Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Making of: Disney's Contemporary Resort

By Keith Mahne

Disney's Contemporary Resort, often referred to as The Contemporary and originally to be called Tempo Bay Hotel, is a deluxe resort at the Walt Disney World Resort. It opened on October 1, 1971 and is fully owned and operated by Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. Disney's Contemporary Resort is located in the Magic Kingdom Resort Area, adjacent to the Magic Kingdom and Bay Lake. Although it is one of the oldest and originals in the park, it continues to dazel park guests to this day. Continue after the page break for the Making of: Disney's Contemporary Resort...

The Contemporary Resort was one of the two resorts located on property when Walt Disney World first opened in 1971. The Contemporary Tower, the most prominent of the resort's four stand-alone buildings, was built as an A-frame with outer walls which slope inwards around an inner atrium. This design was a collaboration by Disney, the United States Steel Corporation, and Los Angeles architect Welton Becket. To construct the building, steel frames were erected on site and modular pre-constructed rooms, designed by California architect Donald Wexler, were lifted into place by crane. Most of Disney's Polynesian Resort was also built this way. Before the construction of Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, Disney's Contemporary Resort was considered Disney's flagship resort. On November 17, 1973, President Richard Nixon delivered his famous "I am not a crook" speech in a ballroom at the Contemporary in front of reporters from the Associated Press.

Richard Nixon giving his famous "I am not a crook" speech at the Contemporary Resort

Originally there were five hotels planned to surround the lake and face the park. Each hotel would be specifically themed and would complement the view of the theme park.  The flagship hotel would be the most futuristic or contemporary in design – based on Walt’s vision for the high-rise multi-use structure he envisioned for the center of EPCOT. The original structure was to be a “city” with an open-atrium building complete with shops, restaurants and a monorail running straight through the building.  Because of this hotel’s futuristic elements, it would be positioned in line sight of Tomorrowland.

One of US Steel’s subsidiaries, American Bridge, had been experimenting with modular construction. They had been promoting constructing, assembling, and furnishing rooms off-site and then stacking them next to the skeleton of the building and then slot each room into the frame of the building.  One “fact” that is very prevalent out there is that not only were the rooms made to be easily removed, refurbished, and slotted back in, but also that they (the rooms) had settled into the structure and they became stuck thereby unable to be removed. This is a myth. The rooms were never intended to be removed. When the building was constructed and the rooms were slid into place, the frame was simply steel. After the rooms were in place, the concrete was framed and poured for the thirteen 150-foot tall A-frames.

Disney’s original agreement was that they would retain the land these hotels were built on, but would allow US Steel to build and own the hotels. Disney would then lease and run the hotels. There were concerns over the financing for the Florida project so mergers were BRIEFLY considered. One of the first considered was General Electric – which happened before Walt died. According to Bob Thomas “Roy faced the formidable task of financing… Bankers and financiers told Roy that such an investment was too great, a cool $100 million, for a company the size of Walt Disney Productions. He was advised to seek a large corporation as a partner. GE was approached…” The negotiations ended shortly after Walt realized the merger would put GE execs in charge and that Walt would become an employee and could be fired at anytime. Other mergers were contemplated, including Westinghouse, but ultimately Roy found a way to go it alone.  Roy was “besieged by suitors” after Walt’s death. But one thing he and Walt had learned early in their career was to share ownership with no one.

There were a number of obstacles that Disney had to overcome in constructing the A-frame hotel. One obstacle was that they realized that they couldn’t just quickly slide the rooms because if all the rooms were slotted in one side of the hotel first it would not only compromise the integrity of the structure, but it would also throw the hotel frame off balance.  So they had to set up two cranes on either side of the A-frame and alternately slot in the rooms. Another problem was the monorail. Originally plans called for the monorail to run straight through the middle of the hotel, however the vibration from the monorail cause the hotel shake. The contractors said it would be impossible to run the monorail through the hotel. Walt’s planners argued that without the monorail the hotel would resemble, “a place where the Goodyear blimp comes to mate.” Roy realized that without the monorail the Contemporary would be no different than any of the Hyatt style atrium hotels. All Roy said was “build it.”  After reengineering the hotel multiple times, engineers decided to move the monorail to one side of the hotel and anchor the track to the ground and not the building.

Another misconception – that has become fact – was that construction on most of the resort was running on or close to on time, however the Contemporary was a different story.  In fact, construction was a challenge in and out of the entire park. For example, in the fall of 1970, only about 1 year from scheduled opening, the main contractor hired to oversee construction announced that the timeline was unrealistic and suggested that Disney change the planned opening date. Within days of that announcement, the 2 Joe’s – Joe Fowler & Joe Potter – filed the necessary paperwork to create Buena Vista Construction.  In the spring of ’71 after a visit east to check on the state of the construction, Dick Nunis was asked if he honestly believed that we would open on time. His response was “only if we put the entire force of the Disney company behind the effort. The following week he was asked if he would relocate to Florida to ensure the park opened on time. He moved to Florida on the reassurance that if he needed ANYTHING from another department, he would get it. Over the next few months, he & his team became known as “the Nunis Raiders”.


The hotel was plagued with various setbacks and difficulties, both great and small. Everything from workers sleeping on the job and creating phantom employees to cash additional checks to stealing. The park opened on time, but it took a few more months to finally complete the Contemporary Resort Hotel tower and garden wings.

According to Charles Ridgway’s biography, Spinning Disney’s World, the Thursday before opening there were still giant construction cranes towering over the Contemporary…, which would go against all what Disney stands for as well as spoiling the view for the first guests. So the cranes were dismantled, laid down and promptly covered with grass for the rest of the weekend. They went back up that Monday and stayed looming and working over the hotel until the day before the Grand Opening.  In the end, the hotel was completely finished in the New Year, but enough of the rooms were completed to accommodate the Grand Opening day guests and various activities. During this whole process the Disney-US Steel relationship grew more and more strained.  So much so that it was a constant bother to Roy Disney.  Smart to the very end, a few weeks before Roy’s death, he negotiated a deal with US Steel to not only buy their interest in the hotel, but also assume all remaining construction costs. 

When the hotel finally did open to guests – those lucky enough to stay there were paying the exorbitant room rates ranging from $28 to $44 per night. The original dining outlets included: Grand Canyon Terrace Cafe, Grand Canyon Terrace, Top of the World, Gulf Coast Room, El Pueblo, The Dock Inn, Monorail Club Car, The Sand Bar, and the Mesa Grande Lounge.  As for shopping: The Contemporary Man, The Contemporary Woman, Plaza Gifts & Sundries, Kingdom Jewels Ltd., The Fantasia Shop, The Spirit World, The Captain’s Chair, The American Beauty Shoppe, Bay n’ Beach, and The Olympiad spa and gym.

The Contemporary Resort Hotel is known for a number of things.  In addition to the A-frame structure, slotted rooms, and monorail, the resort is also known for its soaring 90-foot mural. Given Walt Disney’s fascination with the Grand Canyon, it’s no surprise that many aspects of the Grand Canyon pop up throughout the cavernous Contemporary. The mural was designed by Mary Blair.  Mary was an animator and an Imagineer, as well as a Disney Legend.  She worked on many Disney projects from “Three Caballeros” to “Song of the South” to “Cinderella.” Because of her use of color and the child-like way she approached her work, Walt had asked her to work on a new project he was working on for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair – it’s A Small World. What Mary created for the Contemporary Resort was the world’s largest handmade mosaic featuring a modern southwest theme in the classic Mary Blair style.

The mural, which took more than a year and a half to design, produce and install on the six, ninety-foot walls, consists of more than 18,000 hand-painted tiles. Not only were her designs used in the mural, but also her Southwest Indian children, which also included stylized birds, animals, flowers, and trees, were originally used throughout the resort, in the lobbies, and as framed prints in each of the hotel’s rooms. The giant mural, which also conceals the hotel’s elevator shafts, shows Native American Indian Children standing along the slopes of the Grand Canyon. The mural that faces the monorail has a goat with five legs, up near the top.  Blair did that to honor the culture of the Grand Canyon Indian tribes who felt that artwork could not be “perfect.” Her inspiration for the mural came from a broad spectrum of resources, including prehistoric petroglyphs, Pueblo murals, and Navajo ceremonial art, such as sand paintings. The mural and concourse colors reflect earth and sky tones found in and at the Grand Canyon, as well as in Indian art. Each of the more than 18,000 individually hand painted and fire-glazed ceramic tiles were shipped from California to Florida on special air-suspension trucks. The glazes used on the ceramics are both mineral and chemically based – the color pink, for example, is made from gold.

When the park opened, people flocked to the resort and clamored to stay at one of the only two hotels right at the Magic Kingdom.  The 1000+ rooms were full all the time and since the average stay was 2 – 2.5 days, the room turnover was tremendous.  Not only was turnover tremendous, but the wear-and-tear on the rooms was magnified. As such, room refurbishment began almost immediately. In the fall of 1972, Disney started a continuous rehab of eight rooms at a time and by 1975, every room at the Contemporary Resort Hotel had been completely overhauled from top to bottom…only to start again. 

New carpeting, drapes and color schemes were done to each room, large maps of the Magic Kingdom hung in each room, and the wallpaper was replaced with vinyl wallpaper to make for easier cleaning.  To reduce “souvenir seekers” from acquiring items not sold at the resort… that is everything that originally had the Walt Disney World logo - from dishes to towels to trash cans and virtually anything that wasn’t nailed down – was removed from those items and replaced with more generic ones.

The name of the hotel even has a story. In David Koenig’s book, Realityland: True-Life Adventures at Walt Disney World, the working title everyone referred to the hotel as was the Contemporary Hotel.  Marty Sklar always had reservations about using that name as it might “stick.”  In early 1971 they came up with the permanent name, the Tempo Bay Hotel. Roy Disney had also known the hotel as the Contemporary Hotel and when he saw the plans for a Tempo Bay Hotel he wanted to know what that hotel was. When he learned the Contemporary was only the working title, he said, “I just don’t like it.  I like Contemporary. I like names that are simple and say what they are. The other name is phony and plastic.”  Shortly after that everything was changed and now bore its new name – the Contemporary Resort Hotel. The Contemporary Resort Hotel is an ever-changing resort. No matter how many times you visit the Magic Kingdom, there are certain sights that immediately transport you back to your very first visit. The monorail gliding through the Contemporary brings you back every time. Let's take a trip back to when Bob Hope opened the brand new Contemporary Resort Hotel:


Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true everyday.

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