As Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary approaches on October 1, 2021, this series will attempt to determine one addition per decade which drastically impacted Disney Parks vacations going forward.
As Walt Disney World entered its teen years, it was bound to face some turmoil. With the resort complex on the cusp of its 13th year, the Walt Disney Company as a whole was fighting off corporate raiders who were poised to pounce on the company’s undervalued stock price. The threat of various assets, including Walt Disney World, being sold off appeared to be a possibility. The “Vacation Kingdom of the World” had only just welcomed its second park, EPCOT Center, and now it was in the throes of some of the company’s darkest days. If the Walt Disney Company was going to survive, it needed a knight in shining armor. And that rescue came by way of three means: a new president, Frank Wells; a new CEO, Michael Eisner; and a national economic boom.
Much like the microcosm of the Walt Disney Company, the United States had begun the 1980s in the midst of a serious recession. However, by 1982, the economy was beginning to trend upward and the remainder of the decade experienced the largest economic expansion in the country’s history up to that time.
An improved national economy and massive internal changes brought improvements across nearly all divisions of the Walt Disney Company. With an optimistic outlook, CEO Michael Eisner was intent on pursuing the expansion of Walt Disney World’s hotel offerings. As individual expendable income improved, it appeared that more and more guests were looking for a luxury experience. Consequently, the “Most Magical Place on Earth” opened its flagship hotel, the Grand Floridian Beach Resort, on June 28, 1988.
With the addition of the Grand Floridian, Walt Disney World was home to five resort hotels (Contemporary Resort, Polynesian Village Resort, The Disney Inn, Disney Village Resort) and rental trailers at the Fort Wilderness Campground (site camping was also available for those looking for a non-hotel-like experience). According to the 1988 Walt Disney World Vacation Information Guide, a minimum per night hotel stay came in at $125 for a woodland view at The Disney Inn during the value season while the maximum topped out at $300 per night for a concierge room in the Grand Floridian main building during the peak season.
Walt Disney World had spent much of the 1970s as the big fish in the small pond of Orlando, FL, but by the 1980s other hotel chains were moving in and offering rooms right on the property’s doorstep for as low as $20 per night. While hotel rooms within the bounds of the Florida Project offered complimentary transportation and advanced dining reservation access, it was clear that budget-minded guests viewed the discounted off-property stays as too much of an incentive to turn down. Disney had risen to the occasion with regard to the luxury-seeking sector of demand, but they were simultaneously working on a way to compete harder for cost-driven tourists’ dollars.
Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort
Following on the heels of the Grand Floridian, Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort opened its doors in EPCOT Center’s backyard on October 1, 1988. Themed to five different Caribbean islands and surrounding a 42-acre lake, the resort not only offered the lowest prices on property ranging from $65-85 per night, it upped the ante on what budget Orlando-area hotels were offering. It was and still is home to a food court, table service restaurant, playground, main pool with slide and water features, and lakeside beach. Each of the Caribbean island areas boasted their own pool as well.
In a decade when Walt Disney World welcomed EPCOT Center, Disney MGM Studios and its leading luxury hotel, it would be easy to overlook the opening of Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort entirely. Clearly, EPCOT and Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney MGM Studios) have and will continue to impact Walt Disney World. However, the success of Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort opened the door to other moderately priced resorts that would follow in the years to come and paved the way for the thrifty, value level resorts of the next two decades. With massive numbers of rooms, these hotels substantially increased the per night supply at a price point meeting the budget “sweet spot” for thousands of guests.
These room rates have led to a number of lasting and far reaching effects. First, rooms outside of the deluxe price point mean that an on-property Disney vacation is attainable for a larger number of consumers. Next, some families are able to book longer stays or visit additional times throughout the year. Additionally, when guests spend less at a resort hotel, they are able to filter that savings toward dining, souvenirs and other experiences. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these lower rate hotels have allowed Disney to continue to fill rooms even during national economic downturns. If the slate of Walt Disney World hotels had never expanded beyond the deluxe level, deep recessions like that of 2001 and 2008 may have required price cuts at those resorts that would have been unsustainable.
While it is impossible to know what the current state of Walt Disney World would be without the late 1980s success of Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort, time has proven that its existence played a vital role in the resurgence that both Walt Disney World and the Walt Disney Company experienced in the later portion of the decade. Walt Disney World’s early teen years may have started out bleak and uncertain, but by the end of the decade, it was primed for a roaring 20s.
Lead image from the author’s personal collection. Resort photos from the personal collection of Joshua Shusterman.