18 June 2018

The Magic of the Great Outdoors

If you’re new to the Gazette’s readership, or just haven’t been paying close enough attention, then you know most of my early years with Walt Disney World are tied very closely to Fort Wilderness. In fact, I didn’t stay in another resort of any kind until I was almost 17, and to this day I’ve only spent one night at a resort on the monorail loop. It was what my family could afford and it was how we were able to spend time at Walt Disney World. My sister and I didn’t know any better, in fact we relished the experiences we had at the campground, and there is something to be said for that connection to the great outdoors.

This past weekend I had to opportunity to volunteer at YMCA Camp Watia, a camp dedicated to giving local children just that opportunity to reconnect with nature and it started me to thinking about Fort Wilderness again. The things I experienced as a child and, how even though we can bemoan what has changed and what is lost, what is still there waiting to be discovered by youth, families, and even adults who have lost that touchpoint with nature.

First and foremost there was a sense of ownership of what we were doing. My sister and I would help put the tarp down underneath the tent, stake the tent, and would argue over the layout of the tiny plastic lanterns strung around our site. Make no mistake, this was 1980s glamping at its finest. We learned how to cook and make whole meals over a small gas stove or the charcoal grill. When we were finally old enough to venture off to the Comfort Station on our own, in order to see what the schedule was for the nightly outdoor movie, we could not believe the sense of freedom we had.

The sense of being on our own would only grow with time. We learned to ride our bikes around the paved loops of Fort Wilderness, and soon those same bikes were carrying us up and over wooden bridges and all over the resort. We would make friends while we were there and head out to play tetherball, splash in the Meadow Swimmin’ Pool, or head to a porch somewhere to play checkers. For me, I also learned responsibility as I was the one charged with making sure my little sister was safe, that we stuck to what we said we were going to do, and that we returned back to our campsite when we said we would. It was keeping us both happy and safe, but also having that chance to be a leader.

Then there was, and is the connection with nature. Fort Wilderness is where I saw my first raccoon and owl, creatures I’m still in utter love with to this day, and there were families of deer, alligators, fish, and birds everywhere. The stables of Tri Circle D were embedded deep in the mind of my sister who couldn’t visit the goats, ponies, or horses enough. In the deep of night, when the moon cast shadows of the long, gnarled oak tree branches, we swore that they were snakes that were going to fall on our tent, somehow get inside, and bite us. And let’s not forget, walking to and from the sing-a-long, campfire, movie, and/or Electrical Water Pageant we would chase the magical fireflies.

Then there were the mechanical marvels. The two-seater speed boats that took us along the shores of River Country, the Contemporary, the undeveloped shores around Bay Lake, and even to the gates of the Magic Kingdom. There was never enough sunscreen that we didn’t come back a little sunburned, but it was worth it to skim along the top of the water with spray from the lake covering our faces! The canoes were fun, but exhausting, even if they did get us up close and personal with the waterways and banks around the campground. There were also golf carts, the way to travel in style throughout Fort Wilderness. While frowned upon then and distinctly forbidden now, I can remember these carts being my first driving experience as we slowly, but probably faster than my parents were comfortable with, making our way around Jack Rabbit Run.

As we grew up our Fort Wilderness experiences prepared us for traveling through National Parks, but they also taught us many things that would stick with us. The love of nature, from trees (lawnmowers optional), to wildlife, to underbrush on the trails between each campsite was formed here. Our desire to make sure that it stays wild and is there for future generations was also planted at Fort Wilderness. Learning to be self-reliant and to care for one another took root and provided the foundation to be leaders later in our lives. The joys of imagination, creativity, responsibility, and so many lessons tucked away in the cracks of trees and under the crunch of seashell tent pads.

As the summer season kicks into high gear, I find myself remembering the formative days I was granted at Fort Wilderness, and how much they prepared me to be the man I am today. Back then I didn’t know about terms like summer learning loss or nature deficit disorder, but they are only two of the many challenges that children today face. Luckily, there are still places like Fort Wilderness where the quiet stillness of nature is continuing to teach its lessons. I just hope enough kids are getting the opportunity.


Debbie V. said...

Thank you for sharing those memories.

Anonymous said...

This echoes my own memories growing up camping at Fort Wilderness annually. Thank you for sharing, they really bring me back to a special time.