May 12, 2020

Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground - Is the Experience Worth the $$$$?

This post represents another installment in The Big Switcheroo series – tales from last spring’s epic journey from the northeast to the Florida Keys and back – involving family, friends and an extraordinary range of adventures.  Coincidentally, it was exactly one year ago today that the trip began.

This the first of several posts covering our visit to Walt Disney World and the Orlando area with our daughter (Kyra), our son (Ryan) and Ryan’s long-time girlfriend (Anya).  Since I prefer to cover topics in one post rather than interrupt the flow of the “story,” please consider this your “Long Post Ahead!” alert.  That means it’s time to warm up your coffee or cool down your adult beverage, and settle in for a longer read than usual.  If you’re not a fan of long posts, you could always read through the next ten paragraphs, then come back tomorrow to finish up.  No extra charge.  Seriously, please keep in mind that we camped at Fort Wilderness in May of 2019.  I understand that the Disney experience may never be the same going forward – or, at least, not for quite a while.

My kids call me cheap.  I prefer the word frugal.  Merriam-Webster defines “cheap” as “stingy” (which is further defined as not generous or liberal: sparing or scant in using, giving, or spending“) and “frugal” as characterized by or reflecting economy in the use of resources.”  Oh, yeah.  I definitely prefer the definition of frugal – especially since another definition of “cheap” is contemptible because of lack of any fine, lofty, or redeeming qualities.”  Ow, that hurts.  I really hope my kids believe I have, at least, some redeeming qualities.  No matter what definition of “doesn’t like to spend money” you prefer, the fact of the matter is that I think long and hard before I part ways with any of my hard-earned dollars.  That being said, I can be quite frivolous with my funds when it comes to something or someone I consider important.  I save money when and where I can so that I have it to spend on something I enjoy or want.  I’d bet that most people operate on the same principle, even though what we deem truly important in life may differ quite a bit from person to person.

Alan and I will drive a car for more than a decade until it dies on us or it no longer makes financial sense to invest in costly repairs.  But, when we replace it, it will be with a brand new vehicle, despite the fact that we may lose thousands in depreciation as we drive it off the dealer’s lot.  I will happily eat a generic brand of cereal as long as it’s tasty and nutritious, but it will probably be topped (without a moment’s hesitation) with flash frozen berries at over $3.00 per pound when fresh ones are out of season.  I have no problem buying a less expensive brand of ice cream as long as it’s creamy and yummy, but I also have no problem driving an hour roundtrip to my favorite Italian bakery to pick up a couple of their exquisite Napoleon pastries.  (Their French Cannoli are to die for, too.  Just sayin.’)

Now that it’s too late to make a long story short, here’s the point I want to make before I launch into our experience at Disney’s Fort Wilderness:  While I am frugal by nature, I will also cough up big bucks for a product, service or experience that I perceive to be a good value relative to my outlay.  Without a doubt, camping at Fort Wilderness is Expensive with a capital E.  But is it worth it?

Welcome to the House of Mouse!

Let’s talk dollars now so that we can put the frightening part of this post behind us.  Five of us camped at Fort Wilderness for one full week (7 nights) last spring, arriving on Sunday, May 19th, and departing on Sunday, May 26th.  The 26th happened to be Ryan’s 25th birthday, and we celebrated with "birthday muffins" before he and Anya left to catch their flight home that morning.  But, I digress.  An all too common occurrence.

We settled for 5 candles instead of 25; otherwise, we would have needed a bigger muffin.

Due to the length of our truck and travel trailer combined, we chose a “Premium” site with full hookups which can be up to 18’ wide by 60’ long.  Our nightly cost for Sunday through Thursday was $135.00; our nightly cost for Friday and Saturday was $156.00.  There were no additional fees for extra persons beyond two or four as are standard these days at many private campgrounds.  Our camping fee was $987.00.  Add a 12.5% tax to that and our total camping expense for the week came to just over $1,100.00. Like I said, frightening.  To put this in perspective, we could have camped for seven weeks at our favorite public campground for the same amount of money – without any hookups, true, but on a lakefront site with a gorgeous view.  Golf carts are renting for $59.00 per day at Fort Wilderness this year.  While we didn’t need or want one, I can see how a golf cart would be useful if you were staying in a loop that wasn’t near the pool, playground, restaurant, or a transportation hub – the campground is huge.  If we wanted to visit Fort Wilderness during Christmas week, we would have paid a premium for our Premium site - $213.00 per night.  OUCH!  Even tent sites start high - $62.00 per night and that’s for August.  Tent camping in Florida in August?  Um, no, I don’t think so.  Okay, those scary numbers were the worst of it.  Let’s just take a few deep breaths to steady ourselves and move on. 

Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground has been on my radar since friends of ours sang its praises more than ten years ago.  Despite the steep cost, we decided that, if we were ever going to camp at the Fort, this would be the perfect trip for it.  We had not stayed on Disney property for any of our half dozen or so previous visits and, more importantly, since this Disney adventure was a graduation gift for both Kyra and Anya, we wanted it to be special.

Looks like somebody is a big fan of Minnie Mouse!

Reserving a campsite at Fort Wilderness was a little bit nerve wracking for someone who prefers to look at every site and pick the one she likes the best.  (Yup, that would be me.)  At Fort Wilderness, not only can’t you pick your own campsite, you can’t even decide what loop you want to stay in.  (There are 21 camping loops in Fort Wilderness, each containing between 10 and 85 campsites. There are 7 additional loops with cabins.)  Although you can request a specific loop, Disney is quick to point out that it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be assigned a site in the loop you requested.  That really rubbed me the wrong way, but there was nothing to be done.  When in Disney, you have to play by (Mouse) House rules.

Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground is . . . Just. So. Big.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you can’t research the heck out of your subject and request the camping loop that works best for your family.  Using the map of the campground I found on the Disney World web site, I was able to quickly cross off some loops knowing that we weren’t interested in being near the pool or the playground, and understanding that some of the loops had sites that were too small to accommodate us.  But, having read that you can catch a boat at the Fort Wilderness marina that goes directly to the Magic Kingdom (or to the Transportation & Ticket Center) and that the nightly fireworks were visible from the beach at the Fort, I decided to request a site in the 700 loop, which would put us just a short walk away from both.  What sealed the deal for us were the videos I found on YouTube that were posted by Disney guests who had videoed the individual camping loops using the ever-so-popular “drive by technique.”  People actually took the time to drive through the loops at Fort Wilderness filming the sites and posting those videos online - which proved to be a wonderful resource when I was trying to decide which loop to request.  A round of applause to all of those drive by shooters!  No, wait!  What I mean is, many thanks to everyone who shot videos of the Fort Wilderness camping loops and shared them with the rest of us!

When we left our friends, Pat and Ella, at the Metro Diner in Daytona Beach in the early afternoon of May 19th, Alan and I had allowed ourselves ample time to drive to Disney World and arrive when check-in began at 3:00 p.m.  We also factored in enough time to find our site, get the travel trailer set up and ready for our “guests,” and zip back to the Orlando International Airport by the time Kyra’s flight came in early that evening.  Ryan and Anya flew in the day before and stayed in a local hotel for the night; they planned to meet us for dinner after Kyra’s flight arrived.

I’m not sure exactly what I expected to find when we arrived for check-in at Fort Wilderness, but I can assure you it was not a “Reception Outpost” with six lanes of traffic full of other Disney guests checking in at the same time we were.  However, Disney is nothing if not efficient, and it really didn’t take us long to check-in.  The Disney cast member at the gate answered the few questions we had easily and thoroughly, and we pulled away in search of the 700 Loop with MagicBands for the five of us in hand.  (MagicBands are electronic wristbands with and through which you can access buildings, attractions, etc. – sort of like an electronic room or access card that you wear on your wrist.  Guests are given a choice between a MagicBand or a card; MagicBands are the default choice and, as annoying as they were to wear, proved to be much more convenient than a card would have been.)

Drive-through check-in!

Disney property is both exceptionally beautiful and beautifully maintained, and it was a lovely drive to Cinnamon Fern Way.  Before we reached any of the camping loops, we noticed a pull off to the right which turned out to be a thoughtful and strategically placed feature:  a convenient and safe area in which to unhitch a towed vehicle.  Somebody had his or her thinking cap on when the plans for Fort Wilderness were being drawn!  The photo below was taken after we had checked in, looking back at the Reception Outpost.

The Reception Outpost - check in lanes (far right) and guest access to the building (on left)

When we pulled up to our site, I would have bet that we’d never fit.  It looked tiny compared to the size of our truck and trailer.  Well, looks must be deceiving because the travel trailer fit just fine, as did our truck and Ryan and Anya’s rental car.  Although we kept the truck parked quite close to the picnic table, the wide apron would have allowed us more breathing room had we needed it.  While the sites are fairly close together, the landscaping in our loop had been designed to provide as much shade and privacy as possible.  We didn’t bike through all the loops, but it seemed that the ones we did tour later in our stay were also well-designed, some with a bit more privacy than others.

Cinnamon Fern Way ~ Site 726

Without a doubt, we were quite happy with our campsite and its location.  We were situated almost directly across the main road from restrooms and showers, as well as a spanking clean laundry room, all of which could only be accessed with a MagicBand or key card.  A short walk took us to the marina where we hopped on a boat to either the Magic Kingdom or to the Transportation & Ticket Center.  An even shorter walk brought us to a bus stop just around the corner from the end of our one-way loop road.  Buses pick up guests at the neighborhood bus stops around Fort Wilderness and bring them to the main bus stop in the Fort which is near the Reception Outpost.  Buses leaving from the main bus stop transport guests to all of the Disney World theme parks, as well as other locations throughout the Disney empire.

A "neighborhood" bus stop

Generally, Alan and I prefer to travel as independently as possible, but we did take advantage of the Disney transportation system a number of times during our week-long stay.  In various reviews, I’ve seen both praise and criticism for the transportation system but I believe that’s to be expected with such a phenomenally huge and complex undertaking.  The various forms of Disney transportation move thousands of guests every day quite efficiently.  Yes, we had to wait for a bus or a boat at times, but the waits were not long and certainly endurable.  Walking and biking paths made getting around quite easy, with no worries about traffic.  As with all of Disney’s projects, Fort Wilderness is an attractive, well-designed, efficiently run campground that was obviously planned with guests’ comfort, convenience and safety in mind.

We loved the bike trails!

In addition to standard campground amenities like a pool and playground, you’ll also find tennis courts, a volleyball court, a dog park, Segway tours, horse and pony rides and the exceptionally fun-filled Campfire Sing-a-Long with Chip and Dale where adults of all ages can make complete fools of themselves doing the Hokey Pokey.  Yes, I did, and yes, there is video to prove it.  No, you can't see it.

Chip and Dale's Campfire Sing-a-Long was fun for all ages!

Chip and Dale’s fire pit is available for anyone’s use – another feature that Disney thoughtfully provided to enhance a guest’s experience.

Kyra (at right) is very serious about toasting marshmallows.

The Chuck Wagon, onsite right there in the campfire area, sells both food and s’mores kits in case you forgot to pack your own marshmallows and forks.  As of last year, the kits cost about 10 bucks and made 8 to 10 s’mores.  That information is provided as a public service.  No one in our family likes s’mores, although we are fans of toasted marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers.  Just not together.
Kyra is known as "the Queen of Toasted Marshmallows" in our family.

During our biking adventures, Alan and I stopped by the horse barns.  The dainty white horses that pull Cinderella’s carriage and the massive draft horses that haul various types of transportation around Disney property have to live somewhere, and Fort Wilderness is their home.

"Mama, when I grow up, I'm going to pull Cinderella's carriage, too!"

We were delighted to learn that tours of the draft horse barn were available and we skedaddled ourselves over there on the last day of our stay.  Although Alan and I don’t have horses, we do enjoy horseback riding, and I’ve loved horses since I was young.  So, hanging around the corrals and exploring the horse barn were right up our alley.  Surprisingly (because, after all, it is Disney), there was no cost for the barn tour, and an excellent tour it was.  Our tour guide, Rachel, was young but, obviously, a horse person, extremely knowledgeable about her charges and exceptionally patient with all of the questions our tour group threw at her.  While the barn tour certainly doesn’t hit the excitement level of any of the Disney theme parks, it was so educational and enjoyable that, if we ever went back, I’d take the tour again.  (Notice the logo for the "Tri Circle D Ranch" in the photo below.)

Speaking of Disney staff, or I should say, cast members, I had a very pleasant exchange with one man on the maintenance crew who was traveling around the Fort to clean recently vacated campsites.  (We saw this man cleaning the site across from us one morning, and he did an extremely thorough job.  Extremely thorough.)  I was walking over to the laundry room with a large basket of laundry and a container of detergent, and he stopped his golf cart to ask if I would like a ride over to the building.  I was SO impressed – and appreciative!  I thanked him for his kind offer, but assured him that I was happy to be getting in my daily steps.  I was sorry later that I had not asked his name or looked at his name tag so that I could point out his courtesy to management.  Likewise, the cast members at the Reception Outpost were very gracious when we stopped in several times with a variety of questions.  On a previous visit to Disney World, I had decided that Disney “Magic” was a thing of the past, but the attentiveness of the staff at Fort Wilderness during this visit proved me wrong.

Check out the SIZE of the latest fashion footwear for draft horses!

Now comes the time to answer the question:  Do I think the Disney experience at Fort Wilderness is worth the premium price we paid to camp there?  Just because something is expensive doesn’t mean it’s good; sometimes you end up paying extra for a name or a logo and not much else.  On the other hand, a higher price is often justified if it reflects an exceptional value or a better quality product.  For our family and for this visit, yes, I do think it was worth the big wad of cash we plunked down to camp on Disney property.  Here’s why . . . We celebrated two special family graduations at Disney World and those celebrations were worthy of a splurge.  (Although our kids had been to Disney World twice before, it was actually Anya’s first visit and something she had been dreaming of for a while.)  Plus, with the five of us staying in the travel trailer and our schedules varying among us from day to day, there was a real benefit for the group to have Disney’s transportation options available to us.  I don’t think Ryan and Anya used their rental car more than a couple of times during the entire week.

Disney calls these "Minnie Vans."  Don't you just love it?!

We are not the type of Disney fans who feel the need to return year after year, so I’m not planning on laying out over $1,000 for a week of camping on a regular basis.  Really, I just couldn’t bring myself to do that.  But then, I wouldn’t cough up the kind of money you need to visit Disney on a regular basis anyway.  As for people who use Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground as a favorite and regular campground or a vacation destination in and of itself, well, let’s just say that my frugal heart would shrivel up and die if I spent that kind of money to eat at a picnic table, toast marshmallows, ride my bike, use a pool and play some tennis at any resort campground.

All three "kids" took advantage of quiet times (and the slide) at the pool.

We’ve been to Disney World maybe a half dozen times over the course of our 40 year marriage.  At that rate, it will be a while before we go again and, with it being such a rare occasion, I would definitely consider staying at Fort Wilderness in the future.  Note that I didn’t say I would definitely stay at Fort Wilderness, but I would certainly consider it an option.  If it were just the two of us, and Alan and I simply planned to spend a full day at each theme park, it’s very probable that we’d camp outside the park to save some cash, and make the drive to Disney World on a daily basis, especially if the visit were only for a few days.  On the other hand, if we were celebrating another special occasion or had the kids with us again, I’d be snapping on my MagicBand and heading over to the horse barn for another tour because we really did have a fabulous time at Fort Wilderness.  Yee-ha!   


  1. I have to take my hat off to you; I have been outclassed in per-night camping fees. I am still grousing about having to pay $101 a night at Jackson Hole, Wyoming a few years ago. And like you, I would never have spent the money just for us at Disney World, but for our daughter Mindy...well, I almost hesitate to tell you that we paid $1800 to hire a personal guide to the park for her and her friend; there was no standing in line for anything. Too indulgent? Maybe; but, in her view, I walk on water. I enjoyed your review of Fort W, since I'm sure I'll never spring for it. (Oh wait; I forgot about the grandsons; just delete all that.)

    1. Mike, paying for a personal guide for Mindy and her friend may have been indulgent, but it's a perfect example of being comfortable with a large outlay of cash for something that provides an extraordinary value and experience. Don't forget, "time is money," and an awful lot of time is wasted at Disney World standing in line for food and attractions, even with the FastPass system. My guess is that Mindy enjoyed many more attractions and activities than the average guest, and her very generous father is to thank for that thoughtful, if indulgent, gift.

  2. About 5 months before your trip, my and wife and I took both daughters, one husband, (I quickly add he was attached to just one of the daughters) and three grandkids for a week at the Magic Kingdom. From Phoenix our largest expense was the airfare for eight people. Because of very frequent trips to Disneyland, my married daughter and husband belong to the Disney Vacation Club, so our week in a very nice condo was free. Gran and Grandad did pay for the admission tickets (BIG number) and all meals.

    But, as you note, it was an investment in lifelong memories and tremendous family time. We wouldn't do it again (at least on this scale), but don't resent a single dollar spent.

    Disney makes virtually no mistakes. The transportation was fabulous, the crew members unfailingly nice, everything clean and convenient. The grandkids still joke about "Grandad's wallet." I was always pulling it out for something yet it never seemed to run dry.

    1. Bob, the "Disney Magic" must have rubbed off on your wallet! (At least your credit card didn't actually melt from overuse.) Because Disney ensures that there's an appeal for all ages, multi-generational trips to Disneyland or Disney World can really be tons of fun for everyone. And those memories are, indeed, priceless. It seems to me that your family's experience is a perfect example of money well spent.


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