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Walt Disney World Architecture in Real Life – The Gasparilla Inn

By: Kendall Foreman

A photo showing the exterior of Gasparilla Island Grill at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa

It’s around the turn-of-the-century, say, somewhere between 1890 and 1910. America’s well-to-do, the corporate moguls, the shipping magnates, the famous and the infamous prepare for the annual winter migration to the land of endless sunshine. Led by the likes of John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, and even President Theodore Roosevelt, this glittering troupe embark on their yearly trek in search of respite from winter’s wrath.

“Something’s New,” Anne Okey, Disney News magazine

Those words written in 1988 to excite readers about Walt Disney World’s upcoming luxury hotel, the Grand Floridian Beach Resort, could just as easily serve to describe another set of accommodations found on Florida’s Boca Grande.

The Gasparilla Inn was originally known as the Hotel Boca Grande and was built by the Boca Grande Land Company. The two-story building opened for the 1911-1912 season but only for the land company’s visiting directors. This original structure was a Frame Vernacular style, which is a design type using locally sourced materials and reflects the area’s traditions. With its 20 guest rooms, the inn very quickly began to draw visitors to the small island off the coast of eastern Florida – so much so that it took only one season for the company officers to initiate plans to expand.

Now re-designed in the Queen Anne style, the newly renovated hotel was renamed The Gasparilla Inn, and with its new moniker, it welcomed an enlarged list of clientele. Over the next decade, it saw a number of expansions to both its structure and grounds which served to elevate the resort’s status among the northern elite. According to The Gasparilla Inn’s recorded history, the inn welcomed notable guests such as J.P. Morgan, Henry DuPont, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and John Singer Sargent, among others.

In 1930, The Gasparilla Inn and grounds were sold to Barron Collier (who Collier County in Florida is named after). At that time, the façade of the resort was redesigned in a Neoclassical style. With its wide steps and grand pillars, it is this imposing entrance that still welcomes guests today, almost a century later.

But what does this island getaway have to do with Walt Disney World?

Upon learning the history of The Gasparilla Inn, it is plain to see how this hotel, and others like it, served as thematic source material for Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. However, this oasis in Boca Grande served as more than just a nonmaterial inspiration. Its exterior appearance is actually represented on the grounds of Disney’s flagship resort.

A photo showing the Neoclassical and Victorian architectural influences present in the entrance to the Gasparilla Island Grill

Gasparilla Island Grill is a quick-service dining location that can be found on the ground-level, marina-side of Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. The combination of the resort’s Queen Anne/American Victorian architectural style and the restaurant’s Neoclassical stately façade creates an undeniable association between it and the Boca Grande inn. (Click here to see The Gasparilla Inn for comparison!) Design choices within the eatery also evoke the inviting combination of open-airiness and luxury that is present within The Gasparilla Inn.

A photo of the interior of Gasparilla Island Grill at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa

It is just such qualities that lured guests to Boca Grande seeking a laid-back reprieve from the harsh winters of the north, and it is fascinating to see how this real-world location served as an inspiration for an oft overlooked (but quite delicious!) Walt Disney World eatery.

Photos courtesy of Melanie Whitfield.

Kendall has been a member of the WDW Radio Team since 2013. Today, you can read her work on the WDW Radio Blog or hear her join Lou for a number of WDW Radio podcast episodes. Kendall’s affection for Walt Disney World began with her very first family visit in the 1990s and has continued with each magical vacation since. Follow her on Twitter @kl_foreman.