Bay Lake, Fla. – Walt Disney World opened as the “The Vacation Kingdom of the World” on Oct. 1, 1971, and Walt Disney’s vision to have a world full of resorts, sports, recreation and entertainment is what we’ve inherited today.
When Walt began thinking up “The Florida Project” in the 1960s, it was paramount to have a vacation destination that wasn’t just a place to play, but also to stay. With 27,400 acres, he had a lot of room to set up camp.
Walt had such keen sense of the world’s future, so it was only fitting that one of the first resorts built had a futuristic feel, which was the goal of architects who designed Disney’s Contemporary Resort.
Help from the Happiest Hotel on Earth
In the 1950s, hotels didn’t exactly cater to families. After striking a deal with businessman, neighbor and entrepreneur Jack Wrather, Walt Disney developed the Disneyland Hotel, complete with a convention center where dad can do business while mom took the kids to Disneyland. Wrather’s hotel was also convenient for families not having to travel far after a tiring day at the theme park.
The inspiration for Disney World didn’t just come from the Disneyland theme park, but also the Disneyland Hotel. The Disney World design teams took what what they learned and what worked in California to build the Contemporary Resort in Florida, plus they figured out ways to make vacationing better. One big example: The Disneyland Hotel became the first resort in the world to have monorail access in 1961, expanding the futuristic ride in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland into a major transportation and selling point. Wrather was so eager for the upgrade, he and Walt Disney split the construction cost 50-50.
For convenience and a touch of futurism: The Contemporary plussed the design by having the monorail drive right through the middle of its enormous A-Frame tower, an iconic image that helped market not just the hotel itself, but all of Walt Disney World as something Special. At opening, the Contemporary and Polynesian were only the 2nd and 3rd hotels in the world with monorail access
During the design stages of Disney World, Imagineers wanted each hotel to be a complete major attraction in itself, with its own recreation activities, entertainment, dining facilities and a resort atmosphere.
Bordering the Western shore of Bay Lake, the Contemporary’s iconic 14-story A-frame tower is the main focal point. What is possibly more unique than the hotel’s shape is how it took shape. The way it was built in the late1960s and Early 1970s, was quite innovative at the time. Both the Contemporary and Polynesian were built by U.S. Steel and employed the world’s first major use of steel framed unitized construction. So instead of being built in place, the rooms were actually built in a special factory off site.
Each room featured that steel frame, as well as flooring, plumbing, electrical, wall panels, and even most furniture already in place. After the units were completed, they were trucked about three miles to the construction site then fitted into the tower frame, much like sliding drawers into a dresser.
Despite some popular urban myths, no one predicted Disney would slide these rooms out again for remodeling. That would have been impossible due to normal settling of the hotel structure’s floors, though due to the novel design, the settling was even more extreme with the Contemporary, and some floors had to be smoothed out and leveled in the resort’s first years, especially in the now-demolished North Garden Wing.
The innovative construction was a step towards EPCOT the City, and thematically, the resort has proper placement in Disney World, because from Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom, the Contemporary offers a futuristic backdrop view.
The hotel’s atrium is a representation of Walt’s love for mass transit and houses what is perhaps the most famous feature. For Magic Kingdom guests, Disney’s monorail transports them non-stop through the hotel to the park, while an adjacent beam features a convenient monorail station for guests to get out and gawk, dine, or head to their hotel rooms. It’s during that ride on the Highway in the sky where guests can get a great view of a can’t-miss masterpiece by a Disney legend. Due to the enormity of the space, the station’s location was named the Grand Canyon Concourse by designers, so appropriately, Mary Blair’s 90-foot tall mural celebrates the American Southwest.
Her design manages to creatively disguise and minimize the A-frame tower’s main elevator shafts, breaking up what could easily feel like a brutalist space with a touch of art, color flair and whimsy.
At the time of its creation, it was the largest hand-crafted tile mural in the world, covering 18,000 one-foot square ceramic titles. That makes it an 18,000 square foot work of art. It took at least 18 months to paint the titles, fire them and to install them on the walls.
Of her work, in a letter dated December 11, 1971 Blair wrote a fan “All of the design motifs are based on actual research of the Indians of the Grand Canyon and Southwest. We felt that children and animals were such a part of the art of Disney that we chose them to show activities of people of the [Grand Canyon] area with a touch of fun,” Blair said.
The Contemporary Resort is known for event accommodations, with its ballrooms, boardrooms and breakout rooms. It’s convention center features 115,000 square feet of meeting and event space. One of the resort meeting rooms was actually where a U.S. president delivered his most infamous phrase. On Nov. 17, 1973, in an attempt acquit himself from the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon told a group of Associated Press editors that “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.” Nine months, later, he was out of office, but remained not far away on stage at The Hall of Presidents.
The top of the Contemporary has always been a draw for people hoping for a good view of the fireworks, and a meal. In the 1970s you might also have seen a celebrity in performance. “The Top of the World” on the 15th floor was part restaurant, part nightclub and part performance venue from October 1, 1971 through Sept. 30, 1993.
Dinner guests were guaranteed to see talented Disney cast members, performing hit songs, but frequently could see stars like Phyllis Diller, Lady & the Tramp’s Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney, Chita Rivera, Diahann Carroll, Fabian and Frankie Avalon. They may not all have been “contemporary” in the 1970s, but were all big names. in 1982, these performances were mostly replaced by a dinner show twice nightly called “Broadway at the Top.”
Since May of 1995, the Contemporary has offered one of the most unique culinary experiences in all Walt Disney World in that space with the California Grill. The elevated eatery offers views of the Seven Seas Lagoon, plus prime seating for Magic Kingdom fireworks, complete with the soundtrack piped in from The Magic Kingdom. The Grill was redesigned with an updated open kitchen and reopened in 2013. As to the future of the award-winning dining spot, Disney says “California Grill is currently unavailable for bookings after October 2 as we create a special dining experience for the 50th anniversary celebration of Walt Disney World Resort.”
Renovations & Reimaging
In 2009, a big expansion came when the opening of the Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort. It’s now designated as a standalone Disney Vacation Club resort hotel.
In June of 2021, Disney World announced new guest room renovations that will have an “Incredibles” touch. All nine floors of the A-frame tower will be completely reimagined. Due to that work, right now the iconic A-frame resembles some kind of art project from the artist Christo.
The new rooms will play up the mid-century design, look and feel iconic to both The Incredibles and The Contemporary itself. You can see they are a big upgrade over the early 1970s.
Those 1971 rooms were softened up with some color and Mary Blair artwork in 1973. By the way, the standard room cost $28-$44 per night in 1971 (roughly $190-$310 with inflation) Now the lowest published rate is $521/night in 2021.
If the Contemporary’s renovations are not ready October 1st (and it looks like they are far from finished), it will just be history repeating itself. An excellent account by Disney Historian Foxx Nolte writes “The Contemporary opened up incomplete. On October 1, 1971 cranes hung over it like vultures. Disney had been so concerned about completion of the hotels in time for the 1971 holiday that they had bought out US Steel’s contract in early 1971 and taken over the installation of the hotel rooms and operation of the US Steel plant themselves.”
Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary will see one major addition at the Contemporary : Steakhouse 71 will open that day. The restaurant replaces The Wave... of American Flavors, and gets its name from the year the resort opened, and promises to feature nods to 50 years of history, not to mention some fun touches like ones you can find all over the resort, if you know where to look.
To all who come to this happy corner of ClickOrlando.com, welcome! Walt Disney World is counting down to its 50th Anniversary, and so are we. With 50 days until 50 years, we are taking a daily look back at the past, how Disney’s opening shaped Central Florida’s present and a peek at what’s in store for the future.
We’re also looking to hear your memories of Walt Disney World: What do you love? What do you miss? What are some of your magical moments? You can share them with us by sending us an email and we’ll post them all for everyone to enjoy. Some might even be featured during our News 6 TV coverage of Walt Disney World’s 50th.
Here’s to dreaming, and here’s to another half-century of The Most Magical Place on Earth!