We arrived at Fort Wilderness on Saturday, January 24, 2015 around noon, which is the time we typically arrive when camping. When we stay at the Disney resort hotels we will arrive much earlier—usually no later than 9 AM. The difference between arriving early at Fort Wilderness and arriving early at a hotel is simple. If you arrive early at All-Star Sports and your room is not yet available you can still check in, get your parking pass, and head over to the parks with relative ease. Or, if you don’t have park tickets, you can head to Downtown Disney if you want, or even grab your bathing suit from your luggage, change in the lobby bathroom, and head to the pool. Your room being ready and available upon check-in at a hotel is nice, but not usually a necessity. At Fort Wilderness, however, it is a different story.
Check-in time at Fort Wilderness is the same as the resort hotels—1 PM. If you were to arrive at 9ish and were told there are no sites yet available, you are faced with a bit more of an uphill challenge—that challenge being the 8,000 lbs camper attached to your car. Of course, there is a large parking lot near check-in where you can park, and even unhook, then drive to the parks. If you don’t want to unhook, there are areas of each parking lot at the four theme parks you can park your RV, so that would also be a possibility. I would be hard pressed to advise you to tow your camper to Downtown Disney, however. The issue with doing this, or parking your rig in the upper parking lot and unhooking it, is if you have a pet with you. There is no place to get power to your camper, thus air conditioning its inside would not be an option. Quite the conundrum, as you can see.
In any event, after that long winded intro, we like to get there a little early. If our site should be unavailable we really would only have an hour to kill, and there are plenty of things we can do for an hour with our dog. So, all this being said, you can imagine what happened when we went to check-in. You guessed it, for the first time ever, our site was unavailable—sort of.
I have utilized online check-in before, many times, for both hotel and campground stays, however, this was the first time I ever made a special request (there is a link that you click on to do so). Within the special request page there is a list of the loops in the category of site you booked (100, 200, 300, etc.) and you can click on two that you would prefer to be placed in. I chose the 700 and 400 loop. So, when actually checking in, I was told that the site they had placed us in, which I can only assume was in one of those two loops, was unavailable. We were told the campground was near capacity for our two night stay (I will discuss this in detail at the end of the post), however, there was a site currently available in the 800 loop. Typically, we like being closer to the waterfront area, which the 700 and 400 loops are, but we agreed to be moved. The 800 loop is closer to the Meadow Recreation Area, but still easily within walking distance to the waterfront.
Note: A few other things came out of check-in. As you initially arrive at Fort Wilderness, there is a small guard shack, like all the other resorts, where you meet with a security guard, show him your ID and give him your name, etc. We asked why he couldn’t just scan our magic band instead of checking IDs and looking on a paper list, to which he advised he could, however, his scanner wasn’t working. We have never had our magic bands scanned at the Fort Wilderness guard shack, though once before I asked and I was told it was faster to check people in by having them produce IDs. Who knows? It would be nice to not have to pull out my wallet and dig through it for my ID, but not a huge deal. We were also told that the comfort stations would all be accessible by magic band by the end of January. In the past, the comfort stations would lock at 10 PM and could only be accessed by using a card, similar to what you used to receive for a hotel room. Now, according to this Cast Member, they should be accessible after 10 by magic band.
The 800 loop is on the west side of Fort Wilderness Trail (the main road in the campground) and is nestled between—as you may have guessed—the 700 and 900 loop. It is directly across from the 600 loop and closer to the Meadow Trading Post area than the 700 loop, yet a bit farther away from the waterfront than the 400, 500, 700, and part of the 600 loops. Still, it is easily within walking distance to it. The location has a few perks, one being that the bus stop that serves the 600, 700, and 800 loop is located at its main entrance. Directly across from the main entrance to the loop, on the east side of Fort Wilderness Trail, is a pathway that leads straight to the Campfire Area. There is also a stream that runs along the back of the loop making a few of the sites quasi-waterfront, and a Comfort Station located inside the loop, which is a huge plus.
Unfortunately, there are a few downsides to the loop as well. Where the 700 loop is a jug handle, the 800 loop is shaped like a kidney bean. There is a short, driveway entrance to get into the loop, then the sites begin, counter clockwise. If you happen to be in the back of the loop, your walking distance can be increased by the 4 or 5 minutes it might take you just to get out of the loop to Fort Wilderness Trail. Also, and this is just my personal opinion, but it seemed as if the loop road was a bit more narrow, which made getting into the site itself a bit more difficult.
Site 859 was actually very nice. It was surrounded by large trees that provided both shade and privacy. It was very spacious and the hookups were well maintained and in proper working order. It was also fairly close to Fort Wilderness Trail so it didn’t add too much to our walk.
This trip, like the majority of our trips to Fort Wilderness, would be spent completely outside of the theme parks. So, after quickly setting up, we headed down to the waterfront to catch one of the boats to the Contemporary. Having not been to the Fort in some time, I noticed not much had changed on our walk to the marina. The walkway from Big Pine Drive to the Settlement Trading Post area is quite possibly my favorite in all of Walt Disney World. As I walk beneath the cypress and oak trees draped in Spanish moss, and begin to hear the banjo music seamlessly piped in, I feel like I can relax and let the camping trip really start.
After jumping on the first boat to the Contemporary, it wasn’t long before we were on a monorail headed to the Polynesian Village Resort. This was our first time at the resort since the lobby reopened after the construction and I was a bit conflicted on how I felt about it. I missed that smell that hit you in the face the second you walked in the doors. Though I know some who have spent a lot of time at the Polynesian just prior to its renovation complained of mildew and chlorine smells, to me it was the scent of tropical flowers that was prevalent when I entered, and, unfortunately, that is gone now. It is beautifully done, however, with glass Polynesian style decorations hanging from the ceiling and a much smaller water feature in the center of the space. Couches and chairs abound in the now open space, which makes for a great place to sit and enjoy a Dole whip float, which can be purchased just outside the back doors of the lobby, from the Pineapple Lanai. Before we did that, however, we headed to Captain Cook’s for a bite to eat.
Captain Cook’s, like the lobby, benefitted from the expansion and the added seating it received from the renovation. Though the menu has added items, we went with our old favorite—the Aloha Pork Sandwich ($9.49, comes with a side). After enjoying our lunch and a Dole whip float in the new lobby and a short walk around the grounds, we were soon back on the monorail, headed back to the Contemporary to catch a boat back to Fort Wilderness.
We had dinner reservations for Trail’s End at 5:45 that evening, however, we still had a few hours before we needed to get ready and so we decided to let the kids enjoy the large playground near Pioneer Hall after getting off the boat. Another great thing about Fort Wilderness is that it is so large, with so many different things to do, that even on trips where the campground is near or at capacity people are fairly well distributed in different areas with two exceptions: the Meadow Swimming Pool and Trail’s End. Since the temperature never rose above 65 degrees the whole trip we didn’t have to worry about the pool, so we never really felt cramped in anything we did (I will discuss Trail’s End in a moment), and the playgrounds were no exception.
The playground near Pioneer Hall is the largest of the 4 that are on property and consists of two play areas to climb on with slides and tunnels and the like. There is also a swing set in this area. As you would expect, everything is well maintained and there are plenty of benches for parents to sit on and even picnic tables to enjoy meals at. There is also an abundance of shade covering the play area, which on a typical Florida day is a great perk, however, on at the time we were there a little sunshine would have been a benefit.
After the playground, we walked around a bit, entering the Settlement Trading Post to see if anything caught our eye. We did notice a few new blankets and t-shirts, all Fort Wilderness themed, but just didn’t pull the trigger.
By the time we were finished with dinner Chip and Dale had already departed from the sing-a-long, and so we decided to skip the campfire altogether. Instead we went for a nice, leisurely stroll along the Pioneer Hall area, and Fort Wilderness Trail. One new thing I noticed was a food cart across from the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue. It appears to be a holdover from Christmas time as it still advertises for holiday treats and hot chocolate, so I’m unsure if it will be a permanent fixture or if it will be removed for the spring, summer, and fall months.
It wasn’t long before we ended up back at our camper, ready for an early bedtime. Everyone was exhausted and full, and the cold weather made standing on the marina dock to watch the fireworks appealing to none of us, so what is usually a tradition for us was skipped this trip. Instead, we all got into bed and watched Duffy’s Bedtime Story and the Disney Must Dos probably a dozen times each. Before falling asleep, however, the fireworks show started, and despite being father away from Bay Lake than we usually are, for the first time we could actually hear them going off from inside our camper. I’m assuming our air conditioner not being in use had something to do with us being able to hear them, but I also noticed during the day we had heard the sounds from the Richard Petty track much more clearly than any other trip.
We have had many experiences at Trail’s End, both for breakfast and dinner, and really enjoy it very much. It’s one of our favorite places to eat on property, and what I believe to be one of the best values. Though we make reservations most of the time, we rarely need them, and almost always just walk in upon arrival at the check-in area. This trip, however, would be different. As I said, the campground was near capacity, and this was definitely evident when we arrived for dinner our first night of the trip. Our reservation was for 5:45, and we arrived only a few minutes early. I know it is recommended that you arrive 15 minutes early for your reservation at most Walt Disney World restaurants, but as I said, waits at Trail’s End have typically been unheard of, and certainly not the norm on a non-holiday, non-race weekend. Still, when we arrived the outdoor patio that surrounds Pioneer Hall was completely packed. By the time I made it to the check-in desk I was told we would have about a 15 minute wait—which proved to be accurate. While we waited I even overheard the hostess tell someone that they were no longer accepting walk-ups. Very atypical for Trail’s End.
I was a bit concerned about how backed up the buffet line would get. We had a few prior experiences at Trail’s End on nights that it wasn’t as packed where the buffet line was backed up so much it took nearly ten minutes to get through it, which is absurd considering how small and compact the buffet area really is. To my surprise, however, the buffet line ran relatively smooth, with it only getting backed up when the carver would change out.
There were not many differences on the buffet from the last time I was there. It was brisket and ham night at the carving station, and both were fair. The brisket was a bit flavorless and greasy, and the ham was a bit fatty, so I only got one serving of each. The fried chicken was excellent as always, and the ribs were very good as well. Another favorite of mine is the pulled pork, which I thought was good, however, my wife felt it was a little fatty.
The two biggest changes I noticed came at desert. We always camp for each of my daughters’ birthdays, and have their birthday dinner at Trail’s End. The waiter or waitress, being aware of this, always calls out their birthday “Yee-Haw” and brings them a special treat—strawberry shortcake. When we were there in July it was a large piece of shortcake with strawberries and whipped cream on it, however, this time it was a piece of shortcake in the shape of a Mickey head, with strawberries, whipped cream, Mickey sprinkles, and chocolate sauce on it. I thought this version was much better than the past versions, but it has always been very good.
Prior to this trip, the only way to get strawberry shortcake for dinner had been to have someone with a birthday, but when I went up to the desert portion of the buffet, I noticed a pound cake version was now available. It was not nearly as good as the birthday incarnation, however. All in all, dinner was very good and it did not appear the price for our family of 4 (my son is under 3 and free) had gone up much, if at all (with our Tables in Wonderland discount the final tab was around $80 bucks).
Despite gorging ourselves at dinner, we were back for a 9:30 breakfast reservation. The deck was not as packed this time, however, we were still given a pager and told we’d need to wait. The wait was only a few minutes though, and once inside we could clearly see that the restaurant wasn’t nearly as business as it had been for dinner. Breakfast is always good, and, much like dinner, there were very few differences to the buffet selections from our previous encounters. The pulled pork eggs benedict is a favorite of mine, as is the smoked meat hash—which is really just left over brisket from the night before. Another selection we enjoy is the French toast bread pudding. With our Tables in Wonderland discount our tab came to about $51, which seemed a bit higher than our previous trips, but still is an excellent value for a buffet breakfast.
After breakfast, we headed over to the Tri-Circle-D ranch so my daughter could enjoy a pony ride. When we got there, however, we noticed the price had increased from $5 per ride to $8 per ride. Now, when you think of it as only a $3 increase, it doesn’t seem so bad, but when you consider that a pony ride—which consists of a parent guiding a pony down a path with a child in the saddle—takes approximately 2 minutes the cost of $8 seems a bit steep. Call me cheap, but we passed.
Instead, we headed over to the playground off of Big Pine Drive, near the Waggin’ Tails Dog Park. This playground is only slightly smaller than the main playground near Pioneer Hall, and is still very well maintained. The advantage to this playground was, that even at a time when the campground is nearly full, there was not another sole there.
After some time in the camper, we headed over to Downtown Disney for a late lunch/early dinner. I’ve always liked the Downtown Disney area, and the skeletons of what will be Disney Springs seems very promising. We enjoyed sandwiches from Earl of Sandwich as we typically do, which were excellent and fairly inexpensive. They offer an Annual Passholder discount, but no Tables in Wonderland discount. Since our passes expired, we were stuck paying full price, which wasn’t bad. For 3 sandwiches, 2 bags of chips, and a large drink, we paid about $30.00.
We did attend the campfire sing-a-long on this evening, arriving around 6:45 to roast some hot dogs. The past few times I have been at the Fort have been busy times, yet on this occasion, like the last, they only lit one fire pit (there are 2). This would have been the perfect time to have both lit as it was fairly busy at the amphitheater and it was a cold evening. I’m not sure why they are only using one these days.
Roasting hotdogs is always an interesting experience. Most people roast marshmallows, simply because that is what is sold at the Fort and they think that is all that can be roasted. In actuality, you can typically roast anything, though I wouldn’t overdo it with a cast iron skillet or T-Bone steaks. Still, you will get stares or chuckles, though by the time the roasting is done you will hear the comments of, “I wish we had hotdogs,” etc.
Chip and Dale came out shortly after 7, and after a brief introduction, they split up and greeted everyone. This is a much shorter, much more rushed interaction than what you would have in the parks or at a restaurant, but never-the-less it is free and you still can get pictures and autographs. We didn’t stick around for the movie as it was so cold, instead we headed back to the camper for another early night’s sleep.
All-in-all, this was another great trip to the Fort. Though it wouldn’t be our first choice, I would stay in the 800 loop again without an argument. The location of the loop itself was good, especially if you plan on spending more time at the Meadow area than at the Pioneer Hall area (during hotter times it would be better). I did come away with a few observations and cautions that are worth a mention.
As I’ve stated throughout, the Fort was nearly sold out for the weekend we were there, which I find very unusual. For one, the Martin Luther King holiday was the weekend prior to our arrival, and the marathon weekend was the weekend before that. Those weekends are expected to be busy throughout Walt Disney World, including the Fort. This weekend, however, is when crowd numbers typically dip a bit because most trips are planned for those special times. At least at Fort Wilderness. I tried to come up with a few reasons for this spike in campers and came up with a few possibilities.
First, I noticed a lot of campers throughout the different loops that appeared to have been holdovers from Christmas time. Perhaps more and more people are staying for extended trips, such as a month or more. In the past, the people who would do this were only a handful in choice loops, such as the 100, 400, and 700. Now they seem to be more prevalent and widespread. As you may have guessed, most of these people were older and possibly retirees, which indicates to me that the Fort is growing in popularity with an older crowd.
Second, having camped throughout Florida, the fact that a campground in general is booked throughout the month of January is no big surprise. The camping season in Florida begins around November and ends around May. During this time it is extremely difficult to get a reservation at State Parks or KOA campgrounds without booking early, sometimes as early as 11 months in advance. It appears that the difference in cost that typically kept Fort Wilderness from following that trend (state parks are usually around $33/night, while the Fort during the season can range from $78-$138/night) is no longer a big issue with a more robust economy and the RV business booming.
Obviously, the chief point I wanted to make in this rambling is to book early. I would recommend the same for Trail’s End. Book as early as possible, because the days of last minute booking for either a site or for dinner may be over during the camping season.
Lastly, prices need to be scrutinized a bit more than in the past in regards to activities while at the Fort. Fort Wilderness was always looked at as a great value because you could do so many things for—by Disney standards—such a small amount of money. Sadly, it seems like Fort Wilderness is slowly catching up with the rest of Walt Disney World on that front, so I would check prices of your planned activities.