Monday, May 27, 2013

Frugal Fun with a Little One at Fort Wilderness Campground

If I could choose any Disney Resort to stay at for a few days without visiting any of the Parks, I would choose Fort Wilderness. One of these days I am going to take Alyssa camping there, something I enjoyed throughout my entire childhood. In the meantime I'll have to settle for day visits. While there is still plenty to see and do, as day visitors we are not eligible to participate in any of the many organized activities they have throughout the day or take advantage of the awesome pool and toddler friendly water playground.
When we parked our car the first thing two year old Alyssa noticed is the horses. There is a stable right by the guest parking lot which is the meeting point for horseback rides. Horseback rides, however, have a minimum age of nine (and cost around $42 for a 30 min ride) so Alyssa was going to have to settle for just watching the ponies from afar instead until she is old enough to ride.

Once you park your car you have to board a bus to access the rest of Fort Wilderness Campground. Only golf carts and cars driven by people staying at the campsites are allowed to be driven past the main parking lot. That was fine with Alyssa because she really enjoyed the bus ride. The bus route we were on took us past the cabins (which you can stay in if you don't have a tent or camper) and around the perimeter of Fort Wilderness.

The bus ride to the back of the campground takes about ten minutes (give or take a little depending on how often the bus has to stop). We got off the bus at Settlement Depot, which is where many of the recreation activities for day guests are. Alyssa saw the horse stables and immediately headed over to investigate.

This area of the campground is home of Tri-Circle D Ranch, so there are plenty of horses and ponies to see. We started out by saying hello to the horses roaming around in their fenced-in pens and then went to visit the horses in the stables. The horses in the stables are the same ones you often see pulling the streetcars on Main Street at Magic Kingdom in the mornings. Inside the stable there is also a small room that has a lot of pictures and some displays and artifacts telling about the history of the horses at Disney World. There is also usually a friendly Cast Member or two wandering about taking care of the horses that is happy to answer any questions you might have. Sometimes you might even see a blacksmith at work. In the evenings these horses also often lead wagon or carriage rides around Fort Wilderness. The themed ones for the holidays such as the headless horseman carriage/hay ride they have at Halloween are extremely popular.

 After we left the stable area we went into the "petting zoo." While it once was an actual petting zoo, it only has ponies now and you can no longer pet the animals. This is, however, the location of the pony rides. For $5 kids under 80 lbs can ride a pony led by mom or dad along the dirt paths of this little farm area. Alyssa got to ride a white pony named Herbie and enjoyed her ride a lot. When you finish your pony ride there is a hand washing station attached to the building.

Once our hands were washed we set out to explore some more. We decided to walk down the path that runs along the back side of Pioneer Hall. This path goes right past the location where Mickey's Backyard BBQ is held, which is a fun, seasonal, picnic style character meal. Alyssa had a great time collecting rocks and sticks as she walked along. There are also a few nature trails scattered around this area, one of which leads you all the way to Wilderness Lodge Resort and is a nice trip on a bicycle.

 At the end of the path we made a right and walked over to the playground. This is the main playground at Fort Wilderness and has some swings and a bigger playground and a smaller playground for younger kids. Alyssa played on the equipment for a little while but it was very hot since it is not covered or shaded from the sun.

We were getting hungry so we headed up towards Pioneer Hall to eat. You can pack a picnic to save money and there are plenty of shaded picnic tables on the porch to eat it at but we decided to have a meal in the Trail's End Restaurant today. (There is also a more budget friendly take-out window that serves awesome fried chicken but it was not open this early in the day.) 
 Kid's meals at Trail's End are $8.59 and include a drink and dessert. You can also add an appetizer of a fruit cup or garden salad for $2.19. I knew Alyssa wouldn't eat much so I just got her the fruit cup and shared my own delicious fried chicken and waffle meal ($14.49) with her. There were only two other occupied tables in the restaurant so service was great and our meal was served very quickly. (I've found this to be the case every time I have dined here for a late breakfast or weekday lunch. It gets a little bit busier at dinnertime.)

Alyssa was getting restless by the time we finished our meal so I took her outside while her father paid the bill. Right outside the restaurant there are plenty of activities to keep kids busy. Alyssa had fun playing checkers, hula hoop, and horseshoe toss while I sat and watched from one of the relaxing rocking chairs on the porch.

There is also a small arcade on one side of the restaurant, which Alyssa visited with her daddy, and a very clean bathroom with a changing table. In the evening the popular Hoop Dee Doo Revue Dinner Show is held at Pioneer Hall so the area is a lot busier than the time of day we visited when it was pretty much deserted. I hope to return again soon to eat at Hoop Dee Doo because it was a favorite of mine as a child.Alyssa's daddy played a few games with her in the arcade and then she decided she wanted to take a boat ride.

We walked down to the beach area and let her play in the sand for a little bit. She really liked the tether ball. While you can not go swimming at this beach anymore there are plenty of chairs available for lounging in the sand and at night it is the perfect spot to watch the Electrical Water Pageant and the fireworks at Magic Kingdom.

The boat dock has many options for boat rentals available at different prices but we decided to go the free route today and just take the boat across the lake to the Magic Kingdom and back. When Alyssa is a little bit older we will rent one of the sea raycers and take her for a ride in that but for now she is content with just being on a boat piloted by someone else on a predetermined route.

We sat out on the back of the boat and had a wonderful ride across the lake to the Magic Kingdom. Alyssa enjoyed seeing the castle and the train station even if it was from afar. We debated getting off and taking a ride on the monorail around the loop before heading back to Fort Wilderness but Alyssa was starting to get sleepy so we decided to just stay on the boat and head back to the campground.

Once we docked back at Fort Wilderness we walked up the path and checked out the nearby store, the Settlement Trading Post. Settlement Trading Post sells Disney souvenirs but because it is a campground they also sell basic groceries and general necessities you might need during your stay. I bought Alyssa a cookie and let her enjoy it as I looked around the store a bit. This is one of two stores at Fort Wilderness. The other store, the Meadow Trading Post, offers a lot of similar stuff and is located right by the recreation area but because Alyssa was getting sleepy we did not make it over to the recreation area this trip.
Once we left the store we headed back to the bus depot to board a bus back to our car. We passed the Meadow Trading Post and Recreation Area on the way. If we had gotten off here we would've seen the Bike Barn, which not only rents bikes of all sizes but also canoes, kayaks, and fishing equipment. This is also where you will find Fort Wilderness' main pool, which is themed to an old swimming hole and has a wonderful kid's water playground right next to it. There are many organized activities held by the pool throughout the day but the pool, kid's pool, and organized activities are only open to guests staying at the campground.
In the evenings, however, they also have a movie and campfire program in this area that is free and open to everyone. You can bring your own marshmallows and other materials to make s'mores in a large fire pit or you can buy them there. Chip and Dale come to meet the guests at the campfire and participate in a very short show before the nightly, kid friendly movie starts. We will definitely have to bring Alyssa back to do this another evening because it is a lot of fun but she was exhausted from our afternoon activities so we decided she'd had enough for today and it was time to head home.
As you can see there is plenty to keep everyone busy during an afternoon at Fort Wilderness without spending too much. This campground is a hidden gem and I'm sure we'll be back again to visit soon!

Orlando Kid's Fringe 2013

Orlando Kid's Fringe 2013 was a wonderful free, family friendly activity. It took place over 2 weekends in May. The main acts varied slightly each day and if we had been able to attend on more days than just Saturday, May 25th we would've!
The target age for the Kid's Fringe activities and shows is probably about 3-10 years old but my two year old found plenty to enjoy. I printed out a schedule of the activities beforehand but there was really no need to because a large board set up at the festival had all the information we needed on it and helpful volunteers stationed nearby to answer questions about all the shows and activities.
Kid's Fringe is located across the street from the main Fringe Festival in it's own little park. There are several lots with free parking located just a short walk away but I opted to pay the $5 to park in the science center's garage since I was planning on taking Alyssa to the science center afterwards. From the science center garage Kid's Fringe is just a quick walk across the street leading into the parking garage so it took us less than five minutes to get there.
The first thing that caught my daughter's eye was the bounce house. There is no fee to use it and the volunteer manning it was wonderful about making sure the little ones had plenty of time to jump without getting knocked over by the bigger kids. My daughter would've stayed in there all day if I had let her but there were so many other things to see and do I dragged her out after about five minutes of jumping. She was a little upset until she saw the Blue Man Group booth set up nearby giving out free crayons, coloring sheets, and balloons. One blown up balloon later she was happy and ready to see the rest of the festival.
Also stationed by the bounce house was a booth manned by Mad Science. They had several activities for the kids to do such as blowing bubbles, playing with noise maker tubes, and making coffee filter butterflies. My two year old was most interested in the bubbles and happily played in that area for a while with the two volunteers that were kind enough to blow plenty of bubbles for her to chase and pop.  (Older kids were blowing the bubbles on their own but the large wands and bucket were a little hard for my two year old to manage.)
After she got nice and sudsy we walked down the hill to the craft area to see what other kinds of activities they had to offer. (There were also a few booths set up in this area selling food and drinks if you were hungry.) The craft area had numerous tables set up in a row along the curb so we started at the first table, where she colored a kid's fringe picture.
Other tables had things you could cut and glue, add stickers and stamps to, and paint. My daughter's two favorite stations in this area were the one where she got to stamp pictures onto a hat and the one where she got to add feathers and foam decorations to a mask. I loved the fact that despite the fact that everything was free, they were not stingy at all about how many stickers my daughter wanted to add to her mask or how many purple Pom poms she insisted on gluing on her paper at another station. All of the volunteers were very friendly and helpful and my daughter really enjoyed participating in the craft activities.
On one side of the row they had some large pieces of fence set up for the children to draw and paint on. One was covered with chalkboard paint so the children could draw on it with chalk. The other one was set up so that children could paint on it Tom Sawyer style. The painting station even had smocks in an effort to keep the kids' clothes from getting dirty. My daughter drew on the chalk fence for a while but then decided she'd rather do the other painting activity at a nearby table then paint on the fence.

The other activity was painting a 3-D paper mushroom. This is the only activity I paid for all day ($1.00 suggested donation/mushroom with proceeds benefitting the SPORE Project, a worldwide effort to promote awareness for the support of arts in the schools and creativity in day-to-day life). My daughter had fun adding every color of the rainbow to her mushroom and then placing it in a nearby "field" of mushrooms in the grass around a sculpture so it could try before she took it home.
After we painted our mushroom we moved on to the activities on the porch of the Mennello Museum of Art. They had a table set up where you could choose and paint a plaster piece but we passed that one by because my daughter was not interested (I think this activity might've costed a few $ as well). The duck pond is what caught her eye. The duck pond was a basic baby pool filled with swimming rubber duckies. Kids were allowed to choose a duck and whatever shape was on the bottom of the duck they chose they received a prize that corresponded with that shape. this activity seemed to be very popular amongst the festival go-ers slightly younger than my daughter. My daughter got a star and was given a Kid's Fringe pin.

Next to the duck pond they had an area set up with all kinds of props and dress up items where the kids could choose some props and then go into a cardboard photo booth for mom or dad to snap a pic with their camera. There were plenty of choices in props for both boys and girls to be happy with and my daughter spent quite a while in this area. For her first turn in the photo booth she chose to be a dinosaur holding a large pair of scissors but for her second turn she decided to be a ladybug holding a toothbrush. It was definitely a fun area for a toddler to play dress up and mix and match props!
On the sidewalk in front of this area they had a large foam puzzle set up. My daughter loved pulling the pieces apart and putting them back together. It was a little difficult for her to do on her own but she was able to match the colors and pound the pieces together with help.
Even more fun was when the fairy standing nearby came over to play on the puzzle with her. There were two fairies roaming around Kid's Fringe available for pictures and my daughter definitely had a blast interacting with them! She and the fairy played Follow the Leader on and around the puzzle for a while before some other children came over to the fairy and wanted to take pictures. The fairy was wonderful with a two year old and made my daughter laugh and laugh.
After our playtime with the fairy we decided to stop for a snack and check out the main stage while we were doing so. The main stage has different shows throughout the day but the one we saw was called Musical Stories: Interactive Stories. It didn't really hold my daughter's attention for very long but most of the older kids in the audience were invited to come up on up on the stage and it looked like they were having a great time. (There were several other shows that I think would've held her interest better but the times just never worked out for us to see them.) The lunchtime dance party that followed the show was more at a two year old's level and when she finished her snack my daughter got right up and danced along to the kid friendly music.
When we left the dance party we headed to the area they were calling the "Fringezilla Playground."
This area was set up in the grass and had all kinds of activities set out to keep the kids active. From sack races to soccer balls to scooter rides to special exercise equipment, my daughter enjoyed it all. she ran from activity to activity and played with it in ways that were age appropriate for a two year old. Her favorite thing was a large exercise ball half the size of her that she enjoyed pushing around the area. It was set up in a beautiful area right by the lake and plenty of parents with older kids and tiny babies were just enjoying the atmosphere in this area and letting their little ones crawl around on the grass while their older children played nearby.

On the entrance path to this area there was a face painting booth. My daughter really wanted to participate but the line was long and my two year old does not wait very well in long lines so after trying for a couple minutes she decided that she would rather get an ice cream from the ice cream truck parked nearby instead. Next year I know to go to the face painting booth first because of its popularity and the time involved (I think there is also a small fee for this activity as well).
While we enjoyed our ice cream we walked down underneath the big tree and watched the Drum With Me Baby Drum Circle that was going on. Children of all ages (even younger babies) were participating and this was a huge hit with my toddler!

They had a bunch of drums of all sizes set up in a circle and were encouraging the children to pound on them in different ways to make different sounds. My daughter really enjoyed pounding on the drum while sitting down on it. The fairies came and joined the drum circle and (after dancing along to a song or two played on the drums) danced around the tree to "The Wheels on the Bus." The fairy that danced around the tree with my daughter was wonderful with her and held her hand and danced at her pace the entire time without breaking character.

When the drum circle was over my daughter played in the tree branches for a little while, "climbing" them until we finally headed over to the final set of booths. The first booth was all about making paper airplanes. My toddler was still a little too young for the more elaborate planes the guy was making but she was thrilled with the basic plane (already folded) he showed her how to fly and gave to her. She happily threw it around on the grass and off a hill for a little while before we headed on to the next set of booths.

The next booth we visited was sponsored by IBEX puppetry. They had crane, manatee, and fish puppets on display and crane, manatee, and fish origami puppets the children could make for themselves.
Later in the day they were doing a workshop with the puppets that I'm sure my daughter would enjoy if she were a little older. She was still too young to make the origami puppets even with help but she had a lot of fun making and playing with her own cut out and folded in half version of them. The 3 puppets available to make were set up at tables from the easiest to the hardest and there were plenty of volunteers from IBEX to help the children make and show them how to operate them.
The final area of the festival consisted of a bunch of sheets hung up to create a fort. This area was sponsored by the Squirrel Circus and was also a big hit with my toddler. The sheet fort was set up into 3 separate rooms-a reading room full of picture books, a room where kids could use markers to write words on index cards and pin them to the sheets to make continuous, silly sentences, and a quiet room with nothing but a blanket on the floor. My daughter really enjoyed looking at the picture books and having me and the volunteers read them to her so we spent quite a bit of time in this cool, quiet tent fort.

After we read several books I dragged her out of the tent fort so we could watch a short parade. She played with the pinwheels in the grass while we were waiting.

When the parade ended we made one final visit to the bounce house before heading out. Overall it was a fun, mostly free day and I can't wait to go back again next year!