The cheapest place to stay at Disney World is a tent — so I tried it
Some of my favorite hotel stays have been at Walt Disney World. I've slept in a princess-themed room with a magical headboard at Disney's Port Orleans Resort – Riverside, watched the Magic Kingdom fireworks from my balcony at Disney's Contemporary Resort and stayed in a replica slice of Polynesian paradise at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort.
So how did I recently find myself sleeping in a tent that my family had to set up ourselves while visiting Disney World?
Welcome to The Campsites at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort.
All about camping at Disney World
Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground is a hidden gem for outdoor enthusiasts. Set among 750 acres of secluded forest, this accommodation option can be found just minutes from the Magic Kingdom, making it an ideal spot for nature-loving travelers in town for thrilling rides, character meet-and-greets and more.
You can watch fireworks light up the night sky from the nearby Magic Kingdom, but you can also watch deer, rabbits and turkeys meander through the forest. You can visit the parks to ride your favorite high-speed roller coasters, but you can also take things slow on a bike ride around the campground.
Related: 19 Disney World secrets that can add 'pixie dust' to your vacation
If you love the great outdoors as much as you love being at Disney, this is the only campground that offers all the magic of a Disney vacation plus the rest and relaxation of a peaceful camping retreat.
Preparing for our trip
The toughest part of camping at Disney World was packing all the gear we needed to bring with us. I am normally a "carry-on only" kind of girl, but that just wasn't possible if I wanted to fly to Florida with all our camping gear.
We borrowed a large duffel bag from my mom and stuffed it with our tent, sleeping bags, a soft-sided cooler, headlamps, pillows, a hammock and sleeping pads to put a little cushion between ourselves and the ground.
Much to my relief, it was less than the 50-pound limit for checked luggage on Southwest, though it was still heavy enough that my only option once at the airport was to drag it to the check-in counters. Hopefully, I at least provided some comic relief for my fellow flyers.
The nicest campground I've ever visited
I've spent many nights in the woods. I've gone backcountry camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and camped among fellow concert fans at weekendlong music festivals. On those trips, I've gone without showers (unless scrubbing my body with baby wipes counts) and cooked bland freeze-dried meals over an open flame.
Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground blew those experiences out of the water. Each campsite was neat and tidy (I even saw cast members power washing the campsites during our visit), with a paved driveway and a smooth rock-covered area capable of accommodating up to two tents.
Though primitive, the campsites are spacious and have amenities like electrical outlets, grills and picnic tables. The sites are also surrounded by trees, which offer as much privacy as one can expect in the woods.
Campsites are arranged in "loops" throughout the campground. Each loop has multiple comfort stations with bathroom and shower facilities, a laundry room and an ice machine, as well as a bus stop for easy transit around the campground and to Disney's theme parks.
There were four showers, including one accessible shower, in each comfort station, but there wasn't much room to get ready otherwise. I found it easier to brush my teeth and put on my makeup at the campsite than in our comfort stations.
Despite being close to the parks, you'll find more than enough to keep you busy at the campground. You can catch fish, go for a horseback trail ride, pan for gemstones, roast marshmallows over a campfire and so much more.
The price is right for budget-conscious travelers
Finding Disney World accommodations for less than $75 per night is unheard of. However, if you are willing to forgo walls, a bed, a private bathroom and room service, that elusive double-digit nightly rate can be yours.
Related: 5 over-the-top luxurious places to stay at Disney World
Rates for tent sites start at $69 plus tax per night. Each campsite sleeps up to 10 guests and has room for two tents and a pop-up camper or camper van. There is also plenty of room for a canopy tent, camping chairs and anything else you need to make your stay comfortable.
There's so much to do, you don't even have to visit the parks
I can't speak for anybody else, but I can't imagine visiting Disney World and not stepping foot into a theme park. That being said, we chose to divide our time at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground by spending one day exploring activities at the campground and one day playing in the parks (you can read about that adventure here).
We woke up bright and early because, well, we didn't have a choice. When you are camping, it's hard to not wake up once the sun starts rising. I didn't mind, though, because there was a delicious breakfast calling to us from the campground's sit-down restaurant, Trail's End.
Trail's End serves all of its meals family-style. For dinner the evening before, we had skillet cornbread, salad, a huge platter of brisket, pulled pork, smoked chicken, potatoes, green beans, corn on the cob and a trio of mason jar desserts to share.
At breakfast, we were treated to freshly baked pastries, yogurt parfaits and a skillet practically overflowing with breakfast meats, scrambled eggs, potatoes and Mickey-shaped waffles.
The restaurant resides in the Settlement section of the campground, where you'll also find additional dining options and a tavern, plus boat transportation to the Magic Kingdom, a general store, the Tri-Circle D Ranch horse stables, an arcade and a large playground.
For most of the resort's other amenities (think: the main pool, bike trails, boat and fishing pole rentals, a snack bar and Chip 'N' Dale's Campfire Sing-A-Long), head to the property's Meadow section.
We made multiple visits to the playground, taught our kids how to play tetherball, rented fishing poles for a half-hour, panned for gemstones and danced with Chip and Dale at their nightly campfire singalong. When the two chipmunks retired for the evening, Disney showed "Cars" on the outdoor movie screen.
The Settlement and Meadow areas were a pretty long trek from our campsite, so we rented a golf cart to get around for the day. It was quicker and easier than waiting for a bus and made it easy to get to the various activities and take a midday nap back at the tent.
It's 1 of the closest resorts to the Magic Kingdom
Most of the Magic Kingdom's other resorts are among Disney World's nicest and most expensive. These include Disney's Contemporary Resort, Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, Disney's Polynesian Village Resort and Disney's Wilderness Lodge.
Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground is the only Disney property that has value pricing and close proximity to the Magic Kingdom. If you are staying at the campground, you can drive to Disney's theme parks and park for free, but to visit the Magic Kingdom, you'll have to park at the Transportation and Ticket Center and take a ferry or monorail to the Magic Kingdom's main entrance.
If you instead utilize the campground's complimentary boat transportation, you'll be dropped off right in front of the main entrance to the Magic Kingdom, making it possible to get to the rides (and Mickey ice cream bars) even faster.
You can stay here even if you aren't ready to rough it
Though I chose to sleep in a tent, recreational vehicle sites and family-friendly cabins are also available. I saw a variety of camping setups during my stay. Some people were full-time RVers, and others had rented an RV specifically for this trip. I also saw camper vans and pop-up campers. One site even had a van and two hammocks tied up between the trees.
RV sites have full hookups for power and sewage, and the sites come in various sizes to accommodate different types of RVs.
Related: I love luxury hotels, but rented an RV and lived to tell the tale
Rates for the RV sites start at $105 per night, or you can pay a bit more for a site closer to the campground amenities in the Settlement and Meadow sections.
The Cabins at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort are a far cry from the primitive tent site I stayed in but allow you to enjoy the campground without giving up the comfort of a standard Disney resort. Each cabin sleeps up to six guests and has a large bedroom with one queen-size bed and two bunk beds, as well as a bathroom, a large living area with a sleeper sofa, a dining table, a full kitchen and a front porch with a picnic table and a grill.
Prices for the cabins start at $468 plus tax per night.
Tips for camping at Disney World
- Many guests (especially those staying for more than a few nights) decorate their campsites. We saw everything from Christmas lights to a life-size statue of Darth Vader flanked by two Stormtroopers. The property even sells Mickey-shaped lights in its general store so you can still decorate your campsite even if you forget to bring items from home.
- Time your arrival and departure so you aren't setting up or tearing down your tent in the dark. We had an 8 a.m. flight that required leaving the campground at 6 a.m., which left us no choice but to pack up our tent before the sun came up. Having no natural light made it trickier to see what we were doing.
- Visit the Meadow area's Chuckwagon Snack Bar for marshmallows and s'mores fixings before the Chip 'N' Dale Campfire Sing-A-Long.
- Reserve a golf cart before you arrive. They are very popular and do sell out. Pricing starts at $63 per day, and you can make a reservation by calling 407-824-2742.
- Bring (or purchase) a cooler to have at your campsite during your stay. You can keep a stock of drinks and snacks handy and replenish the ice as needed from the ice machines at the comfort stations.
- Stay as long as you like! Some guests stay for a month or more. You can only make a reservation for 30 days at a time, but you can make subsequent reservations and request the same campsite. It's the cheapest way to "live" at Disney.
- If you don't have camping gear, there are companies in Orlando that rent camping gear and will even set up your tent for you. I've heard that Disney has tents available for rent, but I don't know anybody who has successfully procured one even after multiple phone calls.
Despite the lack of sleep, privacy and a private bathroom, I would 100% camp at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort again in the future. I'm a huge fan of camping and Disney, and staying at the campground offered a nice change of pace from the business of the parks.
Next time, I will probably stay at the campground for a couple of nights so I can enjoy all the activities available on-site before moving to a Disney hotel for a good night's sleep ... and a shower ... and air conditioning after those long days at the parks.
My whole family loved our stay, and the money we saved meant we had more to spend on magical extras to enhance our experience, including tasty treats, must-have souvenirs and Disney Genie+ skip-the-line access in the parks.