Saturday, July 14, 2012

Lake Buena Vista's Lost Crescent City

"What If" in Disney theme park developments is never really a very fun place to explore. What tends to get the lion's share of attention is lost areas and attractions like Thunder Mesa, or Fire Mountain, WESTcot, or the long-delayed Indiana Jones Adventure in Florida (and yes, it was real).

Walt Disney World has a second history of abandoned hotel concepts. By far the most famous of these is the long-deferred Asian Hotel, which never did materialize on its rectangular plot of land...

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. (1972 Annual Report)
 ...and its' sister hotel concepts, the Venetian and the Persian, appear to have never come half as close to actual realization.

Or we can talk about Cypress Point Lodge, which eventually evolved into Wilderness Lodge and was planned for the same plot of land (incidentally the original Campground site). Progress City, USA has already covered Cypress Point very well.

Other planned developments exist in only frustratingly vague details. The northern end of Fort Wilderness has always been called "Settlement" despite having no buildings beyond Pioneer Hall and the Trading Post, but there were plans for a fully-realized Western township of shopping and dining as early as 1972....

 ....And for a lodge-like traditional hotel as early as 1971!

There are currently plans for a Vacation Club property at Fort Wilderness, making a traditional hotel expansion of the Campground possibly the longest-delayed concept in all of Walt Disney World that still has a chance of getting built... going on four decades now.

One thing for which I never had any leads worth tracking down was the second concept for Phase 2 of the successful Walt Disney World Village. In the mid 70's there was a very real and very probable concept for expanding Lake Buena Vista with monorails, Peoplemovers, and an urban mass transit station linking Walt Disney World with planned state transit from Tampa to Orlando to Daytona Beach.

This would be concurrent with an expansion of the Village past the Empress Lilly, then the westward terminus of the complex, along with an office plaza of thirteen buildings (of which only one was actually built, the SunBank building) and a complex of condominiums and spaces for small businesses.

 Had all this gone forward, the result would have been, allowing for changing taste, a more or less successful realization of Walt Disney's EPCOT city. The problem is that Disney had branded the whole thing Lake Buena Vista and it looked nothing like that Herb Ryman painting everyone in the state of Florida had seen back in 1967.

This quote, from Orlando Magazine in 1982 and brilliantly written by Edward L. Prizer, captures Disney's EPCOT dilemma, and their response to it, perfectly:
"I kept thinking about what Dick Nunis had said that afternoon on the promenade at World Showcase:

"We are still haunted by a painting." Mr. Nunis, who is responsible for all of Disney's theme parks and resorts, was talking about the rendering you see on these pages. He was talking about the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow as it was first depicted to the public: a city under a vast dome [ed: we now know this is incorrect] with rings extending outward: shopping areas, offices, apartments, homes.

What did Walt Disney say?

His words were vague and open to many interpretations: " experimental prototype community that will always be in a state of becoming. It will never cease to be a living blueprint of the future, where people will actually live a life they can't find anywhere else today. Everything in EPCOT will be dedicated to the happiness of the people who will work, live, and play here..."

On the promenade that day, Dick Nunis told me:

"It was really just a case of Walt saying, "Herbie, draw me something I can talk about..""
Lake Buena Vista's full realization  ended up being delayed in early 1976 as Disney made a commitment to move forward on what was then known as the EPCOT Theme Center and World Showcase projects, which resulted in a massive effort all across the country and around the world, with a new base on Washington DC, as Disney went about getting into bed with multinational corporations and international governments. Disney was, at the time, still very much an intimate family-run business with a single satellite in Florida. This was probably the most complex and ambitious project that the company ever had or would ever embark on.

When the dust settled in 1982, Disney was in a precarious financial situation. The final result of this huge effort was EPCOT Center, a massively expensive World's Fair which was a bigger success with the public than the press. The Studio division had hardly released a successful film in years and corporate raiders were starting to close in. Disney was in a more conservative mood than they had been six years earlier and the Lake Buena Vista project still sat incomplete.

In mid 1982, ideas began to swirl about a new direction for the Village's expansion. How about something reliable, something Disney had already tested, like... New Orleans? New Orleans Square at Disneyland is still the most beautiful area of that park, and even if they had let the opportunity to duplicate that success in Florida slip by in 1971, the presence of a huge Mississippi riverboat on the outskirts of the Village proved too great a temptation to allow it to slip by again.

For years, the only empirical proof I had that this idea was an actual possibility was a snippet of this May 1982 interview with Nunis:
“But what [Walt Disney] really wanted to do [in Florida] was develop an area where all types of corporations, governments, and academia could come together to really try and solve some of the problems that exist in the world today. We started with the recreation area, and then began the community, which is Walt Disney World Village, and now we’re building the center … Epcot Center, and we’re going to connect it all with the monorail system. […] In addition, we have some dreams for the Walt Disney World Village. From the Empress Lilly, we’re going into a New Orleans street, and you’ll walk right into a beautiful New Orleans hotel.”
 This was the sole tantalizing clue at the end of a cold trail. Thankfully, luck was on my side, and years later I have happened upon a number of renderings of the Lake Buena Vista New Orleans Square.

These are extremely poor quality, probably third generation photocopies, and I've done my best to make them viewable with digital manipulation. This is why they are in sepia instead of black and white, as I've found it makes them much easier to appreciate.

So, for the first time, let's take a stroll down Nunis' New Orleans street as it was conceived over thirty years ago.

This is the entrance area, and the Empress Lilly and her original circular drop-off area is still visible there in the back. In the extreme foreground the natural water line and water taxi dock is apparent. This heavily forested area would make use of Florida's natural resources - chiefly, being swampy and very heavily vegetated. Those who know Walt Disney World well will recognize this as the area which was later carved up and paved over for Pleasure Island.

On the extreme right is the northernmost verandas of what appears to have been called the "Garden Restaurant":

Probably aptly named, this restaurant overlooking the Village Lagoon would have been quite the showplace. This would have been the facade on the lagoon side, and here's another view, probably as seen approaching it from the Empress Lilly side:

Continuing along the waterfront, the outskirts of the city come into view. This is labeled "Cafe Orleans" and probably would have been a duplicate of Disneyand's wonderful informal cafe:

Shops along the bottom floor of all the buildings:

In the center of the activity, the Royale Circle:

And yes, that is the facade of the Disneyland Pirates of the Caribbean back there. No points for guessing what's inside:

Up above the streets, here's a view of the proposed accommodations on Level Two:

Yes, that's right, WED was prepared to recycle Dorthea Redmond's Disney family suite designs into actual guest accommodations in Florida.

Probably near the back of the complex, guests could explore the Rue Royale and Crafts Alley:

And the tantalizing prospect of the Preservation Hall Jazz Lounge:

Remember that this was an era when Disney was very successfully booking top-flight jazz acts to appear in the lounge of the Village Restaurant, a gambit which was so successful that they had to institute a cover charge to deter music students from around the state from descending en masse. This New Orleans area was cleverly conceived to take advantage of the Empress Lilly, the popular jazz acts, the natural Florida environment and lake, and introduce some traditional, identifiably "Disney" texture and atmosphere into a complex which was often cited for lacking it - the Village.

Sometimes, things never happen for good reasons. EPCOT's Space Pavilion would have been a hugely costly undertaking even by that park's standards and I don't think I need to elaborate on why EPCOT's Israel pavilion never materialized. Cypress Point Lodge would have been vastly inferior to Wilderness Lodge, and so in that way we can say that the project evolved into something better. The only thing we can say the New Orleans area evolved into is the Dixie Landings / Port Orleans hotels in 1992, which is such an obvious downgrade that we run the risk of undervaluing what is good about those resorts as they were built.

I admit that I've got nothing on this one. The space was partially used for Pleasure Island, an Eisnerian attempt to compete with Orlando-area nightclub district Church Street Station, and the rest of the area eventually became West Side, which, if it can be believed, is even uglier than Pleasure Island.

But Lake Buena Vista's New Orleans area is such an obviously good idea that I'm amazed it never made it off the drawing board, at least in part. Pleasure Island had burned itself out in less than a decade; had this area been built it would be one of the major "crown jewels" of the Florida property.

Pleasure Island, West Side, and what was once the Village are currently being eyed for a large redevelopment project. I don't know about you, but I'd readily give four Pleasure Islands for something with the taste, elegance, and classic appeal of these long-dead expansion plans, from the very tail end of the era when Disney's themed design efforts didn't come with ten-year expiration dates.