Disney upgrades Fort Wilderness Campground
Roughing it is not what it used to be, especially at Walt Disney World's Fort Wilderness Campground.
Disney is quietly undertaking its broadest campground-improvements program in two decades, adding extra-extra-large camper pads for recreational vehicles, cable-TV and Internet service throughout, Segway scooter tours, a mini-water park, a dog park, and an improved electric-cart rental operation.
The program also is taking aim at invasive plant species such as potato vines, replacing such vegetation with fresh native plantings.
"The fort is a treasure at Walt Disney World. There really is so much history with the success of Walt Disney World that stems back to Fort Wilderness," said Jean Gallagher, general manager of both Disney's Wilderness Lodge and Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort Campground. "And because of the nature of this property, and the theming, we really haven't done a lot of changes. … We have not made a lot of investment from a site perspective in the 37 years we've been open. So this opportunity to meet what our guests are asking for, and how the industry has changed, this is more than we could expect."
Disney installed TV and Internet cable to select areas several years ago, and created three Wi-Fi hot spots. But now, Gallagher said, "What we are seeing is, everyone has a computer when they come here."
Never mind the people who cannot leave work behind, even in a campground, and feel a constant need to check e-mail, news and market updates on a regular basis. For today's teens and pre-teens, roughing it without the Internet is often going too far. That's why even veteran campers like Matthew McKown, 15, and his sisters Caroline, 13, and Nicole, 10, from Charleston, S.C., all said they missed having an Internet connection during their latest stay at Fort Wilderness a couple weeks ago, and look forward to having it next year. Their father, Phillip McKown, however, was less interested in the cable and Internet connections, still preferring to keep some semblance of being able to get away from the real world.
"It adds to the experience, camping here," he said. "It's like camping and you get to go to the parks. Going to a hotel room is just like going to a hotel room."
Linda Profaizer, president and chief executive officer of the National Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds, praised Disney's efforts to upgrade Fort Wilderness, saying her recent visits had told her it was time for some updating.
"It's a great property, but the sites are older," Profaizer said.
In particular, she said, campers' appetite for Internet service and cable TV has been growing for several years.
"All the parks do that today; it's very much a required service. It's a great thing to do," Profaizer said.
Do TV and Internet hookups at every campsite detract from a desire to get away from it all?
"Sadly, here's the deal," Profaizer said: "People want to be connected no matter what. You have to offer what the people expect."
Disney is also catching up with the trend toward larger RVs. The rolling vacation homes, which now often exceed 40 feet in length, have become wider in recent years, too, thanks to the popularity of "slide outs," those room extensions that pull out from the sides when the vehicle is parked.
For that reason, Disney is creating areas with what it calls "premium campsites," which will include much larger paved pads plus upgraded amenities such as grills and picnic tables. Those sites will cost $66 to $116 a night, depending on the season and day of the week.
Disney also is adding a themed water-slide and splash-zone attraction to The Meadows area pool. Fort Wilderness abuts River Country, Disney World's original water park, which closed a few years ago. Now designers and engineers are looking over what's left of that park, and they're thinking about moving and recycling the park's signature water tower to the Fort Wilderness pool and building a slide into it.
The Fort Wilderness overhaul comes as the industry wonders about what near-record-high gas prices will do to RV camping.
"For years we've been telling everybody you have to expand your sites because the industry is building the larger RVs in larger numbers. Now with the gas situation, we're wondering," Profaizer said. "We're wondering, No.1, will the manufacturers continue to build the big units? And two, the consumer, is that what people will still be wanting?"
For now, she said, the question is moot. There are plenty of house-size RVs on the road, so campgrounds need to accommodate them.
Disney does not release occupancy numbers for its individual resorts. But while Fort Wilderness seems as vulnerable as any resort to consumers' reactions to gas prices, the campground appeared to be holding its own, at least last year, according to remarks made by Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger during an earnings call last fall.
"We have a big RV park in Orlando, and I would think that they would be hit the hardest, because it's pretty expensive to fill up a tank in one of those babies," Iger told investors. Yet "those parks have been completely full. And there's demand going forward from a bookings perspective."