Is That All There Is? Disney Vacation Side Trips

by Adrienne Krock, staff writer

Believe it or not, sometimes people vacation elsewhere besides Disney theme parks. We asked our Parenting Panel this week: What side-trips do you take on your Disney theme park vacations? What else do you see and do while you are in town?

Mary Kraemer, is an avid Disney fan and travel consultant with CruisingCo/MouseEarVacations who loves to travel with her husband and children to Disney destinations as often as possible. Mary, writes:


The lure of Disneyland is so very strong for us that we have not yet made it to several of the other attractions that we’d like to visit. For example, we’ve never been to Universal Studios Hollywood! And it’s been our "we should go there to check it out" list for years. Same thing for Knott’s Berry Farm (and its reknown berry pies and fried chicken)… we just haven’t been there yet. One year, we had season passes to a local Bay Area amusement park that was owned by the same company as Knotts, and admission was included on our passes and we still didn’t go because we didn’t want to miss out on Disneyland.

Disneyland is about 400 miles from our home, so it definitely requires some planning (and driving) on our part for our visits. We typically have averaged three or four trips per year. And a great many of these trips have been to enjoy Disneyland Park and California Adventure Park, without needing to think about going elsewhere.

But on some of our non-Disneyland days, we really enjoyed Legoland (especially when the kids were small), and we’ve ventured out for some of the themed dinner shows in Buena Park (Medieval Times and Pirates Dinner Adventure), which have been entertaining and fun (mediocre food was expected).

When our kids were little, we made a point of stopping at Griffith Park so they could ride the ponies and the little trains, which was a highlight of a trip to SoCal for several years. It was a sad day when everyone outgrew the ponies…

Several times, we’ve enjoyed the scrumptuous Sunday brunch onboard the fabulous Queen Mary in Long Beach, which is a great choice. The strategy of going to the Queen Mary on Sunday is smart because it keeps us out of the parks and keeps us more on schedule for our drive home, and we’re so full that we don’t need to stop to eat. Otherwise, we end up leaving the parks much later than planned (“Oh, just one more ride and then we’ll go…”) and also have to grab something to eat before we get home.

We’ve also factored the El Capitan Theater into our travel plans on more than one occasion, often when a new Disney movie is released. It’s easy for us to stop in Hollywood and, sometimes, we’ll spend the night there rather than go to the movie and then drive the rest of the way to Disneyland. For new releases such as Lilo & Stitch, Pirates of the Caribbean, or Narnia movies, the El Capitan goes all out with theming and often has an exhibition of movie props, so it’s much better than just going to the local multiplex on opening day (plus, having reserved seats is fantastic!).

A few times, we’ve made the trip south just to visit special exhibits that are in Los Angeles area museums (we saw the Treasures of Tutankhamun and the Terra Cotta warriors) because we weren’t going to have the chance to see these exhibits in the Bay Area. Similarly, we’ve also visited the La Brea Tar Pits (and museum) a couple of times because our kids were so fascinated by the history of the site.

A year ago for spring break, we decided to deliberately skip Disneyland on our SoCal trip. We went to San Diego, enjoyed the beach, visited the San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld, as well as the USS Midway aircraft carrier. Then we headed to Palm Springs before visiting Joshua Tree, Grand Canyon, and Zion national parks.


I’ll admit it; we haven’t strayed nearly as much from the Walt Disney World Resort (WDW) when we visit Orlando, because it’s almost always the reason for our trip. However, we’ve had a couple of instances where we have had a day off from the parks, or are spending a couple of days pre- or post-cruise without park admission.

One of our favorite Florida attractions is Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. Years ago, it was possible to get four complimentary tickets from our local congresswoman, which was a great perk. Not only that, but the tickets were good for two days of admission, with a seven-day expiration. So, one time, we visited Kennedy Space Center the day before we got on the Disney Dream, and then again the day we got off the ship before we left for the airport! There’s a lot to see at Space Center, and even those of us who aren’t rocket scientists find it really interesting.

Another side trip we enjoyed was Universal Orlando, particularly the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The theming in that section of Islands of Adventure is so incredibly good; I wished that part of the park was larger…and my wish is coming true with the expansion this summer of the Wizarding World with the addition of Diagon Alley

I have had quite a few enjoyable days at WDW without ever going through a theme park turnstile! After all, the resort is so enormous (about the size of Manhattan), there’s plenty to explore and enjoy.

There are lots of excellent places to eat in Downtown Disney (we really like T-Rex because of its great theming) or at the Walt Disney World resort hotels (which don’t require park admission, but do require parking fees unless you’re an onsite guest). Breakfast at the Polynesian’s Kona Café is one of our must-do rituals when we’re at WDW, and sometimes we squeeze this reservation in on our departure day. Want something a little more dramatic? Book dinner at the California Grill atop Disney's Contemporary Resort, and watch the Magic Kingdom’s fireworks. For a fun family dinner, the Whispering Canyon Café is one of our favorites, and we love the ambience of the Disney's Wilderness Lodge. Sanaa, my absolute favorite restaurant onsite is at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, Kidani Village, where you can not only have an amazing meal, but spend leisurely amounts of time viewing the animals on the savanna just outside the door. Need a little time with The Mouse himself? Book a character meal at Chef Mickey’s at Disney's Contemporary Resort, and enjoy the character interactions as well as the view of the monorail gliding through the building.

But what to do when you aren’t eating? There’s plenty of choices! Bay Lake has a host of watercraft options; our favorites are the zippy little water mouse boats. But there’s also parasailing and waterskiing as well as other boats. You can even go fishing! Or, for golfers, there are several excellent courses at WDW…as well as our favorite minigolf course, Winter Summerland.

Winter Summerland takes its theme from its neighbor, Disney's Blizzard Beach, which is one of the two water parks…also excellent places to spend your day with more watery fun than you can imagine!

More entertainment is available at Downtown Disney, with DisneyQuest’s indoor interactive play, or thrill to the amazing feats of the La Nouba Cirque du Soleil show.

You can spend days having an incredible amount of fun…whatever you choose to do!

MousePlanet columnist Chris Barry his wife Diane, 14-year-old Samantha, and twin 11-year-olds, Casey and Alex, live on Long Island and are all major Disney and Walt Disney World fans. Chris writes:

First and foremost…the mere notion of leaving Walt Disney World property while we’re there is completely foreign. We don’t leave until it’s actually time to leave. Once I enter the Disney bubble, I have no interest whatsoever in venturing out of it. I don’t want to drive. I don’t want to go to a gas station. I don’t want to go to a supermarket or a Walgreen’s. Going to the Walt Disney World Resort is my chance to escape the real world and completely immerse myself in fantasyland and I want to keep it that way.

That being said we have started off a vacation in Orlando by visiting something else for a day or two, and then we’ve headed over to Disney to close out our trip. I couldn’t imagine doing it the other way. Starting off in Walt Disney World and then going someplace else seems like setting yourself up for a letdown.

The first time we stayed someplace else was the summer that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter first opened over at Universal Orlando. My daughter was fully immersed in Harry’s world at the time and couldn’t wait to see it brought to life. We spent three nights at the Royal Pacific Resort on Universal property before heading over to Disney's Polynesian resort for five nights. It was a fantastic trip. We loved the hotel. We loved Islands of Adventure. The Wizarding World is amazing and well worth your time. My best advice, however, if you can pull it off, is not to just do Universal for the day. My advice is to try and stay for a night or two in one of the Universal hotels. They are beautiful hotels. The service is excellent. As a matter of fact, we thought it to be on par with Disney hotel service and that’s a pretty big statement.

There are two big advantages to staying on Universal property. Universal Orlando Resort is much, much smaller than Walt Disney World. This puts both of the parks, CityWalk (which is the dining/shopping district), and all three hotels within walking distance of each other. It’s very easy to get around. The other major advantage is the Universal Express Pass. There’s nothing quite like having unlimited front of line privileges. We never waited in lines…at all. My sons were crazy about the now defunct Jimmy Neutron ride. Thanks to the Express Pass that comes with a Universal hotel stay, we sometimes rode it three times in a row without any wait. The Express Pass does not work in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but Universal hotel guests do get to enter that land an hour before the general public, and that is a major plus, as well.

Staying at the Universal Resort for a few days was certainly a blast, but it made us yearn for Disney, and, when we got to Disney's Polynesian Resort and began our stay, we were definitely at home. I don’t think, however, that I would have enjoyed leaving Walt Disney World, and heading over to Universal for the day. I’d rather give Universal it’s own time and Disney it’s own time. But that’s just me.

The only other time I stayed somewhere else in Orlando was two summers ago when it was just my twin boys and I. We were headed to Disney for an eight-day trip and I asked them if there was something else they wanted to do first like Legoland, or maybe a trip back to Universal. They begged to stay at the Nickelodeon Suites Resort. I was a bit reluctant, but completely willing to give it a try for them. We arrived there and spent two nights before heading over to Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort. The Nickelodeon Suites Resort was far from tranquil. It was pretty loud at all times. The suites were a nice size. The boys enjoyed the Nickelodeon character meet and greets and the 4-D movie theater. The Studio Nick live show was a lot of fun, and I guess it’s an experience watching kids getting slime dumped on their heads at the pool complex several times a day. If your kids are into the Nick characters, I would suggest a night or two the most at this hotel. But the truth be told, I really couldn’t wait to get into my Disney bubble and check into Caribbean Beach.

Someday I do want to check out Legoland and SeaWorld. I definitely can’t wait to go back to Universal and see Diagon Alley. But I also know that I won’t leave Disney property to do so. I’ll keep those visits separate from my special, treasured time at Walt Disney World.

Parenting in the Parks columnist Adrienne Krock’s three boys are now 15, 12, and 9. They’ve been visiting the Disneyland Resort since they were each just weeks old and Annual Passholders since their 3rd birthdays. Adrienne writes:

When we went all the way to Florida, we went on one special side trip: We visited the Kennedy Space Center. We had one or two days without park-hoppers so we had time to fit in a side-trip. We rented a car during our trip so that helped us, too. Even if you do not want to rent a car for your entire Disney trip, you can rent a car from the AAA Car Center on property, just for a day or two. My husband and sons all wanted to see the Space Center very much, so taking a day off to visit was a no brainer. We expected the weekend days would be much busier in the parks so headed out there on a Sunday. The drive is only about an hour away from the Walt Disney World Resort.

As a Disneyland local, while I do not go on side trips, I do have some suggestions that may or may not be as well known to vacation planners. Many people on MousePad ask about visiting beaches. Huntington Beach and Newport Beach are two nice beaches local to Disneyland. My best advice on this matter? Visit MousePad. With so many Disneyland locals available, the MousePad members really give the best and most current advice about the local beaches such as how to get there and where to go. Just keep in mind, the Pacific Ocean is usually pretty cold.

But in keeping with the Disney theme here are some fun suggestions Disneyland side trips, or perhaps hidden treasures for Disneyland locals to find:

The Orange Empire Railroad Museum in Perris, California (OERM) I have to be honest: Perris will not be the highlight of anyone’s vacation plans. But OERM houses some special Disney connections: Before he died, Ward Kimball donated a considerable amount of time and money to the museum. I remember hearing stories from museum members about working along side ward, although I was never lucky enough to see him on any of my trips there. Mr. Kimball helped fund a special train barn, the Grizzly Flats, featuring his personal engines, the Emma Nevada and the Chloe. If you plan to visit OERM, schedule this for a weekend because that is when they have trains running and more of the buildings open.

Walt’s Barn at Griffith Park. Located in Los Angeles, the Carolwood Pacific Foundation maintains and operates Walt’s Barn. The barn opens every third Sunday of the month from 11 a.m-3 pm, and occasionally they host special events there. Take an opportunity to ride a live steamer train during your visit. After the barn closes, as long as you are already on that end of town, go ahead and visit…

The Tam O’Shanter Restaurant, a short 10 minute drive (or less) from Griffith Park. Before opening the original Lawry’s, the Prime Rib, now an international chain, and before marketing his famous seasoned salt, Lawrence Frank opened the restaurant today known as The Tam O’Shanter. Walt Disney and his animators dined here often. Enjoy a meal here and ask the staff to show you Walt’s favorite table.

Chris, also known as GusMan, is always planning his next family trip to the Walt Disney World Resort and loves to help others plan their trips, as well sharing his experiences. Chris writes:

I’m going to admit that besides Disney parks and activities, my family and I don’t do much else in the greater Orlando area. To regular readers of this column, that is probably not a surprise, but it has to do more with preference than anything else. However, it does not mean we have never doing anything else in the greater central Florida area.

During our first trip to Disney, we took a trip to see family to celebrate an anniversary. While that in of itself is not what I would call a side trip, it was what we did afterward that really caught my attention. We visited Daytona Beach, utilizing my wife’s uncle’s timeshare right on the beach. With a private balcony overlooking the pool and ocean, it was a real nice way to get away from it all for a day. We rented a couple big-wheeled golf carts for an hour and drove up and down the shore, enjoying the sights that were new for my daughter. The water was wonderful and I realize how much I missed the salt water surf. The perfect end to our visit was waking up to a gorgeous sunrise over the ocean, with palm trees waving in the foreground. It was something I always wanted to do again, but this time to visit Disney’s Vero Beach Resort, which is only about an hour and a half away from the parks.

Since my kids and I are big on science, and my son loves things related to space, we stopped by the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. When we first went as a family, I have not been there since I was my son’s age. I had no idea what to expect. What I found was a real interesting mix of what could be called a museum and other interactive attractions all revolving around space exploration. My daughter and I enjoyed an IMAX movie that was being shown while my son and wife tried out sitting in some replica space capsules. All in all, while we were there for only a half of a day, it would have been a solid day-long adventure if we decided to take a tour.

Even if Disney is your traditional vacation destination, its nice to know that there are other things to do, even if it is a day trip away. Also, one thing to keep in mind if you happen to drive to Central Florida, the journey can be just as exciting. One year during the drive down, we even got to tour the assembly plant where they build the Chevrolet Corvette. (They even let my daughter start one!) No matter where you go or how you get there, have the camera ready for some great family memories.

It's your turn—keep the discussion flowing!

Visit the Parenting in the Parks forum on our MousePad discussion board, and share your opinions about this topic or many others, or send your suggestions via e-mail. Reader-submitted tips might be used in a future article, and you might be selected to participate in an upcoming panel discussion!



  1. By H20loo

    I would highly recommend the train museum in Perris if you are a train enthusiast. My high school Physics teachers was one of the founders, and we took several field trips there.

  2. By adriennek

    Quote Originally Posted by H20loo View Post
    I would highly recommend the train museum in Perris if you are a train enthusiast. My high school Physics teachers was one of the founders, and we took several field trips there.

    We used to be members there when our boys were younger and we had more free time to get out there. Getting ready for this article, I'm noticing some "new to me" things at the museum. We'll need to make another trip out there when we can find a weekend to get there. We used to enjoy the Spring Rail Fest but won't be able to make it this year.

  3. By DisneyGator


    This place is easy to go check out other areas. Our last trip, we started with the San Diego Zoo. After being there, it was nothing compared to Animal Kingdom. But still, it was nice to have the kids see some animals. We also took the time to go to Shadow Mountain Church where David Jeremiah pastors. I listen to him on radio all the time and always wanted to see him in person. The kids loved the size of their children's group, too!


    I'm with Chris and leaving WDW is something I don't like to do. On our first trip (Honeymoon), we went to WDW for 6 days. Then we spent took some excursions. Being a Florida Gator fan, we went up to Gainesville so that I could walk on the field. That was really cool. We visited the Kennedy Space Center which was alright. The cool thing was going to St. Augustine and going to the Fountain of Youth museum. It has a place where Ponce De Leon landed first in the Americas, and that was neat. We also ate at this great fish place called the Santa Maria.

    On our second trip, we left in the middle of the Disney trip to catch a Gospel concert which used to be held in Lakeland each year. It was a great concert, but it but a hole right in the middle of my "escape". I didn't like having to get a rental, then get directions, then get lost on the way back to the resort. Don't know if I'll ever do that again. With all there is to do at WDW, I really don't see a need to do anything else but get on a Disney bus.

  4. By Roberta618

    While I am far from an Orlando expert, I do try to get out of the Disney bubble when I visit. My husband and I attend spring training baseball which gives us an opportunity to see a bit more of Florida. (We are from California.) One place I truly love to visit is the Morse Museum in Winter Park. It is the perfect, small, specialized museum. It is the best place to see Louis Comfort Tiffany's bountiful talents. They have compiled the best collection of Tiffany lamps and windows that I know of. I usually spend a few hours at the Morse, grab a little lunch in Winter Park which is charming, full of lovely little art galleries and cafes. Then I hit the Outlets for a bit of shopping before returning to Disney World. It is a lovely break from the stimulation that can be Disney. Don't get me wrong, I love Disney World and am busily planning my next vacation, but it is nice to get a break. We also enjoy driving to Cocoa Beach and experiencing the soft sugar like sand of that beach.

  5. By adriennek

    Quote Originally Posted by DisneyGator View Post

    This place is easy to go check out other areas. Our last trip, we started with the San Diego Zoo. After being there, it was nothing compared to Animal Kingdom. But still, it was nice to have the kids see some animals.

    Have you ever been to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park? I actually had the opposite reaction when I visited Animal Kingdom - It's nothing compared to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (fka Wild Animal Park.) If you haven't been to the SD Safari Park, you need to check it out.

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