Altered WDW Hotel
|If you threw a rock in 1971, you would invariably hit
someone who was talking about the modular construction techniques WDW employed in
building the CRH and the Polynesian. This is because the company wanted it
to be known that all of the guest rooms for the resorts
were prepped at a U.S. Steel facility on the north end of WDW property, where
line production process churned out, on average, 35 rectangular units (measuring
9' x 13' by 32' to 39') per week. Before they were driven to the
hotel sites they were already painted, partly furnished and ready to be hoisted
into their predetermined resting spaces, where a minimal number of connections
were required. No doubt there was some functional logic at work,
but it also drew a kind of big red circle around the fact that WDW hotel rooms
were prefabricated metal boxes. Regardless of the efficiency involved,
that's not something I would have thought to
be enticing or consistent with the company's reputation for "hand-drawn" quality. In
any event it apparently had no adverse impact on bookings.
The very design of the Polynesian's longhouses, and the proximity of lush foliage and tall palms, essentially made the integration of the rooms almost invisible. At the Contemporary, however, there was and is an overt sense of almost industrial repetition. The challenge was to infuse this environment with enough vibrant content to overcome or at least balance the geometric stasis ... the A-frame shape was cool but not enough all by itself to lend excitement. The following description from a 1970 promotional guide to WDW gives you an idea of how this might have been achieved:
|Another early description of this lobby area referenced reflecting pools as a key component. By the
time the CRH opened, however, the lack of landscaping and water within its walls
was pronounced. Its position between two large bodies of water was
appealing and made for stunning reflections at night, but outside of that and
the (again) completely geometric pools on the hotel's east side, the only
organic materials were minimal applications of grass and trees in the parking
lot, lawn and recreation areas. Of course the story of Dick Nunis directing an
army of workers in the laying of the CRH's sod the night before WDW opened has
been told many times*, so we know that greenery was never the main focus there.
As for the towering palms envisioned for the concourse in paintings and models,
they were not to be.
What would ultimately transform the hotel's innards from something mammoth and unprecedented to something human and engaging were Mary Blair's phenomenal tile murals depicting Indian children and animal life on the steep rock walls of the Grand Canyon ... thus the name applied to the concourse. Blair's murals wrap the hotel's central elevator shafts and for many years set an overall tone for the bisected ten-story atrium, a visual anchor that informed many other design elements for the fourth floor.** Among those were metal and plexiglass tree formations, sharp angles in tile and wall patterns and a totally wild assortment of bright orange, plum, yellow ochre and olive green for carpets and seating. All of these complements brought badly-needed warmth and flair to an otherwise vast and impersonal physical space. As seen in the above photo, the plexiglass trees were supplanted by live replacements, my guess being that this took place around 1979.
An additional layer of theming in the Grand Canyon Concourse was provided by the Mexican band, Mariachi Chaparral, that played five days a week for guests enjoying breakfast, lunch or dinner in one of the 4th floor restaurants or lounge areas, such as the Grand Canyon Terrace or the Pueblo Room. The band had a cameo in 1972's The Magic of Walt Disney World film, but sadly did not become a mainstay of the resort.
|Although it might have been hard, come the 1980s, to advocate
for those original colors and fixtures to remain unchanged in perpetuity, the
unfortunate turn that designers took in the early 1990s was to essentially
ignore the presence of Blair's mural as renovations rolled forward in the
concourse. The restaurant side of the space was redone in cool,
schemes, erector-set canopies and smoothly sculpted abstract forms that
delivered the same vibe as the waiting area of a children's hospital i.e., safe
and essentially uninspiring. Seeing new designers actually
take their cue from the mural (and perpetrate an entirely different arrangement
on the floor that echoed the plentiful earth tones that Blair had built into her
work) would have been curious. Instead, the entire concourse became an exercise in disconnection
that continued into the next century.
Of course in the 21st century, anything from the 1990s that may have given offense seems precious in comparison with the decision to fill the northern half of the concourse - the main floor - with a gift shop. Those used to be off to the sides, discreetly offset so as to afford people the opportunity to walk unimpeded across the open center and take in the immensity of what surrounded them. Maybe this was done by the same team that thought an Aladdin ride would look good right into the center of Adventureland's main plaza, and implemented to much the same effect.*
A similar development played out on the top floor of the hotel, although with less adverse results. The Top of the World was a supper club**** that played host to a wearying variety of performers ... some with roots reaching back to swing bands of the 1930s and others with then more-recent hits. Among the nearly countless names: Cab Calloway, Diahann Carroll, Rosemary Clooney, Sammy Davis, Jr., Duke Ellington, Phyllis Diller, Johnny Ray and Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme. Every Friday in The Orlando Sentinel, the back page of the After Hours insert would clue locals in to who was performing "at the Top" that weekend and in the near future. In 1981 the nightly entertainment had become more regular via a new show entitled Broadway at the Top. A former server at the resort attributed this shift, in part, to the unpredictability of certain celebrity performers (tipsiness, foul-mouthed asides) that had generated some complaints among diners. That's going to happen when you try to emulate a lounge environment on Disney property. At any rate, Broadway at the Top featured a squeaky-clean (onstage at least) cast of performers in the Disney mold and significantly reduced the potential for shocking spontaneity.
|The original penthouse-level decor, including the
carpet-is-everywhere look seen in the 14th floor elevator hallway below, topped
even the Tomorrowland Terrace for its creative and repellent melding of polygons
(here octagons, in Tomorrowland hexagons) and
maddening color schemes. Stepping off the elevator in the 1970s, one
expected to see a sign directing them to the Playboy Club, where wide lapels
were validated and women smiled way too much. All of this top-floor tomfoolery was
brought to an end in 1994 when renovations began that would lead to the
opening of the California Grill restaurant in summer 1995.
The adjacent lounge area leading up to the restaurant, later absorbed into the restaurant when it became the California Grill, afforded guests the opportunity to look out across the Seven Seas Lagoon without paying to see Mel Torme, and from the beginning of time was a coveted fireworks-viewing location.
The CRH's geometric fixation extended to the lakeside pools as well. The adult pool featured a series of concentric rectangular tile forms and the teenage pool - on its own peninsular deck with piped-in ROCK MUSIC - had concentric circles. Adults = squares. Teenagers = groovy. The adjacent beach provided for easy access to what was once a lake you could swim in and is now by all appearances a lake into which you wouldn't want to dip your toe. Sailboats, water sprites and other recreational watercraft were available for lease. Beyond the dock to the east was Discovery Island and Fort Wilderness. Between Discovery Island and the Contemporary, the Electrical Water Pageant has been making its nightly trips across the lagoon for Contemporary guests since 1972.
As for the "Garden Wing" portions of the hotel, one may well wonder if Disney held a "most boring name" contest. At least at the Polynesian the accommodations were in buildings called longhouses, each named for a different Pacific island. But the Contemporary North and Contemporary South Garden Wings? Why not just call them Less Fun Annexes A & B? Maybe because this was supposed to be the flagship hotel and skewed as highbrow as anything to be found on property, the company didn't want names that would appeal to children or the "child in all of us."
|But if Disney didn't care about kid-centric
names in the Contemporary, it would be hard to explain the very existence of
the Fiesta Fun Center just off the ground floor lobby's front desk corridor.
This sprawling game room / snack bar combination made up for whatever
seriousness or lack of spark might have plaqued most other parts of the hotel.
It was not an original component, but was open and listed in guide books by
Guests entered the FFC through a wide doorway (now the portal into a ground-floor restaurant) and went down a short flight of steps. Character artwork by resident WDW artist Bill Justice, heavy on the Three Cabelleros, marked the walls. The large snack bar occupied the eastern wall, offering hot dogs, nachos, french fries and sodas. Past the seating area, the game room housed row upon row of pinball machines, shooting games, video games of every description and several novelty machines. The weirdest machine was Morgana, a fortune teller housed in a blue game console box. When you put your quarter in and selected your zoological sign, a woman's face would appear on a styrofoam head mounted inside a viewing window. She gave a few seconds of mystical insight before vanishing again. It was an obvious Haunted Mansion-style effect so even though it wasn't a machine made by Disney it still felt right at home on their property. In the back corner of the room was a theater that showed Disney movies, and a few ski ball machines next to that. In the room's southwest corner was the Fun Center's magnum opus ... an amazing light-activated shooting gallery that just seemed enormous to me as a kid. It consisted of many detailed backdrops ... medieval, nautical, western and just plain nonsensical. Shoot the light target over the castle door and a glowing skeleton appears in it, dancing. Shoot a bottle above the bar and a ghost ship appeared in it. Shoot the target next to the bull's head and his horns spun. Wonderful stuff.
The Shooting Gallery didn't make it past the mid-1980s, although the game room itself (later rechristened the Food & Fun Center) was routinely updated and remained until roughly 2007. Some of the games were then relocated to a space on the 4th floor that was once the original Fantasia shop.
As a kid, I knew the Contemporary Resort first
from monorail trips through the concourse enroute to the Magic Kingdom and
later from trips to the hotel with my grandfather.
Even though my family lived painfully close to WDW, my parents neither
worked there or were such good friends with anyone who did that we'd pick
up free tickets to the park. My parents would still take my brother
Brian and me to the MK several times a year, but somehow we managed to
talk Grandpa into taking us out to the hotels just to walk around and play
in the game rooms in the early 1980s. This could be done by paying
the parking fee at the toll entrance (back then it was either 50 cents or
a dollar) then just driving into the hotel parking lot - it would be many years
before Disney had security positioned at the entrances. So we got
pretty familiar with the 4th floor's gift shops,
the unbelievably slow elevators, the 14th floor observation decks (from
which we could observe with some melancholy the sight of brand new Big
Thunder trains looking like toys as they climbed
Lift 2 less than a mile away) and
the Fiesta Fun Center. But to this day I've never spent a night at
the hotel, and not since the 1980s have I thought it might be as much fun
as some of WDW's other hotels.
* "Green side up, boys!" Not funny , really, yet much better than anything Bob Hope had to say three weeks later - in front of an audience no less.
** Even the Grand Canyon has a river in its gorge, of course, but the closest thing you'll ever find to a stream in the CRH's concourse is someone spilling a cup of Sprite.
*** If you're going to let someone second-guess the design sense of WED's and Welton Beckett Associates' old guard, check their portfolio first. If it includes a lot of work in shopping malls, pass.
**** In the mid-20th century, many adults had an acutely warped sense of what passed for "great entertainment" or a "smashing time." Supper clubs were places where they would gather for filet mignon and a floor show. And smoking. And alcohol. Lots of smoking and alcohol. But surprisingly little cocaine. For cocaine you went to a disco.
|Additional Contemporary Resort Hotel Images & Video|
|VIDEO - The first video below is from Vault Disney's YouTube channel, the second from MRPrefab's YouTube Channel|