But the trouble is, I didn't know the Contemporary at all until the 90s, and can only remember it reliably from around 1998 on. It was simply never a place I went. So I was equally as puzzled as everyone else about the mysteries of this hotel, and the work required to pull the information together seemed considerable. However, after doing similar work on the WDW Village, Lake Buena Vista Club, Polynesian Village and Golf Resort it seemed time to make amends with Walt Disney World's flagship hotel and tell its story.
Besides my usual resources and my own collection, the hero of this post really is Jerry Klatt, who not went to the Contemporary fairly often at its height but had the presence of mind to take photographs of things nobody else cared to photograph. A combination of his library of photos and documents and his memories helps make this piece possible.
The Contemporary Resort really is the icon of early Walt Disney World, and it remains one of a kind. Designed by Welton Becket and Associates, and softened with colors and art from Walt Disney Productions, the Contemporary has aged better than most buildings of its ilk. And while it's true that Welton Becket's designs from the era have aged more gracefully than most, it's also true that it's a bit too easy for those of us who grew up riding a monorail through that thing to take it for granted. It's a gamble to call anything anywhere "The Contemporary", but this building lives up to its name. Fifty years on, it still looks like some cavernous space station beaming monorails into its belly.
But the Contemporary wasn't just a big crazy structure; it was meant to be a full-service hotel in the most cutting edge way possible. So let's step inside and track just what was where as we we journey back to the Contemporary Resort in the 70s.
1971: What Was Intended
Yes, we have to speak about this in terms of what was supposed to happen, because as always when talking about early WDW demand was so much higher than anticipated that plans had to change constantly, like overnight.
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. This was around the same time that Disney fired nearly all of their construction contractors - and hired back the entire construction crew under their new company, Buena Vista Construction. This happened after Dick Nunis found one too many crews not doing the job fast enough to get the park open.
The Entrance Area
This is one of those things you wouldn't think would have dramatically changed, but it has. The original Contemporary Resort drop-off area was actually inside what is now open lobby space. After approaching from World Drive, cars would make a wide oval around the front of the hotel and drive directly through its west-facing side. Cars could be parked underneath the hotel in the covered area:
Card Walker greeting Henry Kissinger outside the front doors of the lobby in 1975:
One nice thing about the original entrance area was the huge gold "Contemporary Resort Emblem" on the side of the hotel above the entrance. The best view of this is probably in Kraft Salutes Walt Disney World's 10th Anniversary:
As Dean Jones parks his car and crosses to the left, we get a better view of it. Notice how the production crew of this TV special have set up a "red carpet" and trees in open space in front of the actual drop-off area, allowing for the shooting of this scene without interrupting arrivals and departures at the hotel. Those sneaky Disney people!
What I don't have is any real good images of the original lobby area, but it's not hard to imagine what it was like based on these images from Welcome to the "World" (1975) and The Mouskateers at Walt Disney World (1978).
The Convention Center
One of the key markets Disney entered in 1971 was the Convention Center business, and they cleaned up on it. The Contemporary offered up to ten rooms with convention space with names like Yellowstone Room, Great Smokies Room, Pacific Room, and the Gulf Coast Room.
The key room was, and still is, the Ballroom of the Americas, seating 1400 with a hydraulic stage and closed circuit television. This is the stage where Nixon held his famous "I am not a crook!" press conference.
The Ballroom could also be split into two smaller rooms, The Atlantic and The Continental. The area outside the Ballroom offering a bar and reception area was called The Hemisphere Lounge.
Not much of original Contemporary is left today, but the ceiling of the Ballroom of Americas remains untouched, still studded with reflecting inverted pyramids. They reflect a room long since passed by by history; the original fleet of ballrooms on the Level of the Americas have been all but retired by the expansion of the Convention Center in 1990.
The Marina Pavilion
The original recreation area of the Contemporary featured trees in a grid pattern, a rectangular Olympic swimming pool, and a circular Teen swimming pool. You knew that the circular pool was the Teen pool because that's where they played rock music. Groovy!
|Combined from film restored by Retro Disney World|
|Retro Disney World|
|Retro Disney World|
Grand Canyon Concourse
Disney knew from the start that they were up against a significant challenge when it came to the central area of their flagship hotel. The basic idea for all of the elements of the original Walt Disney World development was that everything would reflect the theme of the "Vacation Kingdom of the World". This meant that each item around the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake was meant to reflect a specific type of vacation - a South Seas retreat, a camping trip, a golf vacation, a tip to Disneyland, etc.
Once Disney approved Walton Becket's dramatic "leaning slab" A-frame, the search was on to fit this ultramodern hotel into the decided upon theme of the complex. Once the notion was floated that the central atrium would feel like the "Grand Canyon", the theme began to fall into place. The Contemporary would reflect American National Parks of the Southwest - another type of vacation, to be sure. A Mary Blair-inflected Southwest motif would dominate, adding a playful touch to the hotel. With glass walls on the north and south ends and a glass ceiling above, the notion for the Concourse was to create the feeling of being outside but in a huge air conditioned space. They loved to boast in promotional materials of how they hired to landscape architect to design the Concourse interior instead of an interior decorator!
Remember that all of this was happening concurrently with the gradual ascent of the American shopping mall as a major structuring component of American life. Victor Gruen had opened the original indoor mall - the Southdale Mall in Minnesota - in 1954, roughly concurrent with the opening of Disneyland. Gruen's concept for the mall was pretty comparable with the community-oriented, invigorating goals of Disneyland, and both would be fed by a steady stream of middle class families driving postwar cars on brand new highways.
The "Mall" was still enough of a novelty in the 70s to not be an insult to compare a public space to one, and the Grand Canyon Concourse is one of the finest such spaces of its era. When they're done right there is a unique excellence to the Mall - with their silk plants, trickling fountains and canned music they are the nearest many of us got to having a personal local Disneyland. Many of the best Gruen malls localized colossal public space around oversize art pieces, in the manner of Gruen's native Austrian city squares. That's more or less what we have in the Concourse to this day.
Cheaper, smaller, thoughtlessly designed malls proliferated across America following the "Mall Boom" of the 1980s, deracinating the value of the concept, but a good mall is a thing of beauty, and I consider it no insult to say that the Contemporary is a really good mall. It still has an energy and vitality missing from many public spaces today.
Okay, let's figure out exactly what was on the concourse in 1971.
North Side - the Plaza Shops
1) Monorail Club Car - a long, thin enclosed bar facing Bay Lake, Steve Birnbaum lets us down in his 1982 guide by not providing a picture, but he does describe it as "a cozy, companionable sort of place for serious drinking". Jerry Klatt was able to extract this account of the place from former bartender Sully Sullivan:
"The Club Car was the only true bar on the property when I worked there. Nothing but the TV, no entertainment, no fireworks to watch like the Top of the World had, just a TV and a place to drink.I've seen two menus from Monorail Club Car. The first is from April 1974:
The bar was straight inside the door and just inside to the right was the bar with 8 stools and to the left was the lounge area with 42 seats. The bar could serve 50 seated at a time but I often served folks standing at the bar, especially if there was a game on the TV. It was the fastest paced bar on the property and was considered an interview position as many of the bartenders could not keep up the fast pace of drinks. Due to its limited size, keeping glasses clean was an ongoing problem. It was a flat out workout when it was close to capacity. But the money was great, tops bar on the property in MHO. I loved working there and the Top of the World.
TOW had a liquor gun so mixing was not as much fun and people tended to sit and wait for fireworks so the turnover was slow during that time. Much better during show times. Monorail Club Car was hands down the best to work and had the best tips but at the end of the night you knew you worked 8 hours slinging drinks. The entrance was about 20 feet past top of the escalator. I loved that bar..."
Bay Lake Hurricane - As cool and refreshing as the breeze from our own Bay Lake. A wonderful change-of-pace specialty consisting of Rum, Cranberry Juice and Lemon Juice. $2.25The next is from January 1975. Given the name and era, I'd put money on our Monorail Club Car being the namesake inspiration for Walt Disney World's infamous "Monorail" fleet of drinks:
Black Beard's Grogg - Beware Matey - this one's for the daring only. A tall cool grogg consisting of Rum, Pineapple Juice, Cream of Coconut and Blackbeard's secret ingredient. $2.25
Moon Rover - A taste tantalizing delight that's out of this world. The Contemporary blending of Rum, Galliano, Pineapple Juice and Lemon Juice. $2.25
The Great Grand Canyon - a GREAT thirst quencher and a GRAND blend of Rum, Galliano, and Lemon Juice. A surprising taste sensation you'll not forget. $2.25
Monorail Red - a tantalizing blend of tequila, Galliano, and fruit juices. $2.50Monorail Club Car seems to have hung on until 1987, when it was removed and its floor space turned into retail. More's a shame, because simple drinking spaces are few and far between at Walt Disney World, now more than ever.
Monorail Pink - a cool and refreshing array of fruit juices, combined with gin and cream for a wonderful change-of-pace. $2.25
Monorail Purple - a sparkling blend of champange, brandy and grape juice. $2.50
Monorail Yellow - a tall, cool grogg consisting of rum, pineapple juice, and cream of coconut. This one's for the daring only. $2.25
2) Kingdom Jewelers, Ltd - a small jewelry store clad entirely in emerald green. Check out those mirrors!
3) & 4) The Contemporary Man / Woman - intriguing earth-hued counterparts to the Polynesian Princess and Robinson Crusoe, Esq at the Polynesian, this fleet of four high-end clothing shops is exactly the sort of thing you would not expect a small movie studio to try to get in on, but they did. All of these shops also prefigure the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village, opening just a few years later and building on Disney's experience in offering big-ticket shopping. The Contemporary Woman offered mid-price casual wear and bathing suits, while The Contemporary Man offered tuxedo rentals and "resort wear".
|Contemporary Woman North Entrance|
5) The Spirit World - maybe the best-named vintage shop ever at Walt Disney World, Spirit World offered those small bottles of liquor you can buy at airports as well as regular size bottles at a significant markup. Disney expected most people in the market for anything more would be using room service's in-suite bar setups. Jerry also remembers that they could sell and ship fresh citrus, much as many farms in Florida still do.
6) Plaza Gifts and Sundries - had a million little items lined up in its windows. This store also contained an on-site Florist and all of the usual Contemporary Resort souvenirs.
7) Fantasia Shop - was the children's clothing shop, also stocking stuffed animals and records. The entrance was around the corner from Plaza Gifts and Sundries, facing the escalators to the Monorail Station. The two shops informally flowed together.
South Side - The Grand Canyon Concourse Terrace
You've seen pictures of it forever, and seen photo after photo of seas of diners without really knowing what you're looking at. Our goal here is to put an end to that. Let's learn what was really down there in 1971.
9) Grand Canyon Terrace Cafe - the restaurant nearest the Mary Blair mural, Disney must have known that they had a lot of confusing nomenclature on their hands because the October 1971 issue of Walt Disney World News calls it the "Terrace Coffee Shop" and goes on to describe it as:
"Located just a few steps away from the Grand Canyon Plaza specialty shops, the Terrace Coffee Shop is open around the clock for your convenience. Special deserts are a daily feature."By April 1972 when the first GAF Guides arrived, this restaurant was described as: "Grand Canyon Terrace Cafe - breakfast, luncheon, dinner." So basically what we're looking at here is the original Contemporary moderate-priced restaurant, similar to the Polynesian's Coral Isle Cafe. In this 1971 picture you can see the covered area at the rear of the restaurant has bar-style seating under a distinctive, zig-zag glass topped structure. You can see the wait staff (blue dresses) moving through the space. It's important to establish what this started off as, because it didn't last long, and tracking these changes is even worse than figuring out what went where.
10) Grand Canyon Terrace - this was the Continental-style fine dining restaurant which occupied the raised section in the foreground of the above early photograph. If you look at the Pana-Vue Slide scan from further on up, you'll spot the raised section's distinctive cream colored carpeted area. You'll also see a couple of staircases that are roped off on both sides of the restaurant. The rear section of the Grand Canyon Terrace, and El Pueblo behind it, would not be ready until early 1972, by which time plans were already changing, but more on that later.
Speaking of which, I'd like to advocate for a moment for the return of carpeted staircases and ramps connecting different areas of restaurants which were always roped off. These mysterious features added an inexplicable air of drama to many restaurants of my childhood, and largely were done away with by the mid-90s.
Carole S. DePinto of Orlando-land Magazine published this review of the Grand Canyon Terrace in December 1971:
"The food is tremendous! Couldn't find one thing wrong with it. And it wasn't that I was too enthralled by the surroundings to notice. The menu here doesn't go into great detail and it's not too expensive either. German-born executive chef Joe Mannke has gone to great pains, as only a dedicated chef enjoys doing, to develop dishes which are tastefully different yet appealing to all.
Don't dine here alone if you want to discover a great Chateaubriand. The menu states that it's a heavy Western double cut served with buttered garden fresh vegetables, sauce Bearnaise and berny potatoes. The platter comes heaped high with two or three cooked-to-perfection vegetables - like broccoli and asparagus spears. The potato is a huge puff with a crispy coating.
The fresh herb garden on the grounds is not a secret and I began to wonder if they didn't have a vegetable garden growing somewhere too. A rare treat! We ordered hearts of artichokes with sauce vinaigrette as a tasty go-along with the crisp tossed salad. Not overpowering - just right!
Oysters Casino is the only hot oyster appetizer listed on the menu - $2.25. I wanted very much to try Oysters Rockefeller so took a chance on the kitchen stocking spinach. They sent out a substitution, much to my surprise, and I was in no way disappointed with the new taste experience.
After a big meal it's only right to be relaxed and a little bit sleepy. But watch out! When you least expect it the whole concourse comes alive with trumpet, guitars and Latin voices of the Los Gallos Mexican Mariachi Band, led by the smiling Estevan Hernandez, who speaks very little English. They're from Guadalajara."
11) El Pueblo - this restaurant was supposed to open in 1971, but would not be ready until January 1972. We'll come back to this one.
12) & 13) Canyon Terrace Lounge - a sunken bar and lounge which offered live music starting at 7 pm and lasting until closing time at 2 am, this small enclave was situated directly across from the entrance to the Grand Canyon Terrace. For at least a few months in late 1971, the Terrace Lounge offered the accomplished jazz organist Jackie Davis as its in-house performer.
Here's a good photo of this spot from early 1972. This was taken from the far side of the monorail platform facing East. The trees in the foreground are part of the Grand Canyon Terrace's extended seating area. Past the trees we can see the original Lounge.
Here's a great photo from Jack Spence taken in 1972 showing the entire original Canyon Terrace. On the left is the Canyon Terrace Lounge. On the right in the middle raised platform and behind it is the Grand Canyon Terrace. And in front is the coffee shop / Canyon Terrace Cafe.
Got it? Great. Because right after Jack took that photo they went and changed it all.
1972 and 1973: The First Changes
Disney officially billed the stretch of operations from September 1971 (previews begin) into Thanksgiving 1971 (their first major holiday) as the "shake down" period. Attendance and occupancy exceeded all expectations, and Disney hadn't even finished the darn hotels yet. There were simply too many people to effectively house and feed. And there were other problems.
This is what the standard Contemporary room looked like in October 1971. The Polynesian Village rooms looked effectively identical except for textures and colors. They were innovative in design, with recessed lights and selectable pre-programmed settings, for example a dim evening setting with the in-room table highlighted in a pool of brighter light.
Guests largely didn't like these rooms. Given the incredibly elaborate, very fully themed interiors of the Magic Kingdom, they expected the Polynesian to look more tropical than it did, and wished for softer rooms at the Contemporary. And they seemingly could never figure out how to work the lighting in the rooms and loudly complained about the lack of floor lamps.
Compounding the problems, the cement for the north wing of the hotel, which was then called Bayside, had been poured incorrectly, and the entire wing had to be closed and gutted in early 1973. The rooms were rebuilt using traditional methods to match the rest of the hotel, and while they were at it, Disney spent money to upgrade the colors and textures of the rest of the rooms, too.
By January 1972 the Plaza Shops were finally fully open, and there were many shops at Magic Kingdom that still had not yet opened up. El Pueblo finally bowed, underneath the monorail tracks facing the Seven Seas Lagoon. Orlando-land magazine outlined the challenges in February 1972:
"People here are eating more than at Disneyland", [the Disney spokesperson] said. One obvious reason is that they can't run back to their motel for a quick bite without driving miles.
This has often taxed the Disney hotel dining rooms. The Polynesian Village's Papeete Bay Verandah continues to pack them in. They're designing additional restaurants for the Polynesian. Opening the Top of the World has helped the feeding situation at the Contemporary. So too has [El Pueblo], adjacent to the Grand Canyon Terrace in the concourse."
January 1972: The Top of the World Supper Club
"From the Top of the World, you can see forever... or so it seems. Beyond Bay Lake, the forests appear to be unbroken, running on and on into the haze until there is nothing. So much land, it makes you wonder: where have all the people gone? Look out on the other side and there, far below, is the Magic Kingdom. A toy village, no more. And a toy train crawling towards it. Beyond the village, only vastness of trees and lakes ... on forever." - E.L. Prizer, January 1972
Besides two meeting rooms (the Rocky Mountains and the Shenandoah), the Top of the World came equipped with the Mesa Grande Lounge (shortly to be renamed the Top of the World Lounge), and the supper club itself.
The elevator lobby opened to a mirrored wall and a crazy octagon mural at the far end, feeding directly into the foyer between the two establishments. Yes, it's that photo everyone scans because it's super wacky:
A clearer view of the wacky octagon posted by the Disney Parks Blog a few years back. The center was silk flowers! Even as a defender of the original Contemporary's aesthetics, this is all a bit too much for me.
The Lounge had the best view of the Magic Kingdom while the stage faced off towards where Animal Kingdom would one day be. Between celebrity acts, a full band played and couples danced. It must have been very posh.
You can hear this group, who were pretty remarkable, and see Shari Lewis (!) performing at the Top of the World in this home movie restored by Retro Disney World:
1975 Contemporary Resort - Top of the World Show with Shari Lewis from RetroWDW on Vimeo.
An early menu for Top of the World includes Fresh Filet of Pompano en Papilotte, Orange Glazed Roast Long Island Duckling, Roast Prime Rib of Beef, Supreme of Chicken Rossini (foie gras stuffed chicken breast), and Tournedos Choron (filet mignon). Minus deserts, the menu offered appetizers, Top of the World salad, and entree for $8 a person, about $45 today.
Spring 1972: The Gulf Coast Room Opens
The Gulf Coast Room had technically been there since 1971, but sometime in early 1972 Disney put up some new wallpaper in what had previously been a conference room, hauled in some tables and chairs, and began offering jacket-required Continental-style dining inside the Room.
This was the sort of restaurant that had a closet of jackets in case the man in the party failed to arrive with his own, and the main attraction was that nearly every dish was served table side flambe. Steve Birnbaum called it "one of the most elegant of Walt Disney World's continental restaurants" and describes "Grilled lamb chops, New York strip steaks with herb butter, seafood en brochette, sauteed red snapper, and veal marsala" as restaurant standouts. A 1978 menu shows entrees ranging in price from $8.95 for Shrimp Scampi to $20.50 for Rack of Lamb, putting this near the top of Walt Disney World restaurants, price-wise.
A roaming violinist, later a guitarist, serenaded diners with requested tunes.
Spring 1972: El Pueblo Opens
Located underneath the monorail tracks behind Grand Canyon Terrace, the evocatively-named El Pueblo was a small, low room that terminated in a wall of sunroom-style windows looking out towards Seven Seas Lagoon. Being located to the immediate south of the Grand Canyon Terrace kitchen, it was the original space in Walt Disney World to offer a dedicated buffet. The Spring 1972 GAF guide says it offers "Continental breakfast and a Mexican buffet". By June, the buffet had become Italian, making mince of the original name but at least likely filling more seats.
Confirmable photographs of this room in its original form are hard to come by, and given its size I doubt there was very much to see in there besides a pretty good view, but this home movie camera accidentally captured a view into El Pueblo from the Grand Canyon Concourse, there on the bottom of the frame:
|Retro Disney World|
Spring 1972: Canyon Terrace Lounge Closes
With Top of the World taking over Lounge duties for the Contemporary, Disney closed off and immediately demolished the original concourse Lounge. The entire complex on the left side of the Concourse would close, and stay closed, for the rest of the year, to be rebuilt into a new restaurant.
Early 1973: Room Refurbishments
Many of the Contemporary rooms had been completed by this time. The addition of new textiles, fabrics, traditional lamps and some framed Mary Blair wall art brought the rooms up to Disney's new theme resort standards. They would retain this basic look for nearly fifteen years.
Spring 1973: The Outer Rim Opens
The Outer Rim began life, believe it or not, as a steakhouse. There's a lot of cool things about the original Outer Rim structure. It had a tall sign with an awesome logo on it: (ignore the text that says "Cocktail and Seafood Lounge", it was added in the 80s)
This is a cropped photo from later in the life cycle of the Concourse but it does do a great job showing the cool architecture. Check out the awesome circular "sky lights" on the roof of that hexagonal kitchen!
The outer wall of the restaurant was covered with little cut-out windows which contained dimensional Mary Blair dioramas:
With a back-of-house area that small, Outer Rim had to offer something simple and good. A December 1973 "Walt Disney World News" says it offers "prime rib and fried chicken entrees", which sounds about right. A June 1975 menu reads:
Outer Rim AppetizersThe Outer Rim would continue offering its limited dinner menu through the bulk of the 1980s and would remain physically present until 1995, making it one of the longest-lived facilities to remain essentially unchanged in the history of the hotel. Traces of it continued to linger all the way up until 2007.
Gulf Shrimp Cocktail - 2.25
Macedoine of Fruit - .75
Cream of Mushroom Soup - .75
French Onion Soup - .75
Entrees - Roast Prime Rib of Beef Au Jus
(Creamed Horseradish, baked potato, seasonal vegetables and tossed garden greens)
Contemporary Cut, a generous slice, or English Cut, three thin slices - 7.25
Grand Canyon Cut, to satisfy hearty appetites - 9.25
Children under 12 - 3.95
Sauteed Mushrooms in Red Wine - 1.00
Baked Potato - .50
Our Wine Recommendation
Beaujolais, Louis Jardot - 8.75 and 4.50
Pecan Pie - .75
German Chocolate Cake - .75
English Trifle - .80
So by 1973, the original Grand Canyon Terrace was effectively no more. The same late 1973 Walt Disney World News doesn't even contain the name. Instead, they call it "The Terrace Buffet" and describe it as this: "features every evening. Select from lasagna, spaghetti, zucchini and other taste treats. Buffet serves from 5:30 to 10 pm".
At the same time El Pueblo, now called The Pueblo Room, is said to offer "delicious entrees each evening including New York Steak, prime rib and baked chicken". In other words, sometime in 1973, El Pueblo and Grand Canyon Terrace switched menus, with the buffet seating in the higher capacity area outside the monorail tracks.
The Terrace Buffet was in nearly constant use all day long. The same home movie camera which captured that furtive view into El Pueblo also shows us a chef set up at a table in the Terrace Buffet passing out food to breakfasters:
By 1973, the buffet had come to the Grand Canyon Concourse, and it's still there today, in pretty much the same location, no less.
1973: 9) The Terrace Cafe 10) The Terrace Buffet 11) The Pueblo Room 12) Outer Rim
Summer 1973: Fiesta Fun Center
Displacing the original "Sunshine State Exhibitorium" off the lobby, the Fiesta Fun Center offered a snack bar comparable to the original Dock Inn out by the pool, and absorbed the late hours of the Dock Inn, often remaining open past midnight. The reason everyone remembers the Fiesta Fun Center, however, was its remarkable collection of arcade machines and other diversions.
Jerry Klatt took this photo standing from the entrance looking into the Fun Center very near its final years of operation. The distinctive red and orange snack bar seating can be seen to the right.
Off to the left there's a kiosk where a caricature artist worked with the aid of an overhead projector, allowing you to see the artwork as they drew it. There was also a small movie theater. For just $1 anybody staying at the Contemporary could wander down and see a print of The Love Bug, Mary Poppins or Song of the South. By 1979 the movie theater had closed (or relocated) but Disney had installed a Shooting Gallery in its place, which Mike Lee still appears to have the best picture of:
This Shooting Gallery was a stock installation by MacGlashan Enterprises, the company which owned and operated the shooting galleries at Disneyland and Magic Kingdom. Disney bought MacGlashan, who continued to operate independently, in 1969. MacGlashan invented the light gun shooting gallery in 1977 and designed the infa-red galleries for Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland, and Magic Kingdom. Similar Shooting Galleries operated around the country through the 1990s.
A good view of the original colors and lighting of the Fiesta Fun Center, as well as some of Bill Justice's original Three Caballeros wall art, comes from the 1978 TV special "The Mouskateers at Walt Disney World":
This terrific 1973 photo contributed by Joey v. shows the Bill Justice character art mural just inside the entrance of the Fiesta Fun Center. Check out the female parrot and rooster Bill created for Jose and Panchito, and also note than Panchito is colored in the same way he was in the original iteration of the Mickey Mouse Revue.
1977: The Atrium Bar
Following the opening of the Vacation Kingdom and stabilizing demand for food and hotel rooms, Disney's next major goal for Florida was the development of Lake Buena Vista, which climaxed in 1975 with the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village. Building on the retail and dining experience gained in 1971 and 1972, Lake Buena Vista's network of shops and cafes was one of Disney's most interesting experiments of the era intentionally the polar opposite of the Victor Gruen-inflected Grand Canyon Concourse.
One of the most successful such establishments was Captain Jack's Oyster Bar, so Disney followed up with another oyster bar in 1977 at the Contemporary: Coconino Cove. A brand new glass enclosed atrium sprouted up on the South side of the hotel:
Let's map the concourse again. There's been some changes so get out your pencils.
Remember how the Terrace Cafe, the coffee shop nearest the mural, was a waitress service family restaurant? Well, sometime in early 1975, they decided to dispense with the table service and switch to a cafeteria style menu. So now the little covered counter I took the time to specifically point out in 1971 has become one of those installations where you slide your tray along, pull items off the food line, and pay at the end. This is how the Crystal Palace worked prior to the late 90s, for those of you who remember that.
You can just barely see the food line at the very bottom of a 1976 photo of the monorail and concourse mural:
To go with their new style of service, the restaurant has a new name. What was once The Terrace Cafe is now The Terrace Buffeteria.
But wait, it gets more confusing! The Terrace Buffet, which was still serving its Italian buffet, adopted the old name, becoming the new Terrace Cafe. So the Terrace Buffeteria was a cafeteria and the Terrace Cafe was a buffet. Got that?
Let's go back to our map. See why I made these now?
1977: 9) The Terrace Buffeteria 10) The Terrace Cafe
11) The Pueblo Room 12) Outer Rim 13) Coconino Cove
Spring 1977: Coconino Cove
Here's the uncropped version of Jerry's October 1977 photo, showing how Coconino Cove sat behind the original 1971 trees and seating arrangements and alongside the 1972/3 Outer Rim:
In April 1977, Walt Disney World News described Coconino Cove thusly:
Guests enter Coconino Cove through doors in the existing window wall. Once seated at the fruitwood-finish round tables, they have an eye level view of sleek monorails gliding through the building. The south wall is all glass, offering an excellent view of Bay Lake and the wooded areas surrounding it. Above, pointed, triangular skylights let the sunbeams and moonbeams filter in day and night.
The lounge is open each evening, with dancing and musical entertainment provided by Amos and Charles 8:30 pm - 1:30 am."
Amos and Charles were John Charles and Rick Amos. John Charles continued at Walt Disney World into the early 90s and has recently appeared on the Disney Magic.
1978: The First Big Rebuild
For reasons that should be abundantly clear to anybody who has read this far so far, the Contemporary was the first Disney hotel to get a total rebuild of its restaurant complex and it happened in early 1978.
Don't worry - this time there were no name or location changes. It was aesthetics only, and right about now is the time when the Concourse finally starts to resemble the ones we know better. Replacing the original modernist black seating areas and puffy half round booths, Disney committed to extending and elaborating the Southwest decor and themeing of the Grand Canyon Concourse.
|Russes on Flickr|
The Pueblo Room has a new, elevated woven rug sign. You can still access the Pueblo Room by walking along the window wall, between Coconino Cove and around the elevated Terrace Cafe.
This is not a good picture from the Terrace Cafe. Okay, the face the kid is making is pretty funny. But I mainly included this so you can see another of the Mary Blair dioramas surrounding Outer Rim. See it there in the back on the right?
An elevated view from the window wall looking back towards the mural:
The covered area in the bottom foreground is the buffet at Terrace Cafe. We can see the Terrace Cafe circular sign near the entrance on the right. One thing I really like about this era of the Concourse is that every establishment has a super cool elevated sign, but none of the signs clash with the overall decor or each other. It feels like a little neighborhood of establishments instead of a big neon sign trying to flag you down.
An elevated view of Terrace Buffeteria. Notice that the food line is now fed by an entrance along the Concourse mural, basically identical to what the current food facility in this space uses. From there the food line appears to split into two sides and terminate at the cashier (blue dresses). You can see some folks waiting in line just below the concourse mural.
Terrace Buffeteria's awesome sign at the entrance near the elevators:
There have been other good designs for the Concourse, of course, but this specific one hits home the hardest for me. It harmonizes with the basic design of the hotel without fighting for attention, harmonizes with the Mary Blair mural, and softens the space with silk plants, wood grain and textiles to make it more inviting than the original Concourse was. This one is the gold standard as far as making that colossal, intimidating space feel cute and homey.
1977: 9) The Terrace Buffeteria 10) The Terrace Cafe
11) The Pueblo Room 12) Outer Rim 13) Coconino Cove
The original geometric trees continued on on the Plaza Shops side of the Concourse for at least another five years, as seen in this 1980 photo:
In the early 70s, entertainers appeared for one or two week runs. By the end of the 70s, Disney was booking entertainers in runs of three weeks to a month. In the 1970s, the Vegas-style supper club was already a dying concept, and would die out entirely by the 1980s. Combined with the tendency towards un-Disneylike behavior of performers bored and marooned on Disney property in 70s era podunk Orlando, and Disney's need to house and rely on their talent to show up every night, it isn't hard to see why the mouse was fed up with their non-Mouskateer star attractions
"Broadway at the Top", starring Disney cultivated talent, ran until 1993. Its arrival heralds the official end of the first decade of the Contemporary.
Intentionally or not, Disney gave themselves a heck of a problem when they decided to call their modern hotel "The Contemporary" back in 1969. With a name like that, they were setting themselves up for trouble. But for better or worse, the Contemporary has always attempted to reflect its era. At the best of times its managed to combine classicism with a modernist edge, and managed to stay with the social curve. The Top of the World began as a Vegas stage, became a musical revue, then a California fusion eatery and now serves what we call "New American" cuisine. That does track with social changes of the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and 00s.
But at its worst, the Contemporary can feel embarrassingly dated, and not in the cuddly, charming Polynesian Village way.
But I feel that the Contemporary, as an establishment, is perhaps under valued as a uniquely Walt Disney World phenomenon. Only Disney would have dared to try something like this with no experience in the hotel industry, and only Disney would have bothered to keep at it for fifty years. It's hard to find even thirty hotels as old as the Contemporary is and still standing with a mostly unchanged layout and retaining a significant portion of their original architecture. Were the Contemporary owned by any major hotel company, they would've demolished it in the 90s and built something new.
So it does stand for something, and that does have meaning, if only that it's cool that it's still there and still pretty interesting. There's better hotels and, since opening day, always have been - it's pretty impossible to put anything up against the Polynesian, in 1971 or now. Wilderness Lodge is bigger and more beautiful. The Swan & Dolphin are weirder. But the Contemporary is iconic of Walt Disney World, for being unique, and for being of its time. Cinderella Castle is great, but it's just a bigger castle, one of what is now many. There's nothing like that big A-frame anywhere else. Respect it.