07 November 2011

Tall forests of pine and cypress

You’ve heard it plenty of times before, but I am a native Floridian. I grew up towards the middle of the state, which meant scrub pines and swamps, not white sands and crashing waves (not that I couldn’t, and didn’t, get to them in under an hour). This heritage as it were is one of the reason I believe I was so enamored with Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground as a child. It was a celebration of my world; not a far off island halfway around the world or a modern city with fashionable architecture, it was rustic, filled with the trees, flowers, and creatures that I often saw in my own backyard. It is for all of these reasons and more that I feel most comfortable, as an adult, staying at Fort Wilderness, Wilderness Lodge and, perhaps most surprising, Port Orleans – Riverside.It is rare that I stay at Fort Wilderness these days. I’m still a tent person, and when I grew up there were 10 tents to every one RV in the campground, it seems nowadays that ratio has been completely reversed. The underbrush has been cleared away, there are no more boardwalks, and there are almost no railroad remnants to unearth. I understand the need for safety and progress, I do, but Fort Wilderness is not the place that I remember. Does that keep me from spending a decent amount of time there? Heck, no! I still wander the old trails (as much as are still passable), sit on the fence rails, take in the smell of the Meadow Trading Post (if you’ve been there, you know there is a distinct smell among the souvenirs and sundries), watch the campfires being lit, and search for shooting stars just beyond the edge of the outdoor movie screen. I didn’t even mention fried chicken, did I? Well, I grab a couple of pieces of that too.Just down the shoreline a ways is the Wilderness Lodge. In fact, there is even a trail that runs between the two if you have a mind to venture that way on foot. For me, it’s a motor launch, it’s always a motor launch. The Wilderness Lodge pays homage to the National Parks and lodges of the west. The totem poles, artwork, music, and Native American artifacts and imagery gets this message across perfectly clear, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel Florida and Fort Wilderness in and around the resort. For starters, there may be pine trees outside, but they are natives to Florida, not Northwestern transplants. There is a small boardwalk to the boat dock, a simple reminder of Fort Wilderness’ simple pleasures, and the roughhewn logs that fill every corner of the Wilderness Lodge are almost identical to the same type of fencing and architecture found in the few structures of Fort Wilderness. Not to mention, you are still overlooking Bay Lake, listening to the same boat and train whistles that echo across the waterways to both Fort Wilderness and the Wilderness Lodge.When considering Port Orleans – Riverside as one of my celebrate Florida resorts, you may think I’m off my rocker, and if you’re picturing the Magnolia Bend section of the resort, you’d be absolutely right! I am, of course, thinking of the Alligator Bayou area of Port Orleans – Riverside. Yes, this resort was built to resemble to wetlands on the outskirts of New Orleans, but there is a fair amount of resemblance between that area of the country and the lowlands of central Florida. Fishing holes, small houses, and waterwheels aside, I think the one thing here that beckons me back to my Fort Wilderness days are the meandering trails that lead to and from parking areas, resort buildings, and the main activity hubs. For those who have never spent much time in Fort Wilderness, as a child I loved running along the trails behind the campsites that led to the Comfort Stations (that’s restrooms and showers for the uninitiated). These trails connected to every campsite to one another and the communal hub of the loop, provided you were in a section of the loop that shared the same side of the street with the Comfort Station. I’ve gotten lost wandering those footpaths in Fort Wilderness, and I’ve misplaced myself in the Alligator Bayou just as quickly, and I’ve never been happier.

The long and short of it is, I am proud of where I come from, and I am even more satisfied to feel as if there are places in Walt Disney World that exemplify the precise pieces of my home that I picture in my mind when I’m homesick. Fort Wilderness may have been the beginnings of my obsession with Walt Disney World and my home turf, but it hasn’t stopped there. If you want to experience my Florida, the place I know and love, be sure to really explore, really look, and really love Fort Wilderness, Wilderness Lodge, and Port Orleans – Riverside.

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