How to Resort Hop in Disney: Our Favorite Free AND Paid Experiences at our Favorite Resorts!
If there’s one thing Disney excels at, it’s creating excellent and immersive environments that capture the essence of a particular place - and if you’re impressed with Disney’s attention to detail and atmospheres in their parks, you’ll be happy to hear that they bring that same excellence to their resort environments, too! And with 28 resorts on Disney World property alone - there are so many unique environments to explore, all with that Disney touch of quality!
And that’s exactly what we love to do… explore. And so, every Disney trip, we love trying to visit - or as we like to call it, “resort hop - to as many of Disney’s resorts as we can!
This idea came along before our honeymoon, when Nick surprised me by booking us a room at Disney’s Boardwalk Resort. Nick mentioned that he had a tough time choosing between a few different resorts, because they are all amazing and have so much to offer! In that moment, we decided that even though we might be staying at the Boardwalk, that didn’t mean we couldn’t visit those other resorts - right? And so, we decided to dedicate a whole day to resort hopping - and it was for sure one of the best days of that trip! Each of Disney’s resorts has so much to explore, from restaurants, to shopping, to free entertainment, to unique experiences. So today, we’d love to share some of our favorite resort hopping tips with you so you can do the same!
In the list below, you can find our favorite resorts to hop to, a little history about the resort, what we love there that you can do for free (all about that life), and what you might want to consider splurging on. We typically err towards the “free” end of the spectrum, but so many of these experiences are worth the money!
First up, we’re going to start with what we like to call the “Monorail Trifecta” of resorts. This trifecta includes the three resorts that sit on the Seven Seas Lagoon near Magic Kingdom, and can all be accessed via the Disney monorail system - making it so easy to hop from one to the next. The monorail can be accessed via the Transportation and Ticket Center (or, where you would go to catch a monorail to Epcot or Magic Kingdom). For resort hopping, we suggest parking at the Transportation and Ticket Center, then using the monorail system and bus system to get around to each resort! But note that only three resorts can be accessed through the monorail system - the rest must be either driven to by your personal car or via one of Disney’s busses!
1. The Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
Designed to exhibit a clever mix between Victorian elegance and modern style, the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa first opened on Disney property in 1988 and is classified as one of eight of Disney’s “deluxe” resorts, and is known to be one of Disney’s most opulent resorts on their entire property. Defined by its classic red gabled roofs, this extraordinary resort was inspired by the Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire and Hotel del Coronado in Coronado, California. With pools, dining, and a world class spa, this resort is certainly one of the most beautiful on Disney property, and sits right across Magic Kingdom on Seven Seas Lagoon!
While we would LOVE to stay here someday, with rooms beginning at nearly $500 per night, for now, we prefer to explore without digging to deep into our pockets. ;)
Top Free Recommendations:
Piano Performances in the Lobby
One of our favorite things about visiting the Grand Floridian? Their lobby! Elegant decor and ornate furniture lay the groundwork for a relaxing, upscale atmosphere, and truly, one of our favorite things to do at this resort is to simply sit in the lobby (we love bringing books to read while we sit there!). They even have a pianist who plays multiple times daily in both the afternoon and evening, further adding to the elegant ambiance! (You’ll have to check their website for “play” times, though!)
Visit the on-site Wedding Chapel
As a wedding photographer (Jenna here!), this was a fun one to see - the Grand Floridian has a GORGEOUS wedding chapel that sits directly across from Magic Kingdom. In fact… the chapel was built directly across the Seven Seas Lagoon, facing towards Cinderella Castle, so couples can say their “I do’s” with Cinderella’s Castle literally right in the background - talk about a dream! They also have one of the coolest bathroom mirrors I’ve ever seen (check out what I mean in the photo below!).
One of our favorite free things to do while resort hopping? Window shop! The Grand Floridian has a wide variety of different shops to peruse, featuring one of Nick’s favorites: Basin, where you can try a sample of their sugar scrub, soap, or body lotion free of charge!
Top Recommendations for a Splurge:
World Class Spa
From this resort’s name, you can probably deduce that they have amazing spa amenities! The Grand Floridian’s “Senses Spa” boasts a wide variety of facials, massages, body wraps and aromatherapy, and you do not need to be a guest to book any of these services! We haven’t personally booked any of these services (someday we would love to!) but hear that the experience is out of this world! Plus, from all of that walking in the parks, you might need a little relaxation!
Victoria & Albert’s: The Grand Floridian has a variety of dining options, ranging from less expensive to quite expensive! In fact, one of Disney’s most prominent (and expensive) restaurants on all property is located right on Grand Floridian property: Victoria and Albert’s (named after Queen Victoria of England and her husband, Albert) is a AAA Five Diamond Award recipient since 2000! This restaurant features exquisite and elegant dining, as well as a live harpist or violinist serenading you throughout your meal. American cuisine is artfully infused with exquisite and exotic ingredients (the “best in the world” per their website!), creating a unique dining experience unlike any other. But be prepared to pay a pretty penny for this once-in-a-lifetime dining experience! The minimum seven course dinner is currently priced at $185 per person. Pricing for a ten course dinner jumps to $235 per person, and neither of those prices include wine pairings! But the price of eating like royalty for a night? Priceless! (Just kidding, it’s pretty darn expensive! ;) )
Garden View Tea Room: If you’re looking for something a little less expensive but still want a more “high end” experience, the Grand Floridian also has a special tea room, the Garden View Tea Room, which serves classic British afternoon tea. Sip a collection of international teas, served with a selection of delicacies, including sandwiches, pastries, and scones, all while overlooking the Grand Floridian gardens! The price of this experience begins at $35 per person for a basic tea experience, and ranges upwards of $150 per person for a more high end experience.
2. The Contemporary Resort
Disney’s Contemporary Resort is by far the closest resort to Magic Kingdom (just a short walk or monorail ride away!), which is one of the main reasons it’s so popular! Built in 1971, this resort was one of the first two resorts built on Disney property (the second being the Polynesian), making it one of Disney’s oldest resorts. One of the most interesting things about the Contemporary is that the monorail actually passes through the building, making it easy for guests to hop on and head to Magic Kingdom!
Top Free Recommendations:
Visiting the Mural
The mural located inside the main building of the Contemporary resort is “a 90-foot-tall mural by Disney Legend Mary Blair—responsible for the distinct look and feel of the ‘it’s a small world’ attraction—celebrates the Grand Canyon and the American Southwest.” To be honest, there’s not a ton to do at this resort besides checking out this mural (which takes about ten seconds). While it’s a great place to stay because if its proximity to Magic Kindgom, it’s not our favorite while resort hopping, but is still fun to check out if you haven’t seen it before!
Top Splurge Recommendations:
If you’ve read this article before, you’ve probably heard us talk about our love for the California Grill! But it’s worth reiterating, and is definitely our favorite thing to do here. Located at the top of Disney’s Contemporary Resort, the California Grill overlooks Magic Kingdom, giving guests a unique view of a Disney classic. This restaurant features a wide variety of cuisine from around the world, with American Seafood, and Sushi staples. Included any reservation is the exclusive opportunity to watch Magic Kingdom’s fireworks and light show from the rooftop! (Now THAT is an experience!!)
We’ve only dined at Disney’s California Grill once on our honeymoon, and we had an amazing experience! When we arrived (early) for our reservation, we were seated in a cocktail area and brought drinks and ordered some hoerderves. We were seated (early!) at our table, and experienced one of the best meals we’ve ever had. We both opted for a mango chicken dish, which was cooked to perfection! It was a little small portion-wise, but it left us room for a complimentary crème Brule, which they kindly gave us as a celebration of our honeymoon!
3. The Polynesian Resort
Disney’s Polynesian Resort is the second resort ever built on Disney property, and is a popular resort among Disney enthusiasts! This resort celebrates the “spirit of the South Pacific” and takes much of its inspiration from Polynesian culture. This resort also features a series of bungalows, located right on the water, for guests who want a bit more of an upscale experience!
Top Free Recommendations:
Walking & Jogging Trail
To be honest, there isn’t a ton of free stuff to do at the Polynesian, but we still love visiting this resort - just because it transports us to a completely different location in our minds! One of our favorite free things to do at this resort is to simply walk around. There is a walking/jogginb trail along the Seven Seas Lagoon that leads to the Grand Floridian, as well as some wooded areas that transport guests temporarily to a thick, Hawaiian wooded area to explore!
Looking for a little relaxation? The Polynesian has a set of hammocks along their man-made beach next to the Seven Seas Resort! Bring a book or take a nap under the Florida sun whilst soaking in your surroundings. You’ll feel (kinda) like you’re right on the beaches of Hawaii!
Did you know that you can get amazing seats to Magic Kingdom’s end-of-night fireworks show right on the Polynesian beach (behind the resort) - without all the crowds? Granted, you won’t get to see the castle, but if you’re looking for a free alternative to the fireworks show, this (usually) uncrowded viewing area might be the perfect spot for you!
Top Splurge Recommendations:
Trader Sam’s Grotto & Tiki Bar: This was probably one of the most fun experiences we’ve had at Disney, recommended to us by a friend (but is definitely more of an adult thing!) This speakeasy is a hidden gem at the Polynesian - and to find it, you pretty much have to know someone and/or know exactly where it is - there are no signs, and no indicators that it’s actually something special, keeping with its true speakeasy vibe. (I know, so vague! But you can ask one of the employees where to find it and they’ll guide you!). Located down a random hallway, this immersive speakeasy is a bar where you can order drinks that initiate live entertainment and action throughout the room, featuring the eruption of an “active” (fake) Hawaiin volcano. I’m not going to say much more, because I don’t want to spoil everything - but trust me, this is something that is totally worth experiencing! (Even if there’s a wait to get in!)
Pineapple Lanai: This quick service spot sits right behind the Polynesian Resort, and features one of the most iconic Disney treats: the legendary DOLE Whip. This treat was created by the DOLE company just for Disney, and is basically a soft serve pineapple flavored ice cream. And oh my, is it heavenly, especially on a hot day! This treat is only available in Disney parks and resorts and nowhere else in the world, so be sure to snag one of these before you leave!
….and next up are our favorite resorts outside of the “Monorail Trifecta” that are totally worth visiting! First up, we have one of the furthest resorts from “central” Disney World:
4. Animal Kingdom Lodge
The Animal Kingdom Lodge might be one of the furthest resorts from “central” Disney World, but it’s totally worth the trip! Themed after an African lodge and savannah, the Animal Kingdom Lodge opened in 2001 and, as you might guess, sits adjacent to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park. The resort is home to many different species of animals found on African plains, all of which roam behind the hotel itself!
Top Free Recommendations:
Seeing the Animals
We visited the Animal Kingdom Lodge for the first time in December of 2018 with high expectations (Nick and I have both actually been to Africa before!) and this resort did NOT disappoint! One of the best things about this resort? Getting to see the animals (which you can check out totally for free without having to book a room there!). We were able to walk right out the back doors of the Animal Kingdom Lodge to an area designated for viewing the animals. With over 30 species of African wildlife, including zebras, giraffes, and flamingos, you’ll be able to spend quite a bit of time watching these unique animals in their habitat! We like to think of it as a “free” zoo!
Top Splurge Recommendations:
While we personally haven’t had the pleasure of going on this safari, we hear AMAZING things about it, and that it’s the best experience the Animal Kingdom Lodge has to offer! If you want to get an even closer look at the exotic animals living at the Animal Kingdom Resort, this safari will take you literally right into their habitat! Then, after, (as a part of the safari) you’ll enjoy a delicious meal at Jiko - The Cooking Place, featuring a variety of top signature African inspired cuisine. While we haven’t eaten at this restaurant ourselves, we have a friend who has and says it was one of the best culinary experiences of his life!
5. The BoardWalk
And of course, we had to save the best for last: Disney’s BoardWalk! The Boardwalk Resort opened its doors for the first time to guests in 1996, and was built to resemble Atlantic City during the 19th century, with a Coney-island style boardwalk, stretching along Crescent Lake. We like to view this resort as one of the hidden gems on Disney property - we’ve never seen it overly crowded, and we don’t know of many other Disney fanatics who have been here! And one of the best parts?! If you’re visiting Epcot or Hollywood Studios for the day, the Boardwalk is only a short walk away - making it the perfect spot for a mid-afternoon park break!
Top Free Recommendations
At the Boardwalk, there are nightly entertainers Thursday through Saturday. We’ve seen street musicians, jugglers, and balancing acts! All free, all quite entertaining. They might even choose you to be a part of their act!
Free Movie Screenings
What’s better than watching a Disney movie on Disney property?! The Boardwalk hosts free movie screenings on select nights on their back lawn, right behind the resort building. You can bring your own blankets, grab some ice cream, and sit back and relax! (Only on specific days - make sure you check their calendar!).
Belle Vue Lounge (Games)
Past the busy Boardwalk lobby, there sits a 1930’s style sitting room with giant chairs, with a radio nearby playing programs and music from the 30’s. Though this place is technically a bar/lounge area where cocktails, wine, and beer can be purchased, guests are welcome to sit, relax, and play any of the vintage board games sprinkled all throughout the bookshelves.
The Boardwalk has our favorite walking path on all of Disney property! It circles around the lake, past the Beach and Yacht Club resorts, and has a pathway that branches off to the second Epcot entrance. It’s so scenic and relaxing! (PS - you can also rent two person and four person bikes for an added fee from Surrey Bike Rental!)
Top Splurge Recommendations
Trattoria al Forno: By far one of our favorite restaurants in Disney as a whole, Trattoria al Forno boasts exquisite Italian fare with ingredients ranging from Milan to Rome (including one of our favorites: authentic, brick oven pizza!). They also have an open kitchen concept - meaning you can see the action in the kitchen! We’ve been here for breakfast, lunch, AND dinner, and everything we’ve ever gotten has been some of the best food we’ve ever eaten!
Ample Hills Creamery: Who can have a boardwalk without an ice cream shop?! Ample Hills Creamery is the Boardwalk’s premier ice cream spot and is perfect to cool you off on hot, summer days!
We’d love to hear from you! If you’ve been to Disney in Orlando, which resort is your favorite? And if you’re planning on resort hopping, what’s your #1 must see spot?
Until next time, to Boardwalk & Beyond!
Jenna & Nick