By Sarah Sekula, Published in GoEscape
Chances are, you’ve been spinning madly on teacups for years. You’ve encountered the Himalayan yeti at Animal Kingdom. And done your share of Dumbo flights. But, perhaps you haven’t gotten decked out as a pirate in Adventureland or seen the 9-pound lemons growing behind the scenes at Epcot. What about taking over the giant pool at Typhoon Lagoon and carving up a wave or two?
Dig a bit deeper at Disney, and you can up the fun factor significantly. Of course, you’ll fork over a bit more moola, but according to many Disney-goers, the experience is well worth the price.
Take Carina Graham from Winter Park, Fla. Last year, as a surprise for her son’s 10th birthday, she signed her family up for the Wild Africa Trek (starting at $189/person) and saw the grounds of the popular Kilimanjaro Safari attraction from another vantage point – by foot.
After checking in at Animal Kingdom (yes, you must pay park admission), it was a quick walk through the Pangani Forest, past naked mole rats and black-and-white colobus monkeys, to get to the starting point. Here, the tour group donned safari vests and filled up canteens.
(Photo: Kent Phillips/WDW)
And that’s when it got a lot less crowded and a little more rugged: The group said goodbye to pavement and hello to the Ituri Forest, a canopy of massive oaks, bamboo and a dozen hippos, one weighing in at 3,500 pounds.
“We were all surprised by how isolated we managed to feel,” Graham says. “Like we were not even at a Disney park.”
Then, the family (along with other folks on the tour; 12 max) was tethered to a sturdy iron rail, so they could safely stand on a platform about 12 feet above the mammoth creatures. Meanwhile, the guide tossed lettuce and other treats into the wide open mouths below.
“We were surprisingly close,” she says.
So close, in fact, you could count the hippos’ whiskers (if you weren’t so busy snapping photos).
And while the Grahams agree that was definitely a highlight, the coolest part of the experience came next when they shuffled across two seemingly rickety suspension bridges that bounced and swayed about 30 feet above a dozen crocodiles. As with the hippos, it was super exhilarating to be within a stone’s throw from such fierce and amazing reptiles, Graham says.
These types of behind-the-scenes tours take you away from the crowds and personalize the Disney experience.
“No one does it like Disney,” says Lou Mongello, host of the WDW Radio podcast. “And their premium experiences are no exception. There’s often an added element of surprise, as well. They always continue to go beyond what I had expected; I find myself laughing and smiling like a 7-year-old boy.”
Likewise, it’s easy to see why these out-of-the-ordinary excursions are so appealing, even if they do put an extra dent in your wallet.
“People like to feel like they are doing something extra special or something that others may not have done before,” Mongello says. “To say they took a private safari, went backstage or drove a Ferrari on a race track in Walt Disney World, these are the stories they can share with friends back home.”
And the tours are not just for land-lovers, either. Some have guests exploring underwater. In fact, when Lisa Barnes and her daughter, Dylan, signed up for the Epcot DiveQuest ($175/person, plus tax), they got kitted out in scuba gear and dove 25 feet into the 5.7 million-gallon saltwater tank. All guests must be scuba certified and 10 years or older.
Jam packed with 6,000 sea creatures of all sorts, this dive guarantees you’ll be surrounded by sea life – everything from sea turtles, angelfish, dolphins, eagle rays and yes, sharks. The pavilion’s 56 giant windows make it possible for friends and family to gawk at your underwater antics.
“We kneeled on the bottom where the sharks normally stay, and they just swam around us,” Barnes says. “They would come within inches of us; it was spectacular.”
Kaitlin Kilpatrick, a student at the University of Central Florida, made memories during surf lessons at Typhoon Lagoon ($165/person). The only drawback, she says, is the early wakeup call. Surf lessons take place at 5:45 a.m., before the park is open to guests.
“It was pretty strange to be walking into the park while the sun was barely in the sky,” Kilpatrick says. “And it was pretty strange to not be bumping into a hundred different people on our way down to the wave pool.”
Before actually getting in the water, up to 12 people learn proper paddling techniques, evaluate natural stance (goofy-footed or regular) and learn the best way to gracefully fall off the board. Then, surfers walk down the steps to the back of the pool where every 90 seconds a new wave pumps out. When they hear the monstrous whoosh of the wave machine, it’s time to paddle hard.
“I had thought that surfing would’ve been easier,” Kilpatrick admits, “but I nerfed it a bunch of times and almost lost my swim top.”
The best thing, she says, is that it’s safe. There are no sharks or undercurrents to worry about, and the boards provided are foam-topped rather than fiberglass.
Beyond these examples, there are dozens more boutique tours Disney fanatics can tack on to their vacations. You can swim with Atlantic bottlenose dolphins (starting at $199/person); take a spin on a Segway at Fort Wilderness ($90/person) or even set sail on a luxe yacht (starting at $480 an hour) on the Seven Seas Lagoon where you are treated to a private butler and a gourmet five-course meal.
One thing’s for certain: If you sign up for any of these bucket-list tours, you will definitely head back home with bragging rights and the photos to prove it.