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The Walt Disney World Resort Hotels… what was or was to be

by Chuck Mirarchi

The Walt Disney World Resort is a constant and ever-changing destination.  Every time you go there is something different to see.  Walk through any of the parks, resorts or shops and you are sure to hear someone say, “Didn’t this use to be?” or “What was this supposed to have been?”

Located throughout the entire resort, Walt Disney World has 24 resort hotels that can accommodate every budget and taste, but when the park opened up in 1971; 1 the resort had a very different look.  Back then you either stayed at the Contemporary Resort, the Polynesian Village, or the Fort Wilderness Campground.

As far back as 1967, themed resorts were always planned for Walt Disney World.  The Contemporary and the Polynesian Resorts were scheduled to open with the Magic Kingdom in October of 1971, which they did, and if they saw a need for additional accommodations, three others were to follow over the course of the next five years.

The other 3 were to be deluxe resort properties – 2 planned resorts surrounding the Seven Seas Lagoon; an Asian-themed resort and the Venetian resort and 1 surrounding Bay Lake: a Persian-themed resort.  All 3 resorts would be connected to the monorail system.2

Disney’s Asian Resort hotel, a 500-600 planned room hotel (50 of which were to have been royal Thai designed elegant suites), was designed in the 1960’s when the resort was first planned and was next to open after the Contemporary and Polynesian Village.  It was scheduled to open up in 1974, but due to the 1973 oil crisis the project was cancelled.  During the construction of the Seven Seas Lagoon, a square-shaped plot of land was set aside on the northwest shore for the resort.  Inspired by Thailand, the hotel featured a large center building, similar to the Contemporary Resort Hotel, with square blocks of guest rooms surrounding three sides of the main building.  The resort would have featured Thai furnishings and decor, as well as cuisine from Thailand.  In addition, so sure that this was one of the next resorts to open, they named the thoroughfare that lead from a service area north of the Magic Kingdom down to Car Care Center – Asian Way.2, 3  If you were to travel on that road up until around 1986 you’d be traveling on Asian Way. After 1986 it was and currently known as Floridian Way.  Today, with a few minor land adjustments, the property is home to the Grand Floridian Resort Hotel.3

The Asian Resort, like the Contemporary Resort and Polynesian Village Resort, was put in its location to serve as extended backdrops for the lands in the Magic Kingdom.  Although abandoned in the early 1980’s, it kind of makes sense when you look at the hotels.  The Contemporary is behind Tomorrowland, the Polynesian Village is on the same axis as Adventureland and The Asian Resort would have also been in the same line sight as Adventureland. 3

Disney’s Venetian Resort hotel, which would have beat Las Vegas’ Venetian Resort by 30+ years, was to have also been located on the Seven Seas Lagoon near the water bridge on a stretch of land located between the Ticket and Transportation Center and the Contemporary Resort Hotel.  Again the 1973 oil embargo put a halt to construction.  After the opening of the Grand Floridian Resort Hotel in 1988, Michael Eisner saw how well the Grand Floridian was doing and wanted to build an even better resort.  So they decided to resurrect plans for the Venetian Resort, but this time it was to become Disney’s Mediterranean Resort. 2,3  With ground cleared in the late 1990’s for the resort, the exact same spot where the Venetian Resort was to be, tests were made on the ground.  Unfortunately because of the makeup of the ground (and reportedly a large sinkhole in the area), architects found that they would have to have dug extremely deep foundations to support the hotel – deeper than those that currently support Spaceship Earth at EPCOT.  Therefore the project was scrapped. 3,5

The third and final resort not to have been built was Disney’s Persian Resort.  This blue and white colored resort, however, would have been built on Bay Lake; just north of the Contemporary Resort Hotel and east of the Magic Kingdom.  Like the Asian and Venetian Resort hotels, the Persian Resort hotel was also scrapped in 1973 due to the oil crisis.  Some records show in 1978 that the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Shah Rahlavi offered to pay for the project’s construction and operation costs, but after The Iranian Revolution in 1979 those plans were quickly fell through.  The resort rooms would have been arranged in a circle around a central building – serving as the main entrance – with a 24-foot dome.  Interestingly the monorail at this property would have also gone directly through Tomorrowland.5

The Contemporary Resort Hotel, one of the original 3 hotels to open up in 1971, has undergone a number of changes throughout the years.  If guests who had visited the hotel in the early 70’s and then came back today – the changes would leave their heads spinning.

First and foremost, the most recent change is the recent opening of the Bay Lake Tower at the Contemporary Resort Hotel.  This gleaming C-shaped resort opened on August 4, 2009 on the land that was previously occupied by the North Garden Wing of the Contemporary Resort.

Back in the 70’s, when guests entered the Contemporary Resort hotel, from the ground floor, and headed left just past the reception desk they would have encountered originally convention exhibit space.  That quickly then became the Fiesta Fun Center, a game room & arcade, movie theatre, and 24-hour snack bar.  Years later the center’s name was change to the Food and Fun Center.  Today it is home to the fantastic Wave Restaurant.  On the second floor was the Gulf Coast Room where it was one of two restaurants that required men to wear jackets – the other was the former Top of the World. 4

The 4th Floor or Grand Canyon Concourse Level of the Contemporary Resort Hotel has seen the most dramatic and constant change to the resort.  In the beginning the north end of the Grand Canyon Concourse Level housed a souvenir shop, Plaza Gifts and Sundries, and The Spirit World.  Here guests could buy Disney merchandise, toiletries, flowers and floral arrangements, food and snacks, soft drinks and liquor, and tobacco products.  Today it is known as Concourse Sundries & Spirits.  On the opposite side of these shops were the Contemporary Man, the Contemporary Woman, and Kingdom Jewels, Ltd., where guests could purchase men’s and woman’s clothing and beachwear and costume and fine jewelry, as well as watches.  Today the entire location is home to Bayview Gifts.  Fantasia Gifts, which stands between these 2 shopping areas in the middle of the Concourse used to be open lobby space with some seating.  4, 6, 7

On the south end of the Grand Canyon Concourse the dining areas have seen tremendous change in recent years and continue to do so today.  Today’s Contempo Cafe was originally the home to the Terrace Buffeteria, also known at the Grand Canyon Terrace, and later the Concourse Grill and then the Concourse Steakhouse.  The current version of Chef Mickey’s saw a number of incarnations in years past including the Pueblo Room, Contemporary Cafe, and Coconino Cove (also referred to Coconino Grove).  The space before Coconino Cove was air.  Actual air!  There was nothing there originally but the outside of the building.  They built out to make the Coconino Cove cocktail lounge and today it is the dining area for Chef Mickey’s.  – From empty space to the Monorail Club Car the area is now being transformed into the Outer Rim Lounge. 4

Moving up to the 15th floor, the Top of the World (also known as the Top of the World Supper Club) was they place to be to see classic Vegas-style performers like Mel Torme and Phyllis McGuire, as well as dancing.  In the early 1980’s, the Top of the World premiered a show called Broadway at the Top.  Top of the World, along with Mesa Grande Lounge – later called the Top of the World Lounge – offered some of the best views of the Magic Kingdom and the fireworks.  They also offered the most scenic brunch around.  The Top of the World closed in 1993 to make way for the current, and spectacular, California Grill Restaurant.1, 4, 7

The first thing most people will notice about the next hotel is that it underwent a slight name change – when it opened in opened on October 1, 1971 this hotel was known as the Polynesian Village Resort Hotel.  In the 1980’s the “Village” part was dropped and it has been known ever since as simply the Polynesian Resort Hotel.

Another change, one that guests never knew about or saw, was the design of the hotel.  Originally the design of the resort called for a large pyramid structure at the entrance that would have included the lobby, shops, meeting space, and guest room.  Additional guest rooms would have been located in sprawling, low-storied hut-like structures behind the hotel and stretching out towards the beach.  By 1970 that design had changed in its entirety and what we know as the Great Ceremonial House and various longboat structures took its place. 4,6

In addition to the Great Ceremonial House, which is modeled after a Tahitian royal assembly lodge, the hotel opened with 8 longhouse buildings housing 492 guest rooms.  The original 8 longhouse buildings were: Bali Hai, Bora Bora, Hawaii, Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, and Maui.  Three more longhouses were added: the Oahu in 1978 (this year the Maui longhouse was renames the Maori longhouse) and the Moorea and Pago Pago were added in 1985 bringing the total number of guest rooms to its current 847. 1, 4, 6

In 1999, most of the Polynesian Resort’s longhouses were also renamed to better represent the Polynesian islands.  With the exception of Fiji, the other 10 longhouses were renamed: Bali Hai became Tonga; Bora Bora became Niue; Hawaii became Samoa; Maori changed again to rarotonga; Moorea became Tahiti; Oahu became Tokelau; Pago Pago became Rapa Nui; Samoa became Tuvalu; Tahiti became Aotearoa, and Tonga became Hawaii.  As you can see, some of the longhouse names didn’t disappear but flipped to another building mostly in part to reflect a more accurate geographic location to their real island counterparts.5

With the exception of the 3-story rock and waterfall rainforest much of the Great Ceremonial House has undergone dramatic changes including green & blue tiled floor (now earth-toned rock slabs), as well as the dining and retail outlets.

The Polynesian Resort’s original restaurants were the Papeete Bay Verandah and the Coral Isle Coffee Shop, Tambu Lounge, Captain Cook’s Hideaway Lounge and the Barefoot Snack Bar. The Papeete Bay Verandah was a French Colonial restaurant that served breakfast, lunch and dinner with nightly floorshows – the Polynesian Review. It was closed in the latter half of 1994 and reopened in 1995 at Ohana’s.  The Coral Island Cafe became the Coral Island Coffee Shop and today is known as Kona Cafe.  The other dining outlets have survived in one form or another.  4,5

Shopping options at the hotel during the earlier years included The Polynesian Princess, Robinson Crusoe, Esq., Village Drugs & Sundries, Trader Jack’s Grog Shop (aka Trader Jack’s Grog Hut) and News From Civilization. Later on came Kanaka Kids, Maui Mickey’s News from Polynesia, and Outrigger’s Cove.  None of these retail outlets exist in their original state, but some remnants have survived.

What was also at The Polynesian Village and is no more… sort of is the wave machine.  Dick Nunis thought that waves crashing into the shore of the Polynesian Village would give guests a more realistic experience so there was a wave machine installed in the Seven Seas Lagoon off the shore of the Polynesian’s beach – on the coastline of Beachcombers Island.  The wave machine worked – too well as a matter of fact – the crashing waves caused too much beach erosion and the idea was abandoned.  Most of the wave machine was sunk in the Lagoon as a reef, however a small piece of it can still be seen off the Island – mostly from aerial shots.

The only other resort that is in this “Magic Kingdom” loop is what is currently known as Shades of Green, nee The Golf Resort, and nee The Disney Inn.  Originally opened in December of 1973, The Golf Resort was located in the middle of 2 championship golf courses: the Palm and Magnolia.  The main building of the resort opened in 1971 not with guest rooms, but as a two story clubhouse.  Guest wings were added to the original clubhouse in 1973.  The Golf Resort suffered from a few problems: there was no monorail – the closest was at The Polynesian Resort and most people didn’t consider it to be a “Disney” resort, but a place for golfers only.  The resort was averaging 50-60% occupancy, whereas the Contemporary Resort and Polynesian Resort were almost always at 100% occupancy.5

February 4, 1986, the resort was expanded and renamed The Disney Inn and added on another 150 rooms and took on a Snow White theme.  The resort was being positioned as a quiet country inn.  It really didn’t work well.  Meanwhile, Army officials surveyed their soldiers and asked them about locations in the U.S. for a resort – Orlando was their top choice.  So on February 1, 1994, the US Department of Defense first leased the resort and the land and then in 1996 bought the building (they still lease the land from Disney) and changed the name from The Disney Inn to Shades of Green.  With its current 586 guest rooms open only to military personnel and their families, Shades of Green has been running at or near 100% capacity. 5,8

None of the hotels at Lake Buena Vista were around in 1971. The first to open was the Royal Plaza (originally Royal Inn) which opened in October of 1972.  Later that same month, the Pennsylvania Dutch Hotel opened.  It originally had a windmill-shaped pool!  It then became the Grosvenor and is now the Regal Sun.

In November 1972, the Travelodge opened.  It was the first structure to use epoxy glue in its construction – part of Disney’s commitment to be an Experimental Prototype Community as Walt had wanted. That hotel changed names several times going between the Travelodge and the Viscount.  Now it’s the Best Western.

One year later, in November of 1973, the Howard Johnson’s opened.  It became Courtyard by Marriott in 1995 and then the Holiday Inn in 2003 – only to be severely damaged by hurricanes in 2004.  It has yet to reopen, but is scheduled to later this year.

No new hotels opened in Lake Buena Vista until November 1983 when the Hilton & Buena Vista Palace opened.  The newest addition to Lake Buena Vista is the Double Tree Suites – originally Pickett Suites.

This article only covered the resorts surrounding The Magic Kingdom.  It hasn’t even scratched the surface as to all of the other changes that have taken place, are taking place, and will to take place.  So, like other Disney resorts, attractions, parades, special events, shows, shops and theme parks; it’s very easy to see why people come back year after year.  There is always something different to see, do, and discover.

So the next time someone asks, “How can you do go down there every year or more?  Isn’t it the same?” You now have not just an answer but a reason… like you needed one to begin with!

1. Walt Disney World
2. Walt Disney World Preview Edition, 1970
3. Widen Your World
4. Walt Dated World
5. Wikipedia
6. Allears.net
7. Wdwhistory.com
8. The New York Times, From Iraq to Disney World: A Military Resort, Donald G. McNeil, Jr., May 16, 2008