Saturday, January 28, 2012

Return to the Golf Resort

Golf is bound into Walt Disney World's bloodstream. No matter what you think of the sport, it's one of the things that importantly made up so much of the consideration of the early years of Walt Disney World that no amount of evasion is going to remove it. Walt Disney World opened with one theme park, two hotels.... and two golf courses. They were good courses, yes, and still are well-renowned. When Walt Disney World opened, not much in the Magic Kingdom was exactly "ready"... Flight to the Moon arrived at a delay of some months, as did Fantasyland's main "unique" attraction, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. There was essentially nothing to see in Frontierland past Country Bear Jamboree until 1972. But both golf courses, they were ready to go on opening day. By mid 1973, the number was up to three and the Magic Kingdom hadn't even finished its initial build-out.

There were three big "events" in the first three months of Walt Disney World: the grand opening ceremonies on October 28, the first big Thanksgiving where traffic jammed up all of World Drive and onto I-4, and the first Walt Disney World Open on November 29-December 5. Jack Nicklaus won the gold. And despite all of the company's emphasis and pride in its well-rounded portfolio of recreation possibilities at Walt Disney World, the golf courses always seemed a little removed from all that. They were, basically, there to appeal to the whims of the Disney executives, and seeing the triumvirate of Dick Nunis, Card Walker, and Donn Tatum - the three principal administrative "architects" of Walt Disney World - tromping around the courses was not at all unusual. On October 1, 1971, as soon as the Magic Kingdom was open, Tatum and Walker made their first priority a round of golf on the Magnolia.

Now, in another world of consideration, Disney had opened two hotels with sixteen restaurants on a single day with no prior hotel experience, as sure a suicide gesture as can be imagined. They had bought out U.S. Steel in late 1971 to finish building the Contemporary, which a crane still loomed over on opening day. They were in the hotel business now, and they had a problem. Let's peek inside the 1972 Walt Disney Productions' Annual Report...
Since opening day, the demand for accommodations throughout central Florida has exceeded the supply. On site, our two theme resort-hotels, the Contemporary and the Polynesian Village, operated at near 100% capacity all year long. Our two hotels and Fort Wilderness Campgrounds together hosted 1,750,000 guests during the year.

Cumulative projections of hotel occupancy are compiled for only six months into the future. However, as of December 1, 1972, a total of 151,000 room-nights, or 79.2% of the total occupancy available at the Contemporary Resort-Hotel from December, 1972 through May, 1973, had already been sold. 75,700 room-nights, representing 84.8% of the total rooms available at the Polynesian Village, had been sold for the same period, and the months of April and May are considered to be the off-season. Reservation requests by the general public have been averaging 32,000 to 36,000 monthly by telephone and mail.

[...] Recognizing, however, that the public will always prefer to stay within the "Vacation Kingdom" site, the Company will soon begin architectural work on the third theme resort, the 500-room Asian Hotel. Construction is planned for 1974, with the formal opening date to take place that year.

The capacity of the campgrounds has already been expanded several times. A total of 717 campsites will be available for Walt Disney World guests by March, 1973.

Perhaps the greatest single challenge throughout 1972 was to conform operational planning to the emerging attendance patterns, and to adjust, as rapidly as possible, to the new visitation levels, which ultimately exceeded by more than 700,000 the Company's most optimistic estimates.

To paraphrase: Disney was sitting on a gold mine. The reference to only just starting on "architectural work" for the Asian Resort is telling, in that this indicates that the Asian, so familiar in our imaginations from art and models, was probably much farther behind the Polynesian and the Contemporary in actual design. The unreal scope of the building in comparison to the Contemporary and Polynesian was always staggering, and although the Asian seems to have actually come quite close to realization, it perhaps would have seemed quite different than those early models indicate.

But the Asian would never come to be. For almost fifteen years, the last hotel to be built in Walt Disney World proper would be-- The Golf Resort. From the same annual report, previewing the upcoming hotel:

 The Golf Resort Villas: Overlooking the finishing holes of the championship Palm and Magnolia golf courses, this new 153-room resort-hotel will connect with an expanded golf clubhouse and restaurant. Completion is expected during 1973.
That's perhaps significantly less ambitious than the planned Asian Resort. This, along with a number of other quick-hit fixes instituted over the next few years, is unfortunate. But the 1972 annual report was prepared in early 1973, and in just a few months, the Walt Disney World bubble would burst. Although the cause is well known, a 1981 article in Orlando Magazine tells the story memorably intimately:
"Ironically, the needle that pricked the bubble was not of local origin. It was unleashed halfway around the world, in the Mideast. There, in fall of 1973, war broke out and the Arabs slapped an oil embargo on the west.
Gasoline stocks dwindled. Filling stations stayed open only a few hours a day. Some closed permanently.

Cut off gasoline, the lifeblood of Florida tourism, and the Disney impact area would quickly become a disaster zone.

Bob Allen told me about the reaction to the energy crisis at Walt Disney World:

"When it was apparent that the number of visitors was dropping off," he said, "we realized we had to adjust our business. It's one of the few times we've had to do it. Our operations committee went into emergency sessions.

"We asked ourselves, 'can we penetrate the Florida market more? Can we reduce costs?' We made a chart that outlined our operations at various levels of attendance. We told management that's our game plan. We had to lay off employees, but we actually learned to operate our business better."
 The effects were immediate. The Asian never would materialize at Walt Disney World. A number of expansions not already in the midst of on-the-ground construction were delayed or deferred immediately; the only thing that probably saved Space Mountain and the rest of Tomorrowland was that it's foundation was already up. Big Thunder Railway, announced for construction in 1974, would have to wait 'till nearly the end of the decade and its companion, The Western River Expedition, would be left in the dust of the third-gear race to figure out what to do about Walt Disney's promise of a "city of tomorrow" to the Florida people back in 1966.

Many of these decisions are regrettable. As soon as the paint was dry on the Tomorrowland project, the full-on charge towards EPCOT... or maybe World Showcase... or maybe the Future World Theme Center... or maybe Frontier Kingdom... meant that the remaining holes in the fabric of the Vacation Kingdom and Lake Buena Vista were not filled in.

Spotlight Magazine, 1977

So in that way, the Golf Resort can be seen to represent the sort of thinking that eventually became a liability to Disney. A more conservative project could hardly be conceived to help fill the demand for more rooms and, after all, one of the chief mandates to Eisner was to build more hotels. But above all that, the Golf Resort was Card Walker's baby. To say the man was fixated on golf is an understatement. Cast Members were actually informed that he could be easily identified as "the short guy who's dressed like a professional golfer." Every year Card would come trundling out onto the green to hit off the first ball of the Walt Disney World Open with people like Glen Campbell, Jack Nicklaus, and Arnold Palmer looking on. The Golf Resort is Card Walker in the same way that the Disney-MGM Studios is Michael Eisner.

Given it's low profile and vague stylistic mandate, the Golf Resort was a pleasant, quiet diversion quite unlike anything else at Walt Disney World. Once Walker and Miller had exited, Eisner didn't quite know what to do with the place - re-christening it The Disney Inn and eventually selling it off to the United States Military. I guess the logic is that military guys like golf? Despite its somewhat remote location and lack of a monorail stop, the Golf Resort was more centrally located than over half of the hotels which currently dot the Walt Disney World landscape. It was beloved by everyone I've managed to find who was fortunate enough to stay there during its twenty year tenure for its relaxed, easy pace and "away from it all" atmosphere. It was a true oddity, something that Disney would never let out of the gate today.

So, despite all of the things potentially wrong with the Golf Resort, it is not without its fascinations.

And yet despite its significance to early Walt Disney World as both a place and a signifier, the Golf Resort is a true obscurity. So let's take a trip back to the 70s and enjoy some of the images... and words... used to promote the Golf Resort, a unique early Walt Disney World phenomenon if there ever was one.

"Welcome Golfers the finest tee-side accommodations the Golf Resort Hotel!"

The Golf Resort was graced with one of the most inexplicably awesome logos and signs ever, the golf club inscribed inside the distinctive Walt Disney World "D". 

This is the original Golf Clubhouse as it appeared in 1971. This is on the West side of the clubhouse looking East, towards the Polynesian Village. The glass windows directly facing the camera behind that sand trap are what was then known as the Palm Lounge, which wrapped around the Magnolia Room (the two golf courses are called the Palm and Magnolia, of course). The Magnolia Room is easily identifiable by its distinctive "topper" at the peak of its chalet-style roof. The Pro Shop was located beneath the Magnolia Room.
The hours of the Pro Shop were, in October 1971, 9 am to 6 pm. The Magnolia Room and Palm Lounge entertained from 11 am to dusk.

Here's the Golf Resort after expansion, from a similar, although elevated, angle. The T-shaped building abutting the Swimming Pool to our right is the 153-room expansion, which connected to the original structure via an elevated breezeway directly to the south of the Magnolia Room. Nearer the view of this elevated photograph, we can see a large kitchen and support facility has been built onto the side of the Magnolia Room. The lobby is directly connected to the breezeway that leads to the hotel rooms. The large port cohere can be seen behind the Magnolia Room, with a white car driving direct into it. The Golf Resort was approached from the long road that ran between the two courses, out of sight but to the left of this photograph.

It's the early 80s and Donald Duck is checking into the Golf Resort with his clubs in the lobby! To the right of this photograph is the breezeway leading to the guest rooms, and directly behind the photographer is the entrance to the Magnolia Room.

Another view of the lobby. This couple is standing more or less where Donald Duck was.
"Indoors are more family-styled activities... the Trophy Room for dining, the Player's Gallery lounge and convenient stores, including the Pro Shop carrying a full line of golf, tennis and swimming apparel and accessories. A golf professional is on hand for lessons or simple tips on improving your game." - 1973 check-in folder

The Pro Shop typifies the Golf Resort's contemporary styling... even more "contemporary" than the actual Contemporary Resort-Hotel! Yes, the drop ceilings and mirrored walls shouted "1971!", but the decorative embellishment around the ceiling was a nice, classy touch.

I call the woman on the left Amazing Pants Girl. Seriously, look at those pants! Mustard yellow? Watch her putt...

Hey! Almost a hole in one!

The decorative border also made an appearance in the Magnolia Room, re-dubbed the "Trophy Room" in 1973 with the opening of the resort concurrent with the Walt Disney World Open. The Trophy Room's memorable signature culinary concoction? French fried ice cream.

"For those guests who appreciate dining well in a quiet atmosphere, the Golf Resort Country Club dining room offers an excellent menu, superb service, and complimentary transportation from both resort hotels if you desire it." - Walt Disney World Vacationland, Summer 1973
"THE TROPHY ROOM allows you to tee off to superb dining any time of the day. A la carte or club breakfast served 6:30 - 11:30 am; buffet lunch, 11:30 am - 2:30 pm; waitress service dinner featuring tasty Pinch n' Putt and gourmet entrees 5:30 - 10 pm and atmosphere entertainment. Sandwiches and snacks also available 10 am - midnight. $1.25-$15.00" - Walt Disney World News, November 1974
"I'm not kidding, Janice... this time I'm going to get the Pinch n' Putt!!!"
"For a casual quiet night with the family, take the complimentary transportation to the Golf Resort's Magnolia Room or drive your own car. Enjoy a family dinner anytime from 6 to 9:30 pm with cocktails 'til 11. Either Sam Barnes or John Chen entertain nightly with a full repertoire of popular folk music." - Walt Disney World News, July 1972

Think that's Sam Barnes or John Chen back there?

"I heard that!"

Goofy folk music or not, the Magnolia Room / Trophy Room was a real culinary showplace for Walt Disney World, with its vaulted ceilings and heavy timbers. In 1976, six Disney chefs went to Tampa for a fine cook-off event and won almost every prize, including the Top Prize for the third year in a row, after which it was retired permanently. Walt Disney World took its upscale dining seriously.
"Then, [the Trophy Room] ...will roll out the fondue trays until midnight. Late-night diners (minimum of two persons per fondue) will be able to choose from three fondue selections: the Cheese Fondue (a blend of Gruyere and Swiss, spices and Sauternes wines); the Combination Fondue Dinner (cheese fondue appetizer, salad, beef and vegetable fondue); and the Fondue Dessert (a special chocolate fondue with fresh fruit and sponge cake)."

"Entertainment begins each evening at 6:30, and is usually provided by a versatile guitar playing and singing duo called Amos and Charles. Their show is a combination of soft rock, blue grass, country and folk music. Often inviting their audience to request a favorite tune, they seldom fail to come up with a rendition of the selected song."
Walt Disney World News, April 1976
The Player's Gallery lounge adjoining was a popular spot for Disney executives, due to its quiet atmosphere and unusual mixed drinks. It is no exaggeration to say that all manner of business deals - meaning, in this case, Walt Disney World history - was made in the Player's Lounge.

"THE PLAYERS' GALLERY offers specialty drinks and cocktails with a fairway view. Also sandwiches and beverages "to go". Open daily 11 am to 1 am. $0.60 - $2.50." Walt Disney World News November 1974

The 1982 Steve Birnbaum guidebook has memorably juicy details:
"The Player's Gallery, adjoining the Trophy Room, with a view over the Palm golf course, serves an assortment of specialty drinks and cocktails - Double Eagles (Kahula on the bottom and a tequila sour floating on top), Banana Bogeys (light rum, fresh bananas, cream, and vanilla), Unplayable Lies (champagne doused with Southern Comfort served over a whole frozen apricot), and Lateral Hazards (light rum and curacao blended with orange and lime nectar)."
A whole frozen apricot? How is that even physically possible?? It's worth pointing out that of all the lounges profiled in his book, Steve reported only the Trophy Room drink menu in total, which means it probably impressed him. Either that, or it's because Dick Nunis approved the book.

Let's move outside to the Golf Resort's memorable pool:

Also: Memorable pants
Compared to the austere Olympic pools at the Contemporary and Lake Buena Vista Villas, Golf Resort swimmers were treated to these water-spouting things:

...which I think are a pretty cool grace note for a very restrained hotel. I mean, I want to swim there right now. It's not the Polynesian Village's legendary grotto slide, but it was the first heated pool at Walt Disney World.

The Player's Gallery overlooking the new pool. At the bottom of the staircase, in the back, on the left, there is an entrance to the Pro Shop.

An almost identical view from before the expansion project.

"Guests wishing to strengthen their own golf games may take advantage of the Golf Resort's full-service Pro Shop. One of the services offered through the Pro Shop is the Golf Studio at the Magnolia driving range. This unique instructional program is conducted by pros for golfers of any age and at any playing level. As part of the Golf Studio experience, participants have their swings videotaped for replays and critiques in the Pro Shop." - Walt Disney World: The First Decade

"Golfers and fans who attended the PGA-sponsored Walt Disney World Classic late last year left cheering two winners: Jack Nicklaus and the newly-opened Walt Disney World Golf Resort Hotel.

Rising serenely above the sparkling lakes and rolling greens of the championship Palm and Magnolia courses, Walt Disney World's newest hotel is a wood-and-volcanic-stone study in earth tones, designed to blend into the lush, tropical atmosphere of the resort.

The accommodations are excellent. Golfers and their families can choose from 151 spacious rooms, all with balconies overlooking the courses and a fountain-splashed swimming pool. Autumnal hues of burnt-orange, gold, and brown carry out the "natural" feeling of the decor.

For early-bird golfers who rise with the sun, the Trophy Room offers a full breakfast menu as well as fast and efficient service. Along with ham and eggs served in a piping hot skillet, hosts and hostesses, when asked, can usually serve up tips on how a course is "playing" and how to avoid the traps.

The Trophy Room also serves a superb buffet luncheon and, in the evening, offers diners soft lights, live musical entertainment, and a menu which includes Cornish game hen and red snapper almondine.  The Hotel also has a gifts & sundries shop where everything from gruyere cheese to toothpaste can be found, and a "full fashion" Pro Shop which carries men and women's top-designer sports apparel, golfing equipment, novelty items, and even a full line of Mickey Mouse watches and Mickey Mouse golf balls. Created to provide the golfer with an ideal vacation situation, the new hotel also caters to the non-golfing member of the family. Lighted tennis courts and a heated swimming pool are only a step away from the rooms, and mini-buses depart the hotel every few minutes, providing hotel guests with free transportation to the Magic Kingdom theme part, Fort Wilderness Campground Resort, the Polynesian Village, and the Contemporary Resort.

The setting is beautiful, the atmosphere is serene, and whether you practice on the putting greens, challenge the courses, or just lie by the pool in the sun, your stay at the Golf Resort will be a "winning" one." - Walt Disney World Vacationland, Summer 1974.

Last year, Walt Disney World sold off the Palm and Magnolia courses to Arnold Palmer Group, officially ending the company's long involvement with golf as a central attraction at Walt Disney World. Card Walker and Donn Tatum are long gone now, their reigns over Disney gone even longer. Dick Nunis has drifted off to what one hopes is a sunny golfing retirement in Florida. The Golf Resort became the Disney Inn in 1986 and was sold to the military in 1994. And, after a quarter century of a slow fade to black, the sale of the golf courses last year finally ceased Disney's prospects in a once important little niche on property. Just one more piece of Walt Disney World's early identity carved off on the sale block.