One of the most frequent questions asked of Mouseketrips staff members by first-time Walt Disney World visitors is whether to pay the premium rates required to stay in one of the Disney resorts on property or select an off-site hotel and save quite a bit of money. Our response, being the Disney dweebs we are, is always to present the guest with the many advantages of staying in a Disney hotel. As anyone who has ever stayed on-site at Walt Disney World can attest, Disney is a first-class hotelier and operates some of the most distinctive and luxurious properties in the world. There's just something about being immersed in the Disney "magic" 24 hours per day that makes a stay in a Walt Disney World resort hotel worth the extra price.
Disney's monorail resorts, the Grand Floridian, Contemporary, and Polynesian resorts were examined in previous articles here on JHM. Certainly these resorts can be held up as some of the finest ever created by the Walt Disney Company. However, imagine a Walt Disney World in which the Grand Floridian is not the flagship resort or in which it doesn't even exist. Imagine being able to explore the lands, culture, and cuisine of Asia, ancient Persia, and Italy with just a short journey around Seven Seas Lagoon. Now imagine a world in which Disney, now a respected and revered name in the lodging industry, doesn't operate any hotels at all. It all almost happened. In this article we'll examine the Disney resorts that almost-but-never-were and other lesser-known facts of Disney's fabled hotel operations.
We've already discussed the very-nearly-built Asian Resort in a prior article on the Grand Floridian. The Asian was one of the original five resorts planned for Walt Disney World during its initial construction phase, and was to have been built on the site now occupied by the Grand Floridian. Economics, a travel slump, and the changing tastes of a new management team all added to the demise of the Asian.
The Venetian Resort was one of the other original hotels planned but never built. Long before the red-gabled roofs of the Grand Floridian took top spot in the WDW hotel hierarchy, the Venetian was to have been the crown jewel of all Disney resort properties. Ultra-luxurious and appointed with only the finest furnishings and décor, the Venetian was to have been the very finest lodging experience offered by a Walt Disney World property.
Originally planned to be located on the monorail line between the Contemporary and the Transportation and Ticket Center, the Venetian would have consisted of a 6-story central building housing the lobby, shops, select rooms and suites, and a signature restaurant. Guest rooms would have been located in a collection of two and three story buildings arranged between the main building and the shores of Seven Seas Lagoon. These buildings, constructed to resemble villas from several different regions of Italy, would have surrounded a large central plaza complete with reflecting pools and fountains. Guest buildings in the Venice section of the resort would have been complete with canals and gondola transportation.
Sadly, the only component of this resort to see the light of day, at least to this point, is the bell tower originally included in the architectural drawings. This beautiful tower, which would have been built on the shoreline at the edge of the central plaza, would have been the signature landmark of the Venetian resort visible from all around Seven Seas Lagoon. As with most things at Disney, good ideas are not long left to languish, and this magnificent bell tower was constructed largely unchanged from the original concept at the entrance to the Italy pavilion in the World Showcase at Epcot.
The land on which the Venetian was to have been build continues to be a source of rumor and speculation to this day. For several months in the mid-1990s it looked as if the Venetian or something similar was finally going to take shape on the site. Ground clearing began, survey crews began staking the property, and construction equipment was seen navigating the property. However, as suddenly as it began all activity on the site quietly ceased several months later, and the ground has remained untouched ever since.
The last of the five original Walt Disney World resorts was to have been the Persian Resort. This resort was planned for a site on the shores of Bay Lake directly north of the Contemporary and east of the Magic Kingdom. One set of original drawings shows a monorail spur serving the resort although it is unclear whether this was to have been an additional spur or an extension or relocation of the current spur running to the monorail storage barns.
The Persian resort would have been a visually stunning resort with bright white walls topped by blue and gold colored onion-shaped domes. The Persian would have been laid out in a circular theme, with the central focal point being the circular 4-story central building. Walls would have been constructed using repeating archways, a significant element of Persian architecture. The central building would have been dominated by a 2-story tall dome, and would have housed the reception area, lobby, shops, and restaurants.
Guest rooms were to have been located in buildings radiating out from the central building in two concentric rings. The inner buildings would have been two stories in height, and the outside ring buildings would be single story. Careful attention was to be paid to the authenticity of the Persian architecture with the inclusion of domes, arches, gateways, an elevated central structure, and meticulously maintained gardens.
Even if all of these wonderful resorts had been built, they came within a whisker of having been operated by someone other than the Walt Disney Company. Shortly after Michael Eisner and Frank Wells took over the reins of the company it was decided to turn the operation of all of Disney's resort hotels over to an organization more experienced in the hospitality industry. That company? None other than the Marriott Corporation, the giant worldwide hotel conglomerate.
Long before most of the newer resorts we all know and love now at Walt Disney World were constructed, a faction within the company was pushing Eisner and Wells to enter into a partnership with Marriott that would allow Marriott to build, maintain, and manage all new resort hotels on WDW property. Eisner and Wells even flew to Washington, D.C. to meet with Bill Marriott, then head of the Marriott Corporation. Although impressed with Marriott's knowledge and expertise in the hotel industry, Eisner left unimpressed with the creativity and imagination of the Marriott organization. Worried that it would be difficult to have the businesslike Marriott Corporation build and manage the unorthodox and unusual themed resorts required by Disney, the deal was called off. All resort development was to stay in-house and be directed by the newly-created Disney Development Company. The rest, as they say, is history.
And just how unorthodox and unusual are we talking about? Would you believe that the idea for a Mickey Mouse-shaped hotel was once considered for a brief time? Not only that, but the concept as presented would have had Mickey's feet straddling Buena Vista Street near the Disney Studios in Burbank, with one foot on the east side of the street and the other on the west side. While ultimately determined to be too impractical, especially when the problem of elevator location in such a structure was raised, the concept demonstrates the unique position of Disney in the hotel industry.
Fortunately for us all, good things appear to be in store for Disney resorts, both present and future. The Polynesian, Port Orleans French Quarter, and Shades of Green resorts have all recently undergone extensive refurbishments. Port Orleans Riverside begins its renovation process this spring. Disney's newest resort, Saratoga Springs, is scheduled to open in May.
In addition, resort bookings for the remainder of 2004 are reportedly running significantly ahead of projections. With this increased demand for Disney lodging and an apparent economic recovery developing, rumors of resort expansions and an all-new moderate-level resort are re-surfacing and appear to have some validity. We will, of course, let you know as soon as we uncover new information and verify some of what's being said. Enjoy your stay until then, okay?