As many of you know, the Boardwalk is my favorite place to stay on property at Walt Disney World. I have previously authored an article on the resort, and if you're interested, you can find it here.
My reasons for preferring the Boardwalk are many and varied, but if pressed, I'd say that its location is the chief reason I return so often—but it's certainly not the only one. Disney's Boardwalk resort is rich in history and theming. The architecture and artifacts are expertly integrated to deliver the feel of Coney Island and, primarily, the Atlantic City of the 1920s and '30s. This was driven home nicely when I had a chance to take a look behind-the-scenes recently.
I learned that the Boardwalk was offering a guided tour, specifically the Boardwalk Ballyhoo Guided Tour, on select dates in January 2013. The tour was being offered on a trial basis, and based on attendance and reception, potentially would become a permanent fixture. There was no formal enrollment; just the instructions to show up at the Belle Vue Room at 2:00pm on a specific day. As luck would have it, my wife and I were staying at the Boardwalk Villas on one of the dates the tour was offered, so after lunch at the ESPN Club we strolled upstairs and took seats in a couple of the Belle Vue Room's easy chairs.
If you've not visited the Belle Vue Room previously, it's located just off the lobby on the Inn side of the resort. It's a very comfortable room dotted with tables, sofas and chairs. In the mornings guests can purchase breakfast items provided by the Boardwalk Bakery. In the evening, it becomes a full service bar.
Before we get started on the tour, let me state that I've spent more than 100 nights at the Boardwalk resort. Given my general "Disney geek" nature and the fact I write for MousePlanet, I thought I was pretty well versed in the Boardwalk's lore and theming. I can tell you it was shocking to me to see how many things I missed—some of which were right under my nose—so to speak.
Precisely at 2:00 our tour guide, Jesse, showed up and gathered the dozen or so of us into the center of the room. She was curious and polled the group on where we were from and how we heard about the tour. Our group was a mix of genders, ages and even included a toddler in a stroller.
Jesse began the tour by discussing much of the theming in the Belle Vue Lounge itself. The décor, from the furniture to the wainscoting and bookshelves, is reminiscent of the 1920s Atlantic seaboard. The walls are dotted with photos of the era depicting beaches, Ferris wheels, and the Boardwalk itself.
The Belle Vue's shelves contain period books from the era as well as the entertainment options that were available to families at that time: board games and radios. While the radios are authentic period pieces, they've been modified a bit and, periodically, will broadcast recordings from that "golden age of radio." Guests are also free to use the board games. You can play checkers, chess, backgammon, or any of the available board games that include the quintessential Atlantic City game Monopoly.
The tour continued to the breezeway that adjoins the Belle Vue Room. To the left is the Boardwalk Inn, the hotel part of the property. To the right is the lobby and, beyond that, the Boardwalk Villas – the Disney Vacation Club portion of the property. The breezeway is home to a couple of wonderful period pieces and paintings that are intended to depict Disney's Boardwalk as if it had existed in the 1920s and '30s.
The breezeway is also home to an authentic clamshell Mutascope. It once held several but now only one—I'm hoping the others are being cared for or repaired somewhere. The Mutascope is a motion picture device and was prominent in many penny arcades around the country. If any of you remember the Penny Arcade on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom you will recall that these devices once resided there. The "motion" is provided when a wheel of photographs is turned inside the machine—either by hand crank or electronically depending on the machine. The photo, below, was taken in 2010 and depicts two Mutascopes. Today, only a single machine remains.
We next journeyed to the Boardwalk's lobby which is also loaded with artifacts. The first item to catch your eye, and the largest, is the immense chandelier just inside the doorway. This is the Hippocampus Electrolier—3,000 pounds and finished in 22-karat gold leaf.
In mythology, the hippocampus is a sea horse with the two forelegs of a horse and the tail of a sea creature. I admit that I've seen and photographed this chandelier dozens of times and never before noticed the "horse's tail."
The term "electrolier," we were told, was coined by none other than Thomas Edison. With the advent of electricity, he was attempting to provide distinction between the older chandeliers (outfitted with candles) and the newer devices with electric lights. I guess it never caught on.
Just under the electrolier is a glass sphere. This is actually a Time Capsule that isn't scheduled to open until Walt Disney World's 50th anniversary. As you can see, the sphere is currently empty. The sand surrounding the contents was apparently leaking so they are now stored elsewhere.
Directly under the electrolier is a miniature carousel designed and built by M.C. Illions in the 1920s. Illions constructed this miniature as a demonstration tool for prospective buyers of his full-sized merry-go-rounds. It features 44 hand-crafted four-inch-tall horses—and no two are identical.
The carousel was purchased by the Walt Disney Company in 1995 specifically to be displayed at the Boardwalk resort. It was restored and refurbished by the Imagineers, and if you look closely, you'll notice a few added Hidden Mickeys. The carousel will run approximately every twenty minutes throughout the day.
As we move toward the front desks, there are three murals on display.
While there was always something familiar about the murals, I learned two facts:
Continuing around the lobby, we find the model of the Flip-Flap Railway which was located in Luna Park on Coney Island. This coaster was built in 1898 and featured a 25-foot loop and boasted to be the world's first "upside down loop-the-loop roller coaster." The loop's design is significantly different than those used today. The design resulted in significant g-force applied to its riders—we were told it was multiples of what's now experienced in the spinning centrifuge of Mission: Space. The coaster also lacked many of the safety features and restraints found today. The result of this archaic design was discomfort and injury to its riders and, because of that, the Flip-Flap Railway was closed not long after opening.
Atop the mantle, you'll see Lucy the Elephant, an elephant-shaped hotel that can be found today in Margate, New Jersey. There seems to be a lot of misinformation about Lucy—even some of the information on the nearby plaque is misleading. Lucy does stand 15 stories high and 150 feet long and was used, at various times, as a 15-room hotel and tavern. I'm told that she still exists and has survived the recent east coast super storms—something I hope to verify myself in the near future.
Directly below the mantle, and on each side of the fireplace, are the hideous (at least to me) "little girl chairs" I've written about previously. These are more precisely called "Nanny Chairs" and were found on 19th century European carousels. While children rode the merry-go-round, these chairs were offered to adults (most likely, nannies) for a respite. These chairs were cast, by Imagineers, from the circa 1880 European originals. If you turn the chairs around, you'll notice the names "Todd" and "Paul" prominently displayed. These are the names of the Imagineers that did the casting.
At this point in our tour, we were joined by cast member Joe, who is the tour's author. He and Jesse led us to the elevators just off the lobby for a trip down to the first level and our destination, the Luna Park pool area. Now, I've used these elevators dozens of times, I was well acquainted with the Hidden Mickeys in the carpet. What I had not noticed previously was the trail of pixie dust on the carpet that led to a terrific depiction of Tinker Bell.
The Boardwalk resort's main pool is called Luna Park, a tribute to the Coney Island amusement park. Its main feature is the aptly-named Keister Coaster that takes its riders on a swirling, 200-foot roller-coaster slide before splashdown into the pool—out of a clown's mouth. I'm not sure if there is any single structure in Walt Disney World, with the possible exceptions of the Haunted Mansion and Tower of Terror, that inspire more fear than this clown.
Horses and elephants are a large part of the theming at Luna Park. If you look closely at the tile in the pool, you'll notice the elephant theme carries through with Dumbo depicted around the pool at water level.
The pool bar is called Leaping Horse Libations and is a tribute to a girl-and-horse high diving act from Atlantic City. The story was popularized in a Disney film called "Wild Hearts Can't be Broken." As depicted in the picture (below), the horse and rider would leap off an elevated platform into a water tank below.
What I didn't know is that the upper structure of the ESPN Club is meant to depict the water tank into which the horse dived. For years I felt there was something familiar about this structure but couldn't put my finger on it. Now I know.
The final stage of our tour took place out on the boardwalk itself. We learned that your everyday pressure-treated lumber would not stand up to the traffic and everyday power-washing the boardwalk must endure. A South African lumber, Eki wood, is used throughout for its long-lasting properties. We were told that the wood is so hard a diamond saw is required for cutting.
The boardwalk is home to many shops and restaurants. As you leave the hotel, to the left is the Screen Door General Store, the Character Carnival (toys and plushes), Thimbles and Threads (adult clothing), the Big River Grill and Brewing Works, Jellyrolls (dueling pianos) and the Atlantic Dance Hall. Beyond the boardwalk are the Swan and Dolphin hotels.
To the right are the Flying Fish Restaurant, Seashore Sweets, Kouzzina by Cat Cora, the Boardwalk Bakery and the ESPN Arcade and restaurant. Directly across Crescent Lake are the Beach and Yacht Clubs.
You're probably aware that for many years Atlantic City hosted the Miss America Pageant. Indeed, if you glance around the room at Seashore Sweets, you'll see photographs of the winners from 1921 until 2005. In 2006, the pageant moved to its current home in Las Vegas. You'll also see a case containing an actual robe, crown, scepter, and trophy awarded to the winner.
Outside Seashore Sweets, there's a painting of two young women. As the story goes, they were sisters entered in the Miss America pageant. Neither won but they became enamored of the Atlantic City area and together opened a sweets and ice cream shop on the boardwalk.
So there are a few of the things I learned on the Boardwalk Ballyhoo Guided Tour: an interesting mixture of facts, theming and folklore. If you have the opportunity to take this tour I would recommend it. It provides a real understanding of the wonderful job the Imagineers have done to deliver the magic we've grown to love.
Unfortunately, I checked with the Boardwalk and was told the tour is "on hold until further notice." I hope there was enough interest in the January tours that the Boardwalk will be able to bring this back on a regular basis. If you're interested, I'd ask you to contact the Boardwalk resort (407-939-5100) and let them know.
Lastly, please stay tuned to MousePlanet on March 6 and 13 for a two-part series by our own Disney historian, Jim Korkis, on the Treasures of the Boardwalk Inn and Villas. It's no stretch to say Jim could have written and delivered this tour and he presents this information with a wealth of background knowledge.
Thanks for reading.
(Send an email to Steve Russo)
Steve's a Disney Vacation Club member that has been planning Walt Disney World vacations since 1984. Along the way, he's tried to learn everything he could about the Disney World resorts, restaurants and theme parks. He brings you that knowledge via planning tips and insights, often delivered with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
His three children are now grown but still vacation at Walt Disney World with Mom and Dad. The clan has increased to include a daughter-in-law, two sons-in-law and grandchildren. Steve is now retired and he and his wife, Barbara anxiously await their next visit to the World.Steve is the author of So... You're Going to Disney World: How I learned to stop worrying and embrace the planning process.