Widen Your World – The Contemporary Resort Hotel

The Contemporary Resort Hotel
1971 – present

“The 14-story A-frame Tower and adjacent Garden wings on Bay Lake comprise Walt Disney World’s 1,046 room ‘futuristic’ hotel”
Your Complete Guide to Walt Disney World, 1978
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Contemporary Resort Hotel

Altered WDW Hotel

Western shoreline of
Bay Lake

Opened: October 1, 1971

Ticket Required:
E (1971 – 1980)

Contributing Personnel:
Mary Blair, Bill Justice, George McGinnis,
Leota Thomas,
Welton Becket & Associates

A Complete Edition About Walt Disney World
, 1969,
Walt Disney World – Preview Edition, 1970,
The Story of Walt Disney World, 1973

   WYW acknowledges
the thoughtful assistance of
Bob Shelley
Heather Saines
with its Contemporary Resort Hotel research

All images copyright
The Walt Disney Company.
Text 2009 by Mike Lee

Last Update to this page: October 17, 2009 (page first posted)

Although the Contemporary and Polynesian Resorts are the same age, the latter has managed to hang on to a fair amount of its original appeal while the former often looks and feels like the kind of hotel that, were it situated in Las Vegas, would have been torn down in the 1990s to make way for something more sophisticated.  Although that does not appear to be in the cards for the Contemporary, it has been and remains a target for facelifts ranging from sensible to sad – and troublesome annexes that seem ambivalent about the existence and design mandates of their predecessor.

It’s doubtful that anyone could look at the Contemporary’s main building and question its potential to be impressive – it cuts a unique and imposing figure, dominated its skyline until 2008 and responds very well to artificial light.  What it lacks in warmth, it once made up for with diversely novel features, among them a happening supper club in the penthouse, a sprawling game room in the basement and the stunning Grand Canyon Concourse.  Although the Concourse remains, nearly all of the other guest areas at the hotel have moved in such divergent directions (visually and thematically) that one could only rationally conclude that they had evolved not as part of a cohesive plan rather than as a series of unrelated – however well-intentioned – reactions to the often unkind march of time.  In many ways the same could be said of Tomorrowland in the neighboring Magic Kingdom, where perpetrating a vision of the future became – by 1988 – far more a process of ascribing new paint schemes and textures over an decreasingly modern hardscape than an effort to present WDW guests with glimpses of an architecturally dynamic horizon.

Of course it’s relatively clear that the old Tomorrowland spires, Space Mountain and the Contemporary Resort Hotel (CRH) were meant to convey impressions of the future and modernity rather than meaningfully project 21st century life.  That task was regarded as the province of the original EPCOT concept, allowing WED Enterprises and their resort-design counterparts from Welton Becket Associates to focus on more immediate forms, with more liberating functions, in and around the theme park.  George McGinnis’ exciting 1969 artwork for the monorail, which shows a train bolting from the CRH’s midsection, could have sold the entire WDW concept single-handedly.  And the CRH was to be the property’s “flagship” hotel, anchored by the largest A-frame structure in the world.

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If you threw a rock in 1971, you would invariably hit someone who was talking about the modular construction techniques WDW employed in building the CRH and the Polynesian.  This is because the company wanted it to be known that all of the guest rooms for the resorts were prepped at a U.S. Steel facility on the north end of WDW property, where a 26-point assembly line production process churned out, on average, 35 rectangular units (measuring 9′ x 13′ by 32′ to 39′) per week.  Before they were driven to the hotel sites they were already painted, partly furnished and ready to be hoisted into their predetermined resting spaces, where a minimal number of connections were required.  No doubt there was some functional logic at work, but it also drew a kind of big red circle around the fact that WDW hotel rooms were prefabricated metal boxes.  Regardless of the efficiency involved, that’s not something I would have thought to be enticing or consistent with the company’s reputation for “hand-drawn” quality.  In any event it apparently had no adverse impact on bookings.

The very design of the Polynesian’s longhouses, and the proximity of lush foliage and tall palms, essentially made the integration of the rooms almost invisible.  At the Contemporary, however, there was and is an overt sense of almost industrial repetition.  The challenge was to infuse this environment with enough vibrant content to overcome or at least balance the geometric stasis … the A-frame shape was cool but not enough all by itself to lend excitement.  The following description from a 1970 promotional guide to WDW gives you an idea of how this might have been achieved:

“Located along the Western shore of beautiful Bay Lake will be the streamlined, 1057 room ‘Contemporary’ theme resort – its main building a graceful 16-story high rise.  It will feature a spectacular open mall lobby, more like a landscaped park, stretching longer and wider than a football field, and rising 90 feet to bronze-glass skylights above.  Walt Disney World-Alweg Monorail trains enroute to the Magic Kingdom and other hotels will travel directly through the ‘lobby’ to the terminal located inside.  Open-air shops, boutiques, cafes, restaurants and lounges will encircle the garden-like mall where the silent monorail trains pass overhead every few minutes.”

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Another early description of this lobby area referenced reflecting pools as a key component.  By the time the CRH opened, however, the lack of landscaping and water within its walls was pronounced.  Its position between two large bodies of water was appealing and made for stunning reflections at night, but outside of that and the (again) completely geometric pools on the hotel’s east side, the only organic materials were minimal applications of grass and trees in the parking lot, lawn and recreation areas.  Of course the story of Dick Nunis directing an army of workers in the laying of the CRH’s sod the night before WDW opened has been told many times*, so we know that greenery was never the main focus there.  As for the towering palms envisioned for the concourse in paintings and models, they were not to be.

What would ultimately transform the hotel’s innards from something mammoth and unprecedented to something human and engaging were Mary Blair’s phenomenal tile murals depicting Indian children and animal life on the steep rock walls of the Grand Canyon … thus the name applied to the concourse.  Blair’s murals wrap the hotel’s central elevator shafts and for many years set an overall tone for the bisected ten-story atrium, a visual anchor that informed many other design elements for the fourth floor.**  Among those were metal and plexiglass tree formations, sharp angles in tile and wall patterns and a totally wild assortment of bright orange, plum, yellow ochre and olive green for carpets and seating.  All of these complements brought badly-needed warmth and flair to an otherwise vast and impersonal physical space.  As seen in the above photo, the plexiglass trees were supplanted by live replacements, my guess being that this took place around 1979.

An additional layer of theming in the Grand Canyon Concourse was provided by the Mexican band, Mariachi Chaparral, that played five days a week for guests enjoying breakfast, lunch or dinner in one of the 4th floor restaurants or lounge areas, such as the Grand Canyon Terrace or the Pueblo Room.  The band had a cameo in 1972’s The Magic of Walt Disney World film, but sadly did not become a mainstay of the resort.  

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crhmuralblairArtist Mary Blair’s original composition for the Contemporary Resort Hotel, entitled “The Pueblo Village,” covers 18,000 square feet across its six faces.

Blair had worked for Disney on and off since the 1940s, contributing to films such as Saludos Amigos, Song of the South, Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland.

Her first work for the company’s “built” worlds was on It’s A Small World at the 1964-1965 World’s Fair.  She went on to design an iconic outdoor facade for that same ride when it moved to Disneyland in 1966, along with two tile murals for the main strip of the park’s “new Tomorrowland” that opened the same year.  Those murals were the predecessors to her massive undertaking for WDW, which became a collaboration with other artists and craftspersons including Leota Thomas, Henry Pritchard and Melina Cortes.

The Pueblo Village was her last major project for Disney.

Although it might have been hard, come the 1980s, to advocate for those original colors and fixtures to remain unchanged in perpetuity, the unfortunate turn that designers took in the early 1990s was to essentially ignore the presence of Blair’s mural as renovations rolled forward in the concourse.  The restaurant side of the space was redone in cool, post-Communicore color schemes, erector-set canopies and smoothly sculpted abstract forms that delivered the same vibe as the waiting area of a children’s hospital i.e., safe and essentially uninspiring.  Seeing new designers actually take their cue from the mural (and perpetrate an entirely different arrangement on the floor that echoed the plentiful earth tones that Blair had built into her work) would have been curious.  Instead, the entire concourse became an exercise in disconnection that continued into the next century.

Of course in the 21st century, anything from the 1990s that may have given offense seems precious in comparison with the decision to fill the northern half of the concourse – the main floor – with a gift shop.  Those used to be off to the sides, discreetly offset so as to afford people the opportunity to walk unimpeded across the open center and take in the immensity of what surrounded them.  Maybe this was done by the same team that thought an Aladdin ride would look good right into the center of Adventureland’s main plaza, and implemented to much the same effect.*

A similar development played out on the top floor of the hotel, although with less adverse results.  The Top of the World was a supper club**** that played host to a wearying variety of performers … some with roots reaching back to swing bands of the 1930s and others with then more-recent hits.  Among the nearly countless names: Cab Calloway, Diahann Carroll, Rosemary Clooney, Sammy Davis, Jr., Duke Ellington, Phyllis Diller, Johnny Ray and Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme.  Every Friday in The Orlando Sentinel, the back page of the After Hours insert would clue locals in to who was performing “at the Top” that weekend and in the near future.  In 1981 the nightly entertainment had become more regular via a new show entitled Broadway at the Top.  A former server at the resort attributed this shift, in part, to the unpredictability of certain celebrity performers (tipsiness, foul-mouthed asides) that had generated some complaints among diners.  That’s going to happen when you try to emulate a lounge environment on Disney property.  At any rate, Broadway at the Top featured a squeaky-clean (onstage at least) cast of performers in the Disney mold and significantly reduced the potential for shocking spontaneity.

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The original penthouse-level decor, including the carpet-is-everywhere look seen in the 14th floor elevator hallway below, topped even the Tomorrowland Terrace for its creative and repellent melding of polygons (here octagons, in Tomorrowland hexagons) and maddening color schemes.  Stepping off the elevator in the 1970s, one expected to see a sign directing them to the Playboy Club, where wide lapels were validated and women smiled way too much.  All of this top-floor tomfoolery was brought to an end in 1994 when renovations began that would lead to the opening of the California Grill restaurant in summer 1995.

The adjacent lounge area leading up to the restaurant, later absorbed into the restaurant when it became the California Grill, afforded guests the opportunity to look out across the Seven Seas Lagoon without paying to see Mel Torme, and from the beginning of time was a coveted fireworks-viewing location.

The CRH’s geometric fixation extended to the lakeside pools as well.  The adult pool featured a series of concentric rectangular tile forms and the teenage pool – on its own peninsular deck with piped-in ROCK MUSIC – had concentric circles.  Adults = squares.  Teenagers = groovy.  The adjacent beach provided for easy access to what was once a lake you could swim in and is now by all appearances a lake into which you wouldn’t want to dip your toe.  Sailboats, water sprites and other recreational watercraft were available for lease.  Beyond the dock to the east was Discovery Island and Fort Wilderness.  Between Discovery Island and the Contemporary, the Electrical Water Pageant has been making its nightly trips across the lagoon for Contemporary guests since 1972.

As for the “Garden Wing” portions of the hotel, one may well wonder if Disney held a “most boring name” contest.  At least at the Polynesian the accommodations were in buildings called longhouses, each named for a different Pacific island.  But the Contemporary North and Contemporary South Garden Wings?  Why not just call them Less Fun Annexes A & B?  Maybe because this was supposed to be the flagship hotel and skewed as highbrow as anything to be found on property, the company didn’t want names that would appeal to children or the “child in all of us.”

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But if Disney didn’t care about kid-centric names in the Contemporary, it would be hard to explain the very existence of the Fiesta Fun Center just off the ground floor lobby’s front desk corridor.  This sprawling game room / snack bar combination made up for whatever seriousness or lack of spark might have plaqued most other parts of the hotel.  It was not an original component, but was open and listed in guide books by 1974.

Guests entered the FFC through a wide doorway (now the portal into a ground-floor restaurant) and went down a short flight of steps.  Character artwork by resident WDW artist Bill Justice, heavy on the Three Cabelleros, marked the walls.  The large snack bar occupied the eastern wall, offering hot dogs, nachos, french fries and sodas.  Past the seating area, the game room housed row upon row of pinball machines, shooting games, video games of every description and several novelty machines.  The weirdest machine was Morgana, a fortune teller housed in a blue game console box.  When you put your quarter in and selected your zoological sign, a woman’s face would appear on a styrofoam head mounted inside a viewing window.  She gave a few seconds of mystical insight before vanishing again.  It was an obvious Haunted Mansion-style effect so even though it wasn’t a machine made by Disney it still felt right at home on their property.   In the back corner of the room was a theater that showed Disney movies, and a few ski ball machines next to that.  In the room’s southwest corner was the Fun Center’s magnum opus … an amazing light-activated shooting gallery that just seemed enormous to me as a kid.  It consisted of many detailed backdrops … medieval, nautical, western and just plain nonsensical.  Shoot the light target over the castle door and a glowing skeleton appears in it, dancing.  Shoot a bottle above the bar and a ghost ship appeared in it.  Shoot the target next to the bull’s head and his horns spun.  Wonderful stuff.

The Shooting Gallery didn’t make it past the mid-1980s, although the game room itself (later rechristened the Food & Fun Center) was routinely updated and remained until roughly 2007.  Some of the games were then relocated to a space on the 4th floor that was once the original Fantasia shop.

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As a kid, I knew the Contemporary Resort first from monorail trips through the concourse enroute to the Magic Kingdom and later from trips to the hotel with my grandfather.  Even though my family lived painfully close to WDW, my parents neither worked there or were such good friends with anyone who did that we’d pick up free tickets to the park.  My parents would still take my brother Brian and me to the MK several times a year, but somehow we managed to talk Grandpa into taking us out to the hotels just to walk around and play in the game rooms in the early 1980s.  This could be done by paying the parking fee at the toll entrance (back then it was either 50 cents or a dollar) then just driving into the hotel parking lot – it would be many years before Disney had security positioned at the entrances.  So we got pretty familiar with the 4th floor’s gift shops, the unbelievably slow elevators, the 14th floor observation decks (from which we could observe with some melancholy the sight of brand new Big Thunder trains looking like toys as they climbed Lift 2 less than a mile away) and the Fiesta Fun Center.  But to this day I’ve never spent a night at the hotel, and not since the 1980s have I thought it might be as much fun as some of WDW’s other hotels.

One of the reasons is that, going back to the early 1990s, sections of the Contemporary’s parking lots were used as marshalling yards for construction equipment, storage trailers or dumpsters.  You could see all of this quite plainly from the monorails, and I started to equate the hotel with the sight of paunchy maintenance men sitting in golf carts more than with the future … not knowing then that paunchy men in golf carts WAS the future!!!  Disney World’s, at least.

The Convention Center annex was built for a 1991 opening in a section of the original parking lot.  The third floor of the main hotel building, one level below the Grand Canyon Concourse, has always held a series of convention and banquet rooms.  The new building was part of a bid to garner more business by offering a more modern facility with much easier load-in and load-out access.  It was, unfortunately, not speaking the same architectural language as the 1971 structures, adding to a sense of disjointedness that by the 1990s had already made itself plain in other corners of WDW, especially Lake Buena Vista.  In 2008 another new structure rose in what was formerly the site of the North Garden Wing; the Disney Vacation Club’s Bay Lake Tower was a better effort than the convention building to integrate an adjacent structure into the same visual vocabulary.  The only problem is that its height takes the Contemporary off the horizon’s center stage, and given the structures’ comparable altitudes there is an aesthetic impasse at work.  And much like this sentence, the skinny wiggly bridge between the two buildings comes across as a kind of silly afterthought … or the most anyone was willing to pay for in an effort to establish a pronounced connection.  It’s probably still fun to walk on.

It looks like the Contemporary will last for many years to come.  In light of its phenomenal location, the fact that it still has Mary Blair’s single-largest project as a literal centerpiece (which no other place on earth seems prepared to adopt) and the monorails that continue to sling through its belly as they do nowhere else, the hotel will remain significant.  If the next five sets of renovations took place according to some kind of plan, maybe the place could feel like it was whole again.          

The Contemporary Resort Hotel in 1971


Grand Canyon Terrace Cafe
Grand Canyon Terrace
Top of the World
Gulf Coast Room
El Pueblo
The Dock Inn
Monorail Club Car
The Sand Bar
Mesa Grande Lounge


The Contemporary Man – men’s fashions
The Contemporary Woman – women’s fashions
Plaza Gifts & Sundries
Kingdom Jewels Ltd.
The Fantasia Shop – gifts
The Spirit World – beer, wine, liquor
Adult Books – just kidding
The Captain’s Chair – men’s barbershop
The American Beauty Shoppe – women’s salon
Bay n’ Beach – film, sunscreen, souvenirs
The Olympiad – spa and gym


High-speed boat excursions
Yacht Cruises
Volleyball & Badminton
Croquet & Horseshoes
Putting Greens
Film Theater


* “Green side up, boys!”  Not funny , really, yet much better than anything Bob Hope had to say three weeks later – in front of an audience no less.

** Even the Grand Canyon has a river in its gorge, of course, but the closest thing you’ll ever find to a stream in the CRH’s concourse is someone spilling a cup of Sprite.

***  If you’re going to let someone second-guess the design sense of WED’s and Welton Beckett Associates’ old guard, check their portfolio first.  If it includes a lot of work in shopping malls, pass.

**** In the mid-20th century, many adults had an acutely warped sense of what passed for “great entertainment” or a “smashing time.”  Supper clubs were places where they would gather for filet mignon and a floor show.  And smoking.  And alcohol.  Lots of smoking and alcohol.  But surprisingly little cocaine.  For cocaine you went to a disco.

Additional Contemporary Resort Hotel Images & Video

IMAGES – click on any of the thumbnails below for larger images
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VIDEO – The first video below is from Vault Disney’s YouTube channel, the second from MRPrefab’s YouTube Channel

First draft of page posted October 17, 2009

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