Walt Disney World announced that one of its hidden gem table service restaurants will be replaced, as Trail’s End at Fort Wilderness Campground will close in Spring 2023 for refurbishment and reimagining. In this post, we share details plus commentary about our disappointment and the delicate balance between nostalgia and casual guest feedback.
Let’s start with a look at what Walt Disney World is losing. We once described Trail’s End as the kind of joint where Chuck Norris and Sarah Connor arm wrestle as the “World’s Most Interesting Man” lies on the floor passed out from moonshine (his drink of choice now that he realized Dos Equis sucks) while Cool Hand Luke and Conan the Barbarian snap selfies with that glorious restroom mural. Trail’s End doesn’t need a ‘secret’ S.E.A. room because The League of Extraordinary Badasses who patronize Trail’s End are egalitarians who dine among the people.
It’s not just fictional film characters who seek sanctuary and shenanigans at Trail’s End. We once saw Baby Sinclair bopping Big Al over the head with a frying pan while he and Sam Eagle were debating the most patriotic dessert. (Bacon-topped doughnut sundae with maple syrup.) None of that is hyperbole–all of that stuff actually happens on a daily basis at Trail’s End. Or should I say, happened at Trail’s End.
Up until closing in March 2020, those type of hijinks occurred on the regular at Trail’s End. It was an unpretentious all-you-can-eat buffet consisting of a formidable lineup of comfort food favorites, running the culinary spectrum from ‘potato’ to ‘fried’ to ‘pork’ to ‘dessert.’ Trail’s End was a fever dream of decadence and deliciousness and old timey atmosphere, the quintessential eatery of the original Vacation Kingdom of the World.
I could ramble on and on, and have done exactly that in our three different reviews of Trail’s End (here, here and here). The problems with that are two-fold. One, words cannot do it justice. Trail’s End is one of those if you know, you know type of things. It was lightning in a bottle, the whole being so much more than the sum of its parts. Reading a review today might prompt a “that’s it?” reaction, but I can assure you…that most definitely was not it.
The more prominent problem is that this is all past-tense. When it finally reopened, Trail’s End returned as a family-style restaurant with a perplexing menu that swapped out fan favorites for uninspired options that were similar to other modified menus of the phased reopening era. We and other Trail’s End fans railed against this, but sadly, our voices were not as loud as ‘Ohana noodle aficionados.
We didn’t mince words denouncing the modified menu, and refrained from doing the family-style meal at Trail’s End as a matter of principle. Nevertheless, we held out hope that the regular meal service would return alongside Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue. After all, the two share a kitchen and previously had partially overlapping menus. It only made sense to restore the former glory of Trail’s End when that dinner show returned last summer. Sadly, that never occurred.
We’ve continued to hold out hope since then, assuming that Trail’s End diehards were likewise rejecting this family-style meal service. With each new announcement of restaurants returning to normal buffet service, we figured Trail’s End wouldn’t be far behind. Now we know that won’t be the case.
Walt Disney World has announced that Trail’s End Restaurant is going to close for refurbishment sometime in Spring 2023. There are currently available Advance Dining Reservations for both breakfast and dinner as far out as the calendar goes, so it doesn’t appear it’ll close before April 2023.
In any case, the location that’s currently Trail’s End will reopen later in 2023 as a “marketplace concept with expanded quick service options” according to journalist and Disney insider Scott Gustin. Train’s End will no longer by a table service restaurant. (For those curious, the connected Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue will not be impacted.)
From what we understand, the decision to transform Trail’s End from a table service restaurant to a marketplace is in response to common feedback from guests who stay at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. That’s probably a long time coming, and should perhaps be unsurprising given the proliferation of food trucks at Fort Wilderness over the last several years.
For me, Trail’s End is a good representative example of the chasm between regular guests and diehard Walt Disney World fans. This is something we’ve touched upon from time to time when it comes to resort room reimaginings, but it’s worth discussing in greater depth here.
Normally, we’re skeptical of Disney using the lines “by popular guest demand” or “in response to feedback from our guests” as shields to justify unpopular decisions. It’s worth noting that this is not the case here–Walt Disney World has proffered no rationale for this change. Rather, it’s what we have heard–and isn’t a particularly new development.
There’s no reason to doubt that this is true. Again, Fort Wilderness has seen an increasing number of food trucks, and had tweaked its approach with the undersized P&J’s Southern Takeout (which we also love and have tried to draw more attention to over the last few years).
All of these were band aid solutions, attempting to address the issue but not fully resolving it. If you were to tell me that Fort Wilderness scores poorly for dining, and that the most common complaint from guests is the lack of convenient counter service options, I’d absolutely believe it.
This is at odds with the feedback from fans like us, who are absolutely devastated by this news. Trail’s End has been the source of many fond memories for me, from my parents taking me as a small child to us taking them in more recent years. It’s been a place we’ve frequented with friends after runDisney races, Destination D23 weekends, and fan events.
For us, Trail’s End was an integral part of Walt Disney World history; dining there felt like stepping back in time and visiting the Vacation Kingdom of the World. A rebuff to the notion that you can’t go home again. Similarly, it was a source of history; the setting of memories we made with family and friends. If laughter were the measure of a restaurant, Trail’s End would be the undisputed champ for us.
It’s not as this is unique to our family and friend circle. We know there are many others who have indelible memories from and of Trail’s End, and this news is sure to be met with an outpouring of grief and fond farewells from a small segment of the fan community. To be sure, it will very much be a vocal minority–Trail’s End doesn’t have the fanbase of ‘Ohana. Rather, it’s a restaurant that is very important to a very small number of fans.
Therein lies the rub. It’s undoubtedly exceedingly easy for Walt Disney World management to justify the decision to do away with Trail’s End in favor of a marketplace concept. Again, I don’t doubt that they have the guest feedback and satisfaction survey data to support the change.
Someone more cynical might contend that Disney purposefully undercut the popularity of Trail’s End with the family-style meal to make this change and have it be met with less outrage. After all, Trail’s End is a shadow of its former self; many of its long-time fans don’t have interest in the current family-style meal. (I don’t know if we’ll do one last “goodbye” meal or be satisfied with our memories of the real deal.)
While that ploy is possible, I’m skeptical that Walt Disney World would play the type of long game that involved losing out on profits or unrealized revenue to give cover to an unpopular decision. Disney is perfectly comfortable making changes that alienate and anger fans without undertaking such elaborate pretenses.
Rather, I think there’s probably a fundamental difference in how diehard Walt Disney World fans experience things and regular guests experience them. We would self-describe ourselves as huge Trail’s End enthusiasts who ate there often pre-closure. And yet, what that means in practical terms is that we dined at Trail’s End about once or twice per year. Even when we did multi-night stays at Fort Wilderness, we typically only did Trail’s End once for breakfast/brunch and once for dinner.
By contrast, a first-timer or infrequent guest staying at Fort Wilderness who is totally uninvested in Walt Disney World history or its culinary scene might eat at an on-site counter service restaurant a half-dozen or more times over the course of their vacation. A marketplace is something they’d use with regularity, even if they leave with zero fond memories of the cuisine or setting. It would serve a practical purpose, and its absence would be a strike against the vacation and intent to return or recommend metrics.
This is something we also see with Walt Disney World resort refurbishment projects. Some of the most vocal detractors aren’t people who actually book stays at resorts with regularity (to be sure, some do). Rather, most like the idea of themed resorts and want things to remain as they remember them (fondly) from formative stays that first nurtured the nostalgia that now fuels their fandom. (This conflict between casual and diehard guests is probably a topic worth exploring in greater detail, rather than buried in an announcement about a relatively low-key resort restaurant closure, so I’ll cut this short here.)
From that perspective, I can appreciate Disney’s dilemma and understand the justification for making this change. That doesn’t mean that I accept or excuse it. From my perspective, this feels like Disney taking the path of least resistance–a road taken all too often these days by a company that built a reputation on exceeding expectations.
There are a multitude of venues at Fort Wilderness that could become food courts or marketplaces. There’s also the opportunity to build something new in more centralized location to the campsites and cabins. Just because the campground is lacking in well-rounded counter service restaurants does not mean the only viable solution was replacing Trail’s End.
Likewise, if there’s an issue with the numbers Trail’s End has been doing, other solutions could’ve been proposed and attempted. For one, the buffet could’ve been restored months ago–when Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue reopened, at the latest. If that didn’t offer the necessary boost, Walt Disney World could’ve done something to weave Trail’s End into the 50th Anniversary celebration, especially since few restaurants “speak to” Disney history geeks as much as this one.
Ultimately, that’s really what grinds my gears with the decision to close and convert Trail’s End Restaurant. This is a location with a cult following, and Disney knows it. The company could’ve tried to figure out why it resonates so strongly and built upon that to reach a wider audience. With a location near Magic Kingdom, great food, and a quirky personality, Trail’s End could’ve become a (popular) hidden gem favorite among more than just a passionate subset of the fanbase. The foundation was there–Trail’s End had the beloved qualities you can’t fake or manufacture.
Instead, the company is taking the easy way out. I don’t doubt for a second that the end result will improve overall guest satisfaction metrics. But I also don’t believe for a second that the replacement will forge new fans or be a source of goodwill, or even memories that will last a lifetime. As an organization in the business of packaging and selling nostalgia, Walt Disney World needs to be better about realizing that they need that, too.
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What do you think of this news of Trail’s End Restaurant closing for refurbishment and replacement by a quick service marketplace? Thoughts on Trail’s End as a hidden gem and source of fan nostalgia and memories? Disappointed by this change, or do you not care about Trail’s End? (It’s okay, not everyone is a fan.) Agree or disagree with our assessment? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!