While traversing the network of roads within the Walt Disney World complex, it is hard to imagine that a number of destinations both real and imagined exist just feet off of those well-traveled highways. But take a right off of Seven Seas Drive, and you will find that you are no longer in Central Florida. You have been transported to the South Seas. Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort is not a recreation of any specific island; instead, it is an enticing combination of several tropical locales and a bit of American tiki culture as well.
As October 1, 2021 was lauded as the 50th Anniversary of Walt Disney World, most of the focus was centered on the theme park with an iconic castle as its centerpiece, but there are two other locations on property that opened to the public on that same day in 1971: Disney’s Contemporary Resort and Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. To celebrate a half-century of Disney’s tropically-themed accommodations, this five-part series will take a look at 50 facts from the resort’s past and present, with this first entry diving into Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort’s conceptualization and infancy.
1. Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort was not always going to be a series of longhouses. According to the Disney Parks Blog, “An early concept for Disney’s Polynesian Resort featured a 12-story tower, a bold design that might have looked more at home among the luxury hotels on Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach.” Concept art for the tower features one large tapered building which would mimic the angles of a volcano.
2. The Disney Company collaborated with architectural firm Welton Becket and Associates on the design of the resort with the primary architect being Pierre Cabrol who is also known for his work on the General Electric Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome and Capitol Records Building.
3. Hotel construction began less than eight months before guests were scheduled to arrive. It was able to be completed so quickly through a process called “unitized modular construction.” This method consisted of a steel honeycomb structure being assembled onsite while individual guest rooms were built on an assembly line offsite. These separate units were put on trucks and driven to the site and put into place via crane. Due to a number of complications over the ensuing years, the separate units have since been completely replaced with standard construction over the course of several renovations.
4. Charles Ridgway, director of press and publicity for Walt Disney World, recalls that on September 30, 1971, Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort was the only resort with rooms ready to receive guests, so reporters were to be set up there for the press event instead of the Contemporary Resort. However, the room that was to be used for the gathering still had no carpet, no wallpaper and bare dangling lightbulbs. The construction crew assured Ridgway that it would be completed overnight, and indeed it was fully furnished for the briefing when he arrived the next morning.
5. The original longhouse names were Bali Hai (now known as Tonga), Tahiti (now Aotearoa), Fiji, Samoa (now Tuvalu), Tonga (now Hawaii), Hawaii (now Samoa), Bora Bora (now Niue), and Maui/Maori (now Rarotonga). Later additions included Oahu (now Tokelau), Tahiti (now Moorea), and Rapa Nui (now Pago Pago). The names were changed in 1999 so that each moniker would be associated with an existent island; thus allowing each longhouse to represent the actual geographic locations of those islands in relation to each other.
6. While Walt Disney World, including the Magic Kingdom and both resort hotels, opened to the public on October 1, 1971, the official dedication ceremonies did not take place until October 23-25, 1971. The dedication ceremony for Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort was on the evening of October 24, 1971, and included a luau dinner show on the beach with celebrities such as Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Fred MacMurray, and the Disney family in attendance.
7. The resort’s dedication ceremony is notable not only because it served as the hotel’s official grand opening, but it stands in history as the first viewing of Walt Disney World’s longest-running nighttime entertainment: the Electrical Water Pageant.
8. When Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort opened, room rates ranged from $22.00-$40.00 per night, depending on the view. In 2021 dollars, that would be approximately $144.00-$262.00.
9. In 1971, the resort was able to boast about its revolutionary “centralized computer reservations system.” When guests arrived at Walt Disney World’s Main Entrance Complex, they would give their name to the host or hostess who would then alert the Polynesian front desk that they had arrived. Pre-printed check-in information would be waiting, and the guests would be greeted by name, registered, and personally guided to their room. This same computer system allowed the resort’s Cast Members to reserve dining, golf tee times, other recreational activities, and even car rentals on behalf of guests.
10. The directional, marquee, and longhouse signage originally found throughout the resort as well as a number of artistic pieces and tikis were hand-carved by Robert Van Oosting and LeRoy Schmalts of Oceanic Arts. They are also credited with contributing a number of carvings throughout EPCOT, including the 35 foot-tall totem pole in the Canada Pavilion.
Construction photos copyright Disney. Lead image and tiki sculpture photo from the author’s personal collection.