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Did you know that you can visit the Disney World resort hotels even if you aren’t staying overnight?

The Walt Disney World Resort is so much more than just theme parks. There are over 20 resort hotels on property and they shouldn’t just be considered overnight accommodations for your trip!

Disney resorts offer unique recreation activities, scrumptious dining, gorgeous scenery, impressive theming, and are simply a welcomed break from park crowds.

But with so many resorts at Disney World, which ones are must-see destinations for day guests with quick and easy transportation from the parks you’ll be visiting?

That’s what we’ll be talking about in this blog post. First, we’ll cover the basics of resort hopping including whether you can still visit Disney resorts without staying there in 2020 and 2021. Then, we’ll get to my family’s favorites and our top picks for the best Disney World resorts and why you should consider adding them to your trip itinerary.

Before we get started, can I share a little background on my experience with Disney World resorts?

Spending time at the resorts is now a necessary part of any Disney World vacation for my family, but it wasn’t always that way. Although I first visited Disney World in 1984 and spent countless days in the parks while a Florida local for 20 years, I never visited a Disney resort until 2013.

*gasp*

Growing up, my Disney World experiences were either day trips without an overnight stay or we’d stay off-site for a night or two to save money on frequent trips. Since we weren’t overnight guests at the resorts, it simply never occurred to us that they would have anything to offer our family.

Back then, Disney World was all about the parks for my family and that’s where we spent ALL of our Disney time.

However, when I brought my boys for their first trip back in 2013 and we stayed at the then-brand new Art of Animation Resort, I immediately realized there is so much more to a Disney vacation than spending all the time in the parks.

From that trip on, we’ve exclusively stayed on-site at Disney hotels and also visit several of the resorts every time even when we aren’t overnight guests.

Each of the Disney resorts has gorgeous unique theming and so much to offer day guests.

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Disney boat transportation

Can you visit Disney resorts without staying there?

The short answer … yes!

Before the COVID pandemic closures, anyone could visit Disney resorts. Officially, since Walt Disney World reopened in 2020, day guests should now have a confirmed dining reservation to visit a resort in order to limit capacity.

If you want to ensure entry to a resort’s grounds, make a dining reservation at a table service restaurant, place a mobile order at a quick service location, or reserve a recreation activity. Without a reservation of some kind, you may be turned away.

Once on site, only overnight guests may use the resort pools, but anyone is free to explore the resort grounds, eat at the restaurants, and enjoy any premium recreation offerings.

2021 Disney Trip Must-Have’s!

Why would I want to visit a Disney World hotel?

I get it. When you’re already investing so much money into park tickets, why would you consider spending precious park time at resorts instead?

Taking a midday break from the parks when they’re most crowded is always solid advice. Spending all day in the parks from opening to closing, day after day is exhausting. Afternoon pool or nap breaks are great ways to avoid those long afternoon attraction lines.

But what if you’re staying off-site and don’t want to hassle with long transportation times or simply don’t want to swim or rest?

Visit a resort!

With resorts located adjacent to every Disney World park, there’s one nearby that is free to visit and is worth a visit.

Take a break to enjoy a meal or just eat a snack. The resorts have some of the best and most unique restaurants and treats at Disney World.

Resorts offer recreation activities – both free and premium.

Of course, all resorts have shops and you’ll probably be able to get some of that souvenir shopping done in shops that are less crowded than the parks!

Do you expect to make a return trip to Disney World in the future? Merely visiting resorts will help you decide where you’ll want to stay next time!

Remember that, even if you have base tickets that allow you to visit just one park each day, you may leave that park and return later in the day. So, no matter what type of park ticket you have, you can take an afternoon break at a resort, feel rested and refreshed, and ready to return later in the afternoon or evening to finish your park day!

OK, so are you ready now to add a few resorts to your trip plan? Here are my family’s best Disney World resorts to visit even when we’re not staying overnight.

Disney's Wilderness Lodge

1. Wilderness Lodge

Inspired by the grand National Parks lodges of the west, Wilderness Lodge is my family’s favorite resort and a visit is always on our itinerary even when we’re not staying overnight. This resort is so close to the Magic Kingdom and yet you’ll feel world’s away!

Disney’s Wilderness Lodge consists of two resorts. The main lodge that houses the hotel resort and a Disney Vacation Club (DVC) property – Copper Creek. The adjacent Boulder Rides Villages building is exclusively DVC. While the main hotel has not yet reopened for overnight guests, both DVC properties are operating so many resort offerings remain available.

Wilderness Lodge is, perhaps, most well-known for its gorgeous multi-story log lobby with totems and cozy fireplace nooks to rest your feet. This resort is “rustic luxury” at its finest!

Outside, enjoy the beautiful Pacific Northwest-inspired grounds, lush greenery, babbling creek, and waterfall.

Don’t miss the Boulder Ridge DVC building. While its lobby and theming isn’t as large and grand as the main lodge, Boulder Ridge is still a beautiful, quiet respite and not to be missed while you’re at the resort. The Carolwood Pacific room offers games, a warm fire, and photos and memorabilia from Walt Disney’s personal train hobby collection.

Want to enjoy a meal while at Wilderness Lodge?

Geyser Point Bar & Grill is one of our top picks for quick service dining on Disney World property. Its location on Bay Lake is quiet and relaxing, and the food is well above what you’d expect from a quick service location. However, reservations and mobile ordering are not available and the wait time at Geyser Point can be long at times, so consider Roaring Fork a suitable backup plan.

Located in the main lodge building, Roaring Fork is Wilderness Lodge’s second quick service restaurant and offers mobile ordering along with ample outdoor seating. If you’re not in the mood for one of the sandwich offerings, the campfire cupcake and Magic Cookie Bar are unique snack items to enjoy.

When to visit Wilderness Lodge

Wilderness Lodge is located in the Magic Kingdom resort area, making it a perfect choice on a Magic Kingdom park day. An hour is all you need to travel to the resort and explore the lodge and its grounds, although you’ll probably feel so relaxed you’ll stay longer!

How to get to Wilderness Lodge

Wilderness Lodge is accessible by complimentary water taxi from the Magic Kingdom. Simply walk to the boat launch outside the park entrance and enjoy the relaxing boat ride to the resort.

games in the Wilderness Lodge Carolwood Pacific Room

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Disney's Art of Animation Resort

2. Art of Animation Resort

No other Disney resort offers photo opportunities for the kids like Art of Animation!

The four main areas are themed to Cars, Finding Nemo, The Lion King, and The Little Mermaid with bright characters and stylized scenes from the movies. Visiting the Cars section was Art of Animation’s main draw for my family when we first stayed in 2013 and my preschool-aged boys enjoyed it even more than the parks!

After exploring the colorful grounds, enjoy the 1.4-mile jogging trail around Hourglass Lake which separates Art of Animation from its neighbor Pop Century Resort. The open, crowd-free, waterside trail may be just what you need later on in your trip! On the Pop side, this trail is called “Memory Lane.” Take a stroll down Memory Lane and with fun signs marking every year from the 1950’s through the 1990’s.

As a value resort, dining options are limited at Art of Animation, but its dining hall, Landscape of Flavors, conveniently offers mobile ordering. The menu is long with nothing particularly destination-worthy, but there is plenty of variety for everyone to find exactly what they want. Consider the family pizza dinner meal for an economical meal for the entire family or simply order a cupcake to go as a sweet treat while enjoying the grounds.

When to Visit Art of Animation Resort

Art of Animation is the closest resort to Disney’s Hollywood Studios and is also easily accessible from Epcot. It will be most convenient to visit on your Hollywood Studios or Epcot park days.

How to get to Art of Animation Resort

Use the Disney SkyLiner to travel to Art of Animation from either Epcot or Hollywood Studios. Bus transportation is available from other parks and Disney Springs.

Disney Face Masks

Alien mouth face mask
Alien Mouth
Epcot face mask
Spaceship Earth
Mouse Flowers face mask
Mouse Flowers
The Child face mask
The Child
Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge

3. Animal Kingdom Lodge

Ready to see more animals during an Animal Kingdom park day? Visit Animal Kingdom Lodge to see animals outside of the park!

Over 200 birds and animals live at Animal Kingdom Lodge including zebras, giraffes, gazelles, ostrich, and more. Outdoor viewing areas are sprinkled around the resort.

Like Wilderness Lodge, Animal Kingdom Lodge consists of a main resort/DVC combination resort plus an adjacent second all-DVC resort. Jambo House is the main lodge that houses the hotel resort and a DVC property. The adjacent Kidani Village is exclusively DVC. Savannas spread throughout both resort areas.

A reservation at Sanaa in Kidani Village is an excellent choice and the only restaurant on site where you can enjoy animal views while you dine.

Don’t want to be tied to a reservation or eat indoors? Order Sanaa To Go from the My Disney Experience app and pick up your meal for later. Sanaa is well-known for its Indian-style Bread Service of various naan bread served with 9 different dipping sauces. Order bread service or any of Sanaa’s other delicious entrees to go as your “in” to the resort and enjoy the animals and thematic details while you’re there!

While Jambo House is currently closed for room reservations and no dining is available, the gorgeous lobby is open and a must-see when visiting Animal Kingdom Lodge.

When to Visit Animal Kingdom Lodge

There are no resorts directly adjacent to the Animal Kingdom park accessible by walking paths or any non-bus Disney transportation. Animal Kingdom Lodge is the closest and rather remote, making an Animal Kingdom park day the best day to visit.

How to get to Animal Kingdom Lodge

Buses are the only Disney transportation that service Animal Kingdom Lodge. Either use a Disney bus or drive your own vehicle.

Disney's Grand Floridian Resort

4. Grand Floridian Resort

Disney World’s flagship resort and its glorious Victorian lobby are a gorgeous addition to any Disney World trip and must be seen in person to appreciate!

While enjoying the grand lobby views, shop at a variety of boutiques including Basin White for soaps and bath products, resort clothing shops, and more.

Many of the Grand’s upscale dining locations have yet to reopen, but consider a reservation at the all-day Grand Floridian Cafe for a casual meal in a Victorian setting or mobile order from the quick service restaurant, Gasparilla Island Grill, for last-minute plans.

The Beauty and the Beast-themed Enchanted Rose lounge is a sophisticated way for adults to end a Magic Kingdom day.

When to Visit Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort

The Grand’s location adjacent to Magic Kingdom make it a must-visit on a Magic Kingdom day.

How to get to Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort

The Grand Floridian is so close to the Magic Kingdom, you can even walk there! Complimentary water taxi and monorail transportation also services the Grand Floridian from the Magic Kingdom.

Disney World Fort Wilderness pony ride

5. Fort Wilderness

One of Walt Disney World’s original 1971 resorts and its only campground, Fort Wilderness is certainly unique among Disney World resorts!

If you’re looking for a place to enjoy the outdoors, escape the crowds, and enjoy nature, Fort Wilderness is your kind of resort!

You could easily spend an entire day enjoying all of the recreation activities that Fort Wilderness offers and, although many have yet to reopen following the COVID-19 closures, there’s still plenty for day guests to enjoy.

Visit the horses at the new Tri-Circle-D Ranch. These are the horses seen on Magic Kingdom’s Main Street, U.S.A. and the barn is free for guests to enter to see all the horses that live there.

Pony rides are available for kids up to 48” tall for a minimal fee. No reservations are required so just walk right up.

Horseback riding is available by reservation. How amazing would your Magic Kingdom day be with a mid-day resort break to enjoy a trail ride through the wilderness?

The Archery Experience is available by reservation every afternoon and a unique addition to your Disney trip itinerary.

Call (407) WDW-PLAY (939-7529) for recreation reservations.

Fort Wilderness is HUGE! It has its own internal bus system to get around. Plan on using the buses to get to any of these recreation locations. Or, if you additionally want to explore all of the wilderness that the resort offers, consider renting bikes or a golf cart.

Since it’s primarily a campground, Fort Wilderness doesn’t have a large variety of dining options. If you’re looking to add a meal to your Fort Wilderness visit, try mobile ordering from P&J’s Southern Takeout. Offerings include barbecue rib and fried chicken family meals as well as individual country cookin’ entrees including barbecue pork and burgers. Outdoor picnic tables are available for dining.

When to Visit Fort Wilderness

Like Wilderness Lodge, Fort Wilderness is in the Magic Kingdom resort area, making it a great choice on a Magic Kingdom park day. However, the Fort is so unique with so much to offer that you may want to spend a larger portion of an entire rest day there!

How to get to Fort Wilderness

Use the complimentary water taxi when traveling to Fort Wilderness from the Magic Kingdom. Otherwise, use Disney bus transportation from any other park or drive from your resort.

Disney's Riviera Resort

More great Disney resorts to visit

If you’re already planning a visit to the Grand Floridian, consider walking a little further along the Seven Seas Lagoon to the Polynesian Village Resort. The Poly’s lobby isn’t as large and spectacular, but this resort is popular for its numerous restaurants and relaxing Pacific island vibe. For last-minute dining plans, Capt. Cook’s quick service restaurant has mobile ordering and you can order a Dole Whip from Pineapple Lanai.

On an Epcot day, consider a quick break from the crowds by exiting the park via the International Gateway directly to the adjacent resort area. The Beach Club, Yacht Club, and Boardwalk Inn are each just a 5-minute walk away. They don’t have large outdoor grounds to explore like the other resorts mentioned here and even fewer quick service food options, but a reservation at the Beach Club’s Beaches and Cream Soda Shop is always a good choice – even if only to order its legendary Kitchen Sink Sundae! The Boardwalk could easily make the list of top 5 best Disney World resorts for its nightlife, but this has been toned down during COVID times.

If you’re already riding the Disney SkyLiner, consider a brief stop at Disney’s Riviera Resort. Its large Peter Pan and Tangled tile mosaics adjacent to the SkyLiner station are gorgeous photo opps. Inside the resort you’ll find hallways full of photos from Walt and Lillian’s European travels.

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5 Best Disney World Resorts to visit ... even if you aren't staying overnight
The Best Disney World Resorts to visit ... even if you aren't staying overnight

Which Disney World resort hotel are you looking forward to visiting?