|By Keith Mahne|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.