Camping at the Most Magical Place on Earth puts a spell on families in Florida’s theme-park mecca
My husband, Jeremy, is the quintessential Disney Dad. He grew up visiting Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, many times over and created some of the best memories of his childhood there. I, on the other hand, experienced one underwhelming visit as a preteen that left me perfectly content never to return.
I managed to put off a Disney World vacation for years, but as our twin sons approached their seventh birthday, my husband went for the hard sell. And he won.
What finally convinced me to book a trip to the Most Magical Place on Earth? It turns out, there is a themed campground on the property. And if there is one way you can get me to Disney World, it’s in an RV.
RVing with Mickey
Fort Wilderness is a 750-acre camping resort in the heart of the action — a 10-minute boat ride across Bay Lake takes you right to the Magic Kingdom — but it feels like it’s a million miles away. Towering pine and cypress trees surround about 800 campsites and 400 cabins situated on loops throughout the campground. Wild turkeys roam the grounds along with deer, rabbits, peacocks and armadillos.
During our stay, we hiked miles along the nature trails and visited the horses at Tri-Circle-D Ranch. It felt so rustic and peaceful, we almost forgot we were visiting the most famous theme park in the world.
Almost, but not quite. Because along with all that natural beauty comes the pristine cleanliness, amazing customer service and modern amenities that are legendary at Walt Disney World Resorts. In the end, this is what turned our family of five into hardcore fans of the campground — a group of guests affectionately known as Fort Fiends.
Fort Wilderness allows us to experience all the joy and magic of a Disney World vacation along with all the peace and tranquility of a typical family camping trip. It’s a special kind of mix that has us longing to return year after year.
Booking a Campsite
Speaking with many Disney World enthusiasts before our first family stay at Fort Wilderness convinced me that planning a Disney vacation was something akin to a full-time job in the months leading up to a visit. After two amazing trips, we now firmly believe that doesn’t have to be the case.
No one can do everything at Disney World, so we don’t even try. The secret to our personal Disney magic lies in soaking up the fun and frenzy of the rides, live shows and character dining, then retreating to the peace and quiet of the campground before anyone gets exhausted, overwhelmed or burned-out.
While we may not plan extensively, we do plan strategically. Fort Wilderness campsite reservations can be made 499 days in advance by phone and 365 days in advance online. We enjoy visiting during quieter seasons and have had success booking premium sites one year in advance.
However, folks who like to camp at Fort Wilderness during Thanksgiving, the winter holidays and spring break should set their smartphone reminders for 499 days in advance and cross all their fingers and toes. It is ridiculously competitive to land a campsite during these peak seasons, and first-time visitors are often shocked at how far in advance the campground fills up.
When making reservations, guests aren’t permitted to choose a particular campsite. Instead, you reserve a campsite category: Tent or Pop-Up, Full Hookup, Preferred or Premium. Every site has a concrete pad, picnic table, charcoal grill, water, electric and cable. The pricier tiers offer sewer hookups and more space.
You are allowed, however, to request a particular loop, and though Disney doesn’t guarantee that requests will be honored, we have gotten lucky for the past two years. Our favorite spot is the 900 Loop, with premium sites right near the Meadows Depot. It’s private and heavily wooded, yet only a short walk from a heated pool, hot tub, trading post and Chip ’n’ Dale’s Campfire Sing-a-Long.
As we waved goodbye to Disney World on the last day of our vacation this past January, a new email alert suddenly popped up on my phone. It was a Fort Wilderness reservation for next year. I turned to my husband with an eyebrow raised. “We can always cancel,” he said with a wink.
Disney Property perks
Fort Wilderness is an official Disney resort, so guests receive some pretty nice benefits for staying on-site, and we make sure to take full advantage while planning our visits. We book dining reservations 180 days in advance of our check-in date. For our first Disney vacation, we were eager to experience some character-dining venues, such as Mickey’s Backyard BBQ and Chef Mickey’s at the Contemporary Resort, which we traveled to via boat from the campground.
On our second trip, we scaled back on dining reservations. We realized that part of the magic of an RV stay at Fort Wilderness is that we were visiting with a fully stocked and operational kitchen. Enjoying every breakfast and most of our dinners at the campsite saved a ton of money and also kept things a bit more mellow. We appreciated not having so many reservations on the agenda. It gave us the freedom to spend that extra half hour at the pool in the late afternoon.
We also made sure to book FastPass+ reservations 60 days in advance of our check-in date. For every park ticket we purchase, we can book up to three FastPass+ reservations, and this is a priority for us, since we refuse to wait in line too long for any ride, no matter how big of a buzz there is. Once we use up those first three FastPasses in the park, we can book one more at a time, at either a FastPass+ kiosk or using the Disney World app on our smartphones.
Magic Hours: Another Bonus
for folks staying at Disney properties, and we always check to see what parks have additional morning or evening hours during our visits. This is a great opportunity to get on the hottest new rides or just to enjoy a less crowded park atmosphere.
Other Disney resort perks include complimentary MagicBands (smart wristbands that serve as park tickets, FastPass+ check-ins and more), free parking at all resort properties, and access to bus, boat and monorail transportation. So while it may be more affordable to stay at an RV park elsewhere in the greater Orlando area (see the opposite page for some campground options), the benefits that come with a Fort Wilderness reservation offer a pretty compelling argument for us to stay there.
Fort Wilderness “Fiends”
On our first family vacation to Disney World, we packed our schedule full of dining reservations, live shows and visits to the various parks. We were about three days into our stay when we realized we really wanted to be hanging out at Fort Wilderness.
Apparently, this is not an unusual phenomenon. We had heard from many RVers that they often don’t venture into the parks at all during a Fort Wilderness vacation. At first this sounded completely ridiculous. Camp at Disney World without doing all the typical Disney World things? Never!
But once we got to know Fort Wilderness a little better, we under-stood completely. Why stand in line for a character meet-and-greet when you can roast marshmallows with Chip and Dale? Why battle the nighttime crowds in the Magic Kingdom when you can watch fireworks from the Fort Wilderness beach? Why get dressed up for dinner reservations when you can sip a cocktail in a rocking chair at the Settlement Trading Post and watch your kids run around on the playground?
Don’t get me wrong. Our family has been to all four Disney parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. We loved our time at each one, and the boys will claim a different favorite park depending on which day you ask. We bust through the park gates at opening and race from ride to ride, breaking only to eat some ice cream while watching a live show or parade.
Then a funny thing happens around 4 in the afternoon. The kids start asking when we are going back to the campground. We start picturing splashing down the waterslide and lounging in the hot tub. We wonder aloud what movie will be playing at the outdoor theater. Our youngest son starts debating whether he will hug Chip or Dale that evening. We rush out of the park, eager to unwind and relax. And then we realize: Our family has officially joined the ranks of Fort Fiends.
Holding the Fort
Fort Wilderness offers all the amenities that RVers have come to expect at the best resort campgrounds. There are two heated pools, always kept between 83 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, as a friendly lifeguard told us. There’s a hot tub, a splash pad for the little ones, and a waterslide that keeps our boys occupied for hours. The recreation opportunities are extensive and include tennis, basketball, tetherball and sand volleyball.
Then there are the amenities and activities that you won’t find at any other campground in America. In fact, folks come from other Disney World properties just to enjoy the Fort’s unique offerings. Visitors can rent fishing equipment, canoes and kayaks to paddle around in the lagoons, lakes and bays. There are bike rentals, pony rides and archery lessons, plus carriage rides and Segway tours.
The Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue is a legendary dinner show at Fort Wilderness that has been running continuously for more than 40 years. It is the first meal we enjoy at the Fort every time we visit. The upbeat music, corny jokes, interactive cast and all-you-can-eat fried chicken and ribs make the worries of the real world fade away and put the whole family in a Disney state of mind.
We especially love the fact that we can dance with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and Chip and Dale without even stepping foot outside the Fort. Mickey’s Backyard BBQ is an all-you-can-eat picnic spread with live country music and plenty of photo opportunities with your favorite characters. Once we top off our Fort Wilderness dining experiences with breakfast at the Trail’s End Restaurant, we usually head home, collectively vowing never to eat another meal again.
Beyond plummeting down Splash Mountain, spinning with Buzz Lightyear and getting spooked at the Haunted Mansion, there are many other experiences to be had in the Orlando area outside of Disney World. SeaWorld, Legoland and the Kennedy Space Center are all popular destinations. However, our now eight-year-old twins, like many kids their age, are obsessed with Harry Potter, so we dedicated a day to visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios.
The boys swear that it was one of the greatest days of their entire lives, and we swear that it was one of the most expensive days of ours. Yes, we spent more money at Universal Studios than we ever have on a day at Disney World. To enjoy the entire Harry Potter experience, we had to buy Park-to-Park tickets, Universal’s version of Disney’s Park Hopper pass. We also just had to splurge for the Ollivanders experience, where our three boys got to pick out their own wands that could be used to cast spells throughout the park.
For our family, visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was well worth the expense and the half-hour trip from Fort Wilderness. It looks and smells exactly like we always imagined it would. And the butterbeer was as yummy as we had hoped. We taste-tested all the options, just to be sure.
So many people return to Walt Disney World year after year and barely scratch the surface of all there is to see and do. We suspect it will take us longer than most to explore every nook and cranny of the parks. We’re too busy hanging out at Fort Wilderness, looping around on a golf cart and talking about which campsite we hope to snap up for our next visit.
Camping Near the Magic Kingdom
The only campground within Walt Disney World, Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground is in the heart of the world-famous theme park and has four levels of campsites with full and partial RV hookups.
Unless you have a magic wand or a fairy godmother, booking a campsite at Disney’s Fort Wilderness during peak times can be a challenge. The good news is that there are many other places to stay near Orlando’s main attraction. Here’s a sample of nearby RV parks and public campgrounds.
Clerbrook Golf and RV Resort
352-394-5513 | www.clerbrook.com
Elite Resorts at Citrus Valley
800-356-2460 | www.citrusvalleyrv.com
Lake Magic RV Resort
877-570-2267 | www.rvonthego.com/florida/lake-magic-rv-resort
Orlando RV Resort
877-570-2267 | www.rvonthego.com/florida/orlando-rv-resort
Outdoor Resorts at Orlando
863-424-1407 | www.rentwithoro.com
Kissimmee South RV Resort
Mouse Mountain Travel Resort
863-424-2791 | www.mousemountainrvresort.com
Boggy Creek Resort and RV Park
407-348-2040 | www.boggycreekresortandrvpark.com
Great Oak RV Resort
407-396-9092 | www.greatoakrvresort.com
Kissimmee RV Park
407-396-6655 | www.kissimmeervp.com
Merry D RV Sanctuary
800-208-3434 | www.merryd.com
Mill Creek RV Resort
844-728-0750 | www.millcreekrvflorida.com
407-396-2400 | www.koa.com/campgrounds/kissimmee
Sherwood Forest RV Resort
800-413-9762 | www.sherwoodrvresort.com
Tropical Palms RV Resort
877-570-2267 | www.rvonthego.com/florida/tropical-palms-rv-resort
Bill Frederick Park at Turkey Lake
407-246-4486 | www.cityoforlando.net/parks/bill-frederick-park-turkey-lake
407-254-6840 | www.orangecountyfl.net/cultureparks
Orlando Southeast/Lake Whippoorwill KOA
407-277-5075 | www.koa.com/campgrounds/orlando-se