6 Disney-themed vacation ideas that go beyond the theme parks

Disney's parks transport families to fantasy worlds, and immerse them in idealized lands of adventure, the past, and tomorrow.

But what about those who enjoy Disney, but are looking for something other than a theme park vacation? How about a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the parks with a tour of Walt Disney Imagineering? Or a chance to see props and costumes from the films at the Walt Disney Archives?

There are plenty of alternate Disney-themed family vacation options through the brand's travel division, Disney Signature Experiences, and guests won't need to set foot in a theme park for any of them.

Makers of the Magic: Walt Disney Studios and Imagineering

Walt Disney is quoted saying, “It was all started by a mouse.” But one could argue it really all started at the Studios and was designed by Walt Disney Imagineers.

A tour of the Walt Disney Studios in Southern California takes groups behind the scenes at the studios and archives in Burbank, Calif. Guests learn the history of Disney animation and film, and find plenty of artifacts including scripts, props, costumes, and even Oscars. The Walt Disney Imagineering campus just down the road in Glendale is crammed with artwork, models, sculptures, and technical wizardry that go into the Disney parks, resorts, and more.

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Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa on O’ahu is their first hotel off the mainland U.S. not associated with a theme park.

Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa on O’ahu is their first hotel off the mainland U.S. not associated with a theme park. (Dave Parfitt)

Hawaii: Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa

Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa on O’ahu, is their first hotel off the mainland U.S. not associated with a theme park, and it’s rooted in Hawaiian culture. During conceptualization, Imagineers consulted with cultural advisors to create an authentic Hawaiian experience. Yes, there are Disney characters around, but even Mickey Mouse and his friends are on vacation to soak up Hawaii.

Alyssa-Lende Kane, Aulani’s Disney ambassador, explained how each location in the resort was inspired by, and gives a sense of, Hawaiian culture.

For example, the ‘Ōlelo Room (pronounced oh-LEH-low) is a lounge that celebrates Hawaiian language. ‘Ōlelo is Hawaiian for “word” or “to converse,” so guests won’t find a TV here as the space is designed for families to gather around the table, share a meal, and learn a little of the Hawaiian language. The room is filled with carved wooden objects labeled with their Hawaiian names. There are even words on the walls, chairs, and the ground — such as "puka hale" (window), "noho" (sit), "papahele" (floor). Everyone who works in the ‘Ōlelo Room must speak Hawaiian, too.

Of course, those traveling to this luxury resort development expect a pristine beach, serene swimming lagoon, and the beautiful landscapes associated with Hawaii. Aulani contains all that, and also includes spacious, Hawaiian-inspired rooms; a full-service spa with the only outdoor hydrotherapy garden on the island; multiple restaurants offering fine-dining to Disney character buffet options; an innovative high-tech kids club and an expansive water-play area surrounding a “volcano"; and the only private saltwater snorkeling lagoon on O’ahu.

As part of the Alaska itinerary, Disney Cruise Line guests explore Musher’s Camp at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway.

As part of the Alaska itinerary, Disney Cruise Line guests explore Musher’s Camp at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway. (Matt Stroshane, courtesy Disney)

Alaska: America’s 'Last Frontier'

Adventures by Disney takes families from Anchorage to Denali during an 8-day excursion. Along the way, guests can learn about the culture of Native Alaskan people, kayak and bike along the coastline, hop aboard a dome car on the scenic Alaskan Railroad, snuggle with sled dog puppies, and more. In addition, Disney Cruise Line sails from Vancouver via Alaska’s inside passage calling on Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, Icy Strait Point, Hubbard Glacier and Endicott Arm.

Ashley Long, Cruise Director on the Disney Wonder described the experience as two vacations in one. “You get Disney entertainment, shows, and stories, on board,” Long described, “all while experiencing the natural splendor and adventurous spirit of Alaska.” Starting in 2020, you can also add an Adventures by Disney package to an Alaskan Disney Cruise with special experiences both on and off the ship.

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U.S. and Canadian National Parks

Guided trips to Grand Canyon, Arches, Grand Teton, Yellowstone National Parks, as well as Canada’s Banff National Park, are fun ways to get outdoors while keeping the same Disney magic. Their Arizona and Utah vacation embraces the spirit of the Old West, taking families to Grand Canyon National Park, Arches National Park, and down the Colorado River. Multiple available itineraries visit Yellowstone National Park. In addition to Yellowstone, their Montana vacation takes you glamping under the stars, and the Wyoming vacation adds the Tetons to the national park destinations. (The Winter in Wyoming Escape shares another perspective, visiting two national parks under a blanket of snow.) Finally, families can experience Banff National Park from the ground, on the water, and in the air during the Canadian Rockies adventure.

European Cruises by River and Sea

Families can cruise through the Mediterranean, Northern and Western Europe, the British Isles and Norwegian Fjords all with Disney Cruise Line.

Kristoff, Anna, and Elsa from Disney’s “Frozen” at the Sunnmøre Museum in Ålesund, Norway.

Kristoff, Anna, and Elsa from Disney’s “Frozen” at the Sunnmøre Museum in Ålesund, Norway. (Dave Parfitt)

In 2016, Adventures by Disney partnered with AmaWaterways to sail through central Europe along the Danube River. Since that time, the partnership expanded to offer Rhine, Rhône, and Seine river cruises. These European cruises focus on the countries and cultures, but you will find some Disney touches along the way, such as Anna, Elsa & Kristoff from Disney’s “Frozen” appearing at an open-air, living history museum in Norway, or the little town in the quiet village of Riquewihr along the Rhine in France that served as the inspiration for Belle’s hometown in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

Other International Destinations with Adventures by Disney

Since 2005, Disney's tourism arm has offered guided group trips to over 30 destinations around the world on six continents. These “bucket list” vacation destinations include South Africa, Machu Picchu, the Italian ruins of Pompeii, Australia’s Outback, the Great Wall of China, and Japan, just to name a few.

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Budapest's Chain Bridge and Buda Castle from the Danube River.

Budapest's Chain Bridge and Buda Castle from the Danube River. (Dave Parfitt)

Whether it’s a trip to Aulani in Hawaii, a Disney Cruise to Alaska, or cultural experiences in Japan, families can still expect the same fun-filled  Disney magic on their next vacation — even without going to one of its parks.