Loving the Great Outdoors the Disney Way - Enjoying Life Around Fort Wildernessby Rod Wheaton, contributing writer
While I've spent the last several months talking about why staying at Fort Wilderness is a treat, I want to take a little time to talk about some of the unique things to do at Fort Wilderness that not only are a great way to enjoy yourself, but also have very interesting histories. For this month's column I want to highlight just two: The Tri Circle D Ranch, and the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue.
The Tri Circle D Ranch
The Tri Circle D Ranch is a hidden gem not too well known outside of regulars to the Fort, and if you haven't been there you should take the time to visit. One of the great things about it is that not only do you get to see the very horses used around the park to pull trolleys and wagons, but you get to see how Walt Disney himself had a great love for horses.
Walt Disney had considerable experience with horses as a young man, not only because he lived in farm country as a boy, but also because he was an avid Polo player in his early Hollywood years. Later on he would taking horseback camping trips with groups including the likes of Bob Hope, Clark Gable, Ronald Reagan and other Hollywood luminaries of the time.
Walt's love of horses naturally prompted him to want to have them in his park. He even tried creating guest experiences with ponies and mules, but eventually had to abandon those because the animals could be difficult, and sometimes were even given to the habit of nipping at guests. Still, Walt found ways to put the animals he loved to good use.
Early on—four years before Disneyland would open—Walt hired Owen Pope and his wife Dolly to train horses for Disneyland. And so it was that after accepting the job, Owen and his wife literally moved into a trailer located on the Disney studios property; and then just a few days before the opening of Disneyland into a house located behind Fantasyland. The dog used as a model for Tramp from the Disney classic "Lady and the Tramp" actually lived in that house with the Popes; the house still exists today, although it is no longer a residence. Sixteen years later with the even bigger project of Walt Disney World in Florida, the Popes were again invited to move and assist with establishing the Tri Circle D Ranch in Fort Wilderness, where they continued until they retired in 1975.
Today the Tri Circle D (the Tri Circle brand being shaped as a classic "Mickey") is in two sections, one at the entrance to the Fort, where guided horseback tours are available, and the second is near Pioneer Hall. It is this second location that I've always loved the most, for several reasons. For one, when my children were small they always loved to take pony rides next to the petting zoo, and once they had their rides, we would walk over to the stables. At the stables, you can go inside and see magnificently beautiful animals enjoying down time in their stalls. I remember how my children's eyes would light up looking at them, and although signs are posted to not pet the animals, the horses would often extend out to sniff at and nuzzle us as we walked around.
There is another great reason to visit this barn. Tucked inside on the right is a little room, which is easy to miss if you don't pay attention. In this room is probably the best glimpse other than at One Man's Dream into Walt Disney as a person. There are photos of Walt with horses, Walt dressed as a cowboy, and other memorabilia that show the long-standing association and affection Walt had with Horses. Of all the hidden treasures of Fort Wilderness, this is one of the best.
Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue
Just this past September the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue had its 40th anniversary after more than 37,000 dinner show performances in its own special corner of the Fort Wilderness campground. The Revue actually started in June of 1974, and it was only supposed to be a three-month experiment. Walt Disney World was still very new, and unlike the world vacation destination we know now, it was still a relatively small and undeveloped place. It was so undeveloped, in fact, that Disney management realized there was very little to do that would keep guests on property in the evenings after the parks closed. Guests were leaving Disney property to go spend their money and be entertained elsewhere.
To try to keep guests on property, Disney entertainment managers threw together a stage show to play at Fort Wilderness. Since the cast was primarily made up of college students temporarily working at Walt Disney World on summer break, it was only envisioned as a temporary gig for the duration of the summer season. Marilyn Magness played Dolly Drew in the original cast, and neither she nor anyone else expected to make it past that initial three months. Instead, the Vaudeville-meets-Old West dinner show was an immediate hit, and was made a regular part of Disney entertainment in its permanent setting at Pioneer Hall on September 5, 1974.
What is the appeal of the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue? It is an upbeat, positive, and sometimes simply corny show that families can enjoy together while having a good down-home meal. I remember going to the show as a teenager with my parents and siblings, and it was such a highlight of our family trips that we would go back year after year as a family tradition. Some people return repeatedly to enjoy the simple fun of the singing, dancing, and obvious camaraderie among the players. The show has been so popular that it has changed very little in the 40 years it has been entertaining guests. One of the biggest changes came in 1979 when a new musical number was added to introduce strawberry shortcake for dessert rather than apple pie.
Even though the show has remained largely unchanged, the performers remain flexible, adding inside jokes and Disney references within the routine—most recently including some "Frozen" references. Today, 40 years later, one of the original cast members, Miss Marilyn Kay Magness (mentioned earlier) still works for Disney. She's the executive creative director of Disney parks. If you want to have an evening of family fun and good entertainment, not to mention a good meal, make plans to go see the Fort's own Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue.