Last updated on January 9th, 2017 at 08:43 am
I’ve become more and more alarmed in recent years at the increasing costs of camping out, while the camping experience itself seems to be diminishing. More and more, it’s all about piling up RV’s bumper to bumper on concrete slabs and less about enjoying the great outdoors.
I enjoy both tent camping and RVing, and I usually stick to state parks and natural areas that allow me to enjoy an “authentic Florida” experience. My tent is usually reserved for wilderness and boat camping.
So it was with some reservation that I set out to review Disney’s Fort Wilderness for a series of articles on the best campgrounds near Disney. Could Disney deliver anything but commercialized fantasy?
A friend who took her Girl Scout troop to Fort Wilderness assured me they could. She said the campground had much to offer and suggested my ‘best camping’ roundup would be incomplete without at least visiting.
So I did, and my friend was right.
I was pleased with what I saw and enjoyed my stay, and Fort Wilderness came very close to achieving the “natural Florida experience” that I seek. I was not uncomfortable or disappointed. Disney delivered.
The Fort Wilderness Campground has been around since the beginning, when Disney World first opened to the public in 1971, and it has undergone several expansions since then, from the original 232 sites to 799 today.
Fort Wilderness is nestled in a 740-acre pine and cypress forest, across a lake about a mile east of the Magic Kingdom. The campsites are arranged in 19 loops around the centralized facilities and recreational area known as The Meadow, which includes a swimming complex, a campground store, bike-rental concession, tennis courts and an amphitheater for nightly Chip ‘n’ Dale campfire sing-a-longs.
There are basically two kinds sites with varying degrees of amenities, but the basic tent site where I stayed has a paved driveway backing up off the loop to a level, sand-based pad with a picnic table, grill, electrical box and water spigot. These sites will also accommodate RVs, but the prime RV pads are fully paved with full hookups and cable TV service. (You bring the cable, which is standard gear for RVers.)
The sand pads make it easy to pitch and stake a tent, and there were no embedded rocks to cause discomfort. Indeed, the surfaces were very clean, smooth and comfortable. There is ample distance between sites — about 25 feet around my site — but low-level vegetation to shield your site from others was somewhat limited. Nevertheless, there was just enough, better even than some state parks, and the sites were not so close as to create a problem with privacy.
Although the other sites in my loop were primarily tents and pop-ups, there were a few RVs scattered about, but not enough to disrupt the experience of tent camping. It appeared that my loop (and a couple of others) were geared primarily towards tent campers but could easily convert to RVs if they were needed.
An air-conditioned “comfort station” with rest rooms, private showers, a laundry, soda machine, pay phones and an ice machine was conveniently located at the entrance to my loop. And this convenience seemed to track throughout the campground. The rest rooms are locked from midnight until 6 a.m., although your guest-card key allows access during those off-hours. I found the rest rooms to be very clean and well-maintained.
Camping and RV supplies, including charcoal, are available at two Trading Posts, one in the Meadow recreation area and the other in the Settlement near the marina. Although I didn’t take inventory, I was impressed by the selection of basics for RV and tent campers. Check there before going out of the park for your needs.
This is where Disney really shines.
The swimming pool in the Meadow, at the center of the campground, had a water slide and a splash park for small children, as well as a hot tub for adults off to the side. Lifeguards were everywhere, and they were attentive, so I thought it quite safe for children. Again, the pool area is free to guests. There are also two lighted tennis courts in the pool area, as well as a snack bar and an arcade.
Kayak, canoe and bicycle rentals are available at the Bike Barn in the Meadow Recreation Area, where you can also rent you can also rent fishing gear and bait for fishing in the lake. Guided bass fishing excursions are also available. The paddle trail is four miles long, although you can break away whenever your ready.
Another cool option is the Wilderness Back Trail Adventure, a tour of the back trails around the campground aboard a Segway personal transporter, available for booking at the marina.
Boat rentals are also available at the marina, including jet boats, fishing boats and pontoon boats, and you can even charter a cruise and serve food (for a price). Water skiing, personal watercraft tours, tubing, wake boarding and parasailing are also available at the marina.
Horseback riding is featured at the Outpost Depot, near the entrance to the campground, and pony rides are available for children at the Triple-Circle D Ranch in the Settlement. I walked around the back of the Triple-Circle-D to the horse barn, where the carriage horses are quartered. Press a button and listen to the 1907 Calliope, once used during parades in the Magic Kingdom.
Horse-drawn carriage rides are available every evening in the Settlement, across from the Trail’s End Restaurant, and throughout the campground are free sports areas, including basketball courts, volleyball and tether ball.
Perhaps my favorite amenity was the free boat ferry that transports guests to and from the Magic Kingdom across the lake. I saw it as an opportunity for a relaxing evening cruise before dinner.
We sailed from the marina dock at the campground, past the majestic Wilderness Lodge and around the Disney’s Contemporary Resort, under the monorail and across another lake to the docks at the Magic Kingdom. And then back.
The views were outstanding and the lakeshore largely undeveloped, offering a comfortable and scenic cruise to relax after a long day.
When nightfall approaches…
Adjacent to the swimming pool complex in The Meadow Recreation Area, an amphitheater is the venue for the nightly Chip ‘n’ Dale Campfire Sing-Along, followed by a different Disney movie on an outdoor screen, and it’s all free. But you will inevitably want to purchase marshmallows, s’mores or hot dogs to roast on the fire during the show. A guitar-playing cowboy leads the crowd in campfire songs, accompanied by the entertaining antics of Disney characters Chip and Dale.
I skipped out of the campfire circle before the movie started so I could enjoy the nightly Electric Boat Parade and the Magic Kingdom’s fireworks display, which can be seen across the lake from the Fort Wilderness beach, next to the marina. The beach is deserted during the day, probably because swimming is prohibited in the lake, but at nightfall, every lounge chair is full. Bring a blanket to sit on the sand and enjoy the show.
Driving around the campground in your car is strongly discouraged. Indeed, the only parking within the campground is at your site. A large number of visitors choose electric golf carts, which are available for rent. Veteran RVers bring their own. At $59 per day, the carts were not in my budget.
I highly recommend bringing bicycles. Bike rentals are available, but only during the day, not overnight. When I camp, I find an early morning bike ride gets me going on the day, and the rental barn doesn’t open until 9 a.m.
You really don’t need a cart, or even a bicycle. I rode the campground shuttle buses, or I walked.
Most campsites are within short walking distance of the Meadow Recreation Area, and bus service in the campground was frequent and convenient. There are covered bus stops with the benches near every campground loop, and the buses are free.
The shuttle buses take you to the Settlement area, where you catch the free ferry to the Magic Kingdom, or go in the other direction to the Outpost Depot at the campground entrance, where you can transfer to buses that connect to all of Disney’s theme parks, resort areas and the Downtown Disney entertainment complex. All free.
Where to eat
If you are camping with your family, chances are you’ve brought your own food to save money, and that would be my recommendation. Be sure to do your grocery shopping before you arrive. The nearest Publix supermarket is about 5 miles away, east or west on U.S. 192. (Ample signage on Disney World roadways will take you to U.S. 192.)
The campground’s main restaurant is the Trail’s End for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It is convenient to the marina, so if you are going to or coming from the Magic Kingdom by boat, you have to pass it. Both breakfast (7:30-11 a.m.) and dinner (4:30-9:30 pm) are buffet-style. Though the buffet dining there can get a bit steep at $13.99 for breakfast ($8.99 for children under 10) and $22.99 for dinner, the restaurant has some terrific take-out options. I purchased a fried-chicken dinner (two breasts) with two sides and tasty cornbread for under $10. Another option is a 16-inch cheese pizza for $13.99. I really enjoyed my fried chicken back at the campsite.
Another very popular option is the western-themed, slapstick vaudeville dinner show, the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, in Pioneer Hall. Dinner is served family style, with three seatings on select evenings. This corny but entertaining show gets rave reviews on Yelp! And so does the strawberry shortcake! Prices vary based on age and seating location, so call ahead for information and reservations. (407-WDW-DINE)
Another fun option on select nights, but only from March through December, is Mickey’s Backyard BBQ in the huge outdoor Pavilion behind Pioneer Hall. Dinner and dancing to a live country band is featured, and Disney characters make appearances.
There is a snack bar at the pool in the Meadow, serving salads, hot dogs and sandwiches, and snacks, beer and wine are available at Crockett’s Tavern.
You are also welcome to travel to other Disney resorts for higher-end dining. The nearest resort is the Wilderness Lodge on the western edge of Fort Wilderness.
How much does it cost to camp?
Camping at Fort Wilderness is not cheap. But when you consider all the amenities, comparable costs of mid-priced motel rooms for a family near Disney and the convenience of being inside the Disney complex, it seems reasonable.
Tent and pop-up campsites with partial hookups (water and electric) range from $52 in “value season” to $102 on peak season weekends ($75-$88 in June and July). Florida residents can boost their savings by taking advantage of special admission discounts for the theme parks, which tend to coincide with “value weeks” throughout the year.
RV sites with full hookups — water, sewer and electric — range from $69 in low season to $130 ($91-$112 in June and July). Preferred RV sites, with cable hookups (included) and internet access (extra), and Premium RV sites, on larger pads with upgraded charcoal grills and picnic tables, range from $81 to $151 ($112-$134 in June and July).
To put these prices in perspective, RVers can easily spend $70 to $110 per night at other commercial campgrounds during the winter season, and these days you can even pay up to $40 per night for a campsite at state parks in popular areas, such as the Florida Keys.
For cabin campers, there are more than 400 cabins, an indication that these well-appointed units with daily maid service are popular despite the $360-$505 per night price tag ($360-$398 in June and July). Each cabin is a spacious 500 square feet, sleeping six, with outside decks and grills. For more information, visit Disney’s web site.
Related Florida Rambler articles
- Book your Fort Wilderness campsite
- Official Walt Disney World web site
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Bob Rountree is a beach bum, angler and camper who has explored Florida for decades. No adventure is complete without a scenic paddle trail or unpaved road to nowhere. Bob co-founded FloridaRambler.com with fellow journalist Bonnie Gross 12 years ago.