Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Remembering The Disney Institute Resort

By Keith Mahne

The Disney Institute was a resort complex that offered a completely different kind of Disney vacation experience. When the resort's doors opened on February 9, 1996, Disney introduced a brand new vacation category to Walt Disney World thanks to former CEO Michael Eisner. At the Disney Institute, guests took part in more than 80 hands-on programs encompassing a wide range of interests, from rock climbing to topiary gardening to gourmet cooking and animation. This was going to be the area of WDW that wasn't just about meeting characters or riding attractions, but about learning and growing in a fun and entertaining way. Learn the history behind this short-lived Disney resort as we remember The Disney Institute in today's new article...

The Disney Institute Resort concept art

Since its earliest days, The Walt Disney Company has supported enrichment through entertainment, from the wildlife adventure films of the 50s and 60s to Epcot's Innoventions. The Disney Institute took the enrichment through entertainment concept one step further. There is such a big difference between a place that offers classroom education and what The Disney Institute set out to do for guests. The whole point of the institute was to try and expose people to new things; inspiring people to try new hobbies or experience fresh ideas.

The Disney Institute Resort concept art

To understand the complete history of The Disney Institute Resort, we need to go back to June of 1973. That's when Disney announced plans for a master-planned residential community of Lake Buena Vista. The community was to be divided into four themed areas: Golf, Tennis, Boating and Western. By May 1974, a total of 133 town homes had been built and an adjacent shopping center, the Lake Buena Vista Village, was being constructed.

Concept art for WDW's City of Lake Buena Vista, the first planned residential community to be developed under the leadership of the Disney community - 1971

The developer, Lake Buena Vista Communities, was planning to build single family homes, apartments and condos in the near future. In July 1974, a construction contract was awarded for a retirement community, vacation townhouses, and apartments. The shopping village opened in March 1975 and 60 Treehouse villas were completed that October.  The residences were nicknamed "Villas", and were designed to showcase energy-efficient housing ideas. They were built in clusters around courtyards and cul-de-sacs to conserve space and green areas.

Because the residents would have the ability to vote on Resort Construction, and due to taxation issues, Disney decided to abandon the residential aspect of the project and focus more on hotel accommodations. In the 1980s, the Villas were transformed into a hotel resort, starting with the construction of the "Walt Disney World Conference Center". The resort opened as "The Village Resort" in 1985. The name was changed to "The Disney Village Resort" in 1989. The Lake Buena Vista Village shopping center changed its focus towards Walt Disney World visitors, thus being renamed "Walt Disney World Village", which was later absorbed into the present-day Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) and named The Marketplace.

The villas were divided into several sections...

Vacation Villas: One-and-two bedroom dwellings...

Fairway Villas: Townhomes that overlooked the Lake Buena Vista Golf Course. They featured energy-efficient features, such as their roof overhangs and double glazed windows...

Treehouse Villas: Three-bedroom octagonal villas on top of 10-foot-high (3.0 m) pedestals to withstand flooding and allow for natural drainage...

Club Lake Villas: Added in a later building phase and were meant to appeal to conventioneers attending meetings at the Walt Disney World Conference Center...

Grand Vista Suites: Four single-family dwellings originally constructed as model homes for the residential development that clustered around their own little cul-de-sac away from the other Villas. These were intended to be real houses. Each had a little car port and was built in a different style: southwest, a beach house, a square little ranch house and a small, grey home with some volcanic rock accents...

In 1985, newly hired Disney CEO Micheal Eisner made a visit to the Chautauqua Institution and became so inspired that he wanted the Disney Company to develop its own version at Walt Disney World, modeled on the same 135 year old adult recreation resort in upstate New York. And so, in 1996, the Villas became part of a entirely new resort experience known as The Disney Institute.

The Disney Institute included 28 program studios, a 225-seat performance center, a 1,150-seat outdoor amphitheater, a 400-seat cinema, a closed-circuit TV station (DITV) a radio station (WALT) and a sports and fitness center with a full service spa. The resort had a restaurant called "Seasons" and featured a themed dinner menu that rotated nightly.

Although a three-night minimum stay was required if you wanted to lodge in one of the on-sight, Lake Buena Vista accommodations, staying on property was not a requirement if you wanted to partake in one of the programs offered. Guests staying elsewhere were still eligible to sign up for classes and could choose to participate in an array of over 80 programs under the following categories:

  •     Animation
  •     Culinary
  •     Gardening
  •     The Great Outdoors
  •     Photography
  •     Television
  •     Youth

The entire concept of this new Disney resort idea was to learn new things, first-hand, by having fun. There weren't to be any tests, nor grades, nor homework. Disney Institute guests didn't sit in classrooms, with notebooks in hand and pencils poised, as a lecturer droned on and on. The teachers here would be the on-site Imagineers, animators, chefs, and technicians already installed at Walt Disney World, as well as the occasional visiting author or celebrity. A three-day gardening program would involve a trip to Epcot, where one could also get a computer-generated software lesson in designing a flower bed, and a hands-on, dig-in-the-dirt learning experience like no place else on earth.

As you can see in this 1997 promotional video for the short lived Disney Institute Resort, the concept was extremely unique and something only Disney could offer. Disney historian and author Jim Korkis even makes a few appearances as he used to teach the animation classes at the resort, and the theme song heard throughout the video, "You Won't Believe What You Can Do", is pretty uplifting and catchy as well...

The Disney Institute Resort lasted only a few years. It soon became clear that the Disney Institute was not becoming very popular with Walt Disney World guests, despite Disney’s massive marketing campaign to keep the resort in the public eye. The resort's "Seasons" restaurant had eventually closed down, unable to compete with the Village’s offerings across the water when Pleasure Island expanded in 1998, creating the West Side, and soon the entire area would be rebranded as Downtown Disney. The one main reason why the Institute didn't do well is easy to see. Walt Disney World guests, then and now, come to the Florida property to be immersed in the magic of meeting characters, riding the attractions and walking the Parks.

The Disney Institute Resort map

And so, as fewer guests signed up for classes, less activities were offered. Not to mention, the slowdown in tourism after the 9/11 attacks didn't help either. The Disney Institute finally closed its doors in 2002. With the Disney Vacation Club having already proven itself as a popular commodity with guests and a good money-maker for Disney, it was soon decided to transform The Disney Institute property into the seventh membership resort, Disney's Saratoga Springs.

Although The Disney Institute Resort concept died off, the Disney Institute lives on and still exists today, not as a guest enrichment package, but rather as a corporate development program. Disney uses their own success in the business world as a model for other companies to emulate. Their goal is to use time-tested practices, sound methodologies, and real life business lessons that can facilitate corporate culture change in other organizations around the world.

So friends, next time you visit Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort or take a stroll through Disney Springs and see the charming, Victorian-style Resort hotel nestled between rolling golf course greens and the shimmering Village Lake, you'll now know the rich history that once filled the ground it rests on.


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 every day.

You can find all of Keith's articles here.

1 comment:

  1. I attended The Disney Institute in December of 1997, taking such culinary classes as Cover Page Cooking, Wine Wonders & Song, Healthy Holiday Cooking, and a knife skills and basic techniques class that I'm sure had a catchy name that I can't remember. Oh, and a Gingerbread House class. I still have a photo of myself holding my gingerbread house, taken outside my villa with the Disney Institute welcome center in the background. I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to return a few years later for another round, but they were no longer in business. I guess not enough people were interested in that kind of educational vacation. Next time I'm down there I'll have to visit Saratoga Springs to see how much has changed and how much is still the same. Last time I was there I tried to find it but didn't know where to look.