I'm a Disney nut. My childhood memories are filled with Disneyland wonder – but I'm also a fairly independent traveler most of the time. My family likes to camp and go on road trips. I've always wondered if it was possible for someone like me to find the adventure I crave in a Disney vacation, sprinkled with some pixie dust. Now that we've taken a Disney cruise, visited Aulani, and spent lots of time at the Florida and California resorts, I feel qualified to compare the experiences.

Disney Vacations beyond the parks

12 Reasons to Love Disney Vacations

Adventure is out there! Disney vacations offer so many different, incredible sights. Beyond the parks, there are three distinct experiences: the Hawaiian resort at Aulani, Disney Cruise Line, and Adventures By Disney family guided tours. They're all totally different, but what ties them together is the storytelling and detail of authentic activities with a touch of Disney magic. After taking all of these trips and also comparing notes with my friends Heather and Allison through our partnership with Disney, I can see the many benefits of having Disney on your side at any destination.

Disney Vacations make everyone happy

Disney Vacations Make Everyone Happy

I think the thing I most appreciate is the way Disney integrates childhood and family into every aspect of their vacation options. There are touches of sophisticated nostalgia for grown-ups or solo travelers, kid-tailored activities for little ones, and the perfect balance of individuality so every personality gets a chance to shine.

Disney Vacation in Utah

You Can Go Just about Anywhere

I've been guilty of considering some destinations “off limits” with the kids, because I'm simply overwhelmed by the sheer logistics of figuring out transportation and sleep arrangements for my big family in a destination I don't know. With Adventures by Disney, they take care of all of that whether you're looking at rugged exploration through rivers and canyons (which can be daunting for trailblazers who aren't experienced in combining the great outdoors with the needs of little ones) or exploring a foreign culture with a different language. Disney lowers the barrier to entry by making every place accessible with expert guides who know everything about the destination.

Disney Contemporary Resort

You Can Still do the Parks

A lot of people get caught up in the choice between the Disney Parks and the other Disney vacation experiences. Why not do both? Disney offers so many trips, it's easy to arrange for your cruise to go out of Port Canaveral near Walt Disney World Resort, explore the splendor of the Pacific Coast, or stop off at an international Disney park such as Tokyo Disney or Disneyland Paris. We added a night at Disney's Contemporary Resort to watch the fireworks before we headed on to the Bahamas, and it was the perfect way to kick off our vacation. If you're already packing up and traveling, it's easy to see the parks while you're at it. Disney offers lots of services to help integrate and simplify your travels.

Disney Vacation service

The Service is Impeccable

The care and effort it takes to sort out vacation details – especially on a trip with multiple stops – is incredible. I've done a LOT of vacation planning, and even my most well-researched itinerary can't come close to the efficiency and exclusive access that the professionals can arrange. They take customer service seriously, covering every detail on active adventures as well as at the resorts. Little things like Mickey-shaped towel folds in our hotel rooms bring a little more magic to the experience. On Adventures by Disney trips, they're not as focused on the Mickey magic as the delight of a totally smooth family travel experience. Adventure Guides are always at the ready to rearrange schedules, hand over ponchos if the weather turns, dole out sunscreen and bug spray, and get your group in on VIP viewings that aren't available to the general public.

Disney Vacation at Aulani

Culture

This has always been my biggest hesitation when it comes to resorts and guided tours. Can I really experience the true, raw, real vibe of a place if someone else is polishing it up and guiding me through it? Turns out, the answer is yes. On our trip to Disney Aulani, we got to make poi, print stamps, get temporary tattoos and watch hula – all things I used to do at traditional luaus when I lived in Hawaii! When my friend Heather told me about her Adventures by Disney trip to Montana, I remarked over how similar her route was to my self-planned Yellowstone trip. But she didn't have to hassle with the details or have the reservation hassles that we dealt with. She also got to chat with experts who knew everything about the history of the area, AND she got to go horseback riding, tour in a stagecoach and see even more wildlife than I did. Side-by-side, her guided experience with Adventures by Disney was a lot more culturally rich than my individual trip.

Disney Vacation Food

Food

Allison and I are gluten-free, and the staff on all of our Disney vacations have gone above and beyond to make sure we were taken care of. Heather's vegan, and she's had the same experience both at the resorts and on her Adventures by Disney trips. Even within my own family, picks at the buffet or sit-down meals vary wildly. I want ALL the fruit and sides, the boys love starches like corn on the cob and pizza, while Nate is all meat, meat, meat. Food is definitely a big focus when we're on the road, and Disney doesn't disappoint. It's one less thing to think about, so we can enjoy our time together.

Disney Vacation characters

Characters

Characters at Aulani are totally chill, mingling with guests at breakfast and kicking back by the pool. On Disney Cruise Line, they're the leaders of the action as they cheer on epic dance parties and do formal meet-and-greets like the BIG-TIME celebrities they are. Adventures by Disney trips are definitely more about the destination and less about the characters – Goofy won't pop up on your tour bus. That being said, there are excursions that integrate the character experience, such as a trip to St. James Theatre to see the Frozen Broadway Musical during the New York City Long Weekend trip, or a visit to The Little Mermaid Statue on the Copenhagen pre-cruise adventure.

Disney Vacation snorkeling

Activities

Arranging an active day with kids can be challenging. That's why Disney takes care of it all, with tons of epic adventures that are totally family-friendly. Nate and I have gone snorkeling all over the world, from Costa Rica to Acapulco, but our favorite spots so far have been at Disney Cruise Line's Castaway Cay and at Aulani's saltwater lagoon. The Hawaiian resort has a 3,800-square-foot reef and a viewing window, so kids can watch and get used to the idea if they're feeling anxious. In the Bahamas, there's a ton of sunken treasure and even a hidden Mickey down on the ocean floor. On Adventures By Disney guided family tours, kids can take part in samurai training in Japan, canoeing in Ecuador, dog sledding on the Iditarod, caving in Ireland and more. Heather's daughters went zip-lining and rock climbing on their trip!

Disney Vacation childcare

Childcare

One of the things that Disney does really, REALLY well is child activities. Whether kids come solo, with friends or siblings, there are a ton of ways for them to have fun. Disney Cruise Line has a kids' club that kept our boys busy with epic dance parties, crafts and different themed spaces that they could pick and choose based on their interests. There are options for performers, makers, gamers – never a dull moment! Aulani had a similar space, and it was awesome for Nate and I to be able to drop the kids off and squeeze in some overdue date nights. On Adventures by Disney trips, there's usually at least one evening where kids are cared for by expert staff and parents can enjoy a meal on their own.

Disney Vacation as adults

Grown-up Connections

There are a ton of simple ways to integrate grown-up experiences into Disney vacations. Aside from the fact that Disney's childcare is EPIC, there are also amazing opportunities for adults to enjoy excursions or some simple downtime on their own. At Aulani, Nate and I stole away together from some upscale meals. On Disney Cruise Line, we made reservations at Palo, the adults-only restaurant. On top of that, we booked a verandah which was the perfect solution for keeping an eye on our toddler during naptime AND getting some space!

Disney Vacation photography

Vacation Photos

One of the things I love about the Disney parks is the PhotoPass opportunity, which lets you stop stressing about selfies and instead stop at a designated photo spot for a professional picture. Disney has extended that experience to Aulani with photo sessions that can be booked ahead of time. On Disney Cruise Line, there are photographers at various stations on the ship and occasionally wandering around the restaurants. With an Adventures by Disney trip, your Adventure Guide is always on-hand to capture the perfect family shot!

Disney Vacations and memories

You're Around People who Get It

People who book Disney vacation experiences tend to be people like us. They're sentimental about their own memories, and they want their children to grow up with Disney magic. They care about culture and food and experiences, too. They have a family of their own – or they don't mind being around families – so they totally get it when kids are cranky and in need of a nap. I've never experienced eyerolling when one of my kids throws a tantrum or gets overwhelmed. Disney travelers are generally compassionate, awesome human beings, which makes the whole experience that much more magical. It's the extra little pixie dust that puts a smile on everybody's face.

Check out what my friend Allison has to say about vacationing with Disney, and why Heather thinks everyone should go beyond the parks.

Have you ever been on a Disney vacation? What was your favorite part?