No Strings: Solo Travel at Walt Disney WorldBy William J. Garmer Jr., Guest Columnist
I never particularly thought of myself as Pinocchio. I was always more the Peter Pan type in my mind -- I didn't want to grow up. Still don't, in fact. But when I began taking solo trips to Walt Disney World, I got that wonderful feeling of 'no strings' so strongly that I found myself avoiding Sea World for fear of the whales!What is it about a solo trip that is so appealing to me? Well, in order to understand that, you have to understand what my non-solo trips are like.
My first trip to Walt Disney World was in August of 1990. My friend Frank and his wife Terri went to Orlando several times a year to visit Terri's family in Kissimmee. Frank's enthusiasm for the Disney parks was so infectious, when they invited me to join them, I jumped at the chance.
I wound up tagging along with Frank and Terri on more trips over the next couple of years. But as much as I enjoyed those trips, I always had a desire to try Walt Disney World on my own. Growing up I went to local theme parks (Hershey Park or King's Dominion) every year. By the time I was 13 or so I was allowed to wander those small parks alone. This was a great feeling for me, freeing me from the need to ride only those rides that my family wanted to ride. On all my trips to Walt Disney World with friends, I always felt it would be impolite to ditch them.
My friends and I have similar, but not identical, taste in attractions and rides. They like thrill rides and roller coasters a lot, but I was always a "Coaster Chicken" (until Frank tricked me onto Space Mountain in 1990, but that's another story). My friends are very energetic and like to keep moving all day on a vacation, but I like to slow down and smell the roses, maybe even read a book or watch some TV. To Frank watching TV on vacation is only something you do to see tomorrow's weather report, and reading a book is a form of heresy!
Finally in early 1999, I decided to make a solo trip to Walt Disney World. I picked my dates, planned the trip out in advance, made all my reservations, and sat back to wait for the trip to arrive.
Aside from a few day-trips and overnights, this was the first time I had ever taken an out-of-town trip on my own. Added to the usual anticipation of a Disney trip was the added "specialness" of flying, which I love but don't do very often. The fact that my outbound travel day was my thirtieth birthday, and that my last two nights in Orlando would be my first at a Disney Moderate (the Caribbean Beach Resort) contributed to my excitement as well.
That trip was everything I had hoped it would be and more. Having been to Walt Disney World so many times before, I was fairly knowledgeable about the resorts, parks, and attractions, but for the first time ever, I was able to experience them at my own slower pace, in whatever order I decided, and to repeat a few of my favorites -- none of which I could do when touring with friends.
I had several completely new experiences on that trip, beginning with flying alone to a city 900 miles from home and checking into a hotel by myself. I've never been afraid to do things by myself, but I'd always had a safety net of family and friends to call upon that would not be there in Florida. Still, I was not terribly afraid of getting on the plane and flying away because I truly enjoy the experience of flying. But when I got off the plane and made my way toward the main terminal, I had my one and only moment of apprehension. As I looked out the windows and saw palm trees, it drove home the knowledge of just how far away from home I really was.
I took a few seconds to look out the windows and reassure myself that even though I was far from home, I was in a place that I knew very well, that I had visited many times before. By the time I got to my hotel, the Days Inn Lake Buena Vista, all I could think of was what to enjoy next.
I was apprehensive about driving myself around Walt Disney World and the surrounding area, because I tend to get lost on unfamiliar streets. But since I was staying at an off-site hotel for the bulk of the trip, I felt that I had no choice but to rent a car rather than rely on shuttle buses or taxis. Driving was not an issue, however, only navigation. With the help of a few good maps, I was able to get to my hotel without getting lost, and to drive around WDW and even up to Universal Studios during the week with only a few wrong turns.
I also found myself feeling a little awkward about eating in full-service restaurants alone. On that first solo trip, I only ate in one sit-down place, an off-site Sizzler, and stuck with counter-service the rest of the time. I have since overcome that discomfort, because I have found that wait staff in most restaurants, especially WDW restaurants, make a special effort to engage solo diners in conversation and to make their dining experience comfortable and enjoyable. I have also found a wonderful side-effect of dining alone - getting into a WDW restaurant with no advance Priority Seating is far easier for one person than for a group! On subsequent solo trips I have gotten into most restaurants with little or no wait.
Another new experience was taking a behind-the-scenes tour. I signed up a few months ahead of time for "Hidden Treasures," a tour of the World Showcase at Epcot, and as it turned out, the tour group that day was only five strong, so our tour guide was able to answer a lot of our questions in much greater detail than he would have with a larger group. Tours like this were not something I had ever considered when I traveled with my friends, because none of them had ever wanted to try one.
I found myself spending a lot of time simply sitting on benches, watching people go by. I really enjoyed sitting around, enjoying the Disney atmosphere, examining little details, listening to the background music, and relaxing in the warm Florida sunshine.
And I was able to go back to some of my favorite attractions and repeat them, while skipping some of those that I didn't care to try, just like my solo expeditions at other theme parks when I was a kid. Instead of forcing myself onto Tower of Terror because my friends wanted to go on, I repeated Star Tours. Instead of spending an hour in an arcade being bored while my friend Rick played video games, I wandered through shops and stores. And instead of hanging around as my friend Frank talked fish with the Cast Members at the Living Seas, a subject that has always left me high and dry, I went over to the Wonders of Life and saw Cranium Command again.
Since that trip in 1999, I have made five more solo trips, and have another in the works for next April. I'm now as hooked on solo trips as I am on trips to Walt Disney World. Hopefully I will be able to not only continue taking those trips for years to come, but to share the fun with others who may want to try solo trips, but feel nervous about traveling or touring WDW alone. I can assure you, there is nothing to be nervous about, and the wonderful benefits of a solo trip will soon eliminate any fears you might have.
This article appeared in our December 17, 2004 newsletter -- subscribe to our popular newsletter today for free!