Advice on getting out of the rut of Disney World vacations
July 28, 2013 2:18 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I went on honeymoon to Disney World, then with the kids, then without the grown kids. I can't tell you how many times we've gone over the years, at least 15. Obviously we love the place, but we are wondering if folks could suggest other venues with some of the same advantages and attractions so we could mix it up a bit and not go every other year. Details within.

I admit it, once we went twice in the same year. I've even taken the Behind the Scenes and Segway tours.

What we love:
- once you're there and park your car everything else is healthy walking or (for the most part) good transit, and pretty safe
- we usually stay in the Polynesian and so everything from dining to purchases and park entrance is all on a single plastic card, it's like a cruise without the ship
- clean, polite staff, quality food
- manageable crowds (at least if you know the times to go like we do)
- interesting or at least relaxing experiences
- clean pools and beaches,
- EPCOT "Street" performers (England, Italy, etc.)
- Illuminations at EPCOT is great (combo of music, fireworks, lasers/pyro)
- Downtown Disney at night (entertainment, atmosphere)

Snow flake details:
- I don't like to fly at all, so we always drive from NJ to Disney World, we have it down to a science...alternatives should be comparable driving distance or less from NJ
- We don't go on roller coaster rides, stuff like Test Track or Pirates of the Caribbean is our speed, Mission Space Orange or Soaring is on the edge of our comfort zone.

I know nothing is going to be exactly the same, the above is to give you an idea of what we like. If it turns out nothing really fits the bill, that's cool. Just figured we'd put the question out there.
posted by forthright to Travel & Transportation (35 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
once you're there and park your car everything else is healthy walking or (for the most part) good transit, and pretty safe

You should try visiting a city! I'm talking about dense older urban landscape cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Washington DC, New Orleans, Chicago, etc. Some smaller southern cities with historical touristic centers like Savannah and Charleston may also work for you, though I'm not sure how sprawly/car-dominant those cities are.

we usually stay in the Polynesian and so everything from dining to purchases and park entrance is all on a single plastic card, it's like a cruise without the ship

I'm confused about what you mean by this. Surely you could visit any other destination and also put all charges on one card. Living in a modern American city I use my debit card for almost everything and rarely carry more than $10-20 in cash. Which I mostly use for parking meters and taco stands.

Or do you mean pay-one-price all inclusive type deals where you can charge everything "to the room"? In that case, you might want to look into other resort type situations that aren't Disney. There are plenty of non-Disney all inclusive resorts out there. I'm not a resort person, so I can't recommend anything specifically.

If you're enamored of the city idea, you could also stay in a hotel with a full restaurant, bar, spa services, etc. and charge most things to the room rather than flitting around to different places constantly.

clean, polite staff, quality food

I think this describes the vast majority of all places people like to travel. Most cities or beach/ski/resort areas that have tourism as a major sector of the economy pride themselves on this sort of thing.

manageable crowds (at least if you know the times to go like we do)

Avoid New York City around Christmas and New Years. Avoid New Orleans at Mardi Gras. For other major cities, if there's a HUGE thing they're famous for, just don't go that weekend.

interesting or at least relaxing experiences

This is another thing I think you'll find in any place that is known for tourism.

clean pools and beaches,

If a beach/pool type of trip is a must, you should definitely look at beach resorts and places in the US south where you can visit during hot weather. For instance if you went to New Orleans in May or June, your hotel would have a nice clean pool which you could swim in. Ditto probably for Charleston, Savannah, Miami, etc.

EPCOT "Street" performers (England, Italy, etc.)

In my experience most big cities and any city with a tourist scene will have this. I don't know about fakey-fake "international" stuff, but there'll be street performers for sure. If you want a street performance that is like England or Italy, maybe suck it up and fly to Europe?

Illuminations at EPCOT is great (combo of music, fireworks, lasers/pyro)

I think this is another thing beach resorts may offer. You could also look into live music venues in your city of choice, planetariums, laser light shows (Grand Central in NYC does a cool one every year around the holidays, but as I said don't go that big crush Xmas/NYE week), etc.

Downtown Disney at night (entertainment, atmosphere)

This is also something any major city with a tourist scene will have.
posted by Sara C. at 2:33 PM on July 28, 2013 [11 favorites]

It kinda seems like... this is basically the fast food of vacations. You know it's not really what will be most fulfilling, but it's so simple, so regular, so free of anything faintly unpleasant or unexpected. I would suggest that anywhere else you find that's going to be that predictable is not going to feel very different, either. But do you need to get everything out of every trip? Maybe one time you do the Finger Lakes, which is not going to be very fast-paced but is very relaxing--another time Manhattan or Boston or Toronto, which might be less relaxing and somewhat less 'safe' but more exciting. Rather than just having the same trip every time, which--I grew up in a family that did that, and it did get very dull after awhile.
posted by Sequence at 2:37 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

it's like a cruise without the ship

You mention a cruise - have you gone on one? It was my first thought of a similar-but-different vacation that you might enjoy. My husband and I really enjoyed the Holland America cruise out of NYC to Bermuda, which was great since the ship was essentially a floating hotel that was docked for several days, so it was easy to get on and off the ship at our leisure to explore.
posted by gatorae at 2:37 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

A cruise is a great idea, and if you like Disney, you could go on a Disney cruise. Or, if you like the Disney level of service, I have never heard anything but amazing things by Adventures by Disney, which hosts trips literally around the world.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 2:45 PM on July 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

I wonder if your family might enjoy a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, which is one of the premier living history attractions. There's different things to see and do, including scheduled demonstrations and hands-on activities, and you can stay on-site. Like Disney World, it's a thematically consistent environment. Nearby are other more conventional commercial recreation attractions as well.
posted by carmicha at 2:57 PM on July 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm sort of agreeing with Sara C. and Sequence here....that said, Colonial Williamsburg, Hershey Park, Sturbridge Village, etc. are all destination places that I would call Disney World-lite.

From your description it does not sound like you'd enjoy a vacation in a city, actually, but perhaps I'm mistaken.

If you would enjoy a vacation in a city, New York City, Chicago, Montreal, Toronto, Boston, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Savannah, and Miami are all good places to visit on the eastern side of the continent.

Strangely phrased question though....
posted by dfriedman at 3:03 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Go to Boston! You will not have the same level of cleanliness and friendliness (not at all), but if you're willing to break out of your comfort zone:

-You can walk or take public transportation everywhere. Find a hotel with reasonable parking and you won't need to use your car while you're there.
-There is a ton of tourist-friendly things to do. The freedom trail, Faneuil Hall hall, a tour of Harvard, USS Constitution, the North End, the New England Aquarium, Castle Island, etc. I grew up there, and I would not roll my eyes at a trip to the Aquarium, or another tour of Paul Revere's house. Faneuil Hall is a little cheesy to my jaded eyes, but it would probably be fun for a first-time visitor. And most of this stuff is in a very concentrated area. If you have a smartphone, it should be super easy to get around. A lot of the "You can't get there from heah!" issues have gotten better now that everyone has GPS.
-It's never that crowded. There's not really a "tourist season." I would avoid coming in Late August/Early September when all the students come in and keep an eye on the Red Sox schedule. And it gets cold, so go soon or in the fall.
-There are street performers. Harvard Square and Faneuil Hall, in particular, have a lot of them.
-Not a beach region, but there are beautiful coastal towns to check out and there are nice beaches. You'd probably have to drive, though.
-If you're even a little into baseball, try to go to a Red Sox game. It's a cool experience. Boston fans are crazy.
-Totally driveable from anywhere in NJ.

It's not an all-inclusive resort by any means, but if you're feeling a little adventurous, go to Boston! (My parents are making lobster for dinner and I'm stuck in LA - this answer is probably colored by homesickness)
posted by ablazingsaddle at 3:09 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Disney cruise?
posted by mibo at 3:13 PM on July 28, 2013

To amend my answer above: Boston is not like Disney AT ALL, but I think you might dig it.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 3:14 PM on July 28, 2013

Response by poster: Sorry, really did try to be specific and honest. I get that others don't see vacations the same way (hey, I guess we like "fast food" type vacations). Some other snow flake details that didn't come to mind when I posed the question:

- yeah, wife went on a cruise once, got sick, not anxious to try again
- we are not enamored of city vacations, maybe because have worked in Philadelphia, used to eat lunch near Liberty Bell, have done Washington/Smithsonian, Baltimore Inner Harbor
- clarification: right, I meant a lot of the cost of the vacation is bundled in, not the plastic card aspect itself
- should have emphasized relaxation: kick back, strolling, watching, dining (some places you can have plenty of that, but we also want entertainment, interesting things to see within easy walking or simple transit).

@carmicha, we will investigate Colonial Williamsburg, thanks.

We have considered investigating Asheville NC also, anybody have a feel for that compared to our likes?
posted by forthright at 3:19 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you looked into escapes?

They usually have a bunch of destinations in the US and frequently have all inclusive packages. When the packages aren't all inclusive it looks like they generally have suggestions for activities.
posted by donut_princess at 3:26 PM on July 28, 2013

Have you ever tried Vegas? To address your "length of trip" issue, you can take Amtrak to I think the middle of Utah and then rent a car for the rest of the trip. I've always loved walking around the Vegas area. Atlantic City is similar in some ways, but Vegas is much, much, much better.

I also Nth Colonial Williamsburg.
posted by SMPA at 3:30 PM on July 28, 2013

Yeah, if you're looking for all inclusive, not a cruise, and not a do it yourself "arrive in a city and do things that seem interesting" type of trip, you're looking at all inclusive resorts. Without flying, that's going to be ski resorts and beach resorts in places like the Outer Banks and Florida.

I know you don't fly, but my mom and stepdad love going to Park City, Utah for a lot of the things you say you're looking for in a vacation. Without changing planes from their starting point (New Orleans), they fly straight into Salt Lake City, pick up a rental car (there are also shuttle and taxi services), drive to Park City, check into the resort, and then that's it. They're there. They leave in the morning, Central Time, and are fully in Vacation Mode by lunchtime. Maybe there's a similar city closer to the east coast where you could find a ski resort and just hit vacation relaxation time with that level of convenience?

Places like Hershey, PA, and Colonial Williamsburg didn't come to mind for me because you say you prefer to arrive at your destination and just be there. Both of those places involve a lot of driving around dull suburban sprawl from one tourist attraction to the next, in my experience. Compared to somewhere like Boston or Montreal where you park your car, check into your hotel, and you're just there. I mean, if you don't like cities, you don't like cities, but if you're looking for something that recreates a resort type experience, small, dense, older cities are kind of a no brainer because they're what the resort was designed to emulate in a more bucolic setting.
posted by Sara C. at 3:31 PM on July 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Another thought is Gatlinburg, TN - it's got a vaguely Disney vibe.
posted by gatorae at 3:34 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately, Asheville is pretty hard to do without a car. You can stay in a hotel downtown and it's lovely to walk around in, but that would only keep you entertained for a day or so. The hiking, rafting, and other activities really require a car.

I wonder if a beach town might work for you. Many places, like Virginia Beach, have incorporated easy mass transit into their experience. And even fairly urban beach towns have all-inclusive resorts in them, where you could spend most of your time, but venture out for other entertainment, water slides, putt-putt, paddle boarding, aquariums, street performers, etc.

Savannah would be great, but you do need a car to get to Tybee Island to go to the beach, and I don't know that you would be happy just staying on Tybee. Charleston, SC might be better. Or maybe an all-inclusive resort on one of the The Golden Isles.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:34 PM on July 28, 2013

An Amtrak vacation to somewhere an overnight train ride away might be up your alley, as well. If you book a sleeping compartment, the meals are included not unlike a rolling resort. Then you could arrive at a destination, and you'd be in the middle of town just a short taxi ride from your hotel. You'd have to look into what places that interest you are served by Amtrak, but this shouldn't be too difficult given your requirements. You would then return home the same way, overnight in a sleeper car with meals included, a short taxi ride from the hotel.

New Orleans, Savannah, and Charleston all come to mind for a trip like this. It wouldn't be all-inclusive, costwise, during the days you were off the train, but we're talking about well-situated American cities which take credit cards, have plenty of ATMs, and work exactly the same way that being at home works. You'd have to tip a few bartenders, but I think this is probably as relaxed as it gets for a vacation not to Disney that doesn't involve flying or driving cross-country from the US northeast.
posted by Sara C. at 3:37 PM on July 28, 2013

There is no place like Disney World.

I've traveled extensively. Nothing comes close to Disney, not even Disney parks outside of Florida. Disney World Inc. has created an alternate universe and that's what makes it unique that it had you traveling for 15 years.

My suggestion is to stop looking for a Disney alternative, and instead consider a whole new type of destination - the family should make a deal that no one will compare it Disney while in your new place.
posted by Kruger5 at 3:40 PM on July 28, 2013 [7 favorites]

To address your "length of trip" issue, you can take Amtrak to I think the middle of Utah and then rent a car for the rest of the trip.

That sounds effing miserable. Vegas would be perfect, but it's far. Amtrak to the middle of Utah? Oy.

Places like Hershey, PA, and Colonial Williamsburg didn't come to mind for me because you say you prefer to arrive at your destination and just be there. Both of those places involve a lot of driving around dull suburban sprawl from one tourist attraction to the next, in my experience.

Yep! And Colonial Williambsburg, as far as I know is not that big. There's really not that much to do in Hershey, either.

we are not enamored of city vacations, maybe because have worked in Philadelphia, used to eat lunch near Liberty Bell, have done Washington/Smithsonian, Baltimore Inner Harbor

Sorry, but I think this is kind of an odd thing to say. You used to eat lunch near the Liberty Bell so there's no need to see other cities? I mean, whatever floats your boat. A lot of the items on your list are checked off by older, smaller cities.

If flying is even vaguely an option, Vegas would be perfect.

You're asking for a combination of things that you're not going to find outside of an all-inclusive resort.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 3:40 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

You sound like all-inclusive resort people. A number of the resorts on that list would be an easier drive for you than Disney!
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:50 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sorry, trying not to thread-sit and keep my comments short, so they may sound odd. My Liberty Bell comment just meant that we have had plenty of exposure to big cities, and have gone to other big cities on vacations. We don't dislike cities, but we see a lot of them through work or visiting relatives in surrounding states. For vacations we want different.

Poconos or other rural mountain resorts sounds like a good suggestion, I'll research.

@donut_princess: I had never heard of Living Social Escape Deals, so thanks!

@Snarl Furillo: that link you gave looks very interesting (some prices are high, but specials or off season may help, plus Disney all-in costs aren't cheap)...but definitely what we were talking about...thanks!

Shorter Amtrak round trips sounds interesting too.

@gatorae: I will research Gatlinburg.

And some have commented on the need for a car at some suggested destinations, but of course we are driving to the destination. I know, we said park the car and forget it, but I have to admit the easiest way to get from the Polynesian to Pleasure Island is using our car, so we do.
posted by forthright at 3:56 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I took Amtrak from Chicago to San Diego and loved it. If you get a privatr sleeper room, you can rest & relax, have good, tasty meals on the train and see amazing stars every night once you're away from the built up city regions.

If you are so inclined you can talk to other people at meals or while riding, but you can also keep to yourself and look at the country rolling by.

Husband & I also found the sleeping very comfortable on single beds.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 4:00 PM on July 28, 2013

Gatlinburg is another one of those "drive from tourist attraction to tourist attraction through boring sprawl" type of destinations. The Great Smoky Mountains can be fun, but it is definitely not a set it and forget it relaxing trip.

What about a National Park? Another "too far to drive from Jersey" idea, but staying somewhere like El Tovar at the Grand Canyon is probably close to what you're looking for. Maybe there's a similarly resort-ish place to stay at a National Park closer to the east coast?
posted by Sara C. at 4:02 PM on July 28, 2013

You might consider a trip to Halifax or Quebec City. Both are clean, safe cities with a little nightlife and very walkable downtowns. They also offer lots of opportunities to relax and watch the world go by in restaurants and at historic sites.

An organized tour might be a way to get what you want (all-inclusive) in an urban place.

There are all inclusive resorts up and down the eastern seaboard that might offer what you'd like.

Talk to a track agent.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 4:03 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you been to Cape Cod? If you stay in Provincetown or Chatham you can walk around to shops, good restaurants and the beach. There are a lot of nice art galleries, and great strolling potential. You can go whale watching; in P-town, the boats leave right from the middle of the shopping/B&B district. There are some wineries that are a short bike ride away. If you take the ferry from Boston, you might not need a car at all.

I went to a reunion at the Ogelbay Resort in West Virginia recently, and it was family friendly and really nice. They have some local museums and a small zoo, and if you buy a package deal from the resort, it includes admission to those.
posted by bluefly at 4:12 PM on July 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Along the same lines as Cape Cod, you might also like Key West. Though it's a slightly further drive than Disney is. It's less beachy, though, and more about snorkeling, charter fishing, and the like. There are also a lot of land-based activities in the central tourist quarter like touring Ernest Hemingway's house. I think they do fireworks and laser light shows in the main square where all the snorkeling boats leave from, too.
posted by Sara C. at 4:16 PM on July 28, 2013

Colonial Williamsburg sounds like a definite possibility for you. Keep in mind that in addition to Colonial Williamsburg itself there is also Busch Gardens and Water Country USA. You can also go to Jamestowne and there is a shuttle service between Wiliamsburg and Jamestowne etc..

Also, maybe not the place for a full long vacation, but since you live in NJ you might like a long weekend or a few days at Mohonk Mountain House.
posted by gudrun at 4:51 PM on July 28, 2013

I'd look for an all-inclusive package in Myrtle Beach. It's a slightly shorter drive. It's got the beaches. Lots of shopping. An assortment of attractions. The biggest catch is you'd have to drive from place to place. I think the nightlife feel would be similar to Disney.

A quick Google search reveals:
Option 1
Option 2
but I'm sure there are other options out there as well.
posted by sardonyx at 5:11 PM on July 28, 2013

If in PA visiting Hershey, make it a driving trip, stop at various museums including the various railroading exhibits, etc. Set up camp in Harrisburg and make day trips. Hershey Park is nice although somewhat roller-coaster oriented. Altoona was fascinating (Horseshoe Curve, general history, etc). Lancaster has a rich set of available experiences - bonus, they're actually locals rather than Disney actors (I like Disney "but"). etc.

Key West is also a blast if you have the right state of mind, but it is also relatively small and oriented heavily towards historical stuff and also diving/fishing/swimming type activities. Rent a condo for a week and be aware that the car may be both blessing and liability. I happen to like Coconut Mallory on the east end, it's not close to ANYTHING (that I can think of) but it has a pleasant environment, and once you figure out that being a mile away from whatever you're doing today is useless, being four miles away at a nicer place is fine with me. But if you like walking, you can find some neat condos or resorts on the west end that are within walking distance of lots of stuff. Make sure to go to Mallory Square for sunset and the Sunset Celebration. Street performers who are pretty talented. Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center. Conch Train Tour. Sunset sailing and glass bottom boat tours. Just sittin' on the beach. Seeing the Overseas Highway.
posted by jgreco at 5:17 PM on July 28, 2013

You might consider a trip to Halifax or Quebec City.

I was thinking the same thing, but both (notably Quebec City) sound like one hell of a long drive from New Jersey.

Kingston, Ontario sounds like a better in terms of travel.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:18 PM on July 28, 2013

If you're looking for a taste of the familiar, but still love Disney and that type of atmosphere, may I suggest you stop at St Augustine on your way to / from the next Disney vacation? Spend a day/night there and explore a bit. You can get the trolley card that allows you to basically park your car and hop off/on as you want. Sit and watch the dolphins in the bay, enjoy some time, then head on to Disney / home. If you find you like it, you can expand to other areas. Good luck!
posted by skittlekicks at 5:26 PM on July 28, 2013

I was thinking the same thing, but both (notably Quebec City) sound like one hell of a long drive from New Jersey.

They're both closer than Orlando. (Halifax might be break-even if they're in South Jersey, but Quebec City is much closer to NJ than Orlando is.)

Key West is six more hours of driving in each direction compared to Orlando.

There are definitely all-inclusive Quebec City packages available.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 5:27 PM on July 28, 2013

Response by poster: Lots more good suggestions...thanks folks. And my apologies to the early responders who were working from my poor question before clarifications.
- I hadn't thought about how much closer Canada is than Florida (duh).
- And I am willing to go to a travel agent for packages, but value Metafilter for giving me options/ideas to research before going to an agent.
- Myrtle Beach looks interesting, I'll have to investigate further.
Once again thanks to everyone.
posted by forthright at 5:41 PM on July 28, 2013

Well then, if it's the same distance (or closer) than Florida, I would totally want to do Halifax or Quebec City. There's also Charlottetown. Safe, walkable, relatively cheap, interesting places with good food and good booze.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:20 PM on July 28, 2013

Plenty of great options here. As a longtime WDW fan myself, I've pondered the same question, and I've yet to find a truly comparable experience. The closest I've come was heading across the country to Disneyland -- I know, I know, you don't like to fly, but if you ever decide to break that rule, consider a DL trip. It's comfortably familiar without being WDW, and if you're used to WDW, your first visit to DL will be like a trip to Bizarro World. It looks familiar, but everything's in the wrong place, and it's disorienting in the most wonderful of ways.

It's definitely different enough to justify at least one visit (I've been twice so far), but it's still Disney. It has its own Downtown Disney area, the two parks, and some Disney-owned resorts (although we stayed in a chain hotel across the street, and that was just fine -- unlike WDW, DL is within easy walking distance of a number of non-Disney hotels).

Plus, DL still has Mister Toad's Wild Ride, which for me is justification enough to hop on a plane and fly across the country...
posted by QuickedWeen at 10:19 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I too enjoy Gatlinburg, TN. Lots to see and do. Amusement parks like Dollywood, and the gorgeous Smoky Mountains.

How about Disney Vero Beach Resort? It's just a straight shot down I-95.

More of a beach vacation, but it sounds really nice for relaxing. It's an easy distance to Kennedy Space Center for a day of that.

The rooms are villas and have kitchens, so you can save some dough by eating in the room.

If you do change your feelings about flying, Las Vegas is as close to being a Disney property as it gets without being affiliated with the Mouse in any way, shape or form.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:06 AM on July 29, 2013

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