When you head to a Disney theme park, whether it's Walt Disney World in Orlando, Disneyland in California, or any of its various other parks around the world, you probably know the game plan. You'll go on a few rides, eat a , and have your kids pose with their favorite characters. But you might be missing out on some incredible experiences without even knowing it. If you look closely and ask around, Disney parks have a world of secrets that can make your vacation even more magical. Here are just a few hidden gems.
The next time you're stuck waiting in line for a ride, look around and try to spot Mickey Mouse. Chances are you'll find him somewhere. There are thousands of "hidden Mickeys" everywhere you go at Disney parks, and there are 1,250 at Disney World in Orlando alone. Usually they take the shape of the three-circle Mickey silhouette, and are snuck in by Disney staffers (called "Imagineers") who build rides and other parts of the park.
, author of , says they were started in the 1970s, when Epcot was being built. Walt Disney didn't want the park to seem too childish, so he didn't want cartoon characters around. But Imagineers went behind his back and inserted subtle images of Mickey, and eventually everyone caught on. Now, it's an official part of the parks.
And there's one hidden Mickey you can only see once a year, at a very specific time. Inside the Little Mermaid ride at Fantasyland, Imagineers drilled three holes in the ceiling that become the perfect Mickey at noon on November 18, which is officially Mickey's birthday. "If you're at that spot, the sun will shine through those holes and create a three-circle Mickey image, at about knee level on the wall," Barrett says. "So far it's appeared every year. It's an amazing thing."
According to the , several restaurants throughout Disney parks have secret menus they'll bring you, as long as you ask for it. For example, Cove Bar at Disneyland has a secret drink menu, with cocktails like the Fun Wheel Cocktail and the Neverland Tea on offer.
And in Disney World, there are secret nachos at Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Café at Magic Kingdom. It serves 6-8 people and costs a whopping $85, and restaurant workers have to escort you to a special table to serve you the nachos, which come in their own covered wagon.
Every spring and fall, Disney obsessives dress up for at both the California and Orlando parks. Since 2011, people have dressed in fancy and sometimes vintage outfits to go on the rides, inspired by when guests showed up in their Sunday best in the '50s and '60s.
Other special, but unofficial events include for the LGBT community, in which attendees wear red, where guests dress up in spooky "goth" looks and for Doctor Who fans.
If you don't mind spending extra money and want a unique view of Disney, you can book several private tours of parts of the parks you'd never get to see otherwise. Robert Niles, editor of , recommends booking a tour of Epcot's greenhouse, where they grow food they serve in the park. (There's a boat ride open to everyone, but this is a little more exclusive.) And at the pavilion in Epcot, you can get in a tank and swim with fish and marine mammals, though you have to be SCUBA certified first. At Animal Kingdom, you can ride in a smaller vehicle to get up close and personal on safari, and then eat a meal in the middle of it all.
"There are all these opportunities to have a much more intimate experience with the parks than you would have just a regular guest," Niles says. "Obviously you will pay extra for this, but the prices can be reasonable, and it gives you the opportunity to see something special and gives you a little bit of bragging rights." You can check out which tours are available on Disney's website.
Is it your birthday? Anniversary? First time visiting? Just let a park worker (or "cast member," in Disney lingo) know and you'll get a free button. If you're coming with kids, get in line early for incredible free experiences like Jedi training at Hollywood Studios and pirate makeovers at Magic Kingdom. The parks sometimes offer custom experiences based on the newest Marvel movie, and your kid can get a certificate or trinket at the end. And if you head to Animation Academy at California Adventure, you can sit down with your family and take a 15-minute animation class for free, and keep your results.
If you get to the front of the Tower of Terror line and have a change of heart, don't worry — there's an exit for you. Jill Safro, editor of , calls them "chicken exits," which are available at rides for people who change their minds at the last minute. There's also a "child swap" section (which isn't unique to Disney) where families can stay in line together, then one parent can ride the ride while the other takes the kids aside, and then the grown-ups can swap so they both get the experience.
Walking around Disney can become an interactive game if you know who to ask. is a way to make your jaunts around the park into an actual activity. The plot goes like this: Disney villains are trying to take over the park, and it's up to you to save everyone. Just stop by the Firehouse on Main Street USA to get nine quests, a Sorcerer Key Card, spell cards and Merlin's map, which gives you clues to 20 "magic portals" throughout the park. Unlock those portals and defeat the villains that pop up — and the best part is it doesn't cost you anything extra. "A lot of people collect them, and then you can bring them back next year," says Jill Safro, editor of . "People are constantly on a quest to get them, and a new sort of trading game has sprung up."
Look out, Mickey: According to the , a group of feral cats calls the Happiest Place on Earth home. And though the park wouldn't comment to the newspaper other than to confirm the cats exist, workers reportedly credit the felines with bringing down the rodent population in the park. If you're looking to spot one, wait until the sun sets — that's when they apparently come out.
On-site hotels have a lot more to do than just character breakfasts. Niles recommends hitting up the hotels for some of the best dining in the entire resort, and if you plan in advance — and dress up — you can check out one of the highest rated restaurants in the state of Florida, the Victoria & Albert at the Grand Floridian hotel. "You can have this five-star, nationally acclaimed dining at Disney World, and people aren't necessarily aware of it," Niles says. "Don't stumble in with shorts and flip-flops; wear a suit or a dress, and make a reservation in advance." Even if you're not feeling that fancy, there are lots of great dining options at hotels, and you don't have to stay at that specific one to eat there.
And when you're not eating, . Also worth booking in advance is the Hoop Dee Doo Musical Revue at Fort Wilderness Resort, a dinner theater show with singing, dancing, and comedy. Nearly every hotel has a pool, and some hotels will show movies outdoors at night, or have campfires with s'mores on hand. If your hotel is by the water, you might even be able to rent a boat or jetski.
If you're looking to avoid the worst crowds, it's best to show up at a Disney park bright and early, or hang around until the place closes. And the parks know that, too. If you're staying at an onsite hotel, you can take advantage of Extra Magic Hours. At Disneyland, this means you can get in an hour early, while at Walt Disney World, you might either get to show up early or stay late at a different park each day.
This summer, there are extended late hours at the newest section of Walt Disney World, Pandora: World of Avatar, meaning you could check out the amazing lights through midnight. Even if you're not staying at the hotel, you can show up earlier than the park opening time at Magic Kingdom and wander around the Main Street USA section — then watch an opening ceremony at Cinderella's Castle.