekong.
During the great reckoning of 2020, it became painfully apparent that much of the ride was incredibly racist and had to be remodeled. The good news is that the new animatronics and sets added in 2021 are leaps and bounds more realistic and thrilling than the old ones that were 30 and 40 years old. It’s also a slow, gentle ride, perfect for anyone traveling with kids or grandparents.
4. Big Thunder Mountain
“This here’s the wildest ride in the wilderness!” Those famous lines are what you hear just before your mine train leaves the station at Big Thunder Mountain. In the ride, you’ve just arrived at the Big Thunder Mountain Mining Corporation in the late 1800s, and your mine train heads into a cavern dug into Big Thunder Mountain.
Naturally, like all good Disney rides, your average trek goes off the rails (literally) when the train suddenly picks up speed and bolts through the mountains, caves, and canyons of the old west. There’s just something about the Wild West that never fails to excite, and the ride’s physical structure is awe-inspiring, with the trains zooming in and out of caves, through towering rock spires, and over the lake.
Where to Eat
Everyone can appreciate and be thankful for the incredible food options at Disney. Unlike a visit to Six Flags, where you’re forced to eat nothing but popcorn and french fries all day, Disney World has tons of dining options, offering food that’s way healthier and tastier than anything found at a normal amusement park.
And, again, with Disney’s love of theming, many of the restaurants are inspired by nature and adventure, offering a fantastic reprieve from the busy parks, all while serving up some great food and drinks.
1. Coral Reef
Located in EPCOT, Coral Reef is a dining experience that takes you under the sea. The steak and seafood restaurant doesn’t have windows…and instead, is surrounded by a giant aquarium. Why eat at the Cheesecake Factory when you could be eating in the company of sharks, sea turtles, and colorful coral?
Menu highlights include seared Mahi Mahi and orange-glazed salmon (sustainably farmed), and desserts even come with fun nautical names like The Chocolate Wave.
2. Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar
Here’s a deep cut for you: Jock Lindsey was a pilot in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The restaurant is an ode to the character who only briefly appeared in the film, and is designed to be the hangar for his planes. Filled with Indiana Jones relics, plane parts, maps, and trinkets that Lindsey collected throughout his travels, the entire restaurant is filled with the spirit of travel and adventure. It also has a fantastic outdoor deck that overlooks the lake, which is perfect for cooler evenings.
The drinks at Jock Lindsey’s are also adventurous, from the non-alcoholic, mint and lime-based “Poison Dart”, to the rum and orange-liqueur-filled “Wrong Island!”, everything on the menu is a celebration of daring journeys and epic treks.
3. Nomad Lounge
Inspired by the very real Explorer’s Club, which is famous for its many groundbreaking expeditions and influential members, the Nomad Lounge is designed to look like a resting spot for global travelers up in the Himalayan Mountains. Banners hang from the ceiling, filled with inspirational quotes from famed adventurers, and artifacts from the mountains adorn the walls.
At the lounge, you can sip on Darjeeling tea from India and snack on delights like roti with coconut curry and ginger pear chutney. There’s also a great outdoor patio that sits right on a lagoon and is shaded under a canopy of trees.
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