Sunday, June 29, 2014

Disney Reviews Resort Edition #1-Wilderness Lodge


I mentioned a couple of posts back that I was going to do more (and updated) Disney World-themed blog posts. I've done a few Disney reviews before, from resort to restaurants to rides to various planning series (covering both travelling with family and as a Asper-girl/social-phobe going alone). Even my first A to Z Challenge was Disney World-themed. As this years trip looms on the horizon (and as my brain is consumed with Disney 24/7), I figured I'd update these reviews now that I'm a wiser, more experienced (and older) Disney traveller. I'm not going to go back and read the old reviews for the sake of trying to approach it with fresh eyes, so bear with me if you've heard all this before (probably numerous times). There is no place better to start this new series than with my absolute favorite Resort on property, Disney's Wilderness Lodge Resort! And I should also warn you, this review is going to be extremely picture heavy (five stays in eight years means a lot of Lodge pictures to choose from!).

For those of you unfamiliar with Disney's resorts, there are various categories and I'll try to make this as brief as possible. I know I've discussed this ad-nauseum before, most of which can be found on my Disney Planning Series page located here, but it's a necessary evil and I promise I'll just do it this one time - at least during this blog series. But the breakdown of resorts is as follows:

-Value Resorts are motels (outdoor room entry) with over-the-top theming (basically targeting children). There is a food court, but no restaurants and no room service (other than pizza delivery). If there is a bar, it's usually near the pool.

-Moderate Resorts are also motels with a bit more reserved theming (only a bit more reserved, but with more of an adult appeal). They have a food court, pizza delivery, and most have a sit-down (or table service) restaurant (but not all). Again, any bar area they may have will typically be located near the pool.

-Deluxes are hotels (indoor room entry) with even more of a theme that appeals to adults (hence the smaller quantity of children staying there). Each room has a balcony (even though they may be shared). There is a food court (which tend to be much smaller than those of values and moderates with a higher quality food fare than that of the other levels, although there are still the typical burgers and pizza offerings), more than one table service restaurant including full room service and pizza delivery, with usually more than one bar area in various locations throughout the property. Deluxes have a higher room level concierge service that no other resort has (but you have to pay an arm and a leg for it). The room sizes grow with each level, so there is quite a bit of difference between the size of a value room and a deluxe room, especially in the bathroom (which makes no sense to me since bigger families with children tend to stay at Values or Moderates and they NEED bigger bathrooms). You get more "extras" the higher you go as well...more toiletries, better quality mattresses and bed linens, bigger fridges and safes, amenities like in-room babysitting (for those that need it), most have health clubs and/or spas, a paper (or several) outside your door every morning, etc. Never has the phrase "you get what you pay for" been more apt then when it applies to Disney resorts! And, for the mega rich, there are massive suites available at the Deluxes varying in size and cost.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has been to Disney World before, all levels have their own gift shop (some have more than one, especially the higher-end deluxes). For a while they steered away from resort-specific merchandise, but (thankfully) that trend is ending. Wilderness Lodge never failed to carry some amazing Lodge-specific merchandise that you can't get anywhere else on property and I've gotten some great momentos throughout the years that I cherish more than any other resort's offerings (although I'm still kicking myself for not getting the Wilderness Lodge Lincoln Logs when they had them!).

There are other levels in varying degrees; there is the campground and cabins (at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort - next door to Wilderness Lodge), various DVC resorts (Disney's version of a timeshare - some are stand alone and some are branches of the deluxe resorts), and there is even a military exclusive resort called Shades of Green. There is something to appeal to every style (and budget) of Disney traveller.

All resorts, no matter the level or type, all have several different Disney-specific TV channels. I've wasted many an hour watching Stacey's Top 10 or Must Do's on the resort channel! She's completely annoying yet utterly fascinating to watch!

Disney's Wilderness Lodge Resort is considered a deluxe resort and has all the amenities of one (albeit a low-end deluxe...the rooms are a hair smaller and the prices are cheaper but definitely not in the moderate range) and it is one of the few that is contained within one building (most all resorts, no matter the level, are comprised of groupings of buildings, some even differently themed, but we'll delve into that in another review). Here is an aerial shot taken from Google Maps...the green-roofed building is Wilderness Lodge proper while the red-roofed building is the Wilderness Lodge Villas (the DVC arm).
source - Google Maps

The fact that it is one contained unit and a hotel means it feels a lot safer to solo travellers (or at least it does to me). There is no crossing dark walkways at night to get to your building. All rooms are accessible via interior corridors and there are (usually) no kids running up and down the hallways like in the moderates or values. Every amenity, from the gift shop to the food court to the restaurants and bars, and even the pool is easily accessible from under one roof. Nowhere on property do I feel as safe as I do when I'm in the Lodge. It may still be a massively large resort, but it feels small and contained, which adds to the safety factor.

As with every Disney resort, theming is top of the line and no expense is ever spared in making you feel the full impact of whatever theme you are immersed in. Wilderness Lodge is modeled after the turn of the century lodges of the Pacific Northwest and from the moment you turn off the exit, the theming starts to change into more of a "woodsy" type atmosphere (not great for my tree phobia, but still tolerable). Disney does this with all their resorts, even importing native trees and plants that would be found in whatever the resort theming area is (or as much as they can successfully grow in Central Florida):

And once you are fully on Wilderness Lodge property, Central Florida seems like it's a long way off:

But the real thrill comes once you enter the gorgeous main doors and step inside:
Wilderness Lodge's gift shop with the infamous totem pole - you're supposed to rub Humphrey's nose for good luck upon arrival:

The back side of the resort is even more breathtaking:
And here's the best view to show that the resort is not nearly as small as it feels (it stretches for quite a ways on either arm around the massive pool):
And one can't forget about the fact that it has it's very own geyser:
and beach (as do most Deluxes and even some Moderates):

All Disney resorts are categorized by their location as well as their type. Wilderness Lodge is considered a Magic Kingdom resort (it is the only Magic Kingdom resort not on the monorail line). Luckily, (and even more enjoyable than a monorail resort), the Magic Kingdom is easily accessible by boat (via a rather scary woods walk):
And there are some amazing views along the boat ride:
including a one of a kind view of the Magic Kingdom itself:
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All other parks and attractions are accessible via bus (and, like all Disney resorts, bus destinations are shared with another resort and, in the case of the Lodge, most times it's the Grand Floridian - so you should always allow extra travel time to stop at the additional resort before continuing on to your destination).
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A rare empty bus!

Wilderness Lodge, like a typical deluxe, has a food court (called Roaring Forks), two sit-down (or table service) restaurants; Artist Point (which is an all-time favorite of mine) and Whispering Canyon Cafe (which I loathe with a passion because it is incredibly loud and extremely immersive...not the best choice for a social-phobe and extremely annoying if your room happens to be above it...the noise starts at 7 am and doesn't stop until 10 pm). There are two bar areas, Territory Lounge which is adjacent to Artist Point and Trout Pass Pool Bar (by, you guessed it, the pool). I love the fact that the deluxes give you a door-hanging card that you can place your breakfast order on and, as long as it's placed on the outside of your door by a specific time of night, you get a room-service delivered breakfast that is second to none (although it is quite expensive and a rare treat for me).
Roaring Fork is rather small for a food court (as is the food courts in most deluxes), but it has some amazing sandwiches (I seriously miss the Tillamook cheddar and Ham that they used to carry).
Yet another good point about Wilderness Lodge being self-contained in one building is that you can get a snack or dinner at Roaring Fork and walk to your room with the tray without exposing your food to the elements (and you're not carrying it across all creation). I have had many a flatbread in the comfort of my room after a long park day!
I'll hold off more interior and food shots of Artist Point until later, it's going to get its own review:
Unfortunately, I've never taken a picture of the exterior of Whispering Canyon...I typically don't even walk on the same side of the lobby as it's on.

Throughout my Disney trips, the Lodge has undergone several renovations. The easiest way to see the changes is from pictures of my rooms from year to year.
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As with any Disney resort, there are different "levels" of room (and these vary with each resort). Wilderness Lodge has Standard View (typically parking area), Woods View, Courtyard View (basically, around the pool), and then there is Concierge level. I've stayed in every level but Concierge (I can't justify spending that much money for basically a free snack bar since I do all my own planning and don't need the use of the concierge staff). All levels have been hit and miss and, in all honesty, some of my standard views have been the best. I've learned that they will typically book a solo person on the ground floor in a King Room (which means a shower instead of a tub...tubs are a necessity after a long day in the parks). Plus, the ground floor access to the balconies make me extremely uncomfortable as a solo traveller. I've learned asked for a higher floor as part of my reservation requests (Disney allows up to two and, although they don't guarantee them, I've never had them not honor a request). As far as balcony views go, again let's take this by a year by year breakdown.

2005 - Woods View (could see Contemporary and Polynesian Resorts from my balcony that year):
2006 - Woods View (Otter Pond - never saw an otter, but had tons of ducks every morning):
2008 - Courtyard View:
2012 - Standard View (definitely not amazing):
but with the surprise of Magic Kingdom fireworks at night:
2013 - Standard View (looking out toward the bus stop):
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With any Disney resort, the first thing you are greeted with when you arrive is a friendly face saying "Welcome Home!". Wilderness Lodge has some of the best cast members (Disney's name for their employees) on property. Outstanding cast member interactions stick out as much to me as the bad ones, and one of my favorite ones ever was a bellman that used to work at the door of the Lodge. Our first year staying there, I got to talking to him (a rare occurrence for me) and discovered he had spent some time living in Memphis (which is an hour away from me) and he even had family that live in my town. Every year that I went to the Lodge, until he retired in 2008, he was always there and he never forgot me, greeting me with "Hey Arkansas! Welcome Home!". I hugged him his last year (another very rare occurrence) and told him how I would never forget him. I never have.

If I had any complaints with the Lodge, they would be limited, but there are a couple and the worst (more than the noise levels of Whispering Canyon Cafe) is the fact that the smoking area is right beside the walkway to the bus stop. As a heavy asthmatic, it's rough walking through the smoke cloud every single time you're on your way to a bus (it's just on the backside of the arcade - where the arrow is pointing):
There has to be a better location (although I don't know where).

I've also had instances where my room was located in one of the "arms" of the Lodge and it's quite a walk to get to your room every night (and even two different elevator rides one year). Considering I have a HORRIBLE sense of direction, especially tracing my steps backwards, it's caused some issues with me getting lost more than once. But that's not a real complaint because it's been much worse at other resorts I've stayed at where a walk to the bus stop might be 20 minutes and a walk to the food court was another 20 minutes in another direction (the joy that is Caribbean Beach Resort).

Nine times out of ten, if I have a problem at Disney, it's because of the rudeness of other guests and, unfortunately, Deluxe guests are the worst. There is a reason why a typical Deluxe guest is referred to as a "Deluxe Snob"...they usually have an overinflated sense of entitlement and it's really difficult to deal with them (it's probably because I give off the "I don't belong here" vibe because I am poor and it makes me uber sensitive to snobbery). But, you get that anywhere in the parks (and I have). I do consider myself a "Deluxe Snob", but I think of it a different way. To me, being a "Deluxe Snob" means I'm willing to pay more for the convenience and comfort level of a deluxe over a Value (which are visually "loud" and hard for me to take, full of more kids than I can handle, have longer transportation times because they are so far away, lesser quality food, etc). Staying at a Disney Resort is as much a part of the experience as going to the parks. It's not just a "place to sleep" like it would be at a regular park experience (and Disney is FAR from a regular park) and it would ruin my entire trip if I'm not happy in my room (and it has more than once). That's what makes Wilderness Lodge so's still expensive, but not outrageously so and it's in one of the best resort areas on property. There is great food, amazing cast members, speciality merchandise, good transportation...need I go on?

We are not staying at Wilderness Lodge this year (opting instead for my first ever visit to Animal Kingdom Lodge, which is very similar to WL and even designed by the same person). I've always wanted to stay at Animal Kingdom Lodge, so I'm willing to forgo a year of my Lodge. If I can't afford a Disney World trip next year, again it's OK because we are going to Disneyland in 2015 and staying at the Grand Californian, another resort from the same designer, but I will eventually find my way back to Wilderness Lodge as I always do. I haven't stayed at every resort on property, but I have hit quite a few, and none, from the highest to the lowest, compare to WL. It's the one I recommend to most people, and my all-time #1 choice of favorite Disney Resort!


Linda said...

Fantastic review Keebles. Looking forward to the next one.


SoCal Debbie said...

Ditto! Fantastic review! It's great that you point out so many details about safety!