Amazing Facts about Walt Disney World Hotels
As Walt Disney World turns 50, we should take some time to appreciate its impeccable resorts.
When Disneyland opened, Walt Disney regrettably chose to give away the idea of Disneyland Hotel to someone else.
The company would NOT make that mistake again, as Magic Kingdom opened with two nearby resorts.
Here are nine amazing facts about Walt Disney World hotels and their employees that you probably didn’t know.
The Oldest Three Resorts at Walt Disney World
Walt Disney didn’t live long enough to witness the opening of the park named after him. However, his successors learned from his mistake at Disneyland.
Disney readied three different official resorts for the opening of Walt Disney World. All of them remain open today, a staggering accomplishment.
The hotel that executives showed off the most was Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, where the media hobnobbed with celebrities and business tycoons.
Disney’s Contemporary Resort wowed visitors with its monorail train that cut through the middle of the hotel.
Bob Hope gave an introductory speech ten feet away from the platform, too.
Finally, campers got their wish a few weeks later in November of 1971. Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground is only six weeks younger than Walt Disney World.
The Resorts We Never Got
The initial plans for Walt Disney World proved much more ambitious. Three other resorts would have joined the initial group.
Imagineers crafted plans for Disney’s Venetian Resort, Disney’s Asian Resort, and Disney’s Persian Resort.
Yes, those names are a bit cringeworthy now, but it was a different era. Park planners quickly recognized that six resorts were way too many.
However, they would have been added later if not for the 1973 Oil Crisis. Here’s what they might have looked like:
The Forgotten Early 1970s Resort
Are you familiar with Shades of Green, the Walt Disney World resort owned and operated by the United States Department of Defense (DOD)?
That property resides on the site of a former official Disney hotel, one that history has forgotten.
In 1973, while those other three resorts awaited a greenlight that never came, Disney built another property, one with a specific theme.
Disney’s Golf Resort opened in December of 1973, but it faced an uphill battle. Travel agents of the era didn’t consider it a true Disney resort.
By 1986, this hotel changed its name to The Disney Inn. Alas, that place didn’t do any better.
So, in 1994, Disney leased the space to the DOD. The rest is (strange) theme park history.
The Place Where a President Defended His Actions
The two opening day Walt Disney World resorts accumulated some odd trivia footnotes during the 1970s. Two of them rise above the rest, though.
At the Contemporary, flailing President Richard Nixon attempted to defend his criminal actions in the strongest possible language.
Yes, at that ballroom, one you might have visited at some point, Richard Nixon stood up and declared, “I am not a crook!” It happened at Disney!
Here’s the video of it:
The Place Where the Beatles Split Up
The Polynesian may claim an even quirkier historical footnote. In 1968, George Harrison and Ringo Starr quit the Beatles.
Two years later, Paul McCartney declared that he had left the band as well. By 1974, the existence of the Beatles represented more of a technicality.
Fans had deduced that Wings was about the best that they were going to get from then on. Still, the lawyers had plenty to sort out, which they slowly did.
Eventually, the fourth Beatle, John Lennon, received the paperwork that would officially break up the band.
Lennon signed this document during his Disney vacation. Yes, the formal break-up of the Beatles happened at the Polynesian!
By the way, Lennon managed to infuriate everyone else in the band with this move. You can read the details here.
The First Disney Hotel Where You Can Live
By 1991, Walt Disney World had established itself as the premier family vacation destination east of the Mississippi River.
The dominant popularity of this place led to a new kind of vacation opportunity. Timeshares had grown in popularity in the 1980s.
Disney wanted to get in on the action, especially after Orlando timeshares started to siphon off some resort revenue.
The company invented an entirely new business, the Disney Vacation Club. It allowed guests to “live at Disney.”
Program participants could buy points allotments they could exchange for weeklong stays at a specific resort.
Initially, this place came with the unimaginative name of Disney’s Vacation Club Resort.
Today, you know it as Disney’s Old Key West Resort, which is MUCH better.
The Place with the Epic Chimney
You may not know Peter Dominick’s name, but this man’s influence on Walt Disney World is profound.
Disney hired Dominick, a revered architect, to build a rustic resort near the Fort Wilderness Campground site.
The project went so well that Dominick later designed two other Disney hotels.
However, we’ll focus on Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, which Dominick believed should highlight wood as much as possible.
The one exception came in the hotel lobby, where Dominick insisted on a multi-floor chimney. It’s effectively an 82-foot-tall fireplace composed of brick.
Here’s the remarkable part. Dominick and Disney were both passionate about authenticity. They agreed to hire a paleontologist.
This worker’s sole responsibility was to take fossil samples from the Grand Canyon.
Then, he returned to Wilderness Lodge and used equivalent materials for the fireplace!
The Place with the Most Welcoming Host
Richard Gerth is another name you might not know. However, if you spent any time at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa over the years, you know the face.
Gerth retired from his job and started working for Disney in 1991. After that, he became the kindly grandfather to tens of thousands of tourists.
When you walked toward the lobby of the Grand Floridian, Gerth would hold the door and wish you well. He also frequently posed for photographs.
Many families made Gerth’s pictures part of their vacation tradition. Alas, he died in 2018 at the age of 92.
His Disney career lasted for 27 years, even though he didn’t join the company until he was 65.
The Hotel with the Pearl Harbor Survivor
The other familiar face at a Walt Disney World resort is Auntie Kau’i.
As a child, Kau’ihealani Mahikoa Brandt famously played on her roof during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, unaware of the danger.
As a teenager, Auntie Kau’i earned acclaim as a dancer, so much so that Disney enticed her to move to Orlando to work at their new hotel.
Yes, Auntie Kau’i worked at Walt Disney World on opening day and nearly made it to see its 50th anniversary celebration.
The woman who handed out leis to guests for decades passed away in 2020. She was 88 years old, having worked at the Polynesian for 48 of them.
Many of these facts about Disney resorts are remarkable. However, it’s the cast members who imbued these places with spirit and love that make them so special.