Room for 6 in Disney’s Great Outdoors: The Cabins at Fort Wilderness
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As magical as it can be, Disney World has its limitations, especially if you don't like crowds or you need to sleep four or five people in a room without breaking the bank on a suite. We have taken all sorts of Disney trips: a cruise, visits to the parks and even to Aulani in Hawaii, but there's a Disney trip that has surprisingly cracked into our "best-ways-to-Disney" list -- renting a cabin at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. Although it is new to us, it isn't actually new at all. In fact, the campground first opened with Walt Disney World Resort in 1971, making it classic, timeless, Disney.
Now, to be abundantly clear, I am not a camper. I don't camp. There will be no tents, no lack of air conditioning, no lack of electricity, etc. in my foreseeable future, barring some sort of emergency survival situation. I say that in case you fall into the same camp as me ... pun intended. The six-person cabins at Disney's Fort Wilderness aren't real camping; they are Disney camping.
Since this is Disney, you get the fun of the great outdoors, and you are a bus, boat or Minnie Van ride away from the theme parks if you decide that horses, archery, bike riding and campfires aren't enough to fill the days.
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From time to time, Disney offers some stellar resort discounts to those with annual passes, who are booking a "bounce back" return trip to Disney or who have dates that line up with a sale. We fell into that first category and were able to book a cabin at Fort Wilderness for $240/night, plus taxes, directly with Disney. Use some discounted Disney gift cards to cover the charge and things get better from there.
You can sometimes find Disney resorts available for booking on Hotels.com, which means you can use the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card via Hotels.com to earn 10 miles per dollar on the stay through Jan. 31, 2020. You also would make progress toward a free night after 10 nights booked via Hotels.com loyalty program. Based on TPG’s valuations, that would be about 24% back in rewards.
Otherwise, pay with the best card in your wallet that earns a bonus on travel, such as earning 3 points per dollar on Chase Sapphire Reserve.
Disney's Fort Wilderness is located on the Walt Disney World complex in Florida along the shore of Bay Lake, a short hop from the Magic Kingdom by boat. The closest resort area to Fort Wilderness is the similarly named (but distinctly different) Disney's Wilderness Lodge, also located along the shore of Bay Lake.
Getting to the Disney theme parks requires a bus or boat ride, but you can also have a Minnie Van come to your cabin to pick you up (or drop you off). Send the cabin number to your driver after requesting your ride in the Lyft app.
When you stay at a true Disney resort (instead of a Disney-ish resort like the Swan, Dolphin or hotels in the Disney Springs area), you get access to free bus transportation to and from Orlando Airport (MCO) via the Magical Express.
Bus service is a little luck of the draw, in terms of departures. You are assigned a bus number based on the resort where you're staying. We drew the short stick this time and had about a 30-minute wait at MCO for our bus. With excited children, it felt like a long wait, but it wasn't bad once we got rolling. Generally speaking, the Magical Express is totally fine as long as you aren't in a hurry.
Our stop at Fort Wilderness was first on the route and we were dropped off right at the check-in area, complete with a fireplace and cartoons. We arrived about noon, well before the stated check-in time at 3pm, so we weren't surprised that a cabin wasn't ready. However, our wait was cut short when we got a text, about a half hour later, that our cabin was ready.
We picked up our rented golf cart (an absolute must, more on that below) and sped away at 14 mph to our temporary home in the woods.
It's easy to spend $400+ per night at Disney on a standard hotel room. But this time, $240/night got us an entire cabin. We were assigned Cabin 2433 in the Settler's Bend section of the campground, which became our neighborhood. There are many loops of cabins and campsites, each with its own name.
The cabin has a real living room with a pull-out couch, dining table, TV, chair and equipped kitchen.
The pull-out sofa did not get super high marks for comfort, but it did the job.
Having a real fridge, freezer, coffee pot, stove top and cutlery meant we were able to order groceries for delivery. We saved a substantial amount of money enjoying simple meals in the cabin for breakfast and lunch. We splurged our calorie and meal budget on fun dinners.
There wasn't a real oven, and our attempts at cooking in the convection oven didn't go that well.
Down the hall, there's an average-size bathroom with a tub/shower combo and single vanity.
The bathroom wasn't anything special, but there were hooks in the bathroom and throughout the cabin, which made it easy to stay organized and hang wet swimsuits.
They provide ample towels in the cabins, which is good, because they don't provide them at the Fort Wilderness pools.
The bedroom was furnished with a queen bed and twin bunks.
It was a cozy room, but one that worked well for little kids, who needed to sleep close by, but wanted a little of their own space.
The bedroom also houses a small closet, some drawers and a small TV.
The cabin felt clean, modern enough, spacious, and both the A/C and Wi-Fi worked just fine for our purposes. However, it smelled a little old.
Having that much space at Disney for under $300 per night and access to easy meals at the cabin felt like a dream.
According to Disney legend, some people have lived at Fort Wilderness for years, and others stay for a few weeks in their RVs. I'm not sure how many people stay in the cabins quite that long, but overall, the resort has a markedly different feel than any other Disney property I've ever visited.
Because folks stay here longer, resort amenities here heavily used. There are people piling into the two pools when they open at 9am and people still taking runs down the slide at the larger of the two pools when it shuts down for the night at 11pm.
You'll hear bouncing balls on the basketball courts and tennis courts, see people exploring the canals in canoes or riding along well-worn bike trails. Even the tether ball was used, which sort of blew my mind.
It was absolutely heartwarming to see families enjoying activities outdoors and not just riding rides or staring at screens. Truly, Fort Wilderness felt like all the best parts of what I imagine the 1950s to have been.
Although not an amenity, it's notable that we had minimal mosquito bites even though we were outside quite a bit. There is mosquito protection readily available at Fort Wilderness, but Disney clearly has a good system in place to keep them under control, given the climate and standing water all around.
We rented bikes ($11/hour or $20 per day) to visit three of the many playgrounds at the camp. Being able to rent bikes, with included helmets and even child seats, was handy and fun, but the bikes seem to be stored outside and weren't in the best shape, so don't expect a shiny new bike for that price.
But -- as long as you aren't too particular, the bikes do the job.
Briefly, we tried to catch some fish off the bridge with rented gear ($12/hour or $16 per day), but fishing wasn't the highlight of our stay. If you wanted to invest a bit more in fishing, you could hire a guide or rent a pontoon to explore Bay Lake ($45 per half hour).
There are two types of horse rides offered at the Tri-Circle-D Ranch. For those 9 years old and up, there's a 45-minute trail ride through the resort, which I did with my oldest child.
There were two guides and about 10 riders, so the guides were attentive when riders (or horses) needed extra assistance.
For younger riders, ages 2 and up, you can take a parent-led pony ride around a short trail. Our youngest did two sets of rides ($8 for one lap or $12 for two) and both times she scored one of Cinderella's white ponies, which was a hit. Pony riders must weigh less than 80 pounds and measure under 48 inches tall.
Trail rides require advance sign-up, but pony rides are available from 10am to 3pm on a walk-up basis. Those ages 7 and up, who want to channel their inner Merida, can sign up for 90-minute archery classes for $45.
Every evening, there is an outdoor campfire sing-a-long with Chip and Dale. This is a 100% free character experience. Chip and Dale make their rounds while live music is played and campers cook their s'mores (BYO or buy some at the food truck). As the sun goes down, a Disney movie is shown on the large outdoor screen.
I've been at some Disney resorts where the outdoor evening movie is playing to literally no one, but not here. It was a packed house. Pro tip: Chip and Dale were only stopping for those seated on the benches during our visit, so get there early to get a seat so you are more comfortable and have a better chance of saying howdy to the starring chipmunks.
Although the sing-a-long was fun, our favorite amenity at Fort Wilderness was unquestionably the golf carts. You can rent golf carts directly from Disney for $62/day, and I would go so far as to say you shouldn't stay at Fort Wilderness without one. Fort Wilderness is 750 acres and everything is extremely spread out. It's not even remotely walkable with a family.
There's an intra-resort bus system that can get you around, but I don't want to wait for a bus every time we want to eat, swim, etc. With your own golf cart, you can easily get to the horses, zoom to the dock for boats to the Magic Kingdom, get to the front of the resort, to the restaurants, the pools, etc.
Not only can you get around easily, but cruising around in a golf cart is also fun on its own, even if you don't have anywhere to go. Not everyone at Fort Wilderness has a golf cart, but many do. I highly recommend you budget for one for at least part of your stay. You can pick up carts starting at 1pm and they are due back on the last day at 11am (but ask for a courtesy extension if you need it a little longer).
Golf carts can and do sell out, so book one at 407-824-2742 as soon as you make your Fort Wilderness reservation.
Food and Beverage
Although it's easy to make some of your own meals at Fort Wilderness, you don't have to do all the work. On site, there is a table-service restaurant (Trail's End Restaurant), a quick-service restaurant (P & J's Southern Takeout), poolside bites, two general stores and a dinner show -- the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue. There's also a food truck (The Chuck Wagon) that is open for dinner during the evening campfire with Chip and Dale.
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We made many of our meals, so didn't actually eat at most of these outlets. However, we did eat at Hoop-Dee-Doo and that menu is quite similar to what is served at Trail's End.
Hoop-Dee-Doo is essentially the same as when it first opened in 1974 (making it one of the longest-running dinner shows in the country). It's campy and corny, but good fun and with all-you-can-enjoy fried chicken, pork ribs, cornbread, salad, sides and even wine, beer or sangria. I'll do a separate story on it, but it's absolutely worth doing once if you are staying here and if you are into dinner shows.
If you want to pick up some supplies or Mickey bars that you didn't get to order via a grocery delivery, then there are a couple of general stores available at Fort Wilderness.
While staying at Fort Wilderness you are also a mere boat ride away from both Wilderness Lodge and the Contemporary Resort. That means you can hop on a boat to go eat at Trail's End, enjoy the character meal with Snow White and the Evil Queen at Artist Point, dine with the fab five at Chef Mickey's or have a high-end dinner with a view over at California Grill.
We absolutely loved our three nights at Disney's Fort Wilderness. The other campers were friendly. You found yourself actually using the resort amenities (with less need for pricey park days), and it was the right blend of staying in a natural setting without losing the comforts of city living.
It was predictably hot during our mid-July visit, but the abundant shade from the trees made it tolerable. The heat certainly didn't stop people from enjoying all that Fort Wilderness had to offer. Traditional Disney activities are close by, if you want them, but they felt as far away as you wanted them to feel once you were back in the tall pines of the campgrounds.
If you need to sleep six people, these cabins are your best option at Disney World. But, even if you don't need to sleep six, the Fort Wilderness cabins are worth a visit if you want to mix a little Disney with a lot of outdoors.