WRITERS' CORNER

Horsing Around at Ft. Wilderness
Our Experiences on the Guided Trail Ride

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by Jennifer Watson


As the co-author of PassPorter Walt Disney World, one of the most frequently-asked questions I get is, "So have you done EVERYTHING at Disney now?" Anyone who's been to Walt Disney World knows that this is impossible -- there's just too much going on to do it all! I usually respond with "I've been fortunate to do most things, but not everything. I haven't been horseback riding at Ft. Wilderness yet, for example. Well, I can no longer say that. On Monday, July 15, I went on the Ft. Wilderness Trail Ride with Dave and Allie. Yee-haww!

Dave made reservations for the three of us at 4:00 pm on Monday by calling 407-824-2832 (reservations must be made in advance, up to two weeks ahead of time, and can be cancelled without penalty up to 24 hours in advance). The trail ride is $32 (includes tax) per person. The Tri-Circle D Livery at Fort Wilderness offers guided trail rides six times a day at 8:30 am, 10:00 am, 11:30 am, 1:00 pm, 2:30 pm, and 4:00 pm. We were instructed to arrive 30 minutes ahead of time and it was suggested that we wear long pants and close-toed/heeled shoes. Well, Monday was one of the hottest days of our trip -- the heat index was 104 degrees! Dave braved the heat with long pants, but Allie and I took our chances with shorts.

We arrived way ahead of schedule and checked in at the kennel, near the front of the Ft. Wilderness resort. If you arrive by car, just park in the visitor parking lot (free to guests staying at Disney resort, $5 for all others). If you arrive by bus, get off at the Ft. Wilderness Depot stop. If you arrive by boat, walk to the Settlement Depot bus stop, board an internal bus, and get off at the Ft. Wilderness Depot stop.

At check-in, we each had to sign a waiver agreeing that we would not hold Disney responsible if anything happened during the trail ride -- we were also instructed to indicate our age, weight, and riding experience at the bottom of the waiver. Riders must be at least 9 years old and weigh no more than 250 pounds (113 kg). Double riding is not permitted. Riding experience is irrelevant, however -- anyone who meets the age and weight restrictions may participate.

For the record, I've had riding experience -- my aunt has stabled horses for decades and I often spent summers on her farm as a child. She taught me how to ride Western and bareback, and I showed an Arabian stallion named "Alaric" at the local county fair. Nonetheless, I'm not particularly comfortable on horses, and I ultimately chose to stop riding as a teen. Dave and Allie had no riding experience, other than pony rides.

After we signed the waiver, we were offered the option to use helmets while riding. We were a bit surprised that a helmet was an option, not a requirement. Knowing how dangerous a head injury can be, and that the incidence of serious injuries is higher for horeseback riders than for even motorcyclists and automobile racers, we requested helmets for the three of us. There is no additional charge for the use of helmets on the trail ride, and helmets are available in child and adult sizes. We encourage everyone reading this to use a helmet while riding -- why take chances? For more encouragement to use a helmet, check out the American Association of Pediatric's page on Horseback Riding and Head Injuries at http://www.aap.org

With our waivers signed and monies paid, we were given our trail ride tickets and directed to the Trailblaze Corral, right next door to the kennel. A small waiting area with half-hewn log benches is situated in the front, along with free lockers for the storage of small items. There were quite a few biting flies in the area -- some insect repellent would have been a good idea. We lathered ourselves with sunblock, then stowed our things in the locker. We should note that cameras, hats, and bags are not allowed on the trail ride, and thus we have no photos of our experience. We were among the first at the livery, but we were soon joined by over a dozen others -- children and adults. We also noted that one family dropped off the kids for the trail ride; the adults did not participate. The trail ride is limited to twenty guests, and we were close to that. As we waited, we could see the horses in the livery, already saddled and tethered to posts.

At about ten minutes to 4:00, two "wranglers" (cast members) came out to collect our tickets, hand out helmets, and match us up with our mounts. We were the only three riders to request helmets, sadly enough. I don't think the cast members referred to the weights we noted on our waivers, but they did size each of us up and choose an appropriately-sized horse. When it came our turn, Allie was matched with a pony named "Poncho." Dave and I had good-sized horses -- mine was named "Bugsy," and his was "Apollo." We were told it was important to remember our horses names as our trail ride leaders would use our horse's names if they needed to give us instructions on the ride. When I asked for the name of my horse to be repeated, a bystander overheard and exclaimed, "Oh no... YOU have Bugsy? I had him last year. Good luck! You'll need it." Ha ha.

Mounting our horses was easy -- each horse was led up to a raised platform on which we were standing and we simply put a leg over and sat down. Each horse was saddled with a Western-style leather saddle and was dressed with a halter, bit, and reins. Once mounted, the cast members cinched the saddle, adjusted our stirrups, and then led the horse to the other side of the corral, where it was tethered until the entire group was ready. While we were waiting, I explained to Dave and Allie that they should talk to their horses and pat them encouragingly. While these horses are very tame and are accustomed to strangers, this is a good practice in general and helps the horse feel more comfortable with you.

Once we were all assembled cast members gave us some simple guidelines to follow, explaining that the horses would walk in a single-file line along the right-hand side of the trail. We should follow the horse in front of us closely, but leave about 3-4 feet in between. Because it had been raining, the cast members explained that the path was a bit muddy and the horses may not want to walk on the right side. We were instructed how to direct the horse left or ride (just pull the reins to the left or right). We were also warned that some of the horses may want to stop and graze on bushes along the trail -- if this happened, we were to use the reins to direct them away from the bushes. We were told not to pull on the reins, however, as they'd just stop walking completely and continue eating. The cast members would ride at the lead and the end of our line, and would be available for help if we needed it.

The horses were untethered and each horse followed the one in front without any prodding on our part. They knew the drill well. We walked our horses out of the livery, across the main road through the resort ("Ft. Wilderness Trail"), and onto a wide trail in the woods between the Wilderness Cabins and Vista Blvd. The trail was well-shaded with tall pines, bay trees and palmettos. It was also well-groomed, though needing to stay on the right side of the trail did mean we brushed along some bushes and trees ocassionally. There were no pedestrians on the trail; it was off-limits to all but horses and their riders. The ride settled down into the familiar rhythm of the horses, broken only by the mud puddles that the horses tried to avoid. Neither Dave nor I had any trouble keeping our horses to the side of the trail, though I noticed that Allie's horse wandered into the center a few times. My horse, Bugsy, wasn't quite as good-natured as the other horses -- he seemed a bit skittish and continually tried to graze alongside the trail. At one point, I even sensed he wanted to bolt, but didn't. The other horses and cast members kept him, and everyone else, in line. The horses only walked; no trotting or galloping.

The trail ride last just about 45 minutes. At the end of the trail ride, we each walked our horses up to the mounting platform -- a cast member held our horse while we dismounted. Allie had a lot of fun, turning back to look at us with big smiles and ask us how she was doing. Dave seemed comfortable enough, though I don't he's planning to start taking horseback riding lessons anytime soon. Allie, however, is sold on horses and informed us she plans to have a horse when she grows up. I had mixed feelings about the ride. I enjoyed the trail and it was a pleasure to watch Dave and Allie on their first ride. But my horse was a bit too restless at times, and I found myself hoping it would end soon so I could regain control. Most likely, this was just my old baggage about riding resurfacing, and not a reflection of the trail ride itself. The other guests seemed to have a good time. I would rate this as an excellent first riding experience for kids and adults, but that it may be a bit boring for experienced riders.

All in all, it was a rewarding experience! After we returned home from Disney, we paid a visit to my aunt's farm and Allie had another opportunity to ride a horse -- this time bareback!

I think she's hooked.

>>Things To Do: For photos of the trail ride, visit Jeff Spencer's Ft. Wilderness FAQ at:
http://home.hiwaay.net/~jlspence/faq_fw.htm