Sunday, September 13, 2009

See the Village. Tonight. Part One...

Since I've become something of the current expert on the Walt Disney World Village, due to my many years of interest in it and my obsessive desire to catalog every shop which ever put up a sign there, I've decided to put up a special treat tonight. The Walt Disney World Village does *move* me in ways that much of Walt Disney World does not, partially because I experienced so little of it when it was in something near her original state, and partially because I feel that it is the single most indicative element of Walt Disney World to be tampered with. Where once there was a funky, unique, forward-thinking little part of Walt Disney World, Eisner swept in and transformed it into... a pretty ugly outdoor mall.

But I'm not here tonight to complain about the Village now, I'm here to honor what it was then. Since many current Walt Disney World frequenters know about as much about the Walt Disney World Village of 1977 as mankind does about the dark side of the moon, I hope this pictorial tour will help bridge the gap between the abstraction of "1979 = Walt Disney World Village, 2009 = Downtown Disney Marketplace" and the actual sights, sounds, colors and textures of a true Walt Disney World extinction. No major component of the Florida Project has been obliterated as fully as the City of Lake Buena Vista, so let's enjoy a look back in time to another era in Disney design.

The Empress Lilly opened in April 1977 along with a new restaurant complex on the northern shores of The Village Lagoon, an already manmade waterway which required extensive digging out to "anchor" this massive building which housed no less than five restaurants and four lounges. Unlike the Mark Twain or Richard F. Irvine in the theme parks, the Empress Lilly was the real thing, a full-sized, graciously-appointed riverboat, her red paddle always turning, ready to steam out into the Florida wilderness at any moment. While this view can still be had, from near the front of what is now Team Mickey's, what should be especially shocking to current Walt Disney World visitors is the untouched Florida wilderness behind the Lilly instead of the supremely ugly expanses of Pleasure Island and Saratoga Springs. This is the way she was meant to be seen, a striking manmade wonder amid natural splendor.

The dock you see on her side, since converted to be outdoor seating for her current tenant, is where silent, peaceful flote boats from the nearby Lake Buena Vista Club would tie up to let passengers off into what was then known as the Starboard Lounge, a quiet little nook where one could look out across the water at Captain Jack's Oyster Bar. This was a privae boat service connecting only to that dock; everyone else would have to take a motorized boat to Cruise Dock West, near what is now Rainforest Cafe but which was then The Village Restaurant.

Let's go in for a closer look...

This shot just kills me. This view is totally gone now, one of Walt Disney World's greatest vistas. In the distance on the other side of the lake on the right are visible the Club Lake Villas, the second stage expansion of the Village Resort. These unassuming little structures would last until 2002 as the Disney Institute "Bungalows". Take some time to admire the gorgeous craftwork lanterns, hung on sturdy posts, which once proliferated along the waters' edge of the Village Lagoon. That little buoy barrier surrounding the Empress Lilly's paddle is still there, despite Levy Restaurants' removal of the paddle in 1996.

The sign reads "The Empress Lilly - Port of Lake Buena Vista". The top deck of the boat facing us housed the "Texas Deck Lounge", a huge bar with "tub" seating and a spacious outdoor deck facing the Village and points beyond. The windows just one level down hide from us the Empress Lounge, the waiting area for the exclusive gourmet Empress Room, with live harp music nightly. And those bottom windows, so near that churning red paddle, provided a great view to diners at the Steerman's Quarters, a premium steak house. The Empress Lilly was renovated (gutted) in 1996 by Levy Restaurants, who today operate it as Fulton's Crabhouse. Disney signed a twenty year lease with Levy, so the restoration of the Lilly to her original state is not likely in the future.

If we turn around and walk back along that footpath just a bit, we'd see this:

Those two old folks on the right are just leaving the Verandah Restaurant, having just enjoyed a leisurely, casual dinner. Perhaps the gentleman ordered the prime rib special, or maybe just a sandwich. They're now descending a brick-lined flight of steps, while those two older ladies examine the menu. If one doesn't feel like partaking inside the large central area of the Verandah, there are counter-service sweets available to both the left and right of the hexagonal building. To the left is the Village Cone Shop, and to the right is the Sara Lee Bakery.

The building which once housed the Verandah still exists, although the steps have been eliminated and the pedestrian walkway now runs on the same level as the old couple on the right. It now houses the Lego Imagination Center, and the little hexagonal side room which once housed the Cone Shop was leveled. The space for the eatery on the other side was retained and is now where kids can fill a bucket with LEGO bricks. The main door to the shop is now nearer the former site of the Cone Shop. Where the front doors on the Verandah were is now a series of displays of LEGO dioramas.

In the very background of this picture we can see the Pottery Chalet, the tallest building in the little cluster of shops which made up the Village. Let's go inside!

Now, about the Pottery Chalet.

It wasn't really a single shop so much as a collection of many sub-stores, some of which had to do with pottery, and some which... didn't. It had an open courtyard on its' south side with shop space all around. In the middle of the Chalet was the potter, a live person working a potter's wheel. Much of the pottery sold in the shop was thrown right at the Village, and a custom pot could be made for you as well. If you look closely at the image above, you can see that in its' early years the Pottery Chalet was open in the front. Only later was it glass enclosed.

Inside the Pottery Chalet has a collection of all sorts of items... the best way to succinctly describe the Village's mega-store was that it was devoted to "housewares". One could buy everything from candles to fine china.

Here we are in the courtyard of the Pottery Chalet complex. Such gorgeous pottery! Disney's even thoughtfully included plants in many of these pots. See that little garden cart over on the left? Let's go examine that closely.

Unlike on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom, these are real flowers. The Walt Disney World Village was intended to serve locals as well as the future residents of Lake Buena Vista, the city which would grow out of the "downtown" of the Village.

Here's a very rare image of the interior of the Candle Chalet, which was unfortunately printed across two pages from a 1977 World Magazine. It may not be a pretty scan, but you can actually see inside the shop, which nobody has done in over twenty years. As you can see, these candles were quite elaborate. Many of the best of these were carved onsite by craftspersons like this lady here...

Who of course, like many of the artists at the Village such as the potters, florists, crystal carvers and gold inlayers, held ongoing demonstrations. Some of the candles carved and sold in the Candle Chalet were also available in the Magic Kingdom in the Wonderland of Wax store on Main Street.

Our couple has found the kitchen wares section of the Pottery Chalet! The guy in this picture looks much happier in this part of the store... the Pottery Chalet also sold place settings, linens, flatware, and even kitcheny brick-a-brack.

These folks are enjoying some down time nearby, outside the Chalet at the Dock Stage, with its' stepped viewing area. The building in the background is likely the side of Lite Bite, the Village's burger-and-fry outlet. Also visible on the left is one of the Village's many "Mediterranean" statues which dotted the picturesque Lagoon.

The Pottery Chalet slowly was consumed by the Christmas Chalet in later years, and was eventually demolished in 1995 to make way for the World of Disney. This also involved destroying the original Dock Stage and rebuilding it with bleacher seating. That incarnation went away earlier this year as Disney built a new, covered, high end stage where once the sedate Dock Stage was. The first picture of the Pottery Chalet above is now impossible, even if the Chalet were still standing, because the stage would block your view.

Lite Bite was later renamed the Lakeside Terrace, then later Goofy's Lakeside Terrace, and was finally replaced entirely by the current Ghiradelli Soda Shop. The layout of the actual building is reasonably untouched.

Let's continue past Lite Bite along a shaded sidewalk, past the Village's eccentric playground, past the Village Art Gallery (not displaying Disney art, by the way). Eventually we come to this eccentric looking shop:

This is the north-facing facade of a shop which was known as Port of Entry, selling a variety of import stuff, sort of a precursor to the many shops of World Showcase. In front of Port of Entry was a narrow little vendor which was given her own name: Cane, Rattan, Wicker & Suns (get it?). This sold a variety of wicker furniture, which was quite popular in the mid 70's. Around the side of this building is Pipe Dreams, the Village's adjunct of the Main Street Tobacconist, which both sold and repaired fine pipes. Past that: The Bath Parlor, a high-ceilinged, white walled paradise of bathroom decor and towels.

Port of Entry had become Mickey's Character Shop by the late 1980's, probably due to Port of Entry's extreme redundance in light of EPCOT Center's opening in 1982. This store paved the way for the World of Disney. The building which once housed Port of Entry is today home to Team Mickey's Athletic Club.

The sun is starting to go down on the Village, but we must sadly end our tour here.... until next week. See you then!


Appetite piqued for more Walt Disney World Village? Here's some further readings:
The Walt Disney World Village List - every shop, in chronological order.
Widen Your World - my writeup on the history of the Village for the internet's definitive WDW history resource.