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You Can Take the Girl out of the City, But...
Senior Editor, ALL EARS®
article first appeared in the
February 17, 2004, Issue #230 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
Let me say up front that I am a City Girl. My idea of roughing it at Walt Disney World is spending the night at a Holiday Inn instead of a Disney resort. So why in the world would I want to spend my Walt Disney World vacation at the Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground? Well, partially in the name of research (the sacrifices I make for my readers), partially out of curiosity, and partially because it's my goal to stay at every WDW resort at least once (I'm getting there).
When I learned that there was an Annual Passholder rate of $149/night (including tax) for the Wilderness Cabins this winter, I figured this would be as good a time as any to give them a try -- they're usually $229/night during value season, and as much as $329/night during the holiday season.
My family and I arrived in Orlando on a glorious and warm Friday morning in February, flying in from frosty Northern Virginia. We had elected to not rent a car, against my better judgment and the advice of friends who had stayed at Fort Wilderness before -- but I wanted to see for myself just what the internal transportation at the campground was like. I'd heard horror stories.
Our Tiffany Town Car dropped us off at the Reception Outpost and we oohed and aahed over the gorgeous landscaping and colorful wildflowers planted all around the building, appealing to the latent nature-lover in me. From the "HOWDY" emblazoned across the welcome mat as we crossed the threshold, to the cheerful banjo music playing in the background, the rustic theme was carried out in true Disney fashion... Our Fort Wilderness adventure began.
Check-in at Fort Wilderness (FW from here on) is handled just as it is at any Disney resort. As we waited in the queue, we took note of the stone fireplace and rough-hewn rocking chairs, the wood paneling and the other homey touches around the room. Cast Member Scott greeted us jovially with corny jokes, maps of the grounds and bus routes, and the Fort Wilderness Gazette, which was chock full of other information that we'd need during our stay. Even though we were checking in around 10:30 in the morning, our cabin was ready and within a few minutes a minivan swung by to take us and our luggage to the room. (Had we been driving, we would have been able to drive directly to our cabin, with parking right there.)
As we drove to our cabin, along a road lined with tall, dark pines and cypress trees dripping with Spanish moss, I held my breath. What was it going to be like? Was it going to be TOO rustic and isolated for me? Would I feel like I was trapped in remote woods in a bad remake of "The Blair Witch Project?" Or would it be an idyllic wilderness retreat, à la a visit to Walton's Mountain?
I found the answer soon enough: It was somewhere in between.
Clustered on side roads that loop around and back, the Wilderness Cabin exteriors have been made to look like genuine log cabins. Faux logs are clapped around what looks to be modified trailers, measuring approximately 12' by 42'. Outside each cabin there's a deck with a picnic table and a charcoal grill, for some back-to-nature outside dining. Although the cabins are fairly close together, there's enough space between them to keep things private, and the surrounding woodsy areas help you perpetuate the feeling that you're all alone out there.
Indoors we found why Disney classifies this as a "Home Away from Home" resort -- we had most of the comforts of home, with plenty of room for as many as six people.
Starting at one end of the cabin: The bedroom had a double bed on one wall, with a bunk bed against the other. There was a closet space, with iron, ironing board, vacuum cleaner, extra pillows and blanket. There was also a chest of drawers, as well as a mirror and vanity area tucked into one corner that's home to a very powerful wall-mounted hair dryer.
The bathroom had a more than adequate supply of towels and washcloths stored under the sink, and the full bath/shower was spotless. In the hallway, there was a closet that held a porta-crib and sheet, as well as a broom and dustpan, and sponge mop (not that I planned on doing any cleaning while I was on vacation).
The full kitchen had some pleasant surprises -- full-sized refrigerator with icemaker, electric stove, dishwasher, microwave oven, and both 4-cup and 10-cup coffee makers, as well as dinnerware for six, pots and pans, a toaster, a tea kettle and more. There were also three kitchen chairs around the kitchen table that looked as though they'd been fashioned from tree branches, along with an upholstered bench that would seat three more.
The living area was a little on the cramped side, but for good reason. Hidden in the wall was a full Murphy bed, which, when pulled down, took up most of the room. A loveseat faced the television, and two kid-sized chairs and a table were against the opposite wall.
As we settled in to the cabin, we found ourselves to be quite comfortable, but we did find a few shortcomings. The main drawback can be summed up in one word: DARK. The decor was styled around all dark colors, as one might expect in a cabin in the woods -- lots of browns, burnt oranges, forest greens, dark wood paneling. But more than that, there was very little light in the cabin. Because you're nestled amongst trees, the rooms were dark even when there was full sunshine outside -- very little light filtered in. In addition, it seemed that all the lightbulbs in the place were low wattage. I'm all for saving energy, but even with all the lights lit, a flashlight would have come in handy. And that's not exaggerating -- there was no light at all in the hallway, making it nearly impossible to see the thermostat when you wanted to make an adjustment.
But aside from that, the primary shortcoming of the cabin was the chief problem with Fort Wilderness itself -- transportation.
There is no automobile traffic allowed within FW. That is, you can drive to your cabin or campsite, but you can't drive your car from, say, your cabin to one of the trading posts. You have to either ride an internal bus, a bike (you can rent them), or a golf cart (you can rent these, too -- about $45/day). Sure, you could also walk, as we did one brisk morning. From our cabin in the 2400 loop, it was more than 1.75 miles round-trip to the Meadow Trading Post. We love to walk, so it was no real hardship for us (although we wouldn't have complained if it had been 20 degrees warmer), but for others who aren't as keen on walking, it would be no fun at all.
As we learned, having a car when you're staying at FW is the way to go. It affords you the freedom to go anywhere else on Disney property without much planning -- you just pile in the car and go. Without a car, getting to the parks takes some thought and planning... and time. This was our biggest frustration during our stay, and really limited how much we were able to see and do this trip.
There are three color-coded internal bus routes: Purple, Orange and Yellow. Purple runs through the cabin loops, connecting them with the Outpost Depot (near Reception) and the Settlement Depot (near the marina at the opposite end of the resort); the other buses pass by the campsite loops. If you want to get to the Magic Kingdom or the Disney-MGM Studios, you take a bus to the Settlement Depot and either catch the launch (to MK) or another bus (to the Studios). If you're going to Animal Kingdom or Epcot, you take the Purple bus to the Outpost Depot, then connect with the appropriate bus. If you want to go to another resort? That's a challenge.
Getting to the Wilderness Lodge or the Contemporary isn't too hard -- you simply catch the launch at the marina. (In fact, we had one of the most Magical Moments of our trip doing this one night -- we boarded the launch just as Wishes was starting at the MK, so that all those dazzling fireworks were straight ahead of us as we sailed toward the Contemporary.) But if you want to visit another resort your options are limited, and time-intensive, involving a number of transfers. Better to call a Yellow Cab (they give you the number in your FW Gazette), and meet it at the Reception Outpost. We did this one night and found ourselves transported to the WDW Swan in under 15 minutes for about $10 (including tip). I guess it depends on how much you're willing to put up with... and how much you want to pay.
If you're lucky, the internal bus system seems fairly efficient... but that's a big if. Our first trip to the Studios only took a half hour because we had no wait for buses. After that one trip, though, Lady Luck frowned all over us. One very cold morning, in the 40s probably, we waited for a Purple bus until we were nearly purple ourselves -- about 20 minutes. When we reached the depot, we waited another 20 minutes for a bus to Epcot. In all, it took us nearly an hour to reach our destination. We were not, I can tell you, Happy Campers, and the amount of time wasted waiting for transportation got to be a big issue over the course of several days.
Key word to remember regarding FW transportation: CAR! Get one! And consider renting a bike and/or golf cart. Live and learn.
One of the best things about the FW cabins is the kitchen. If you bring your own groceries, or even if you pick up a few items at the Settlement or Meadow Trading Posts, you can save yourself lots of time, not to mention money, by preparing your own meals. And really, everything you could need utensil-wise is on hand.
But if, like me, you prefer to dine out when you're on vacation, FW has a couple of great options for you. First of all is the Trail's End Restaurant, located at the Settlement Depot end of the resort. This no-frills buffet is one of the best values on Disney property -- breakfast and lunch buffets are still only $9.99 for adults ($5.99 for kids under 11), while dinner is just $15.99 for adults ($6.99 for kids). Food is nothing fancy: breakfast is the standard scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon fare (although I understand they have outstanding corned beef hash -- I didn't get to try it), while dinner usually includes chicken and BBQ ribs.
If you're looking for a light snack, there's Crockett's Tavern right next door, with plenty of inviting heavy wooden rockers on the porch for guests who want to "set a spell." If the weather had been more conducive to being outdoors (we hit a cold snap), I'm sure we would have enjoyed rocking away some time. By the way, if you want to take a meal back to your cabin (or campsite), both Trail's End and Crockett's Tavern have take-out, but no delivery.
For those wanting more than just a meal, FW is home to a couple of really fun dinner shows. Of course, it's home to the long-running Hoop Dee Doo Musical Revue at Pioneer Hall -- I've enjoyed this show twice and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it! FW also hosts Mickey's Backyard BBQ on certain days -- it's an outdoor feast with Disney characters, a live country music band, and line dancing. And if you get peckish while you're swimming, there's a snack bar at the centrally located Meadow swimming pool.
There is so much more to do at FW beyond visiting the theme parks, that our four days there weren't nearly enough time. In fact, we managed to leave more UNdone, than done.
One of the biggest problems we had was that the weather refused to cooperate. Although the day we arrived in Orlando was a record-breaking 85 degrees, the temperature subsequently dropped, and we ended up with zero pool time. But had we been able to swim, the quiet Wilderness Swimming Pool was just a few minutes' walk from our cabin. Unlike the huge themed pools at other Disney resorts, this ordinary pool is secluded and surrounded by trees. And most days Cast Members have additional activities for kids at the main Meadow pool -- Friday was Tall Tales and Legends Day, for example.
Even if your kids aren't swimmers, rest assured that there will be plenty more for them to do at FW. There are two video game arcades -- one (Davy Crockett's) logically located just around the corner from Crockett's Tavern, the other (Daniel Boone's) located at the Meadow Trading Post in the center of the resort. Little playgrounds are scattered around the grounds, as are volleyball courts and basketball hoops. There's a tennis court located near the Meadow Trading Post, and there are spots for shuffleboard, tetherball, and horseshoes located around the resort as well.
The Bike Barn, located near the Meadow Trading Post and overlooking a quiet river, rents a variety of equipment, from bikes and golf carts, to paddle boats and canoes. If you want to get a little more water time, the FW Marina rents WaterMice and pontoon boats, as well as surrey bikes for the landlubbers. You can also arrange for a number of boating and fishing excursions at the marina, ranging from a one-hour trip for the kids, to two hours for adults who want to angle for largemouth bass. (There are also cane poles and bait available for those who want to drop a line from the water's edge.)
We really enjoyed the chance to walk around the petting farm, tucked away behind Pioneer Hall. Though it was a bit chilly, some goats were still out and about, though others were curled up just like little puppy dogs on the equipment. Lots of little ones enjoyed chasing the ducks and meandering peacocks and taking pony rides, while next door, at the Tri-Circle-D Ranch, some bigger kids were visiting the imposing Percheron and Belgian draft horses that pull the streetcars down Main Street USA. From what I overheard, other folks were headed down to the Wilderness Corral near the entrance of the resort for a short horseback ride.
Although we had no rain during our trip, the cold nights put a damper on our desire to attend any of the evening activities offered at FW, which was a disappointment. We had planned on attending the nightly Campfire, held near the Meadow Trading Post, at least once, so that we could sing along with Chip and Dale, roast some marshmallows and watch a Disney movie, but at the end of a long day who wants to sit outside with chattering teeth? Neither did we get a chance to take a wagon or horse-drawn carriage ride -- but it's nice to know that they're offered here, a fact we'll file away for future WDW visits. And perhaps my biggest disappointment was that I didn't get to see the Electric Water Pageant which passes the FW beach each night around 9:45.
So, was staying in a Fort Wilderness cabin a totally awful for this city-slicker? Well, it certainly wasn't the "Blair Witch" woods experience I had feared, despite reading the snake and gator warnings in the Gazette, spying armadillo tracks outside our cabin, and hearing raccoons (at least, we hope they were raccoons) scritch-scratching across our roof late at night. The cabins are comfortable, spacious and well-equipped, and are a definite alternative for a family with more than four people that doesn't want to stay in two separate rooms at a resort. The grounds are lovely, and there's a lot to do, so much that you might not even have to set foot in a theme park if you don't want to.
But... would I stay there again myself?
Well, maybe. If I had two things: a flashlight... and a car.