Loving the Great Outdoors - Camping in Style at Fort Wilderness Resort and Campgroundby Rod Wheaton, contributing writer
In my previous article, I described the history that went into making the Fort Wilderness Campground. This time, let's look at what a modern stay at the Fort is like, and show why "roughing it" Disney style is not like any other kind of camping.
Guests arriving at the entrance gates to Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground are in for both a different Disney experience and a different camping experience right from the start. I remember the first time I took a deep breath and pulled my fifth wheel travel trailer all the way down from northern Virginia to the massive check-in gates at Reception Outpost. The tall, notched-log structures made me feel like I was riding onto a Davy Crockett story. I'd visited the "Fort" lots of times as a Disney guest from other resorts, but arriving for a stay felt like something completely different.
If you are someone who enjoys walking through the Magic Kingdom's Frontierland, you will feel right at home at Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. The cast member can easily get you checked in when you pull up to the check-in station. You don't even have to exit your vehicle, but it's so well worth it to get out and take a look around, especially if this is your first stay.
As you step away from the log towers of the recreational vehicle (RV) check-in lanes, the first thing you may notice is the themed music playing from speakers hidden in the grounds around you. Banjos, guitars, and fiddles set the Western frontier mood, and occasionally when you listen closely, you realize you are hearing a longtime familiar Disney classic song rearranged into a very country music version.
As you walk up the steps and into the very rustic-looking cabin that is the Reception Depot lobby and office, you can't help but feel you've left the world—and the buzz of theme park central Florida—all behind. Note the cast members in frontier garb, the frontier paintings on the wall. Somehow, the theme is done so well that even the HD TV playing cartoons for the kids seems completely in keeping with the log walls and Frontier setting. Despite the setting, though, don't be misled. Fort Wilderness has a concierge desk and helpful guest relations that provide the same services you may need that are available at any of the other Disney resorts.
After you check in, the relaxation truly begins. You drive through the tranquil 750-acre resort, passing long stretches of cypress trees and hanging Spanish moss, playgrounds, tetherball, and picnic areas—as I mentioned in my previous article, the man who was put in charge of developing Fort Wilderness when WDW was under construction, Keith Kambak, had been sent to environmental awareness classes as part of his training.
When you find your campsite, you notice how roomy it is, and how almost all sites have been designed to allow foliage and the natural beauty of Florida to grow in the spaces between them. You can thank Keith's training for that, as it was his intention to allow as much of natural Florida as possible to be part of the attraction of a Fort Wilderness stay.
You can take in the beauty of this place with a short visit while staying at a different WDW resort, so why do so many people like to "do" Disney this way? The answer is that you get a lot of benefits when you stay that you just cannot get in a day visit. For example, Fort Wilderness is the only pet-friendly WDW resort. Not just pet friendly, but downright welcoming and encouraging. Many of the loops are dedicated for those with pets, and there is even an off-leash dog park with water and food stations, where you can take your dog to run and play with other dogs. Many Fort Wilderness guests have met and made new friends here while relaxing with other pet owners.
Another aspect of camping at Fort Wilderness that is unique and unlike any other WDW resort experience is the sense of community. While the other resorts are wonderful and I still enjoy an occasional stay in them, I am like most Fort Wilderness guests, who enjoy the increased opportunities to interact with and meet other guests.
Those who bring their RVs are truly bringing a piece of home with them, and that home feel is distinctly present as you drive through the various camp loops and note the way visitors decorate their home-away-from-home while staying at WDW. Throughout the campgrounds, you see many personal touches, like string lights, homemade Mickey Mouse-shaped streetlights, flags, banners, and even wooden shingles hung out with names and hometowns of the campers. This is especially true during special events and holidays, when festive lights and decorations are everywhere, and impromptu "golf cart parades" give everyone a chance to laugh and enjoy the custom-decorated carts as they ride up and down in lines throughout the campground. Even the nature of camping lends itself to being outdoors often, and meeting neighbors and talking with those walking by on the loops. Those who visit WDW around the same time of year often find familiar faces in their neighborhood from previous stays.
For those who think camping is a "roughing it" experience, let me ease your mind. I sometimes smile when people ask me why we choose to camp instead of stay at a hotel when we vacation at WDW. Somehow in their minds, the idea of staying at a Disney campground is a dirty, hot, no-frills experience where you sleep on hard ground, and only eat hot dogs and potato chip. Not at all! When you arrive at your site, it's clean, swept, paved, and level.
The RV sites have full electricity, running water, air conditioning, and plumbing. There's a grill if you'd like to cook outdoors. The comfort stations are clean, air-conditioned, and beautifully tiled with paved stone floors. Suddenly "roughing it" isn't so rough at all.
On a recent trip, my best friend, who loves to cook, and who along with his family are almost always our Disney traveling buddies, walked over from his campsite with a plate of bacon-wrapped seared scallops with black pepper just before dinnertime, and said, "Here, try these. I just whipped them up as a snack before we eat." Later, as we all sat at our picnic table overlooking the water in the growing darkness, drinking wine by candlelight and eating home-made lasagna and garlic bread, we laughed at how everyone should give "roughing it" at Walt Disney World a chance.