The cabins at Fort Wilderness offer space and privacy, but if you're looking for a typical resort experience, you may want to pass. The resort is spread out, so you won't be able to take a sleepy walk down to the lobby for your morning coffee, but the great thing is, you can make that coffee in your own kitchen! And then sit on your porch and watch the world--or the squirrels--go by.
The Fort Wilderness campground, "The Fort" to those in the know, was one of three available places to stay when Walt Disney World opened in 1971, along with the Polynesian and the Contemporary Resorts. The history of the Fort is a rather amusing one. When the Disney company was buying up property in Central Florida to build what would later become Disney World, they discovered that a few hundred acres in the northeast corner of the property were owned in five-acre parcels by northerners who'd literally bought "swampland in Florida" a few decades earlier. Obviously this land was worthless to the owners, many of whom had never visited their property or who didn't know they'd even inherited it, but it was terribly useful to Disney. Moving quickly so as to keep who was buying vast amounts of land in Central Florida a secret, they set up their own round the clock office to contact and buy the property before anyone discovered what was happening. Once the property was acquired, those in charge of building the Fort often felt like the proverbial red-headed step-child when competing against the builders of the Contemporary and the Polynesian for supplies, often leading them to take matters into their own hands. There are many funny stories of equipment and supplies "walking away" from the showplace hotels during the night and ending up at the Fort the next morning.
The Fort has 799 campsites and 409 cabins on 700 acres. Check-in is at the Reception Outpost near the front of the campground. The cabins are clustered in loops a couple of miles away. There are laundry and pool facilities a short walk from the cabins. I found the laundry facilities to be immaculate. The pools are very basic, but also clean. The main pool, the Meadows Pool, has a snack bar. The campground has two sit-down restaurants, each of which are buffet style, and one counter service restaurant. All serve "American" style food. The Hoop-de-Doo Review, held nightly at Poineer Hall, is a corny but wildly popular dinner show. It can be difficult to get a reservation, so book as far in advance as possible. If you're not staying at the Fort you can get there easily by taking the boat from the Magic Kingdom. There are also two stores where you can buy basic (but slightly more expensive) groceries, as well as rent bicycles and other sports equipement.
If you're going to be doing any real cooking in your cabin, you will find numerous grocery stores off site. Try the Winn Dixie (take the short cut around the back of Disney property--they'll tell you about it at the Reception Outpost if you ask) on Highway 535. I'm not a big fan of Goodings Supermarket, which is also on 535; it's overpriced, poorly stocked, and not very clean, although there are a few reasonably priced take-out places nearby. I generally prefer to trek over to one of the local Super Targets in the area simply because of the variety and savings. If you don't have a car or you prefer to avoid the hassle of driving off site, try a grocery delivery service like Garden Grocer. Their prices are competitive and they super friendly; put in your order as early as possible (up to a few months ahead of time) to get the best delivery times.
The cabins have one bedroom with a double bed and a set of bunk beds. There is a built-in dresser, a small bedside table, and a closet. There was enough room in the bedroom for two Pack-N-Plays and the assorted "stuff' that the kids collected during our stay, but the room is small and we were definitely crowded. On the plus side, the double bed in our cabin was incredibly comfortable. The bathroom was more than adequate and came with one of those shower curtains that bow out to give you extra space. The kitchen has just about everything you probably have at home: Full-sized refridgerator, range, dishwasher, single sink and a built-in microwave. You'll find placesettings for six and a few pots and pans as well as serving pieces, but if you're planning on serving a large meal, as do some guests during the holidays, you might want to augment what Disney provides with a few pieces from home. I found the kitchen more than adequate for our needs. The living area has a table and chairs, a sofa, a flat screen television and a Murphy bed. There are also two built-in cabinets on either side of the Murphy bed for a little extra storage. Each cabin has a large deck with a picnic table and a grill.
If privacy is important to you, you'll love the cabins. Not only can parents spend time alone after the kids go to bed without worrying about keeping them awake, but you're also afforded a bit of privacy from other guests. It was a huge bonus to us, as we were travelling with two infants and I didn't have to worry about my children keeping anyone awake when, predictably, they decided not to sleep the first night. At night, the Fort is very quiet. It's easily one of the most peaceful resorts.
There are so many activities at the Fort that you may not even make it to the parks. Besides swimming and fishing and just about every other athletic activity you can think of (archery, volleyball, basketball), you can take a carriage ride or visit the petting zoo. There is also guided horseback riding and pony rides. You can even visit the stables where the horses who work in Disney World are cared for. There are nightly marshmallow roasts and outdoor movies, as well as wagon rides. If the lake looks invitng, consider renting a pontoon boat. Or you can do what a lot of guests do and just take a nap on one of the hammocks on the white sand beach.
One thing I loved about Fort Wilderness was the atmosphere. All Disney resorts are beautifully themed and the Fort is no exception, however there is one key difference here: Some of the theming is done by guests. If you go to the Fort from Thanksgiving through New Year's you'll find cabins and campsites decorated with all manner of holiday lights. It was a fun surprise for us, as we didn't know that the guests, some of whom are "snowbirds" who stay for a few months at a time, did this. It's also very relaxed. It's not just the beautiful scenary and the peace and quiet: It's the attitude of the guests, many of whom are Disney pros who've been coming to the Fort since Disney World opened. There's a sense of family here that's hard to describe. The cast members really added to our stay at the Fort in little ways. I worried about having two Pack-N-Plays delivered to our cabin at midnight (when we checked in) but they actually were in the room and being set up in just the short amount of time it took to get from the Reception Station to our cabin. That's amazing service.
So what's the downside? The cabins, while rustic and cozy, are also somewhat dark at night. If you're driving and have the space, consider bringing a small lamp. There have been some complaints about the Murphy bed being uncomfortable, although I didn't find that to be the case. The cabins give you a lot of privacy and are still a deal when compared to comparable rooms on Disney property, but they are by no means spacious, at just over 400 square feet. While it's possible for six adults to sleep in a cabin, a more comfortable number is probably 2-3 adults and the same number of children, max. We were very comfortable with two adults and three kids, but I think anything beyond that would really be stretching my own personal comfort level., Finally, there is only one bathroom, which can be tricky with a larger group.
Ft. Wilderness bus transportation is almost universally derided among guests. Personally, I wouldn't stay at Fort Wilderness without a car, even if I did plan on using Disney transportation most of the time. Having said that, about half of our group (we rented multiple cabins with family) never got into a private vehicle for the entire stay and had no complaints, but they were also the types who get into the parks very late in the day, stay a short while, and then return back to the cabin. If you're planning on "going commando" from morning until night, you may want the convenience of your own car. Even if you don't plan on spending the entire day in the parks, Fort Wilderness is so far from everything else on Disney property it can be difficult to get a quick meal or supplies without one. Keep in mind that if you rent a car, the only place you can park it at the campground is in front of your cabin. You are not permitted to park at any of the restaurants, bus stops, and pools. If you don't have a car, the internal transportation system is adequate, but be prepared for some waits. You will take that bus to the main bus stop area where you can catch a bus to the parks or downtown Disney; service to the Magic Kingdom is by bus and by boat. You can also rent a golf cart for $54 a day and park it near the bus stop when you leave the parks. Given the price of the golf cart, it's actually cheaper to rent a car, but the golf carts are a very useful and fun mode of transportation in the campground.
If you're expecting the same experience you'd have in a hotel, you'll be disappointed. The "front desk" is several miles away. There's no room service. When you open your door, you open it to the great outdoors. Fort Wilderness is very much like a cabin in the woods, albeit a Disney version of one. But if you want some privacy and space on Disney property without paying a huge amount of money, this may be the place for you.
When I got home from our trip, which was overall one of my best Disney trips, I thought about Ft. Wildnerness and what it has to offer and I began to see why others were so loyal: The feeling that you're in your own quiet, peaceful world, the friendly atmosphere, the people who came there as kids and now are coming there with their kids: There's something unique about Fort Wilderness.