Loving the Great Outdoors - The History of Fort Wilderness Resort and Campgroundby Rod Wheaton, contributing writer
For many people, the idea of a Walt Disney World vacation brings various images to mind, like the energy and excitement of the parks and the beautiful resorts, or dining experiences, from fine dining to a refreshing Dole Whip or a Mickey bar while relaxing by the pool. But what most people would not associate with their WDW vacation is camping.
When WDW opened in 1971, my very young parents loaded up the car and their little boy (me) and took that long ride down Interstate 95 on the very first vacation either of them had ever taken. From their first stay in the Polynesian Village Resort, they were hooked. Over the years as more siblings were born and the family grew, WDW was our place to come to as a family, and as soon as one trip ended, we started the long countdown to the next.
For my family, the Polynesian Village was our "home resort," long before the days of the Disney Vacation Club. Camping in WDW was the furthest thought from any of our minds. So how did we wind up moving from the Deluxe accomodations of the "Poly" to now considering Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground our Disney home?
Well, let's go back to the beginning.
Early in his vision, it is said Walt himself wanted people to come and visit his new "Florida Project" and have the option of staying in everything from a sleeping bag to a luxury suite. He wanted everyone to experience their visit in the way they enjoyed most. He also appreciated the extreme natural beauty of Central Florida, and knew there would be many who wanted a vacation experience closer to nature.
Back home away from WDW, my family, like a lot of families, went camping a lot. Living in Virginia gave us access to camping in beatiful places in the mountains, and along the coast, but it wasn't until I was grown and had children of my own that I decided to hitch up the RV, load the kids and the dachshunds, and combine two of my favorite things by heading for Fort Wilderness Campground in WDW.
What led to taking that leap? Even during the years we stayed at the Polynesian, we used to go visit Fort Wilderness a lot during our stay. Even then, we could see what an amazing, special place it truly was. Nestled on Bay Lake on 750 acres, the Fort Wilderness Resort is a peaceful oasis of tranquility and beauty, a world apart from the hustle, bustle, and crowds of the parks. Many times we would catch that short boat ride away Polynesian's docks and head to Fort Wilderness. We'd spend afternoons watching herons fly across the waters, riding a horse, or paddling a canoe through the tall, cool Cypress trees. In the evenings we could watch a movie on an outdoor screen with the whole family, or even just sit in a rocking chair on the shady front porch of Crockett's Tavern and listen to the breezes blowing through the palm fronds. Looking back on how much I'd always loved the "Fort," the better question might be, what took me so long to give camping there a try?
History of Fort Wilderness
True to style, Disney wanted its campground to be a new and different experience that would be unlike any other. According to Marty Skalr's book Dream it, Do it!, Operations Chief Dick Nunis called in Keith Kambak, a Disneyland employee with a degree in recreation. Nunis asked Kambak if he had any experience at campgrounds. Kambak had none, and thought this would disqualify him from the new project. To Disney Operations, though, the lack of experience was a plus. They wanted to create something new and better, and didn't want to simply follow current industry standard. They wanted to discover what worked best in the industry and even improve on it.
Nunis promptly sent Kambak off on a six-month research trip touring the country from campground to campground, learning and observing the best practices from all. Nunis also sent Kambak to environmental classes, which later helped Keith develop the philosophy that the campground should be built in a way that would accentuate the land's natural beauty.
Arriving in Florida in the spring of 1971, Kambak found the area where Fort Wilderness was to be built was still essentially untouched wild lands. The opening of Walt Disney World was only a few months away, and construction on the resort hotels and the park were woefully behind. The priority to complete the campground was not perceived as high as the need to make sure that the resort hotels were open and ready for the anticipated crowds.
Soon, Kambak was losing his construction workers to the resort hotels. Kambak, in charge of getting the campground built, could see he had an enormous job ahead, and he literally moved in by setting up a trailer and living on site.
Marty Sklar relates in the same book how years later, Kambak recalled in an interview that as priorities shifted away from his project, he had to devise more and more clever ways to get materials and resources. This included "appropriating" tools and materials intended for other places within WDW, often in the evening hours when everyone else had gone home. When Keith and his crew would spy materials or tools they needed and couldn't get them by official means, he and his men would go at night by boat or truck and load up what they needed to take back to the campground project. Antics like these earned his crew the nickname "Kambak's Raiders."
One infamous raid arose when Kambak needed office equipment and couldn't get any. He knew the legal department always seemed able to get anything it needed, so late one night, they raided the legal department office and carted off the desk and all the office furniture. According to Kambak, they even unloaded all the filing cabinets and drawers and left the contents stacked up on the floor. He humorously recalled that he wasn't sure if the legal department ever figured out what happened.
Their efforts paid off. Fort Wilderness campground may not have opened on October 1, 1971 with the rest of WDW, but it was able to open only one month later with 250 campsites. Its rustic appeal, comfortable theming, and pristine setting in the Florida naturescape almost immediately made it a hit not only with visitors, but with locals as well.
A Different Experience
Today we get to keep benefitting from the foresight and efforts that went into the creation of Fort Wilderness. A camping trip at WDW is a different experience than a common camping trip. Fort Wilderness Campground is consistently voted as one of the very best campgrounds in the entire country, and with good reason. To put it mildly, this is not your father's campground.