Beyond the Rides: 7 Things to Do at a Theme Park if You're Not a Thrill-Seeker
Not into roller coasters? Here are seven other ways to have fun at an amusement park.
If 100-foot drops and 360-degree corkscrews aren’t your idea of a good time, you may not think there’s much for you to do at an amusement park. (Perhaps you’ve only reluctantly visited them with adventurous friends or family members.) But there are actually plenty of ways to stay entertained even if you’re not into thrill rides: Many theme parks are stepping up their games with delicious food, high-quality shows and other not-at-all-terrifying activities. While your friends are waiting in line after line (or when they’re ready for a break), try these other fun theme park activities.
You could easily spend an entire day sampling delicious foods you can’t get anywhere else at many theme parks. Before your trip, do some research on the park’s signature snacks. A trip to Knott’s Berry Farm, for example, isn’t complete without some sort of boysenberry treat (like this refreshing Boysenberry Icee). When you need a more substantial meal, many parks offer surprisingly creative cuisine right on the property or nearby. Disney Springs in Orlando is particularly well known for its one-of-a-kind restaurants.
After several hours of standing in the hot sun, there’s nothing better than a cold beverage. Many theme parks are branching out from kiddie drinks and serving craft brews and specialty cocktails. Take a break in the shade and try an African beer or wine at Animal Kingdom’s Dawa Bar.
Hog’s Head Pub, Universal Studios Florida and Hollywood
Harry Potter fans looking for more than Butterbeer should head to the bar at the Hog’s Head Pub for wizard-themed drinks, plus a hog’s head that snorts at patrons. The bar also features its own Fire Whiskey, a cinnamon liquor featured in the Harry Potter books, and has several cocktail options. What to Order: Fire & Chata or Wizard’s Brew Stout
La Cava del Tequila, Epcot
The best thing about Epcot is drinking around the world through the park’s extravagant foodie pavilions. But Mexico wins for best bar, best selection and best drinks. Walk through an ancient temple into a nighttime fiesta to access La Cava del Tequila, and sample more than 200 tequilas, Mexican beer and wine. Stay for a tequila flight or order drinks to go as you hop to other countries. What to Order: Wild Passion Fruit Margarita
Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar, Disney Springs
While not inside a Disney park, this bar is located in Disney Springs, a shopping area with exclusive Disney merchandise, shows and attractions. Inspired by Indiana Jones' sidekick, this 1940s airplane hangar turned dive serves up adventurer-themed cocktails and has Instagrammable decor everywhere you look. What to Order: Wrong Island!
Catch a Show
From fireworks extravaganzas to riveting stage shows, many theme parks offer entertainment you don’t want to miss. Celtic Fyre, a dance show celebrating Irish culture, is one of the most popular performances at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Consider paying the extra $5 for reserved seating.
Rivers of Light, Animal Kingdom
Part theater, part water show, part celebration of nature, this is one nighttime experience you don’t want to miss at Animal Kingdom. The new technology used to project images and footage onto water is stunning. And the lights are breathtaking. Take advantage of FastPass+ for prime viewing in this outdoor theater.
World of Color, Disney California Adventure
There’s just nothing like it anywhere else. Imagine the fountains at the Bellagio went to a rave and then add a dash of pyrotechnics. This spectacle will leave you awestruck by the sheer volume of water and power needed, but also by the technology used to project Disney footage onto giant screens of water.
Fantasmic, Hollywood Studios
This show is popular for a reason. It’s one of your best bets to see Mickey Mouse, but it's not just for the kids. There’s pyrotechnics, laser lights and one million gallons of dancing water. Plus some iconic photo ops of Mickey shooting streams of light out of his fingers a la Fantasia.
Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees, Islands of Adventure
Most Harry Potter fans are in such a rush to visit Gringotts or ride the train, they don’t stick around Diagon Alley for performances. But these are just as magical. In the Carkitt Market area of Diagon Alley there are several special performances throughout the day, including wizard star Celestina Warbeck. Diehard fans will enjoy this minor character from the books come to life.
One of the best parts about Epcot’s World Showcase is the street performances in each country. France has an incredible acrobat. Mexico has a mariachi serenade. But Japan’s drum performance will stop you in your tracks. From the stunts to sheer sound, you’ll be stunned. Find a bench and take it in.
Happily Ever After, Magic Kingdom
Ever wondered why the Magic Kingdom does fireworks at the end of each night? Walt Disney knew that leaving at the end of the day would be sad, so he wanted to send guests off with a goodnight kiss. And so, the castle fireworks show was born. While the park’s previous show “Wishes” dazzled and amazed guests with augmented reality and video projected onto Cinderella’s castle, we can’t wait to see what’s coming in the park’s new nighttime send off, “Happily Ever After,” coming late spring 2017.
Enjoy Hotel Amenities
If you need a little break from the excitement of the parks, you may find that your hotel has almost as much fun to offer (but with fewer crowds). Guests at Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort can enjoy family-style dinners, storytimes, children’s play areas and a family game room. Camp DW keeps kids entertained when the park is closed with nature walks and arts and crafts.
For LEGO lovers, it’s not enough to explore all that LEGOLAND has to offer, like Miniland USA and Ninjago World. Take the experience to the next level with a stay at the LEGOLAND Hotel (Orlando and Southern California) where every room is a themed room, including Pirate, Kingdom, Adventure and LEGO Friends. Kids will love sleeping in colorful bunk beds, as well as early access to the park.
Disney's Art of Animation Resort
At Disney’s Art of Animation Resort in Orlando, guests can stay in one of three themed family suites, including Finding Nemo, Cars and The Lion King. There are also The Little Mermaid-themed standard rooms. As a bonus, pose for selfies with life-size characters from the movies, like Lighting McQueen and Ursula. Splash in the largest resort pool at Walt Disney World, which even has underwater speakers.
Loews Portofino Bay Hotel
Mini Despicable Me fans will love the Despicable Me Kids Suites at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando. Each suite comes with a king bedroom plus two custom-created missile beds, allowing kids to sleep just like Margo, Edith and Agnes in the movie. As a bonus, look for Minion-themed bedding. You’ll feel totally immersed since every wall is wallpapered with Minions.
Book a stay at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim in one of six Signature Suites, including the Fairy Tale Suite, which boasts a marble foyer, floor-to-ceiling windows and a delightful canopy bed. Perfect for princesses of all ages. Or, request the 1,600-square-foot Mickey Mouse Penthouse, which includes two bedrooms and Mickey Mouse decor throughout the suite, including sketches from the Disney library.
Loews Sapphire Falls Resort
Cheerful and tropical, the brand new Loews Sapphire Falls Resort has a decidedly Caribbean feel thanks to waterfalls, lagoons and beachy accents across the property. Look for a massive swimming pool, a waterslide, a sandy beach, a fire pit and a fun children’s play area. Book a stay in one of the Kids’ Suites, which sleep up to five in an island-themed oasis with a king bed, two twin beds and a rollaway bed.
Disney's Polynesian Village Resort
Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort has been a mainstay at Walt Disney World for many years, but the Bora Bora Bungalows, which sit right on the lake, are a must-book. Each bungalow has its own private deck, plunge pool and one of the best views of the nightly Magic Kingdom fireworks show. Only available to Disney Vacation Club members, this may be a good reason to finally sign up for the timeshare program.
Dollywood's DreamMore Resort
Decorated with guitars and album covers of its owner, Dolly Parton, Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort opened last summer at her Great Smoky Mountains theme park in Tennessee. Look for family-style dinners, storytimes and children's play areas. There’s even a family game room with air hockey and video games. Camp DW is a great place for kids to go for nature walks and arts and crafts when the park is closed.
Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort
Part of Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort, the Treehouse Villas each have three bedrooms, an open kitchen and two baths, making them perfect for families wanting a bit more space on their vacation. Set 10 feet off the ground, these hideaway treehouses even have flat-screen TVs, private decks and charcoal grills. Definitely no roughing it here. Take the water taxi to Disney Springs or splash around at five on-site pools.
LEGOLAND Beach Retreat
The brand new LEGOLAND Beach Retreat in Florida has everything LEGO fans could want across this village-style resort boasting 83 colorful beach bungalows. Set on Lake Dexter, and adjacent to the theme park, guests have access to a sandy beach for fun in the sun, a daily all-you-can-eat breakfast and a kids’ clubhouse. Look for shaded patios and all kinds of outdoor LEGO-themed play areas.
Disney's Contemporary Resort
Yes, Disney’s Contemporary Resort has been at Walt Disney World for years, and yes, the monorail runs through the hotel, but that’s why it’s such a must-book. The hotel boasts one of the most popular character breakfasts at Chef Mickey’s and now there’s a new Sunday brunch option at California Grill (hello, make-your-own Bloody Mary bar). Watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks from the rooftop lounge. Incredible.
Celebrate the Holidays
If you find yourself at a theme park during the winter months, there’s bound to be plenty of holiday festivities to keep you busy. Walt Disney World, in particular, goes all out. At Epcot, you can experience the holidays around the globe in the World Showcase area: Watch a traditional Feliz Navidad celebration in Mexico, or celebrate Three Kings Day near World Showcase Plaza. Plus, check out festive decorations in every country, like these fun giant ornaments in France.
Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party
Held between early November and the week of Christmas at the Magic Kingdom, Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party is an extra special treat for families. Little ones will love the children’s dance party with DJ Kringle at Club Tinsel and live shows, like “Mickey’s Most Merriest Celebration” on the steps of Cinderella’s castle. The Holiday Wishes fireworks spectacular lights up the sky each night at 10 p.m.
Christmas Tree Trail
At Disney Springs, walk along the Christmas Tree Trail to see 15 Christmas trees decorated in the spirit of classic Disney characters and movies. There’s a "Mickey and Minnie" tree, a "Beauty and the Beast" tree, even a "Frozen" tree. Don't miss the festive tree lighting ceremony each night at 6 p.m.
Starbright Holidays - an Intel Collaboration
While at Disney Springs, see the brand new show, “Starbright Holidays – An Intel Collaboration.” Starting in late November and running through early January, 300 drones will light up the sky in twice-nightly performances. Set to classic holiday tunes, the synchronized drones dance and sparkle to the delight of guests throughout the holiday season.
A holiday favorite at Epcot, the Candlelight Processional returns from late November through late December. Each night, a celebrity narrator reads the Christmas story accompanied by a 50-piece orchestra and robed choir. Past celebrity readers have included Whoopi Goldberg, Meredith Vieira and Neil Patrick Harris. No special tickets are required, but seats do fill up quickly.
Holidays Around the World
While at Epcot, enjoy festive holiday decorations, foods and activities at each of the 11 nations in the World Showcase. Watch a traditional Feliz Navidad celebration in Mexico or celebrate Three Kings Day near World Showcase Plaza with shredded beef tamales, coconut milk and avocado crema. Every country is dolled up for the holidays. Look for Santa and Mrs. Claus at The American Adventure.
Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM!
At Disney’s Hollywood Studios, a new holiday nighttime spectacular complete with special effects, festive music and fireworks enchants audiences nightly. The new "Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM!" takes guests on a journey to return Santa to the North Pole by Christmas Eve. Scenes from Bambi, Cinderella and The Nightmare Before Christmas come alive on the buildings inside the park.
Holiday Dessert Parties
Look for special dessert parties throughout Walt Disney World during the holidays, like the Fireworks Dessert Party at Tomorrowland Terrace. For an extra fee, enjoy chocolate-dipped strawberries, character-themed desserts, even create-your-own cookies, as well as hot drinks, like cocoa and apple cider. As a bonus, you’ll have access to a special viewing area for the nightly fireworks show.
Behind-the-Scenes Holiday Magic Tours
During the holidays, look for two behind-the-scenes tours, including Disney’s Yuletide Fantasy, a three-hour behind-the-scenes look into how Walt Disney World gets ready for the holidays. The second tour, Disney’s Holiday D-Lights, takes guests on a five-hour tour to learn how the decorating team lights up the entire Walt Disney World resort, including all four parks and multiple on-property hotels.
Frozen Holiday Wish Show
Frozen’s Queen Elsa appears twice nightly as part of “A Frozen Holiday Wish,” using her powers to transform Cinderella’s castle into an ice palace, illuminating the castle with more than 200,000 sparkling twinkle lights. Little ones will love seeing Anna, Elsa, Kristoff and Olaf sing and dance before the castle begins to shimmer, shine and sparkle. A quick burst of fireworks completes this magical show.
Mickey's Once Upon a Christmastime Parade
Twice nightly, line Main Street, U.S.A. at Magic Kingdom for Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade featuring Mickey, Minnie, Anna and Elsa, as well as marching toy soldiers and gingerbread men. Even Santa makes an appearance and you may see snow fall (yes, even in Orlando). Before or after the parade, take time to explore the storefronts that are all dressed up for the holidays.
Discover Little-Known Attractions
When you’re not spending your time waiting in lines, you can find all the hidden gems that others often overlook. At the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, for example, don’t miss the talking snake at the Magical Menagerie in Diagon Alley, and be sure to dial 62442 (MAGIC) in the phone booth just outside of King’s Cross Station.
Pin Trading, Disney Parks
It's already awesome to get a button from Disney when celebrating things like birthdays and anniversaries, but one of the coolest pieces of Disney parks culture is pin trading. You can trade Disney pins with any cast member once a day at any Disney park. It’s a great way to trade for vintage or rare Disney pins that make for a memorable souvenir.
Go Behind the Scenes
Embark on a Wild Africa Trek
Venture off the beaten path at Disneyâs Animal Kingdom during a new, immersive, add-on experience, Wild Africa Trek. Small groups of adventurers take off on personalized, guided excursions that include a bushwalk through unexplored areas of the forest and in customized vehicles across an animal-filled savanna. On these expert-led treks, extended time is spent observing and learning about the wildlife. For a limited time, Disneyâs Animal Kingdom guests can enjoy a $50 discount on treks when booked for 11:45 a.m. or later. Reservations for Wild Africa Trek (ages 8 and up) can be arranged by calling 407/939-8687. More information: Disneyworld.com/trek (Kent Phillips, photographer)
For an extra fee, some theme parks offer special tours with behind-the-scenes access to the park. If you love Kilimanjaro Safaris at Animal Kingdom, you’ll want to sign up for the three-hour Wild Africa Trek. Step outside the Jeep for a guided walk along the savanna and an up-close look at the majestic animals.
Disney's Keys to the Kingdom Tour
If you’ve ever wanted to pull back the curtain to learn the secrets behind Disney’s Magic Kingdom, the Keys to the Kingdom Tour is about as close as you can get. Not surprisingly, this tour is for adults only (why spoil the magic for the littles). This five-hour tour offers backstage access to hidden areas, including the super-secret underground service tunnels (which is why you’ll never see Mickey in two places at once).
Star Wars Guided Tour
We may need to wait until 2019 for Star Wars Land to open up at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, but for now guests can sign up for the seven-hour Star Wars Guided Tour for an all-access pass to all things Star Wars. Enjoy a screening of Star Wars: Path of the Jedi, Jedi Training, meet-and-greets with Chewbacca and Kylo Ren, a special dessert party (featuring “inter-stellar sweets,” of course) and reserved fireworks viewing.
Ultimate Disney Classics VIP Tour
For lovers of iconic Magic Kingdom rides, like Pirates of the Caribbean and Dumbo the Flying Elephant, the brand new Ultimate Disney Classics VIP Tour is for you. Not only will you receive VIP treatment over four hours, but you’ll enjoy better-than-FastPass+ access to classic rides. As in, no wait at all. This is ideal for those who want to spend less time in line, more time taking in the magic of Magic Kingdom.
Roller Coaster Insider Tour
If you’ve ever wanted to do a deep dive into the science and engineering behind roller coasters, sign up for the three-hour Roller Coaster Insider Tour at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. This tour takes guests behind-the-scenes before the park even opens for the day to learn why certain coasters are designed the way they are and how they reach top speeds. As a bonus, step out at the top of the Griffon for 360-degree views.
Behind the Seeds Tour
The Living with the Land ride at Epcot has long been a favorite, enabling guests to float along in a boat through the greenhouse to learn about the future of agriculture. The one-hour Behind the Seeds Tour goes one step further, taking guests into four greenhouses and a fish farm to educate them on new techniques to grow bigger and better fruits and vegetables. There’s even a ladybug release, helping to protect the plants.
LEGOLAND VIP Experience
There’s so much more to LEGO than simply attaching one brick to another brick. Sign up for the LEGOLAND VIP Experience and you’ll be escorted around the park to learn all the behind-the-scenes scoop on LEGO. Even better, get ready for an exclusive tour of the Model Shop (where all the magical LEGO creations begin) and build your own creations with an actual Master Builder.
“Walk in Walt's Disneyland Footsteps” Guided Tour
Guests who want to learn more about Walt Disney as a visionary should book a spot on the “Walk in Walt's Disneyland Footsteps” Guided Tour at Disneyland in California. Perfect for historians of all ages, this morning tour will take you back to a time when Disneyland was a mere idea to learn about the trials, tribulations, challenges and inspirations behind one of the most famous theme parks in the world.
SeaWorld Orlando Behind-The-Scenes Tour
Lovers of marine animals, like manatees and sea turtles, may want to sign up for the 75-minute SeaWorld Orlando Behind-The-Scenes Tour, during which the park’s animal experts discuss how they rescue and rehabilitate sea animals at SeaWorld. As a bonus, guests can interact with one of the adorable king penguins. Ten percent of the tour price goes to marine conservation projects. A tour with a purpose. Nice.
Wild Africa Trek
Lovers of Kilimanjaro Safaris at Animal Kingdom, will want to sign up for the three-hour Wild Africa Trek for a more in-depth look at the animals that make Animal Kingdom their home, like rhinos, giraffes and hippos. Step outside the Jeep for a guided walk along the grasslands and savanna. As a bonus, Disney photogs capture it all, so you won’t miss a moment of your journey across the Harambe Reserve.
Halloween Horror Nights Behind-The-Screams: Unmasking the Horror Tour
For horror enthusiasts, it’s a must to sign up for Halloween Horror Nights Behind-The-Screams: Unmasking the Horror Tour at Universal Orlando. Choose a two- or four-hour tour for a backstage look into how the design team brings the horrifically scary haunted houses to life, much to the delight of guests who revel in all things frightening and bone-chilling. As you can imagine, this tour is not for children under 13.
Ring in the season at these theme park holiday events.