Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa is one of the flagship resorts at the Walt Disney World Resort. It’s an elegant, romantic turn-of-the-century resort, however when the resort was originally being planned Disney had another resort in mind.
When Project X (as the Walt Disney World Resort was originally called) – later on The Florida Project – was being planned in the late 1960s, five luxury resort hotels were to be built around the Magic Kingdom. They were the Contemporary Resort, the Polynesian Village Resort and an Asian, Venetian and Persian-themed resort. According to the website Widen Your World, “As far back as 1967, there were published mentioned of hotels with South Seas and Cape Cod leanings.” The Contemporary and the Polynesian were scheduled to open in 1971 and the other three were scheduled to open, based on demand, within the next five years.
“Walt planted the seed for the idea of themed hotels around the lake,” said Wing Chao, former Executive Vice President of Walt Disney Imagineering and Vice Chairman of Development Disney Parks and Resorts. “He wanted Polynesia, contemporary, Persia, Asia, or Venice.”
Early construction maps and images show the Polynesian Village Resort and the Contemporary Resort Hotels in the same location as they are today. The Persian-themed resort would have been located on a plot of land north of the Contemporary Resort Hotel and east of Tomorrowland. The Venetian-themed resort would have been located between the Ticket and Transpiration Center and the Contemporary Resort Hotel and the Asian-themed resort was to be built between the Polynesian Village Resort and the Magic Kingdom.
The Asian-resort was part of the original master plan for the Walt Disney World Resort. During construction of the resort, Disney was so sure they were going to move forward with this resort they set aside a square-shaped plot of land set on the northwest shore of the Seven Seas Lagoon.
Inspired by Thailand, the resort would have had Thai furnishings and décor, as well as a range of cuisines from a variety of areas throughout the region. Initially planned as a 600-room resort (50 rooms would have been ‘elegant suites in royal Thai décor’), the Asian Resort would have had a large, square center main building with 200 guest rooms and surrounding three sides of the main building, square blocks of guest rooms, that would accommodate 400 additional guest rooms. Interestingly, the resort would have had extensive convention facilities, which were to be located separately and underneath the resort.
According to the Walt Disney Productions’ 1972 Annual Report, “Since opening day, the demand for accommodations throughout central Florida has exceeded the supply. On site, our two themed resort-hotels, the Contemporary and the Polynesian Village, operated at near 100% capacity all year long … Recognizing that the public will always to prefer to stay within the ‘Vacation Kingdom’ site, the Company will soon begin architectural work on a third theme resort, the 500-room Asian Hotel. Construction is planned for 1974, with the formal opening to take place late that year.” Notice Disney reduced the number of rooms from 600 to 500.
Although several models and detailed elevation drawings of the Asian Resort were made, construction never moved forward. The widely accepted reason for this was blamed on the 1973 oil crisis. Many guests were not driving or willing to pay higher airline fares. Tourism to Orlando – and in general – was down. Since off-property accommodations declined, Disney wanting to be a good neighbor, delayed building any additional on-property hotels. In his book, Realityland: True-Life Adventures at Walt Disney World, author David Koenig however tells a different story. He writes, “Disney also thought it could relieve some of the pressure from the hotels by expanding. A lack of time and – after buying out U.S. Steel – money prevented proceeding with the original plan of next building the elaborate Asian hotel.”
The Grand Floridian Beach Resort Takes Shape
For almost twenty years, as guests glided past in Disney’s Highway in the Sky, that square plot of ground remained empty. Then in 1984, Michael Eisner took over as CEO. Although many attribute the building of the Grand Floridian Resort to Eisner – and rightfully so – plans for the resort were in place well before Eisner’s arrival. “… work was continuing on a luxury hotel called the Grand Floridian, which had been conceived before Frank and I joined the company and was designed largely by our own Imagineers and the firm of Wimberly, Allison, Tong & Goo,” writes Eisner in his 1988 autobiography Work In Progress.
Alan Lapidus, a renowned architect, said that while he was working on the Mediterranean Resort and Village he noticed Disney Imagineers “designing a companion hotel” to his. He says, “It was just as large, and it looked great. Called the Grand Floridian, it was quite a bit more elaborate, with such inside architectural references as the Addison Mizner Room, in honor of an architect who established the classic 1920s Palm Beach architecture …” Lapidus said that he finished his design in seven months and Disney approved it. “After Michael Eisner took over as CEO in 1984,” writes Lapidus, “it was a whole new ball game. The people I had been working with at Disney told me Eisner had decided to delay the Mediterranean Village until the Grand Floridian was up and running and had a year or so to demonstrate whether it would be a success.” Needless to say it was a success and Lapidus’s Mediterranean Resort was shelved away.
In anticipation of the Asian resort opening, Disney named the road that led from a service area north of the Magic Kingdom, past the resort, down to the Car Care Center – Asian Way. The road remained Asian Way until 1986 when it was renamed Floridian Way.
Like the Contemporary the Polynesian Village Resort Hotels, the Asian resort was positioned to serve as an extended backdrop to the Magic Kingdom. The Contemporary aligns with Tomorrowland and the Polynesian Village Resort aligns with Adventureland, as would have the Asian resort. Today, the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa serves as the backdrop for Main Street U.S.A. and the train station (although some say this school of thought was abandoned in the early 1980s).
Wimberly Whisenand Allison Tong & Goo (WWATG) – now WATG, were the architects working with Disney Imagineering on designing the Grand Floridian Resort. They were awarded the commission because of their past work with Disney [They have also designed hotels at Euro Disneyland – now Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland]. Talking with principals Mike Chun and Chuck Corwin, I learned that it was their firm that designed the Asian Resort. “Disney had previously created a concept for an Asian themed resort,” said Mike Chun. “WWATG had designed this resort. Eventually Disney changed the theme and provided the vision and direction for a resort that would reflect the character of the grand old hotels of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.”
“WWATG based our work on the concept selected by Disney,” said Chuck Corwin. “We designed the layout of the project and developed the character and the refinement of the detailing for the building. This [the Grand Floridian Resort] was also the first project for the Disney Development Co. (DDC), rather than Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI).”
Designing the Resort
The WWATG Design Team was led by Design Principal Jerry Allison, who passed away in April 2011, Don Fairweather, Administrative Principal; Mike Chun, who moved into the Administrative Principal role early on during the design of the resort; Chuck Corwin, Senior Designer and Jim Loft, project designer. And of course, Michael Eisner. Although he was active behind the scenes, according to WATG, he was not directly involved in the design process.
The design process for the Grand Floridian Beach Resort started with the Disney Development Co. providing a ‘vision document’ to the architects. “This ‘vision document’ from which the design evolved … is an ongoing process that involved numerous design review meetings” said Chun. “The ideas that Disney provided had to be adapted for the site and modified relative to the project requirements.”
Following Disney’s “vision document,” WATG’s design work was also influenced by their extensive research. “The team visited a number of example hotels, bought books on Victorian architecture, in particular the architecture of San Francisco,” said Corwin. “Remember, the web did not exist back then, so we had to identify and track down appropriate resources.”
Many people see the Grand Floridian and assume that it is a replica of the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, California. However, the design of the resort is influenced by a number of other renowned historic resort hotels. In addition to the Del Coronado, the Mount Washington Resort in New Hampshire also had an influence, as well as “The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan, the Belleview Biltmore [in] Clearwater, Florida, [as well as] the look and detailing of Victorian Houses and building[s] in San Francisco,” said Chun. “The Del Coronado had an interesting overall appearance, but lacked good detailing, in our approach we developed much more refined details for the GFR.”
In newspaper and magazine advertisements Disney promoted The Grand Floridian Beach Resort as “the most luxurious [hotel] on Disney property … where guests can “journey back to the turn-of-the-century … to another time and another place.” The backstory that Disney had made up said that the Grand Floridian’s “Bright white towers and gabled roofs echo the Victorian architectural influence that has come to symbolize Florida’s carefree winters and balmy summer nights.” According to WATG, “The Grand Floridian Resort reflected the era of the railroad magnates who built new rail routes to Florida, with a large ‘grand’ hotel at the terminus of the line.”
Although the 40 acres, which was intended for the Asian resort, was prepped and waiting for something to be built, it still presented some construction challenges. “The major issue was the soil conditions,” said Corwin. “The land was very wet and swampy, which is typical for soil and water table conditions in Florida and Walt Disney World. The site required thousands of cubic yards of fill that had to be carefully applied in layers so that it would not settle too rapidly.”
The existing monorail also posed a number of challenges. Like Disney’s Wilderness Lodge Resort a modern, futuristic monorail passing by a very period styled resort would be jarring, but unlike the Wilderness Lodge there was no way to hide the view of the monorail from the resort. According to Jeff Kurtti in Since The World Began: Walt Disney World The First 25 Years, “The designers decided that a Victorian train station was in keeping with the reference to [Henry] Flagler, who extended Florida’s rail lines.”
WATG’s Chuck Corwin said, “The biggest issue the monorail posed for us was keeping the construction workers safe from the high voltage power lines mounted along the tracks. Also, during construction, Disney swapped out the monorail cars for new, wider ones. As the building was already under construction, the columns at the platform level had to be offset to accommodate the wider cars.”
Mike Chun of WATG said that there were no construction delays because “Rooney Enterprises Inc., the contractor, were experienced and prepared for a complex project such as this.” He did say there was one big change during construction, “DDC wanted to have more rooms. Jerry Allison suggested using the space in the attic to obtain more keys [guest rooms] without increasing the building area/footprint. This was a highly imaginative and ground-breaking idea, resulting in unique guestrooms that remain very desirable to this day.”
Construction for the resort was on a fast track basis. A good deal of the work had been done years ago and the site work and foundations began well before the documentation was completed. Groundbreaking took place on April 23, 1986 and according to WATG, the construction process was between 20-24 months.
“The hotels that influenced the design [of the Grand Floridian] were mostly constructed from wood,” said Chuck Corwin. “However, wood is not a material that stand up well to the severe weather conditions of Florida. The challenge was to make a big building that was not constructed out of wood, but looked like it was! We utilized aluminum siding (no longer that 12 feet long – equal to wood length), epoxy paint, and various other alternative materials. Actual wood was used in areas where the guests could get close and/or touch the walls. The wood siding was milled to match the shape and size of the aluminum siding.”
“When we were starting to develop the architectural design intent details,” said Chun, “Pete Wimberly (one of the firm’s founders) stopped by the design studio and said ‘What are you guys doing?’ They replied, ‘Working on the details’ to which he replied, ‘How in the hell are you doing to design the details at that scale? You need to draw them full size.’ And that is what they did. [They] taped together large sheets of butcher paper in order to hand draw the exterior wall profiles, decorative columns, window sills & surrounds and corniche details.”
WATG worked very closely with Wing Chao at the Walt Disney Company on the design and construction of the Grand Floridian. Chao was their primary point of contact and “was the driving force on the Disney team.” Wing also knew how to work with the internal politics of the Disney organization,” said Chun. “He had a strong sense of design and was very involved in the process. He was demanding, but fair and he respected the abilities and input of our design team.”
In Work In Progress, Eisner writes, “In October 1985, we asked Wing Chao to put together a presentation. When we walked into Imagineering, we were stunned. Wing’s team had created two completely finished model rooms, including beds and bedspreads, bureaus and night tables, carpeting, light fixtures, bathroom towel racks, door handles, even art on the walls – all designed around the hotel’s turn-of-the-century Victorian theme. These were vastly more attractive hotel rooms than I’d ever see in a Marriott or a Hilton or a Sheraton, and they’d been produced on short notice for a reasonable budget by a creative group new to hotel design. Frank and I were awed, and made a final decision on the spot.”
Chun and Corwin said that these kind of mock up rooms are a very common aspect of hospitality design and construction. “They provide the opportunity for the Interior Designer to ‘mock-up’ all the finishes, furniture and accessories and to review these with the owner to obtain their approval prior to proceeding with procuring all of these items. The contractor will also often use the mock-up rooms to test building systems and construction related issues.”
WATG was also involved in the design of the Grand Floridian’s Convention Center and the resort’s popular Wedding Pavilion, both of which were added after the completion of the resort. However they were not involved in designing the Grand Floridian’s DVC property.