As a kid who grew up in Georgia, I went to Disney World a LOT.
It was only eight hours away and my grandparents lived nearby, so Disney World was a common destination for spring and summer breaks, extended school field trips, and church choir tours. In all that time, though, I never stayed within the resort. It seemed too expensive, I guess, particularly when there were so many cheaper hotel options right outside the resort’s perimeters. I probably would never have stayed at the resort as an adult, either, if it weren’t for a blogger trip to Disney a few years ago. That’s when I was exposed to the addictive and hard-to-explain magic of spending a few full days inside what’s known as the “Disney bubble.”
The short version is that to stay inside the resort is to experience 24/7 that feeling you got as a kid entering the Magic Kingdom. Every hotel inside the resort, regardless of the cost, is like a mini theme park, and each hotel has its own distinct character.
At the Animal Kingdom Lodge, you are transported to a luxurious African resort with an 11,000-square-foot pool, where rooms overlook a savanna filled with giraffes, zebras, flamingos, and many other safari animals.
At the BoardWalk Inn, you step inside the hotel’s front doors and travel back to the early 1900s. Original penny arcade machines and vintage circus memorabilia fill the gorgeous, turn-of-the-century lobby, while outside on a Coney Island-esque boardwalk bordering the Crescent Lake, you can try your hand at old fashioned carnival games, watch incredibly talented street performers, or take photos in a photo booth.
At the Wilderness Lodge, Florida’s lush, semi-tropical landscape morphs into a forest deep in the heart of the American Northwest. The hotel resembles a luxe version of an old-fashioned camping lodge, hiking trails wind through the surrounding pine forest, and the pool features a 40-foot geyser and is fed by a waterfall that originates as a bubbling spring in the hotel’s lobby.
And at the Caribbean Resort, where my family has stayed now for two years running, rooms are decorated to resemble pirate ships, windows overlook the placid Barefoot Bay, which has multiple beaches and winding landscaped trails, and the elaborate pool area features two waterslides and a pirate-themed water play area for smaller children.
It’s not hard to understand why return visitors form die-hard allegiances to a particular resort. We love visiting the other resorts for meals and a little exploring, but we’ve already found our favorite room at the Caribbean and the kids swear they don’t want to stay anywhere else.
Each restaurant within the resort is an adventure as well. We love eating at Boma, an elaborate buffet at the Animal Kingdom lodge where we sample South African delicacies while African drummers perform. Kouzzina by Cat Cora is on the boardwalk and features delicious authentic Greek cuisine from the celebrity chef.
At Ohana, the Polynesian Resort’s signature restaurant, we’re served endless amounts of Hawaiian food by a team of roving waiters who call everyone ‘Cousin’ in the traditional Hawaiian style. Midway through the meal, the children are invited to learn and perform a hula dance for the adults,and everyone leaves wearing leis.
The glue that holds the experience together is an impeccably-trained staff. Our week at Disney was peppered with too many small kindnesses from Disney employees to count. Roving staff members handed out Disney stickers to the kids all week long, our children were given balloons, pirate swords, and magic wands when we arrived, and ‘Captain Geezer,’ the night time security guard at the Caribbean, gave our children ‘magic’ gold pirate coins and advised them to sleep with the coins under their pillows. They did. When Bruiser wanted honey mustard for his hot dog at Kouzzina, the server went to a restaurant two doors down to get it for him. When Dennis forgot his meal plan card, the cashier rang everything up so that the kids could go ahead and eat their dinners, then patiently waited for Dennis to drive all the way back to our room to retrieve the card. And when Dennis barely missed winning a stuffed toy at a boardwalk carnival game, the vendor gave him an extra ball so that Bruiser could have the stuffed snake he so desperately wanted. The list goes on and on and on. Staying inside the resort, we knew that every need would be met and everything would run like clockwork. The result was that we were able to truly relax and enjoy spending time together.
“I figured out what’s so special about this place,” I told Dennis the second day we were there. “The best way to describe staying here is that it’s the closest an adult can come to being a kid again.” It’s true. Not only are you taken care of by the staff, but great pains are taken to give adult visitors a healthy dose of Disney nostalgia. The Electric Light Parade at Magic Kingdom still includes floats I remember from my childhood, as does the Electrical Light Pageant on Crescent Lake. The Polynesian Resort maintains the same Brady Bunch vibe it had in the 1970s. Older rides, like the Carousel of Progress and It’s a Small World, are exactly as they were when we were kids. I loved sharing some of my most magical childhood experiences with my children, and imagining that some day, they’ll do the same thing with their own kids.
For one week, Dennis and I were able to focus entirely on our two youngest family members, and they blossomed with the attention. We rode rides, saw fantastic live shows, tried new foods, swam, explored, bought souvenirs, watched vintage Disney cartoons at any hour of the day on the resort’s special TV channel, played games in the arcade, soaked our aching feet in the outdoor jacuzzi after long days at the park, and slept oh-so-soundly every single night.
One defining moment of the Disney experience came when we had lunch at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in an outdoor market, while a live ‘Beauty and the Beast’ musical played in the amphitheater next door. A few tables away from us, a 350-pound man in mouse ears waved a half-eaten turkey leg while loudly singing along in falsetto to “Be Our Guest.” In most places, everyone else in the food court would have steered clear of him, but at Disney, things were different. A woman sitting at the next table watched as he sang the last line with a flourish. “That’s my favorite song, too,” she told him earnestly, and they smiled happily at each other.
That’s the magic of Disney. And I’m not ashamed to admit that it’s very hard to leave it behind.
In honor of our Disney trip, I’m giving away 5 family packs of tickets to see Disney on Ice in Nashville October 3-6! Leave a comment on that post to enter!
Electric Light Parade Image via gwaar/Flickr