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Disney’s Contemporary Resort — A Walt Disney World Icon at 50

Disney’s Contemporary Resort – courtesy of John Roe

–John Roe, WDW Radio Team

It’s October 1, 1971, and Walt Disney World is about to open its gates to its first guests. On a warm and muggy fall day the Walt Disney World ferry is loading for its trip across Seven Seas Lagoon, and the Walt Disney World Monorail is living up to the billing of the “Highway in the Sky.” As guests catch their first glimpses of Cinderella Castle, a futuristic A-frame building rises between the shores of Bay Lake on the east and Seven Seas Lagoon on the west. The striking building has always captured imaginations with its soaring atrium, classic artwork and most distinctly, the monorail that passes through the building, with a station on the fourth floor.

With its proximity to the Magic Kingdom and instantly recognizable shape, Disney’s Contemporary Resort was considered the flagship hotel for the resort. As such, the hotel was expected to have all the services that a guest could need — including a jewelry store, formal wear rental, full liquor store (with the great name of The Spirit World), beauty salon and barber shop, an arcade, and all the related sundries and food shops. While many still consider it to be the premier hotel on property, with the opening of Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa in 1988 Walt Disney World’s flagship quietly shifted.

The property originally consisted of three buildings – the iconic A-frame along with North and South Garden Wings. In 2009, the North Garden Wing was demolished and replaced by the Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, a Disney Vacation Club resort. 

Not only is the outside structure eye catching, but the inside was also built with memorable features. The Mary Blair mural located throughout the Grand Concourse is 90 feet tall, consists of 18,000 hand-painted tiles, and showcases Blair’s artwork to lend a certain timelessness to the hotel. The mural also features signatures of Mary Blair and the artists who assisted on the mural — one of the few places in WDW where the art is signed.

When it opened, the resort was home to multiple restaurants. Top of the World restaurant required formal attire for guests — jackets for men and dresses or skirts for women — and was the pinnacle of dining at Walt Disney World with dinner shows and fine dining. Located in the Grand Canyon concourse, Grand Canyon Terrace and Grand Canyon Terrace Cafe were available for meals throughout the day. And guests could unwind at the only bar on Walt Disney World property — the Monorail Club Car

Throughout the years, these restaurants have changed names and themes, and today guests can enjoy meals at the following restaurants:

  • California Grill – with outstanding views of Magic Kingdom fireworks on the 15th floor
  • Steakhouse 71 – a recent addition, replacing The Wave, packed with Walt’s favorites and full of nods and photos of Walt, and drawings of early concepts of the hotel.
  • Chef Mickey’s – dining with characters all-you-care-to-eat style in the Grand Canyon concourse
  • Contempo Cafe – rounds out the dining options as the hotels quick service outlet

There are also several lounges located throughout the Contemporary Tower and Bay Lake Tower, with Villain’s Lair opening atop Bay Lake Tower to Disney Vacation Club guests in summer 2022.

Other facts about the Contemporary Resort:

  • The hotel was intended to be named Tempo Bay Resort, but Roy O. Disney insisted it be changed back to its working name — the Contemporary. I think we’re all glad he did.
  • President Richard M. Nixon’s famous “I am not a crook” speech was given here on November 17, 1973, in the Ballroom of the Americas. He resigned the presidency less than a year later under pressure due to the Watergate investigation of criminal wrongdoing in his administration.
  • When the Magic Kingdom first opened, there was a path from Tomorrowland that led directly back to the Contemporary Resort. This was in keeping with the initial design of Walt Disney World that the Seven Seas Lagoon hotels were meant to be in physical orientation to the lands they were most closely associated with.
  • The hotel’s rooms were assembled off site and then “slid” into place when the A-frame was complete, but contrary to legend, they were never designed to be “slid” out and replaced.
  • Disney’s Contemporary Resort is one of Lou’s favorite resorts, where he stayed many times as a child, traveled the monorail many hours, and spent many quarters in the Fiesta Fun Center. The Fiesta Fun Center was a large arcade with video games, skee-ball, a theater, and a shooting gallery — all decorated in colors that defined 1970’s design. To the dismay of many, this was replaced by The Wave in 2008, and the arcade moved to the fourth floor, renamed Game Station.
  • There are at least four different episodes of WDW Radio featuring the Contemporary in some way and several YouTube videos. Episodes include:
    • #370 – Extinct Restaurants of Walt Disney World
    • #472 – Contempo Cafe Live Dining Review
    • #485 – Top Ten Secrets and Stories of Disney’s Contemporary Resort
    • # 654 – Live Review of Steakhouse 71 at Disney’s Contemporary Resort

In 2021, the original Contemporary Tower and Garden Wing underwent a renovation and update to Incredibles theming, reinforcing the hotel’s modern, mid-century aesthetic.

Do you have a special memory or experience of Disney’s Contemporary Resort? Share it with us in the comments, or in The WDW Radio Clubhouse group on Facebook!

John grew up a fan of Disney movies, and came to love the Disney Parks as a father. His first visits were to Disneyland in 1985 and Walt Disney World in 1990, and visited a few times over the years with his family. One of his children joined the Disney College Program in 2017, which encouraged his love of Walt Disney World. In the years since, John and his family have visited Walt Disney World many times, even running the Wine and Dine Half Marathon in 2021. Along the way, John found WDW Radio and was thrilled to become one of Lou’s WDW Radio Clubhouse friends, always seeking to Choose the Good. John and his wife Beth relocated to Orlando from Tulsa, OK, in summer 2022. They’re proud parents of four Disney-loving kids and six grandchildren.