In the current tier system of Walt Disney World hotels, there are two resorts that don’t really fit: Art of Animation Family Suites and the Fort Wilderness Campground Cabins. This post offers a head-to-head smackdown between the “island of misfit resorts.”
This continues our Walt Disney World hotel comparison series of posts with an unlikely match-up when judging based upon general vibe and theme, but one that makes a lot of sense if you’re judging by price and room type. It’s those bases that gives rise to this comparison, and we think this might prove especially helpful for those families who had never considered one (or the other) as an option for their vacation.
While we will draw our own conclusions as to which is better, along the way we will explain our reasoning, so you can form your own conclusions. We’ll also include a reader poll at the end, so you can vote for your favorite (and see whether the consensus agrees or disagrees with us). Since Fort Wilderness and Art of Animation are so different from one another, a big part of the decision here is going to come down to personal preference.
That’s where we’ll start this face-off, with our showdown in terms of theme, decor, and atmosphere…
Theme/Atmosphere: Push – You have no idea how badly I want to give the victory to Fort Wilderness here, responding with a Calvin’s dad “it builds character” comic strip to anyone who disagrees. I could also shake my fist about how “kids these days” need something like Fort Wilderness. Alas, I am too “mature” for that…and don’t want to alienate you all. 😉
While I do believe Fort Wilderness is the only one of these resorts that is actually themed (Art of Animation is decorated–there is a difference), I understand and respect that a lot of people are going to prefer Art of Animation. The fact is, they are pretty much polar opposites of one another. Art of Animation features a plethora of iconic characters from Disney films, whereas Fort Wilderness is rustic by design and much more subtle.
We’ve expanded this category to include atmosphere because it’s an important consideration for those who might be debating between the two resorts. In terms of atmosphere, Art of Animation is every bit as vibrant and high-energy as its colorful decor and oversized icons suggest. It’s an assault on the senses, which is a good or bad thing depending upon your perspective.
By contrast, when you enter Fort Wilderness property, life suddenly slows down. You’re within spitting distance of Magic Kingdom, but you’re a world away. It’s a place to decompress and unwind after a frantic day in the parks, and the atmosphere is decidedly mellow. This is old school “Walt Disney World” at its finest–the Vacation Kingdom of the World–a place that immerses you in another time and place and makes you forget how close you are to the hustle and bustle of Magic Kingdom.
The problem with that, for some guests, is that Fort Wilderness is totally unlike new school Disney (which Art of Animation basically epitomizes). There are few overt references to characters, and there is nothing that screams “DISNEY!” in your face. For first-timers reading this who are taking their families, Art of Animation is likely going to more closely align with your expectations of what a “Disney” resort would offer.
For most guests, theme and atmosphere–and how those match personal preference–are going to be the deciding factor in this debate. These resorts are so different in tone that nothing else in this post is going to move the needle enough one way or the other.
Rooms: Fort Wilderness – Given the way we punted on the issue of theme, you might’ve expected something similar here. After all, the thematic parallels track inside with the rooms. However, we feel there is a distinct quality difference here. Although they are rustic, the recently-refurbished Fort Wilderness Cabins feel high-quality, with some nice detail work.
By contrast, the Art of Animation rooms strike us as plastic-y, and what you’d find in a Value Resort suite. To be sure, there are some fun details and the design most certainly will appeal to kids and color-blind adults, but the quality is not at the same level.
The Art of Animation Family Suites do score points for being slightly larger (around 565 square feet versus 506 square feet) and having two bathrooms, so this might be enough to push the W into their column for you. Conversely, the Fort Wilderness Cabins have bunkbeds…so let’s call those two points a wash.
Dining: Fort Wilderness – You could say that Fort Wilderness and Art of Animation form two halves of a whole when it comes to dining…almost. Art of Animation brings strong counter service, which is weak at Fort Wilderness. Table service is the strength of Fort Wilderness, which is totally missing from Art of Animation. (Both understandably lack fine dining, hence the “almost” whole.)
Ultimately, Fort Wilderness wins here because it offers more variety, and although its counter service option has a limited menu, it at least exists (and serves fried chicken from Trail’s End, which alone arguably makes it underrated!). Then, you have heavy-hitters like Trail’s End and Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue. The former is one of the best dining values at Walt Disney World, and the latter is a ‘destination’ experience that everyone should make the trek to Fort Wilderness to enjoy at least once. While Landscape of Flavors is one of the best counter service restaurants at Walt Disney World, it cannot compete with all that.
Transportation: Art of Animation – This might come as a surprise given that Fort Wilderness is a Bay Lake resort with boat transportation to Magic Kingdom, whereas Art of Animation requires bus transit for every park. However, Art of Animation prevails here because it is efficient and direct. No shared buses, and a single stop.
During our recent stay at the Fort Wilderness Cabins, we were reminded of how mind-numbingly frustrating its transportation can be. There are 3 internal bus routes that deliver guests to the front and back of the the resort, with buses departing from the front to take guests to the parks, and boats departing from the back (Settlement) to take guests to Magic Kingdom (and other Bay Lake resorts).
This might not seem bad as a twice-per-day thing, but the resort is so spread out that a bus is also necessary if you want to eat, shop, or swim. The internal bus route is about as efficient as it can be, and although it can be a bit quirky and initially confusing, it gets the job done. Over the course of a week-long trip, though, the amount of extra time you’re spending on transit really adds up, and grows tiresome.
The internal transportation is the price guests pay for the seclusion Fort Wilderness offers, and it’s a necessary evil. Whether you’re willing to accept this is a matter of personal preference, but I don’t really think there’s any way around it while maintaining Fort Wilderness’ exceptional vibe. It’s why so many Fort Wilderness guests rent golf carts.
Pools: Art of Animation – On our list of the Top 10 Pools at Walt Disney World, we commented that the Big Blue Pool at Art of Animation is overrated. People get caught up in its gimmicks (like the underwater music) and flashy decor and overlook the reality that it’s a fairly uninspired, but large and crowded, pool.
Despite this, the collective pools of Art of Animation still score a victory over those at Fort Wilderness. Built in an era when Walt Disney World was far less ambitious with its pools, Fort Wilderness originally had River Country water country to further lean on as its de facto pool. Since the closure of River Country, the subpar pools at Fort Wilderness have become a more glaring issue. It’s not to say these pools are too small or there isn’t enough capacity (they are fine on both counts, and if all you want is water to lounge around, they do the trick), the problem is that Fort Wilderness’ pools have zero wow-factor or unique selling points.
Cost: Push – When looking at rate charts for a number of seasons, it appears that the Family Suites at Art of Animation and the Fort Wilderness Cabins are the exact same price or within $10 of one another most nights of the year.
Interestingly, that price is always more than double the cost of a Value Resort room (stated differently: two rooms at a Value Resort) and sometimes more than two rooms at a Moderate Resort. That raises a different question for another day, but for the sake of this comparison, cost is a push…
Verdict: Push – It would be really easy to let my biases show through and substitute my personal preferences for an objective conclusion here. The reality is, these resorts each have their respective strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, the biggest strength and weakness each have is theme/atmosphere.
Some guests are going to love the laid back feel of Fort Wilderness as a quiet reprieve from the parks, while others are going to find that same atmosphere dull and “un-Disney.” On the other hand, some families are going to love the color and energy of Art of Animation, and other guests are going to want to gouge out their eyes upon seeing it. Individually, I can think of no two other resorts that will provoke such dramatically different reactions from guests. This makes comparing them especially tricky–if not downright impossible–because each resort is so divisive that it renders the end result here so reliant on subjectivity.
This begs the question: why did we compare them in the first place? To shed light on just how different the tone of each is since individual reviews cannot convey that quite the dissimilarities (it’d be odd for an Art of Animation review to blather on about Fort Wilderness as “counter-programming” for those to whom Art of Animation does not appeal). That should make this an easy decision for those undecided readers.
Personally, I prefer Fort Wilderness, warts and all. As an adult, I like the laid back and slower pace offered by the resort, which is a nice foil to the chaos of being in the parks. As a child, I recall having a blast with all of the recreational activities at Fort Wilderness, and being in the great outdoors. Additionally, as a non-parent, I have certain ill-informed, preconceived notions about parenting. I do think the open-ended nature of Fort Wilderness allows kids to imagine, explore, and create their own adventures. This is important to, ahem, build character.
With that said, we also enjoy Art of Animation. It wouldn’t be my personal first choice, but if we had kids who were obsessed with Cars or The Lion King, it’d be hard to resist (after an adequate character-building session at Fort Wilderness, of course!). Now let’s hear what you all think in the poll:
This poll should be an interesting one, with voting likely occurring on demographic lines…
When comparing any two resorts, other factors will obviously come into play. Important amenities like location and recreation (which we didn’t even get into–but Fort Wilderness offers a lot in this regard), and other variables are going to matter and weigh differently for different parties. Our goal is for this post to be helpful in offering a head-to-head comparison of the most crucial elements of each Walt Disney World resort experience, but we suggest supplementing this with our full review of Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground and our Disney’s Art of Animation Resort Review. With that said, what do you think…did we drop the ball by failing to select a victor here? Which do you prefer…and why?