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"Everything by Design" offers a detailed look at the development of Disney World's never-built Mediterranean Village Resort

"Everything by Design" offers a detailed look at the development of Disney World's never-built Mediterranean Village Resort

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Jody R. tossed me a note over this past weekend, praising last Tuesday's "Building Tall" story, saying that ...

... it's articles like this that keep me coming back to Jim Hill Media, that keep me listening to that podcast you do with Len Testa. Your ability to continually uncover pieces of information about the Disney Company that I had never heard before.

Thanks for your kind words, Jody. But to be honest, I'm not the only one out there who's doing this sort of stuff. Have you seen the stories that Todd James Pierce has been posting lately over on the Disney History Institute website? Pierce's recent piece about that California Living project which Walt wanted to build right next door to Disneyland in the early 1960s is not to be missed. And the same goes for Todd's terrific "Walt Disney and Riverboat Square" series.


Copyright Disney History Institute. All rights reserved

Whenever we get together at various Disney functions (If I'm remembering correctly, the last time I saw Mr. Pierce in person was at that Destination D - Disneyland 55 event which D23 staged at the Disneyland Hotel back in September of 2010), Todd and I compare notes about stories we've heard (we share a fascination for "The Master Builder of Disneyland," wheeler-dealer extraordinaire C.V. Wood). And what Mr. Pierce & I have both noticed is that -- often -- the very best stories about The Walt Disney Company can often be found in books or magazine articles that aren't really about the Mouse.

Case in point: "Everything by Design: My Life as an Architect " (St. Martin's Press, October 2007) by Alan Lapidus. Nowadays, Alan is probably best known as the guy who designed the Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City and/or the Broadway Crowne Plaza in Manhattan. Or -- better yet -- for being the son of architecture legend Morris Lapidus, who designed the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach.

Now strictly judging a book by its cover, at first glance, you wouldn't think that "Everything by Design" wouldn't have a lot to offer Disney history buffs. But that's where you'd be wrong. You see, Alan had a hand in designing the Mediterranean Village Resort, a themed hotel for the Walt Disney World Resort whose main claim to fame (at least among Mouse House history buff) is that this project never quite made it off Disney's drawing boards.


Copyright St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved

But just because the Mediterranean Village Resort (which was supposed to have built alongside Seven Seas Lagoon near the Ticket & Transportation) never made it past the blueprint & model phase doesn't mean that this proposed Disney World hotel doesn't have a fascinating history. Which -- to hear Alan tell the tale -- began with a ...

... phone call ... from Mouse Central.

It came in 1979, when the Walt Disney Company was about to start planning a new eight-hundred-room theme hotel at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The hotel would be the first new one in the park since it opened eight years earlier, and Disney executives had decided to look outside from Disney headquarters in Glendale, California, wanted to know whether I would be interested in making a presentation to the board of directors.


Proposed construction location for Disney's Mediterranean Resort

Youbetcha!

Disney's new resort was to be called the Mediterranean Village. I was handed a site plan and the program -- meaning, how many rooms, suites, restaurants, conference and meeting rooms and the like there were to be. I was also given many photos of the site itself, showing a parcel of totally unremarkable middle Florida land. No one mentioned a budget.

I also had to sign one of the oddest legal documents of my career, which stated that I could never let anyone know that I had designed this structure; I could not use it in my brochure or in any form of publicity. The Mouse had its own architectural license, and all the documents would list the architect as WED Engineering. In short, I was to be a nonentity. The company would even provide me with preprinted sheets of drawing paper, identifying WED Engineering as the architect, which I would use to produce the construction documents. This policy was reversed several years later, during the Eisner regime, when Disney decided to start publicizing its hiring of prominent outside architects.


Copyright Disney Enteprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Lapidus had worked for some large corporations (Not to mention some colorful characters. These included Bob Guccione, Aristole Onassis, and Donald Trump) before. But none of his previous work experience had prepared him for the way that The Walt Disney Company (at least back in the late 1970s) did business. Alan was absolutely fascinated by the Mouse's sky's-the-limit / anything-is-possible approach to the project. Which became clear from Lapidus' very first meeting ...

... with John Hench and a couple of talented young architects from WED Engineering. At our first session, I asked which type of Mediterranean architecture they were thinking of -- Spanish Mediterranean, Greek Mediterranean, Italian Mediterranean? John Hench looked at me with an amused gleam in his eye, laced his finger together, turned his palms out, extended his arms, and replied in an amused tone, "Alan, we want Disney Mediterranean!"

"John, if I am doing a Mediterranean Village, it really should be a sort of fishing village."


Disney Legend John Hench. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

"I think so too."

"But then we have to have a seaport."

"Absolutely."

"But a seaport has to have a sea."

"We'll build one."

"And a fleet of colorful fishing boats."

An assistant was soon on hand with several books of pictures of colorful Mediterranean-type fishing vessels.


Marty Sklar (L) and John Hench at WED Enterprises back in the 1970s.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"You pick them and we'll build them."

"How about some windmills?"

Books of windmills were produced.

This was fun!

During this whole process, no one ever mentioned a budget. And no idea was ever dismissed as being impractical, unattainable, or undoable. In those days, Disney truly was a world to itself, an asylum run by the inmates.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Working within The Walt Disney Company's truly unique design parameters, Alan began dummying out the Mediterranean Village.

The resort began to take shape as a series of streets with multicolored waterfront "houses" (actually, rows of hotel rooms of various heights). There was a waterfront walkway with a mosaic serpentine design, a harbor entrance with a lighthouse, windmills, a breakwater, a marketplace, olive groves, and trellis-cover walkways leading to streets of "tavernas," market squares, and many hidden courtyards with a variety of fountains and outside cafes.

Doesn't that sound like a terrific place to stay. So why didn't Disney go forward with construction of the Mediterranean Village? Well, as it turns out, a similar sort of project was being prepped for a piece of property on the other side of Seven Seas Lagoon


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

During the course of my work (on the Mediterranean Village), I observed the Imagineers designing a companion hotel to mine. It was just as large, and it looked great. Called the Grand Floridian, it was quite a bit more elaborate, with such inside architectural reference as the Addison Meisner Room, in honor of an architect who established the classic 1920s Palm Beach architecture that symbolized the good life to the F. Scott Fitzgerald generation. Meisner was not exactly a household name, but it would be perpetuated by some very clever folks.

Seven months after I began, my design for the hotel was finished and Disney enthusiastically approved it.

It never got built.


Then newly-installed Disney CEO Michael Eisner
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

After Michael Eisner took over as CEO in 1984, it was a whole new ballgame. The people I had been working with told me Eisner had decided to delay the Mediterranean Village until the Grand Floridian was up and running and ad a year or so to demonstrate whether it would be a success. No one ever told me the village project wasn't going forward, just that it was being put on hold. Two or three years later, by the time the Grand Floridian had opened and started performing well, the Mediterranean Village had long since been forgotten.

Which had to have been frustrating for Alan. Both on a professional & personal level. But on the other hand, Lapidus had some very memorable experiences at the Walt Disney World Resort while he was on property doing onsite survey work for the Mediterranean Village project:

After many months, while I was attending some meetings in Florida, someone up the chain of command judged that I was worthy of being let in on the innermost secret of the Magic Kingdom. Like a mother who has decided to tell her pubescent daughter about sex, Dick Vermillion announced that he had authorization to show me "the tunnels." Trembling with excitement, I was led around to the back of the park, to what looked like a hole in the side of a large earthen mound. Once we passed the security checkpoint, my jaw dropped. There was a world beneath the World: an underground city straight out of a science fiction film.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

The first thing I saw were three Goofy characters walking side by side. In the (tunnels), a fleet of maintenance trucks constantly cruised along. Since the roof of this structure was actually the subfloor of the park, all of the piping, electrical conduits, sewer lines, and other utilities were hung in plain view of the repair vehicles. All these lines were being constantly monitored, inspected, maintained, fixed or replaced from below, so nothing disturbed the peace and tranquility of the kingdom up above.

(Just above the tunnels), a vast network of hidden entrances to the park was concealed in various aboveground structures and landscape features. This is why you never see any of the employees go on break. Mickey or Goofy or Donald ducks into a building and then quickly reappears -- except it's a new Mickey or Goofy or Donald. The setup also makes it possible for emergency vehicles to reach any part of the complex unseen by the vacationeers above. A medical emergency can be attended to swiftly, without the ambulance having to navigate through the crowds or alarm the kiddies. I was dumbfounded.

"Dick, this is the most brilliant piece of urban planning I have ever seen. Why hasn't the company shown this as an example of what is possible?"


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

He looked at me as he would at a slow child. "Alan, this is the Magic Kingdom, and magicians never give away their secrets."

This is why I strongly suggest you pick up a copy of "Everything by Design: My Life as an Architect." Alan Lapidus (who's an absolutely magician of a memoirist) isn't afraid when it comes to revealing secrets. Especially The Walt Disney Company's secret.

I mean, in what other book are you going to be able to read about that time when construction mogul  John L. Tishman (best known in Disneyana fan circles as the guy who supervised the construction of EPCOT Center for Tishman Realty & Construction) ...


(L to R) Michael Graves, John L. Tishman, Micheal Eisner and Frank Wells check out
the model for the Dolphin & the Swan hotels. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

... sued Disney! For $2 billion! Not only did (Tishman) sue (The Walt Disney Company), but he also brought a RICO charge. RICO is the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, originally enacted by Congress in 1970 as a tool to use against organized crime ... The possibility that the Mouse would become a convicted felon was enough to bring Eisner back to the table.

 

This is the sort of juicy stuff that you'll only be able to find in a book like "Everything by Design." Which offers some really great insights & observations on The Walt Disney Company and how it operates all because this really isn't supposed to be a book about the Mouse. So go pick up a copy if you're looking for a juicy, business-related Summer read.

 

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  • "The resort began to take shape as a series of streets with multicolored waterfront "houses" (actually, rows of hotel rooms of various heights). There was a waterfront walkway with a mosaic serpentine design, a harbor entrance with a lighthouse, windmills, a breakwater, a marketplace, olive groves, and trellis-cover walkways leading to streets of "tavernas," market squares, and many hidden courtyards with a variety of fountains and outside cafes."

    Sounds very much like the Mira Costa resort at Tokyo Disney Sea, the most incredible place I've stayed in my life so far.

  • Great article! I love reading about behind-the-scenes stuff at WDW, especially the 70's and 80's.

  • I went on the Backstage Magic Tour some years ago, believe it or not on the day after 9/11. Anyway during the tour our guide mentioned that the real reason nothing was or has ever been built on the site is that the ground is unstable. The sank pilings into the ground to test it and sank is what they did. Oh yeah the tour took us to view the Utilidoor complex, quite extensively during the tour, including seeing "DACS", the command center that controls most everything in the Magic Kingdom. Post 9/11 I hear this part has been placed off limits to tour groups. One other note our guide insisted  they weren't "tunnels" that they were actually above ground and that the Magic Kingdom made up the second story of the complex. He pointed out how we had to drive "uphill" to reach the entrance. During the tour we saw the same map you posted with the word "Tunnel" and kidded him about it.

  • Jim,

    Isn’t that picture of the model actually from Antoine Predock’s later design for the Mediteran Resort?

    EDITOR'S NOTE: You know, you may be right. As I was dropping this image into the article, I was noticing that Ladipus' description of what his Mediterranean Village Hotel was supposed to look like didn't match at all what the model looked like. And then there was the copyright on the photo on the model. Which said that it was 1990.

    Let me send a note to someone at WDI who'd know for sure about this. As soon as I hear back about whether or not I'm using the right version of the Mediterranean Village Hotel to illustrate this article, I'll duck back into this article, okay? And -- if I have to -- make the necessary corrections, alright?

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