Well it is true that Disney built resorts at the Vacation Kingdom (the original name of Walt Disney World) and people did come….and still do. Originally planned for the area surrounding the Magic Kingdom was The Polynesian Village, The Asian, the Persian, Tempo Bay Resort (now called the Contemporary) and the Venetian. The Polynesian and Contemporary along with the Fort Wilderness Camp grounds were completed by opening day with the Polynesian actually opening just before the Contemporary. The Asian later became the Grand Floridian and only rumors of the Venetian project coming back to life have surfaced a few times including just recently when sight balloons were seen over in the area it was to go, but this is not a history lesson on what resorts were planned for Disney World (that can be a later topic). This is about the state of the art design that went into the creation of both these resorts and to what is true and false about the stories behind the rooms.
Originally Disney was going to let outside companies manage the resorts. Western International was going to manage the Polynesian while Marriott would do the same for the Contemporary. This later would change and Disney would take control of these resorts. Sounds like it was a good move to me.
Designed by Welton Becket and built by US Steel, there were some new techniques used to create these resorts. The Contemporary was built by constructing the center of the building that housed the elevators with a steel A-frame design surrounding it. The 14 story A-frame Steel design used a cable suspension system to support the rooms from the hotel’s structural frame. The original Polynesian Village concept had a similar 12 story framed building surrounded by outer “hut” buildings. This later changed by the time work started in 1969.
About 1500 of these rooms were constructed about 3 miles offsite to allow them to build the rooms without having to wait until after the framing and surrounding infrastructure to be finished. They built the rooms with everything installed including air system, wallpaper, carpet, plumbing and electrical. When put in place the rooms would connect up to the existing plumbing and interconnect with other rooms utility lines. The rooms weighed 6 tons and were to be 29 feet by 14 feet 4 inches. Each room had 20 five guage galvanized steel runners and studs (16 inch centers) and the panels are surrounded in ½ inch or 5/8 inch fire resistant gypsum board. They were designed to sleep a family of 5 and even the bathrooms were designed to be larger than the standard hotel bathroom. Fireproofing material would be added to the exterior of each room before it was put in place giving each room a two-hour fire rating. This is the “Asbestos” that was later removed in 2002 from between each room. The workers would complete 7 rooms per day.
The rumor is that the rooms were done this way so that when they wanted a new room design they could design one offsite and swap them out. Sounds like a great plan but there is no truth to that rumor. The A frame design of the Contemporary did allow them to slide the rooms in like a big drawer but once in place and the exterior work was done, it was not possible to remove the rooms. Also there would be no way to get the heavy equipment in and around the grounds surrounding the building after completion to remove the rooms. The other false information that often is written about the Polynesian is that it had the same design as the Contemporary where the rooms were slid in. Well part of that statement is true. The rooms were designed in the same manor and they were installed like the rooms at the Contemporary but they were not slid in like the tower rooms.
They were stacked 3 high like the garden wing rooms. Why 3 high and not taller? Well they were only designed to support up to 3 stacked so that is why both the Contemporary wings and the Polynesian are only 3 stories tall. They also were not slid into an existing frame but stacked like blocks. There were eight structural columns designed into the room foundation footer that were inserted into the mate with the room below and bolted together. After they were stacked the frame and roof was constructed around the stacked rooms.
Future longhouses would have the rooms built onsite, not using the original techniques that the Contemporary and Polynesian used in prior construction. When the Polynesian built its first expansion in 1978 (Oahu) there were a collection of “test rooms” inside the longhouse that tried out different designs and layouts. One of those layouts was a double sink and a sink and vanity outside the toilet and shower area. Later these “test rooms” were converted over to the standard design but the room with the double sink was used in the later expansion buildings Moorea and Pago Pago. These rooms were also a few feet longer as well as the hallways of the buildings are wider.
The technique of building offsite was innovative for its time and may not be seen again on Disney property but it helped them meet the deadline and will always be an interesting construction story from Walt Disney Worlds past.