(Updated February 2013)
There is SO much to do at Walt Disney World...but if you're at the right place at the right time, there are some absolutely "magical" things that take place that only a few people get to see (because they're not at the right place at the right time). Here are 10 of them...
1. The Polynesian Resort's Lighting of the Torches
We've been to the Luau and the show is good. But for a free mini-show, be at the front of the Polynesian Resort's main building near dusk (call the resort to find the actual time): One of the performers from the show - a fire-twirler - puts on a little show and then runs through the resort's grounds, "lighting" the tiki torches throughout. While you're there, stroll across the grounds (very nice) and along the sandy shore next to the lagoon.
2. "Hidden" Paths at Animal Kingdom
So many people are used to running from one ride or show to another, that they fail to take all the side trails and paths that lead to many really neat places, including some amazing animals. The same thing goes on little paths surrounding the Tree of Life. Take the time to take the paths, especially if your children love animals.
3. Boat Transportation
There are lots of ways to get around Walt Disney World, but not that many people make use of the boats...and especially in the evening, they're a wonderful and relaxing (dare I say even romantic) diversion. There are lauches at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, the Wilderness Lodge, Port Orleans, the Boardwalk, Fort Wilderness Campgrounds and more. Hop a boat and see where it takes you...you can always turn around and return to your original spot.
4. Like Campfires without Camping?
If you're a resort Guest, you can head over to Fort Wilderness Campground (over by the Meadow Trading Post) for a nightly campfire and sing-along, led by Chip and Dale. Then, watch a couple of Disney movies on their outdoor screen. It's all free, and there's transportation to get you there and back (when you get there, take the internal bus system and get off at the Meadowlands Trading Post stop). Fort Wilderness also does (at a small charge) hour-long hayrides in the evenings, and also for a small charge, you can make smores (or bring your own supplies).
5. Let Your Birthday Boy or Girl Shine...
ANYtime your child (or child-at-heart) has a birthday during your stay at WDW, Disney celebrates. Tell the resort front desk know in advance...some wonderful things can take place in your hotel room that day (sometimes, things like balloons, autographed pictures of your child's favorite character, etc.). And if you go to City Hall just inside the Magic Kingdom, get your child a birthday button. Cast Members will oooh and ahhhh over your child all day long, and characters will pay particular attention to the special birthday girl or boy.
6. Have You (or Your Child) Recognized at Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor
During the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor show at the Magic Kingdom, the monsters will tell jokes sent in via text message. Of course you have a better chance if you use a monster or a Disney joke. The opportunity to do this is while in the queue line within the Laugh Floor waiting area, but you have a limited time...and if you're like me, trying to think of a funny joke in a minute or two isn't all that easy. So next time you go to Walt Disney World, have a joke or two on-hand. It'll probably be used!
7. The Live "Spontaneous" Shows
Throughout the parks, there are bands of singers, dancers, acrobats and various electronic creatures who "just show up," perform for 15-20 minutes, and then disappear. Hollywood Studios has a wonderful Streetmosphere (as does Main Street USA in both Disneyland and WDW's Magic Kingdom, especially in the morning). Now, even Disney's California Adventure has added Hollywood characters. The times for the shows are easily found out by getting information in the parks or by asking a Cast Member, but most Guests don't bother, so it's hit-and-miss.
8. Flag Retiring Ceremony in Magic Kingdom
For everyone, this is a moving event just inside the entrance - by City Hall Square. For veterans, even more-so. And if you're a U.S. veteran and are interested, you can check at City Hall (early in the day) about playing a part in this ceremony (one veteran is picked each day to assist in retiring the flag). Patriotic and taken very seriously by Disney.
9. Tom Sawyer's Island
Few people take the time to head from Magic Kingdom's Frontierland to this island. You have to take a raft there. But it's a great place for kids to run free (and there's shade for adults). Cast Members used to hide one of the paintbrushes Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn left behind on the island, but that practice has ceased...rumor has it that Disney is planning something different, so be watching.
10. The Animation Tour at Disney's Hollywood Studios
Fewer people take this tour these days, since Disney moved the animators out of Florida (and that's a shame). But it's still a pretty cool tour that features a segment borrowed from Disneyland, featuring one of the Cast Member "animators" and Mushu the dragon from "Mulan." Kids will appreciate the interaction between cartoon and human, and parents will get a nice air conditioned break.