Enjoying the Outdoors the Disney Way: Disney's Wilderness Lodge and Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn

by Rod Wheaton, contributing writer

This past summer, my family and I got to engage in a storied cultural pastime: the Great American Road Trip. We were moving from the Washington, D.C. area to Gulf Coastal Florida, and decided it was the right time to before the big move to cross a big item of the bucket list and see some of America's greatest national parks.

We would be heading through most of the Rocky Mountain parks, from Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, all the way north to Montana's Glacier National Park. One of the most anticipated for me personally, being a Disney fan, was the Old Faithful Inn, located in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

Nestled within Yellowstone National Park is Old Faithful Inn. Photo by Rod Wheaton.

Walt Disney was known for loving the American West. For his generation, the Western genre was a primary source of entertainment, from dime novels to the black-and-white television series of the 1950s and beyond. The influence of Western lore could be seen in a lot of Walt's and the studio's work, from the Pecos Bill cartoon short to Frontierland's development in Disneyland.

Walt was an avid horseback rider, and loved to rest and relax away from the studios at his getaway, the Smoketree Ranch. And pictures abound of Walt in Western garb, be it at the Diamond Horseshoe Revue or any number of other occasions.

American heritage, the frontier, and Western lore naturally become firmly embedded in the Disneyland experience, and it was carried over into Walt Disney World's development. Not only was Frontierland a featured land of the Florida Magic Kingdom, but the theme was carried over in the development of Disney's Wilderness Lodge.

Ideas had been kicked around for creating another Western-themed area for years, but had all been gradually shelved. The need for another deluxe resort, though, presented opportunities. Imagineers wanted a resort that could encompass the look and feel of the American wilderness, but more in the spirit of America's national parks.

The sweeping high views inside the Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn and the wood railings should be quite familiar to guests of Disney's Wilderness Lodge. Photo by Rod Wheaton.

Disney flew designers and Imagineers to the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park in California, as well as Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn. Peter Dominick, the chief designer, borrowed heavily from the Old Faithful Inn, and the result is the beautiful lodge that guests (including my family) love today. The reason the Disney geek inside was so excited about that leg of the road trip was that for the first time, I would be able to get a first-person look and compare how Disney's Wilderness Lodge stacked up next to its inspiration.

As my family pulled into the Old Faithful visitor's area, we could see right away, even from a distance, its striking visual resemblance to Disney's Wilderness Lodge back in Orlando. My teenage son remarked that, except for the missing "hidden bear face" in Disney's Wilderness Lodge, the two looked nearly identical.

The inside lobby of Disney's Wilderness Lodge, grander in size but faithful to its inspiration. Photo by Rod Wheaton.

As we got closer, we admired the old wooden architecture, as well as the stone work that were chilled out and laid in place by workers a century ago. Finally, we got to step inside and get a first-hand look.

When Disney's Wilderness Lodge first opened in 2000, one of first things that grabbed the awestruck gasps of guests was the sweeping grandeur of the lobby, from its high ceiling to the wood architecture. What grabs many people's attention is the huge fireplace in the corner.

The fireplace at Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn serves as the inspiration for the grand fireplace at Disney's Wilderness Lodge. Photo by Rod Wheaton.

So as we walked into the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone, the first thing that struck us was that, despite the amazing and obvious resemblance between the Old Faithful Inn and Disney's Wilderness Lodge, there is a tremendous difference in scale. That's not to say one is better than the other. Disney's Wilderness lodge was created to house a large number of guests on a continuing basis at the most traveled to spot on Earth. On the other hand, the Old Faithful Inn, despite large summer crowds, is a far more intimate building.

There are all the familiar features in the lobby we had seen countless times in Disney's Wilderness Lodge: the wooden hand rails, the sweeping high ceiling, and yes, the grand fireplace. Yet, they were all smaller, closer. Yet, rather than feeling disappointed or comparing negatively to Disney's larger version back east, the Old Faithful Inn held an intimate charm that couldn't be denied. The warmth and appeal made you want to find a spot in the middle of the rustic elegance, and sit to simply enjoy the atmosphere, much as we see people do at Disney's Wilderness Lodge.

Although not a carbon copy, the fireplace at Disney's Wilderness Lodge is clearly inspired by the fireplace at Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn. Photo by Rod Wheaton.

Strolling the grounds around the Old Faithful Inn gives you an opportunity to look at real, sulfurous spouting geysers. The calcium and mineral deposits all around the geyser openings looked nearly identical to their imagineered counterparts back at Disney's Wilderness Lodge.

What the trip out west to see the Old Faithful Inn firsthand did for me was give me a true glimpse into the painstaking details that the Imagineers sought for authenticity. Until seeing it myself, I had almost made the assumption that the Disney version was likely exaggerated or perhaps over the top. Seeing the inspiration though, showed us that instead, the Imagineers had really gone to great lengths and gotten it right. I've often admired the work of those who create Disney magic. This trip solidly reinforced that feeling.



  1. By chad386

    Thanks for the great article. I had heard about the similarities in the 2 hotels; did not realize it was that striking. It is probably my favorite resort.

    One correction: Disney's Wilderness Lodge opened May 28, 1994. Not 2000 as the article suggests. The villas expansion I believe opened in 2000.

  2. By Lani

    We went to Yellowstone earlier this summer. Although we didn't stay at Old Faithful Inn, we went inside to get us some snackies (note: Them snackies are muy expensivo!).

    I remember appreciating the decor, but did not think about the connection to Wilderness Lodge! The one in Yellowstone is a little smaller and maybe more rustic, but it was wonderful nonetheless.

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