A trip to Walt Disney World Resort comes with many expenses, your lodging being one of the top costs. At Disney resorts, this cost is further increased if your party has more than four people since the vast majority of lodging options are limited to four or less in a room. To cut down on this expense, many people consider lodging at an off-site location. However, some of the perks you receive as a Disney Resort hotel guest can be valuable enough that you do not want to lose out on them. So, how can you minimize your lodging expense while still reaping the benefits of being a Disney Resort hotel guest? For those of you who can drive to Orlando and are willing to camp with a tent or small camper, Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground is the best option for you.
Planning my family’s visit to Disney World, we originally were going to drive and stay at one of Disney’s value resorts since they are the least expensive lodging option. However, with a family of five, I discovered that a regular room would not accommodate us and a suite would have to be reserved instead. This was much more costly and actually was more expensive than reserving two regular rooms. I did not want to spend that much on our lodging, especially since we would not be in our rooms much, but I did want the Disney Resort perks. It was at this point that I checked out the Disney campground at Fort Wilderness. I discovered that each campsite could have up to 10 guests, which worked out great for my family. Selecting a tent or pop-up camper campsite was the least expensive choice and was more than $1,000 less for our 8-day stay than the cheapest room available to us. Even though we were staying at the Disney campground in a tent, we received the same perks for being resort guests as those staying in a Disney luxury suite.
If you are not familiar with Disney, you may be wondering about the benefits of staying on-site. The main perks are:
1. Starting 180 days from your arrival date, you can make Advance Dining Reservations for your arrival date, as well as the rest of your stay. Non-Disney resort guests can only make a reservation 180 days in advance, so they miss out on the expanded reservation window and have to arrange reservations for additional days of their trip by contacting Disney when each of the other desired dates reach the 180-day window. Appointments for the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique have this same perk.
2. Starting 60 days from your arrival date, you can start making FastPass+ reservations for your entire trip. Non-resort guests are limited to 30 days from each date they plan to visit.
If you are interested in making reservations at the most popular dining spots or obtaining a FastPass+ for the most popular attractions, the expanded reservation window for resort guests is a huge advantage. Without this perk, I would likely not have been able to make an early morning breakfast reservation at Cinderella’s Royal Table or a FastPass+ time for five of us to ride Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.
3. Each day, one or sometimes two of the parks have Extra Magic Hours in the morning or the evening (before the park opens or after the park closes). These Extra Magic Hours are outside of the regular park hours and are only available to Disney World Resort hotel guests.
4. Disney provides complimentary transportation from Fort Wilderness (and all Walt Disney World Resort hotels) to destinations all across Walt Disney World property.
"What's Fort Wilderness camping like?"
Like the rest of Disney World, there is outstanding attention to detail at the Disney campground and cast members make an effort to keep everything in tip-top shape. Our campsite had a paved parking area and a large, well-packed sandy pad for pitching a tent or parking a pop-up tent camper. The pad is very solid, as it took some effort to pound our metal tent stakes in place. Water and multiple electrical outlets are available near each pad and are disguised to look like a tree stump from the front. There are multiple comfort stations spread throughout the Disney campground, so bathrooms and showers are never too far away. A camp store offers basic food and supplies. The check-in time for Fort Wilderness camping is a relatively early 1 p.m.
If you do not go into the parks one day, Fort Wilderness offers a number of activities that are not available elsewhere. You can take a horseback or carriage ride. Bicycles are available to rent, and there are areas for basketball and volleyball. Clementine’s Beach offers a fine viewing area for fireworks and the Electrical Water Pageant. In the evening, the free Chip ‘n' Dale’s Campfire Sing-along is a great time.
While the cost savings of staying at the Disney campground at Fort Wilderness is the biggest plus when compared to other Disney resorts, there are a few drawbacks.
1. The Disney campground is very large, so if you choose to use Disney transportation, you will first need to take a bus from your loop in the campground to another location, either the boat dock for a ride to the Magic Kingdom or another bus area for transportation to the rest of Disney World. After doing this for one morning, we decided it was quicker and easier to just drive to the parks, especially since we always arrived well in advance of park opening. Alternatively, if you have the space, you can bring your bicycles or rent an on-site golf cart to get around the Fort.
2. Fort Wilderness is a natural setting, and as such, there are wild animals on the grounds. One night we awoke to find that an opossum had crawled under the side of our tent and was rummaging around. The Fort's squirrels are notorious thief, too. On the flip side, watching baby turkeys meander and hearing the birds sing in the morning is very cool.
3. You are exposed to the weather. We were fortunate that it did not rain while we were there at the end of November, but it did get down to 40° one night. We had brought an electric heater, which worked well for us.
4. Since you will need to use the comfort stations for the restroom and shower, you may need to wait if they are full. We did not have any problems with this, but it can happen.
Even with these drawbacks, the cost advantage and other activities available while camping at Fort Wilderness far outweighed the cons for my family. Fort Wilderness camping will require packing additional items, so you have to plan that out. For five of us, we removed one middle row passenger seat from our minivan and were able to pack our tent, tent poles, two cots, a collapsible bed frame for an air mattress, five sleeping bags, clothing for eight days, winter coats, food supplies, several 12-packs of pop, a heater and other miscellaneous items. It was like a Tetris game getting everything packed, but we were able to do it.
Fort Wilderness is popular, with many returning visitors. If staying at the Disney campground is appealing to you, you will want to make a reservation as far in advance as possible. If you have not gone camping before, or rarely do so, one recommendation I have is to take a “practice” trip somewhere before going to Fort Wilderness. We did this, and it was quite helpful because we were able to practice packing the van and make notes about items we decided we needed to bring with us.
For those of you who aren't quite ready to rough it in a tent or camper, Fort Wilderness also has a number of cabins that sleep up to six. The cabins come with one double bed, one pull-down double bed and one bunk bed.
What questions do you have about camping at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground? Leave any of your thoughts or comments below! And check out the Where to Stay in Orlando page inside our Orlando Planning Timeline for more tips!
Vern and his wife are the parents of two boys and a girl that all love Disney’s animated movies and shorts. He lives in Ohio and is employed as a mechanical engineer, which helps to explain his excessive attention to detail, organization and planning. His oldest son enjoys watching the animated shorts from the Disney Treasures series, his youngest son has the middle name “Donald” and he likes telling people that he was named after Donald Duck, and his daughter loves the Disney Princesses, especially Rapunzel and recently Elsa.