As we all know, Walt Disney World opened in 1971 with two theme resort, the Contemporary and the Polynesian. These resorts were designed to handle the crowds at the Vacation Kingdom during the first few years, but they were not expected to handle the growing crowds by themselves for very long. Three other theme resorts were on the drawing board from the start and, as Walt Disney Productions President Donn B. Tatum explained, would "be ready to meet the demands of our audience as experience dictates." These resorts were the Asian, the Persian, and the Venetian.
But before we get into the new hotels, lets take a step back and look at the idea of theme resorts. Theme resorts were not at all a common thing. In fact, Disney had to take care to explain the concept as it was releasing plans for its Florida destination.
"The hotel 'theme resorts' -- so called because each is being planned around a single theme that represents a culture or architectural style around the world -- will offer far more than simply convenience of location to the new 'Magic Kingdom' and its attractions. In design motif, food specialties, recreation activities, convention facilities and even the type of entertainment to be presented, these major hotels will complement each other and the attractions of the theme park."
With the idea of theme resort, Disney began work with Welton Becket & Associates, a former partner who helped design show buildings for the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair. Two of Walt Disney World's flagship hotels were completed, but the other three were met with challenges that ultimately led to the demise of the plans.
In the photo above, taken before the Walt Disney World was complete, you can see that site prep had already been started for the additional hotels. A pad was built into the Seven Seas Lagoon for the Asian. Land was cleared for the Persian. Tests were performed on the eastern shores of the lagoon to determine the feasibility of constructing a hotel on that land.
Before the end of the planned five-year "Phase One" which would have brought these hotels to life, the US economy took a hit. With inflation and an energy crisis, tourism dwindled and Disney was not in a position to invest in new hotels.
Ultimately, the Grand Floridian took the place of the Asian hotel. We never did see a resort on the north shore of Bay Lake. But we did get a hotel near the planned location of the Venetian. But why on Bay Lake rather than the Seven Seas Lagoon? The land on the lagoon was not solid enough to hold a building. Test pylons that were built on the site continually sank into the ground. The land to the east of the original site was deemed suitable and there today stands the Wilderness Lodge.
I came across some interesting pictures while researching these hotels. The one above shows Richard Irvine, John Hench, and Card Walker overlooking an early model of the Walt Disney World property. What caught my eye here was that the Asian, Persian, and Venetian hotels, as well as the campground, are all on the map, but the Polynesian and Contemporary are missing.
This graphic was widely circulated, but has some interesting details. First is just the general skyline that was on the drawing board in 1971. We see all five hotels. The Polynesian is still the old-style main house, before the design of the realized Great Ceremonial House was conceived. The monorail cars are all red, and the monorail track goes right through the Magic Kingdom on its way to the Persian hotel. Also, Space Mountain is represented by the old Space Port concept. Finally, Discovery Island obviously has some construction on it.
Stay tuned for my next few posts which will detail the three resorts that were left on the drawing board.