Horseback Riding at Disney World

by Gray Cargill on August 10, 2009

What ride at Disney World isn’t in one of the theme parks, doesn’t involve animatronics or rollercoasters, technology, complex engineering, piped-in music or air conditioning, is about as low-tech as you can possibly get, and is one of the oldest forms of transportation known to humankind that doesn’t involve water or flight?  If you can’t guess, then you haven’t read the title of this post.

I haven’t been on horseback since I was a kid, and I’ve been eager to give it a try again.  So before I left on my trip, I scheduled an 11:30 am appointment with the Tri-Circle-D Ranch at Fort Wilderness on Disney World property.  Tri-Circle offers trail rides several times a day. The cost for a 45-minute ride is $46, and I was told to arrive half an hour early and to wear close-toed shoes and something longer than shorts (because of thigh chafing).  I looked at a map of the Fort Wilderness campground and thought I knew where I was going.  On the morning of my ride, I took a bus from Coronado Springs to the Magic Kingdom, and then a boat from the Magic Kingdom to Fort Wilderness.  The boat ride was very pleasant, and I arrived at Fort Wilderness around 10:30am, which I felt would be plenty of time to get to my appointment.  Oh, how wrong I was.

Fort Wilderness Boat Dock

Fort Wilderness Boat Dock

I had no idea there was a bicycle race taking place at Fort Wilderness that day. Over 1,000 people were milling about the property, and many of the walkways were cordoned off for the bicyclists.  I couldn’t find my way around that maze to save my life. Every time I started down a new path, I realized I was cut off by the race course.  Eventually, I made it to some stables.  But I couldn’t get near them.  I spotted a staff member and caught up with her to ask her how to get to the riding stables.  She kindly informed me that I wasn’t even on the correct part of the property.

Pioneer Hall, Fort Wilderness

Pioneer Hall, Fort Wilderness

There are stables at the main property, but the horseback riding takes place at The Outpost, and to get there, I needed to catch a purple or orange (internal) bus.  She pointed out the bus stop to me.  There was a line about 50 people long waiting there.  My heart sank.  I was sure there was no way I was going to make it in time.  The staff member took my name and promised to call The Outpost and let them know I was running late. Fortunately, the majority of people waiting in line were waiting for a bus to shuttle them to a  parking lot, so I was able to jump on the first purple bus that came along.  As the bus drove along its route, I was amazed at how spread out Fort Wilderness really is.  I would get lost if I were staying there.

Outpost Bus Depot, Fort Wilderness

Outpost Bus Depot, Fort Wilderness

I finally arrived at the Outpost (an appropriate name, since it is about as far across the property from my arrival point at the marina as you can possibly imagine) and miraculously, I was just in time for my appointment.  I paid at the Kennel and signed some waivers in case I fell off the horse and broke my neck, then hurried to join the group at the paddock.  It turned out that everyone else in the party was from the same family. I was the only solo rider.  I later overheard one of the trail guides mention that I had been the only person booked for this particular time, but the family showed up at the last minute, looking for something to do that day before it was time for them to leave Disney.

Everyone in the group chose to wear helmets, including me.  I got fitted with one by the guide, a Mr. Sylvester.  He brought out my horse, a lovely brown and white paint named Uncle Louie.  He was a handsome horse, but as it turned out, also a very lazy and headstrong one.  (Sadly, I have no photos of Louie because my DSLR camera was too big and bulky to bring on the horse with me. I had to stow it in one of the lockers provided on site.)

The guide went around to us individually and gave us instructions on how to handle our horses; each horse has a different personality, thus a different set of instructions.  I was warned that Louie would probably try to veer off the path to snack on vegetation (boy, did he ever!).  I was not warned that he would get so enthused about seeing his buddy in the pasture along the path that he would decide to go for a little run.  That was an exciting twenty seconds of my life.  Mr. Sylvester quickly came alongside us and instructed me on how to rein Louie in. During the return trip, he rode between us and the pasture so Louie wouldn’t see the other horse and get excited again.

From then on, Mr. Sylvester and the other guide walked us slowly, single-file (nose to tail, as they put it), along a winding path through the woods.  Mr. Sylvester rode up and down the line throughout the 45 minutes, talking to everyone, and keeping an eye on things.  But he hung back toward the rear of the line most often, which gave me an opportunity to chat with him, as I was bringing up the rear.  He had a beautiful bi-colored horse whose hair was braided, and he was quite proud of its lineage.

Despite the fact that the Tri-Circle-D’s horses are very well-fed, almost all of them at one point or another wandered off the path to snack on vegetation.  Louie was particularly stubborn about it.  I found myself tugging on the reins and saying “No, Louie! No!” and “Over here, Louie” an awful lot.  I tried to reward him when he behaved by telling him what a good horse he was, but I just don’t think he cared what I thought of him.

Because Florida had seen no rain for 25 days, the trail was very dry and dusty.  It was also very hot–over 90 degrees out.  The only thing that reminded me we were in Florida, not the Old West, were the palm trees towering high above us.  It was a nice quiet ride, a welcome respite from the noise and crowds of the theme parks. I found myself wondering what it must have been like back in the days when horseback was the fastest transportation around, and people would ride hundreds of miles at a time.  My butt was sore after just 45 minutes in the saddle!

So I wasn’t sorry when the ride came to an end, but I was sorry to leave the horses behind.  They were returned to the stables for a little break and some chow, no doubt. Despite the sore butt (and the layers of dirt caked onto my capris), this was a really enjoyable experience for me and I am so glad I had the opportunity to do it. If you’re traveling to Disney any time soon and are looking for something fun to do outside the parks for a change of pace, do consider this.  Don’t be shy just because you’re a solo traveler.  The guides paid just as much attention to me as they did to the family I was riding with, if not more.  Despite what a pain it was finding the stables, this ride will always remain a fond memory for me of my trip to Disney World.

For reservations for a trail ride, call (407) 939-7529.   Tell Uncle Louie I said hi.

Random observations and advice:

  • The slow pace of this trail ride might be boring for experienced riders, but if you don’t often have an opportunity to be on a horse, it’s fine.  It’s a great ride for the beginner.
  • The guides address riders by the name of the horse they are riding to give them instructions, such as “You there on Louie, pull a little harder to the left”.  So it’s really important to remember your horse’s name.
  • If you ride a horse, wear a helmet.
  • Be prepared to be sore for days after your ride.
  • 90 degrees might be a wee bit too hot for horseback riding.  I’d recommend a cooler time of year.  Especially since you should wear long pants or capris to ride.
  • Just make sure those pants aren’t white.
SoloFriendly August 11, 2009 at 5:57 pm

Hi, Jennifer,

That is a very good question! Generally, when I go on tours, I tip the guide 20% of the cost of the tour, and I do so at the end of the tour when I'm thanking them. I shake their hand and slip the money into their palm while doing so. It's the most discreet way I've come up with to do it. However, that didn't work this time. As I was dismounting the horse and leaving, the guides had their hands full with the horses, so there really wasn't an opportunity to get close enough to slip a bill into anyone's hand. I barely had opportunity to call out a heartfelt “Thank you!” as they were leading the horses to the stables. I did not see the family tip, either, though they may have done so when I wasn't looking.

It's interesting that Disney does not have as much of a tipping culture (except waitstaff and bartenders) as places like Vegas. When you're in Vegas, everyone has their hand out for a tip. Not so here. For instance, housekeeping is not a tipped position at Disney World. You can tip them if you want to, but it's not expected. One night, when I had the valet at Coronado Springs call a cab for me, I tried to tip him, and he refused to take my money. He said “No, no, no, it's my job to do this. Just go and enjoy yourself.” So all you can do is make the gesture, but don't be surprised if they won't accept it.

Jennifer Smith August 11, 2009 at 1:02 pm

Hi Gray –

How about tipping? When traveling alone, I can't slink behind a companion and let him make the overture/blunder. Maybe you cover this in other posts, but this is my first read. Unless gratuity was discussed before the ride, how did you handle it?

Thanks, Jennifer

SoloFriendly August 11, 2009 at 11:57 am

Hi, Jennifer,

That is a very good question! Generally, when I go on tours, I tip the guide 20% of the cost of the tour, and I do so at the end of the tour when I'm thanking them. I shake their hand and slip the money into their palm while doing so. It's the most discreet way I've come up with to do it. However, that didn't work this time. As I was dismounting the horse and leaving, the guides had their hands full with the horses, so there really wasn't an opportunity to get close enough to slip a bill into anyone's hand. I barely had opportunity to call out a heartfelt “Thank you!” as they were leading the horses to the stables. I did not see the family tip, either, though they may have done so when I wasn't looking.

It's interesting that Disney does not have as much of a tipping culture (except waitstaff and bartenders) as places like Vegas. When you're in Vegas, everyone has their hand out for a tip. Not so here. For instance, housekeeping is not a tipped position at Disney World. You can tip them if you want to, but it's not expected. One night, when I had the valet at Coronado Springs call a cab for me, I tried to tip him, and he refused to take my money. He said “No, no, no, it's my job to do this. Just go and enjoy yourself.” So all you can do is make the gesture, but don't be surprised if they won't accept it.

Jennifer Smith August 11, 2009 at 7:02 am

Hi Gray –

How about tipping? When traveling alone, I can't slink behind a companion and let him make the overture/blunder. Maybe you cover this in other posts, but this is my first read. Unless gratuity was discussed before the ride, how did you handle it?

Thanks, Jennifer

James Chapman August 10, 2009 at 6:52 pm

Very articulate and well thought out article! Thanks for posting the information…I'd love to do this some day we're down there! :)

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