3 Disney Vacations That Don't Involve a Theme Park
Everyone loves Disney, but if sporting Mickey Mouse ears while riding the Mad Tea Party teacups isn’t exactly, well, your cup of tea, we get it. Maybe you’ve tried to jump on the theme-park bandwagon only to lose your spot in line due to a screaming toddler. Or maybe your teenager’s so-over-it attitude sucks the fun right out of snapping pictures with Cinderella.
Whatever your situation, we get the challenge of planning a fun family vacation. You know, one where every family member actually has some fun. Enter Disney Signature Experiences.
Disney Signature Experiences is a collection of family vacations that go beyond a trip to the theme park to offer up experiences for everyone to love. Whether your ideal holiday would be spent sitting on a beach in Hawaii, island-hopping on a cruise ship, or eating pastries in Italy, Disney Signature Experiences has created a kid-friendly version of it. Think spa treatments and culture plus endless kid entertainment and chicken nuggets all in one vacation. (Yes, that actually exists!)
Here are three ways to travel with Disney Signature Experiences, plus the vacation perks each family member will love most.
Cruise on The Disney Wonder
Vacations with Disney Cruise Line are the most immersive of the Disney Signature Experiences. The same Disney Imagineers who created the Magic Kingdom also designed the Disney Wonder, so expect tons of magical experiences, and characters, onboard.
What your kids will love most: Disney's Oceaneer Club
Disney’s Oceaneer Club is not just an onboard playground, it’s an interactive experience where characters come out to play. When little ones walk into the Oceaneer Club, they can train to become a Marvel superhero with Spider-Man, play in Andy’s room with Woody, or sit back and sing songs from Frozen with Anna and Elsa. Exclusively for kids ages 3-12.
And if you want to hang together as a family, the Oceaneer Club offers "open house" hours offered each day where anyone onboard can come and have fun. Bonus: The Oceaneer Club is on all four Disney cruise ships, the Wonder, Dream, Magic, and Fantasy.
What you'll love most: The kid-only hangouts.
Maybe what you'll actually love is the alone time you'll get when the kids are at their clubs.
Along with Disney’s Oceaneer Club, there's Edge tween club for kids ages 11-14, a space full of board games that plays Taylor Swift songs on loop. And for teens? Once your kid enters the elite teen club on deck 11, Vibe, you will not be seeing them much the rest of the trip. There are sodas at the “bar,” a Pac-Man machine, and surprise appearances by a pirate flash mob that’ll teach them a dance to perform on Pirate night.
Each youth area is supervised by counselors and offers secure programming so parents can rest assured their kids are in good hands if they want to trek ashore or book a treatment at Senses Spa & Salon for the afternoon.
What everyone will love: Meal time.
There are three main dining rooms on the Disney Wonder: Tiana’s Place, Animator’s Palate, and Triton’s. And while the food is awesome, the real highlights of the meal are the waiters.
Disney is the only cruise line to offer a special feature called rotational dining. Your family will have the same waiters every night of your trip. They'll follow you from restaurant to restaurant so you'll always have a familiar face to greet you at dinnertime. These dining room cast members are experts at games, jokes, and even stumping you with brain teasers between courses. Expect to be hugging them on your last night, and for your kids to actually look forward to meals as a family—unlike at home.
Visit Aulani Disney Resort & Spa in Hawaii
Every experience offered at Aulani (pronounced ow-lah-nee) is authentically Hawaiian, yet distinctly Disney. From the lobby architecture to restaurants, Disney imagineers worked hand-in-hand with cultural advisors on the island of O'ahu to be sure that Hawaii’s rich history is the focus of this magical resort located in Ko Olina, Hawaii which is famous for its breathtaking sunsets. Think of Aulani as the spot where Mickey and Minnie vacation—you’ll see them at breakfast, but they will be doing their thing while you do yours.
What your kids will love most: Aunty’s Beach House
With three pools, plus a private snorkeling lagoon called Rainbow Reef, there’s no shortage of activities for keiki (kids in Hawaiian) to enjoy at Aulani. But Aunty’s Beach House, an interactive, complimentary kids club for ages 3-12 takes the cake when it comes to fun.
Visits to Aunty’s are included in guest’s nightly rate and kids get a wristband that scans them in and out and also tracks their location around the resort. The house itself feels as cozy as your grandmother’s, but it’s specially designed to engage kids as they explore the culture of Hawaii. There’s storytelling, hula lessons, and even a team scavenger hunt where kids search for instruments then learn to play them.
And to feed their Disney fix? There’s also a costume closet full of princess dresses and a movie room showing all the classics.
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What you'll love most: The one-of-a-kind spa.
A hydrotherapy garden is basically a mini outdoor water park designed to pamper adults. The 5,000-square-foot garden has private vitality pools, a reflexology path, and whirlpool jet spas. The coolest part though is the six rain-style showers that turn on when you stand underneath and progress in temperature and pressure as you walk.
A note from this insider: There’s also a lounge area with a snack menu so plan to stay all day while Aunty watches the kids.
What everyone will love: The culture.
Aulani traditionally means “a messenger of a chief” and resort aims to be a messenger of the “higher authority” that is Hawaii to share its spirit and its culture. It has one of the world’s largest collections of contemporary Hawaiian art to explore, and everyone will love the stories told at the KA WA‘A luau (where Moana is also known to make a guest appearance!).
While there are lots of culture-rich activities you can choose from, there are also learning experiences around every corner that don't require you to make any big plans. The ‘Ōlelo Room restaurant lounge, for example, the Hawaiian names for objects cover the walls instead of televisions to give you a chance to learn the language. The cast members in The ‘Ōlelo Room are there to teach you the proper pronunciations of Hawaiian words so you can head home with a piece of the islands to share.
Book an Adventure by Disney
Adventures by Disney sends you out into the real world with a Disney cast member as your Adventure Guide. These group vacation experiences are the least overtly “Disney” and are focused totally on experiencing incredible locations as a family, like the South African plains, Costa Rica’s rich rainforest, and Australia’s Outback.
What your kids will love most: The storytelling.
The goal of an Adventure by Disney is to broaden your family’s view of the world. Kids know Norway from Frozen, and the Great Wall of China from Mulan. Now they’ll get to experience them.
Every trip has specific activities planned for its Jr. Adventurers, kids 12 and under. Each excursion is planned to be a part of a larger story, and your guides will explain why they’re seeing what they’re seeing every step of the way. At the end of each day, every family member will get a pin to attach to a special Disney lanyard to celebrate what they’ve experienced. (Note that the recommended age for kids traveling with Adventures by Disney is 6+ or 8+ depending on the itinerary.)
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What you'll love most: The pre-planned itinerary.
Getting to learn how to make sushi in Japan? Worth the splurge of plane tickets. Knowing someone has already planned out what your 7-year-old who hates everything will eat for 10 days in Asia? Priceless.
Adventures by Disney are designed to be hassle-free. Everything from transferring your luggage to scheduling bathroom breaks (and knowing where the bathrooms are) will be taken care of by your Adventure Guide. And since you’re traveling with a Disney cast member, Disney Adventurers get to experience things that aren’t open to the public.
What everyone will love: The people you meet.
Of course, you'll make amazing memories on your trip, but to me, what makes an Adventures by Disney trip truly different than other family vacations is the people you’ll be exploring with.
Your Adventure Guides will quite literally become members of the family, carrying snacks and bottles of water and volunteering to babysit for an afternoon while parents explore solo. (Yes, really.) It’s also common for families who first meet on an Adventure by Disney trip to become forever vacationing friends, planning more trips together. These connections you’ll make are definitely the hardest thing to quantify when it comes to vacation perks, but trust me, they’re real. Just credit them to the magic of Disney.