Thanks to a tip by the paterfamilias, I was directed yesterday to a website devoted to the Fort Wilderness Railroad. This very cool site had somehow escaped my notice until now, and it has lots of fantastic images and history about this fairly undocumented attraction. The crown jewel of the site, however, is an amazing video from a ride on the railroad. I’ve never ever seen video of this attraction before – it closed in 1979, after all! – and this is an amazing and rare treat.
The Fort Wilderness Railroad, which operated from 1974 until 1979, provided internal transportation service for Walt Disney World’s Fort Wilderness campground. Its itinerary was similar to today’s bus service; it included stops at the Outpost and Settlement Depots and passed by the Meadow Trading Post. It also provided service to River Country upon that attraction’s opening in 1976. The 3 1/2 mile track loop was longer than any of the train routes in Disney parks, and it provided many scenic views for guests aboard the 4/5th scale steam engines.
I’ve always regarded the Fort Wilderness Railroad as a mere historical curiosity; it was gone well before my first trip to Walt Disney World and I’d never even heard of it until Disney fandom exploded on the internet. Looking at the pictures on the tribute site, however, really make me long for a return of this attraction. Fort Wilderness is the true hidden jewel of Walt Disney World, and the railroad would provide a definite touch of themeing that the internal bus routes lack. What’s odd is that much of the depot infrastructure was re-purposed after the railroad was closed, explaining many of the strange features of Fort Wilderness’s bus depots.
After the closing of the railroad, the tracks and rolling stock were allowed to rot in the Florida sun. Thankfully, those lucky folks at the Carolwood Foundation eventually stepped in to save and restore the trains. Faint traces of the railway remain around the campground for those who know where to look.
While it seems unlikely that the Fort Wilderness Railroad will ever return, there was a brief window in time during which it was poised for a revival. During the so-called “Disney Decade” of the 1990s, plans were underway for a new resort between the Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness. Alternately called “Wilderness Junction” or “Buffalo Junction”, the hotel would be similar to Disneyland Paris’s Hotel Cheyenne. It would resemble the street of a western town in the late 19th century, providing a thematic link between the early frontier theme of Fort Wilderness and the early 20th century national park theme of the Wilderness Lodge. The hotel would combine lodging with dining venues, shops and entertainment; it would also allegedly feature a stateside version of Paris’s Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
Most important to our tale was that in order to provide day visitors transportation to these new attractions and River Country, a return of the Fort Wilderness Railroad was discussed to link Fort Wilderness, Wilderness Junction and the Wilderness Lodge. Sadly, due to tourism concerns stemming from the first Gulf War and accompanying recession, the 600-room Wilderness Junction was postponed in late 1992. It was re-announced as “Buffalo Junction” in 1993, but never heard from again.
Someday, though, with some creative new leadership, it might be possible to once more hear the sound of live steam in Fort Wilderness and to take the train from the parking lot to the Hoop-Dee-Doo or a revitalized River Country. That would be nifty.