Fort Wilderness Campground is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, being one of the original three resorts at Walt Disney World. In this post, we’ll share history of Fort Wilderness and look at how the rustic retreat is paying tribute to 50 years with “new” entertainment, merchandise, and more. We’ll also explain why it’s such a special spot that you should visit on your next Walt Disney World vacation!
Unlike Magic Kingdom, Fort Wilderness did not open on October 1, 1971. Along with the Contemporary and Polynesian, “construction” of Fort Wilderness was behind schedule in the home stretch of 1971. Unlike those hotels, it wasn’t fast-tracked to debut by opening day of Magic Kingdom. In fact, the land earmarked for the campground was essentially pristine wilderness as of Spring 1971 when the team arrived on-site to begin work on the project.
Consequently, Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground opened on November 19, 1971 over a month after Magic Kingdom and the two hotels. Similar to how Contemporary was viewed as an extension of Tomorrowland and Polynesian of Adventureland, Fort Wilderness was viewed as a counterpart to Frontierland, giving guests a way to stay in the American frontier. The campground debuted with 232 campsites as well as Tri Circle D Ranch, which was primarily constructed as a convenient location for horses in the parades at Magic Kingdom.
In the years that followed, Fort Wilderness would expand considerably. The first big addition was the Fort Wilderness Railroad, which soft opened in Spring 1973. Fort Wilderness Railroad consisted of four steam trains that each pulled five cars around a circular route through the campground, similar to that of the current internal buses, at a maximum speed of 10 miles an hour. Each train was approximately 115 feet long and having capacity for 90 guests.
Fort Wilderness Railroad’s track was far and away the longest railroad operating in a Disney park, more than double the 1 1/2 mile route around the Magic Kingdom. During the heyday of the River Country water park in peak summer seasons, all four trains of the Fort Wilderness Railroad operated daily to provide sufficient capacity to meet demand. Tickets cost $1 and were good all day, with the train typically running from 7 am until 11 pm. (Resulting in a similar ‘wake-up call’ that guests staying in the Poly bungalows now get each morning!)
Fort Wilderness Railroad was relatively short-lived by Walt Disney World standards. There’s still debate over when it permanently closed; we know that service was reduced in 1977, but continued until at least 1979. In early 1980, Fort Wilderness Railroad went on “hiatus” for a feasibility assessment or evaluation, but it never returned. (Learn more about Fort Wilderness Railroad.)
Another addition around that same time is more well-known. Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue was one of the original ‘upcharge offerings’ at Walt Disney World. This show was created to lessen the blow of decreased attendance in the wake of the 1973-74 Oil Embargo, debuting on June 30, 1974 as a temporary summer show with a cast of college interns.
Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue was an immediate hit with guests, and Walt Disney World Entertainment scrambled to audition a full-time cast by the end of summer as the interns headed home. Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue opened as a permanent show on September 5, 1974.
It’s now one of the longest-running dinner shows in the United States, with more than 40,000 performances. While the show has been tweaked over the years, it’s largely the same today as it was in 1974, maintaining the same spirit of Americana and old-fashioned family fun served with down-home comfort food.
More recently, Tri-Circle-D Ranch was relocated and Mickey’s Backyard BBQ was demolished in preparation for the construction of Reflections Lakeside Lodge–a project that Walt Disney World has since abandoned. (Thankfully.)
Today, Fort Wilderness offers campsites and cabins along with a wide range of recreational options. While Fort Wilderness is only a short boat ride from Magic Kingdom, it feels worlds away. The sprawling ‘resort’ is situated on 750 acres of pine and cypress forest, giving the campground a ‘buffer’ between it and the rest of Walt Disney World.
Fort Wilderness is a blissful escape from the hustle and bustle of the theme parks, offering about as sharp of a contrast to Magic Kingdom as is conceivably possible for a place only minutes away. It’s almost as if Fort Wilderness Campground is “off the grid” and hasn’t been victim to as many of the changes made that have sanitized and made some of the other original ‘Vacation Kingdom of the World’ resorts less endearing.
There’s an undeniable magic to Fort Wilderness, and it’s easy to see and feel while walking around the rustic resort, enjoying dinner, or catching the evening entertainment. It’s as if the atmosphere rubs off on everyone who stays here or visits, with a spirit of conviviality and community unlike any other resort on property. Not to overstate things, but it sure seems to me like Fort Wilderness is the happiest place at Walt Disney World. It’s a really special place.
More than anything else, this is why we say “thankfully” about Disney’s decision to abandon Reflections Lakeside Lodge. While there are several reasons Reflections was a half-baked idea, chief among them was the irreversible impact it’d have on the seclusion and serenity of Fort Wilderness, its largely unspoiled scenery, and the atmosphere that exists as a result.
In addition to the aforementioned Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue and Tri-Circle-D Ranch, other features of Fort Wilderness include playgrounds, two heated swimming pools, Trail’s End Restaurant, Crockett’s Tavern, P & J’s Southern Takeout, Electrical Water Pageant, fishing, horseback riding, wagon rides, and more. There are showers, laundry rooms, restrooms, and Comfort Stations in every campsite loop.
This just scratches the surface of the dining and recreation offerings at Fort Wilderness. It’s honestly hard to keep track of everything. In addition to permanent food trucks, there are also temporary ones that appear during the week. We see something new each time we visit.
One of the reasons for our trek out to Fort Wilderness on this particular evening was catching Chip ‘N Dale’s Campfire Sing-A-Long. This returned a few months ago, but we hadn’t yet returned to check it out.
For those unfamiliar with Chip ‘N Dale’s Campfire Sing-A-Long, it features the nutty friends for a campfire celebration followed by a classic Disney movie under the stars. Prior to the character appearance, there’s a talented performer who leads classic campfire songs in an outdoor amphitheater.
Prior to Chip ‘N Dale’s Campfire Sing-A-Long, fire pits are available for roasting marshmallows and making s’mores.
Once the characters appear during the performance, guests are invited up towards the front of the stage for an informal dance party. (I seem to recall this being different last time we did it–I think Chip ‘N Dale mingled with the audience during the first half of the show, signing autographs, posing for photos, and engaging in general hijinks. It’s been a few years, though!)
Regardless, Chip ‘N Dale’s Campfire Sing-A-Long is good ole fashioned fun for guests of all ages.
The musician is talented, and performs songs that are actually good. Expect to hear “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain When She Comes,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” among others. I don’t have a full playlist, but if you like the music of John Denver or Johnny Cash, you’ll enjoy this.
Not that we make a point of creeping on other guests during sing-alongs (sometimes it just happens), but it really seemed as if everyone was having a good time during Chip ‘N Dale’s Campfire Sing-A-Long.
It’s one of those things that’s deceptively simple, and simply fun. With campfires, good music, and character shenanigans, what’s not to enjoy? In general, this is the story of Fort Wilderness as a whole. It’s a ‘resort’ that may not seem compelling as compared to its more impressive counterparts at Walt Disney World, but is much more fun in person than it might appear on paper.
We often recommend Fort Wilderness to families with kids who are high energy and hands-on. It’s a great place for children to actively explore and have fun in real life. Without fail, we see kids having a hoot at Fort Wilderness.
If I had to score resorts at Walt Disney World on their ‘fun factor’ for kids, Fort Wilderness would be the runaway champion. (The only others that even come close are Art of Animation, Caribbean Beach, and Yacht/Beach Club.) In an era when entertainment for kids primarily occurs in front of a screen, Fort Wilderness is a breath of fresh air. Literally and figuratively.
As a kid, I loved camping at Fort Wilderness, which was my family’s go-to place to stay at Walt Disney World until Shades of Green opened in 1994. We stayed in our truck camper there at least a half dozen times from the late 1980s through early 1990s. I have a lot of nostalgia and fond memories for Fort Wilderness as a result.
Sarah and I have stayed at the Cabins at Fort Wilderness several times as well as the campsites. It’s one of our favorite resorts for larger parties, for anyone wanting a place to decompress from the sensory-overload of the parks, or those wanting a convivial setting for group bonding.
In general, the (Walt Disney) World and life move at a slower pace at Fort Wilderness. It’s a simpler time and place, and that really needs to appeal to you and also mesh with the priorities for your Walt Disney World vacation. If you’re theme park commandos, it’s not for you. If you’re fine with a more leisurely experience, it could work.
On an odd and random note, one of my favorite “jokes” is stopping Sarah abruptly before she’s about to enter Meadows Trading Post. I’ll exclaim: “Hold on, we’re not allowed in there!”
“Why?” she questions.
“Well, we’re not service animals, are we?!”
This is the corniest of corny dad jokes, and one that is guaranteed to induce eyerolls from your family and friends. Please feel free to borrow it. I promise you, no one will laugh. Maybe it’s simply too cerebral.
While at Meadows Trading Post, we spotted a ton of awesome 50th Anniversary merchandise.
None of this is new–I remember seeing posts about it on social media a while ago, but it was all new to us. I’m guessing it’s also new to many of you, so I figured I’d share photos of the line:
Maybe I’m biased because I love Fort Wilderness, but I think this whole line is fantastic. I ended up buying only the Chip ‘N Dale mug to add to my growing collection of rustic Wilderness Lodge and Grand Californian mugs, but I was tempted by so much more.
Several of the shirts are really good, but my favorite item of all is the backpack. As someone who always carries a photography bag, I wouldn’t have any use for that…but I almost bought it, anyway. The quality is fantastic and those patches are perfect. (For similar reasons, the water bottle is also exceptional–but we only use bottles with filters.)
Kudos to the merchandise team behind these products, because they really captured the essence of Fort Wilderness. I do wish they could’ve brought back “Musket Mickey Mouse,” but totally get why that wasn’t possible. At least there are fan made/small shop designs available with him.
Ultimately, we had a fantastic afternoon and evening at Fort Wilderness, celebrating 50 years of the magic, merriment, and merchandise of this underrated Walt Disney World resort. While it’s not for everyone, you might just be surprised by how much your family enjoys Fort Wilderness. At the very least, we’d recommend booking Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue or taking a boat ride over for a midday break from Magic Kingdom to enjoy some delicious fried food.
You might even consider a stay at Fort Wilderness in the cabins or campground, depending upon your party’s preferences. In our view, Fort Wilderness is the ideal intersection of being outdoors while still being a part of civilization. It’s a perfect change of pace from the craziness of the parks, and 50 years later, there’s still something special about this place. It’s the best remaining embodiment of the “Vacation Kingdom of the World” and continues to carry on the vision the Disney brothers (and others) had for the Florida Project back in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!
Have you stayed at the campsites or cabins at Fort Wilderness? What did you think of the experience? Have you visited for dining, entertainment, or anything else? Do you think there’s a certain magic to the place? Agree or disagree that it’s a nice serene and secluded change of pace from the parks? Anything else to add that we didn’t cover? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!