Disney Outside the Parks
There’s a reason millions of families flock to Disneyland and Walt Disney World each year. The “Mouse” has perfected the theme park experience, to the point where many visitors report that even waiting in line for the rides is part of the magic.
Kids love getting the chance to meet their favorite heroes and princesses, parents love watching their kids smile for days on end, and grandparents love rediscovering their own childhood selves as they explore the fantastical worlds inside the parks.
But you don’t have to go to Anaheim or Orlando to get your Disney fix. There’s a whole world of Disney experiences hiding across the United States. From Broadway shows, to beach resorts, to Disney-led tours of popular sights, here are some of the best ways to experience the magic, no matter where your vacation plans might take you.
Disney Beach Resorts
Is the beach calling your name? Disney has you covered, with resorts in locations like Hilton Head Island in South Carolina and Vero Beach in Florida. As expected, amenities are geared toward the little ones, from waterslides to mini-golf.
One standout property is Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa in Ko Olina, Hawai’i. The hotel features a complimentary kids club, a full-service spa and free activities such as wildlife walking tours, ukulele lessons and fire-pit storytelling.
Plus, pool parties at Aulani feature Disney characters like Goofy decked out in their best Hawaiian shirts.
Walt Disney Family Museum
In the seaside Presidio district of San Francisco, the Walt Disney Family Museum examines the life and vision of the man behind the mouse. Exhibits feature historic sketches, high-tech interactive experiences and obscure memorabilia, organized chronologically through the defining periods of Walt's life. A remarkably detailed, $1 million scale model of Disneyland particularly wows.
Also on tap: film screenings that range from the classic ("Sleeping Beauty") to the B-side ("The Shaggy Dog"), plus hands-on animation workshops.
Adventures by Disney
Adventures by Disney offers group-guided family vacations around the world, including “Long Weekend” getaways to Nashville, San Francisco and New York City.
The New York City Short Escape is a four-day trip that brings Disney’s magical touch to Manhattan highlights, including Broadway experiences, a visit to the Lower East Side’s Tenement Museum, a walking tour of Harlem and a trip to the top of One World Trade Center.
The trip is extremely well-organized, and the energetic guides find little ways to make your experience more memorable – such as periodically distributing “bling” (Disney pins) to attach to your nametag lanyard to commemorate special experiences.
Even the non-Disney activities on the itinerary trend toward the theatrical. For instance, you’ll explore Midtown aboard The Ride, a zany bus with an entire cast of characters greeting you from the city’s sidewalks (including a breakdancing delivery person and a man who leads you through a Times Square New Year’s Eve countdown – even in the middle of summer). It’s plenty touristy, but also somehow way more fun than it has any real right to be. (One note: the trip has a minimum age requirement of five years.)
Not a city person? Adventures by Disney also organizes trips to locations like Alaska, Arizona and Montana. The seven-day Wyoming trip features two national parks, horseback riding and whitewater rafting.
The Disney Store
You may be able to find a Disney Store at your local shopping mall, but the larger shops in marquee metropolises like Chicago and New York will give you a chance to indulge in your Disney obsessions while searching for the perfect gift for family and friends back home.
The Times Square Disney Store not only offers avid fans of Mickey Mouse (and Star Wars, and Winnie the Pooh, and Toy Story, and many more Disney-owned franchises) the opportunity to lose themselves in toys, clothes and apparel featuring their favorite characters, but also offers some touches specific to the Big Apple. Visitors are greeted by an oversized Mickey and Minnie that are designed to resemble balloons from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the store features New York-themed character items (such as a plush Minnie dressed up as the Statue of Liberty).
Larger Disney stores often host special events, including movie screenings, interactive story times and animation workshops where you can learn to draw characters like Olaf, the friendly, goofy talking snowman from “Frozen.”
Disney Cruise Line
Disney Cruises depart from around the world, offering family-ready fun on the sea.
From the U.S., popular stops include the Bahamas, Bermuda, Puerto Rico and Canada. Some itineraries even include a stop in Florida, where cruisers can use their one-day Park Hopper ticket (included with the cruise) to explore Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando.
The cruise ships themselves feature the same sort of memory-making programming that the company’s parks are famous for, including deck parties starring Disney characters and Broadway-style musicals.
Watch out for the debut of three next-level new ships in 2021, 2022 and 2023.
‘Frozen’ on Broadway
It’s already been more than five years since “Frozen” premiered in movie theaters, and people are still making “Let It Go” puns (not to mention parody videos to announce school closures on snow days).
“Frozen the Musical,” which hit Broadway in spring 2018, brings the animated world of Arendelle to life on the stage. Disney has gotten Broadway more or less down to a science at this point, with a string of hits that began when “Beauty and the Beast” opened in 1994.
If you’ve seen the films, it’s always fun to watch how production teams translate the movie magic into real life. Here, the snowman Olaf is portrayed by a singing, dancing puppeteer, and special effects are used to recreate Elsa’s spontaneous construction of her ice palace (and even her glove and cape flying off in the wind).
“Frozen” is currently part of the New York City Short Escape itinerary, and travelers are treated to premium seats in the St. James Theatre’s “snow zone.”
‘Aladdin’ on Broadway
In 2014, James Monroe Iglehart won the Tony Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Genie. And although he’s since moved on to other productions, anyone who watches "Aladdin” on Broadway will instantly recognize the moment in the musical that likely won him the award.
“Friend Like Me,” a six-minute extravaganza of a song, is the very definition of “showstopper,” with pyrotechnics, actors jumping up out of trap doors, golden pillars transforming into dancers, and a breathless display of singing, dancing and even magic tricks.
Catch the theater show before heading to a local cinema in May 2019, when Disney will debut its live-action version of the animated classic, starring Will Smith.
‘The Lion King’ on Broadway
Get your tickets early for this one. Sellouts have been a staple since “The Lion King” debuted on Broadway more than two decades ago, and the musical was even the top-grossing show on Broadway in 2013 – 16 years after its 1997 opening.
If you go, you’ll see why. The show’s recreation of an African savanna is simply stunning, and sets a standard that other Broadway productions are still aspiring to. The presence of a beloved story and a familiar soundtrack certainly don’t hurt, but “The Lion King” is perhaps most famous for its set and costume design. As the stage fills up with giraffes, gazelles and even an enormous elephant (all backgrounded by an orange sunrise) during “The Circle of Life,” you’ll at first squint to try to see where the actors end and their costumes begin. And then you’ll give up your scrutiny and succumb to the magic of the show.
Disney’s live-action movie version of the beloved tale will hit theaters in July 2019.
Good Morning America
Wait, isn’t this a Disney list? Ah, you’re forgetting – Disney owns everything now! (Or, at least, it sometimes seems that way.)
The company’s list of holdings includes ABC, which airs “Good Morning America,” and you can get free tickets to be part of the studio audience in New York City during the show’s second hour, which focuses on soft news and entertainment. Depending on the day, you might be treated to an in-studio mini-concert by a band like Snow Patrol, or a sit-down between one of the show’s hosts and a celebrity like Emma Stone.
If you visit as part of an Adventures by Disney trip, you can skip the lines, and may even get a chance to chat with one of the show’s producers.
New Amsterdam ‘Behind the Magic’ Tour
The New Amsterdam Theatre, which currently hosts “Aladdin,” was hailed as “The House Beautiful” when it opened in 1903, and is the former home of the famous Ziegfeld Follies. On a “Behind the Magic” tour of the historic venue, you’ll learn about the rise, fall and rise again of the New Amsterdam, discover the meaning behind its ornate decorations, and discuss important questions such as, “Is it haunted?” (It’s maybe, definitely, kind of, totally haunted.)
The theater has a special room with props from “Aladdin” and other Disney shows, and you can snap photos of yourself rubbing a magic lamp, donning ornate headgear from “Aida,” and holding the Beast’s boot (which, you’ll discover, cleverly disguises comfortable sneakers).
Broadway Theatre Workshop
Always dreamed of seeing your name in lights? A Disney Broadway Workshop might not quite get you there, but you will have the chance to work with Disney Teaching Artists on your singing, dancing and acting.
(You triple threat, you.)
Even if you have two left feet and can’t carry a tune in a bucket, the workshops are a fascinating window into just how much work goes into every single second of action on the stage. For extra fun, take a workshop to learn steps from a show currently on Broadway (such as “Frozen”), and then go watch the show later on to see your new moves in action. You’ll be embarrassed by how easy the pros make it look.
Even when you’re not actively seeking it out, the Disney magic has a way of finding you. Vacationing in Los Angeles? As you stroll down the Hollywood Walk of Fame, you’ll find not only Walt Disney’s star, but also stars dedicated to Disney characters like Minnie Mouse, Tinker Bell and Snow White.
You’re also sure to have a Disney experience of sorts when you wander through Times Square in New York City, which over the past decade or so has become the preferred lingering spot for people who dress up in costumes and take photographs with tourists in exchange for tips. On any given day, you’re liable to be approached by (decidedly unlicensed) Mickey Mouses, Buzz Lightyears, Marvel characters or Disney princesses.
These cartoon impersonators can be a bit aggressive (some have even been arrested for refusing to give change to tourists who’ve tipped with big bills). So, if you’re not interested in a photo op, steer clear and instead make your way to the red staircase on 47th Street, where you can sit in peace and look out at the Disney-like wonder of it all.