Treasures of Disney's Boardwalk Inn and Villas: Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

In January, the Boardwalk Inn and Villas Resort at Walt Disney World quietly tested a 45-minute walking tour for Disney guests. One of the managers used to work at Disney's Wilderness Lodge and was one of the Ranger guides for the well-done free tour offered at that lush resort. Moving to the Boardwalk, he felt that a tour could be developed for the Boardwalk, as well.

He was absolutely right. The premium resort has a host of rich details easily and often overlooked. I went on the tour twice during the testing period and thoroughly enjoyed it both times. I found that there was a high amount of accuracy in the material shared (not always true of some Disney-created guest tours), the guides were personable and enthusiastic, the path was well chosen, and, without exception, the guests loved every minute.

However, some of the material was misleading or incorrect and, regrettably, some obvious material was not pointed out at all. So, I went home and pulled out my files and thought readers might like this information and if the tour did, hopefully, progress to the point of being offered that the designers might also like a different perspective and some additional information to consider.

The real Atlantic City in New Jersey is well-known as a popular vacation location, enhanced by its many conventions and gambling facilities. It was also home to the very first boardwalk in the United States that opened on June 26, 1870. Originally, that boardwalk was just 8 feet wide and a mile long.

The boardwalk was created as a way to keep tourists from tracking sand into the hotels and businesses. Some visitors also did not want to get dirty by setting foot on the beach itself, even though they enjoyed the view and the fresh sea air.

The boardwalk was so effective that, over the decades, it was modified and expanded many times so that it eventually spanned more than 6 miles and 60-feet wide.

Opening July 1, 1996, the BoardWalk Inn and Villas Resort was designed by architect Robert A. M. Stern, who also designed many other Disney buildings, including Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts, just across the other side of Crescent Lake. The physical Disney herringbone-patterned boardwalk at Crescent Lake is roughly 35 feet wide and 1,300 feet long.

For the Boardwalk area, Stern utilized elements from Atlantic City and Coney Island, in particular the first Luna Park amusement park, to create a Northeast Coast seaside village that is not historically exact, but rather an attempt to capture the spirit of the early 1900s using some specific elements.

In early planning for the resort, there was discussion about having a full-sized antique carousel operating at one end of the boardwalk. Another idea discussed was having a wooden pier (a smaller version of the Steel Pier near Atlantic City's Boardwalk) going out into Crescent Lake and, among other things, have a working Ferris Wheel to entertain guests.

Stern's approach to architecture is "interpretation," meaning that he takes an existing piece or style of architecture like the Doge's Palace in Venice, Italy, and utilizes those aspect to create something new like the Walt Disney World Casting Center, across the street from the Downtown Disney district, that echoes its original source material.

Besides the hotel itself, there are restaurants, nightclubs, shops, and games, just as a person might find on this type of boardwalk but without some of the unsavory aspects that also existed on the early boardwalk areas.

Fans of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire are well aware that during the time period represented at the Disney resort, the Atlantic City boardwalk was known for gambling, prostitution, illegal alcohol and other vices. None of those elements are incorporated into the Boardwalk Inn and Villas, not even in name references.

Boardwalk Inn and Villas was the second Disney Vacation Club property that was built at Walt Disney World, and the first to offer the option of housing to non-members.

Ironically, it was the opening of the Walt Disney World Resort in 1971 that contributed to the decline of the decades-long appeal of Atlantic City. It became almost as inexpensive and infinitely more entertaining to journey further south for entertainment for the entire family.

The resort is filled with artifacts and references to both Atlantic City and Coney Island. Intriguingly, there are many similarities between the two locations at this time period. For instance, Coney Island also had a boardwalk, as well as a huge elephant-shaped hotel just like Atlantic City, and was a popular Northeastern vacation destination.

Fortunately, the resort does have some signage identifying these things, but, unfortunately, some items have no signs or incomplete (or sometimes misleading) information. So, in today's column I will point out some of those hidden treasures.

''We deliberately went through a process of creating virtual memories,'' Alix Beeny told the New York Times in 1996 when the Disney resort opened.

Beeny was the director of Parker Blake, a Denver design company hired by Disney Imagineering division to help explore themes and find artifacts from the glory days of both Atlantic City and Coney Island to add authentic touches to the Boardwalk complex.

In 1996, few Walt Disney World guests had any direct memories of the fabled culture of the Atlantic City and Coney Island in the 1920s and 1930s, but the purpose of actual artifacts and references was to create a hybrid of history and cinematic staging.

Just as Disney Hollywood Studios is clearly an attempt to present a "Hollywood that never was but always will be" or, more precisely, a Hollywood that was a state of mind rather than a specific geographical location, Boardwalk Inn and Villas was to capture what Todd A. Lenahan, the architecture and engineering design manager for Disney Imagineering at the time, called a location that would ''romanticize people's recollection of what a boardwalk was."

Lenahan, 30 years old when the resort opened, was many decades removed from the time period he was in charge of bringing to reality from drawing board concepts to final ribbon-cutting ceremony.

There were at least a dozen and a half contributors of historical images for use in the resort from the New York Public Library to the Atlantic City Historical Museum, as well as the Atlantic City Historical Society.

Some items came from the Vicki Gold Levi Collection. Vicki Gold Levi is a noted cultural historian and the co-author of one of the major texts used in the project, 'Atlantic City: 125 years of Ocean Madness' (Ten Speed Press, 1994).

She told reporters that the book was to spotlight the golden era of her hometown and recall the Atlantic City Boardwalk of her youth where it was ''a cacophony of sound, crowds, bright lights." That boardwalk was a chaos of stage theaters, movie palaces, snake charmers, big bands, roller coasters, saloons and more, all brightly advertised and competing for attention.

Levi worked as a consultant on the Disney Boardwalk Inn and Villas

''I wish somebody in Atlantic City would take old Atlantic City as seriously as Disney did,'' Levi told the New York Times when the resort opened.

Ballyhoo Banner

On the wall to the lefthand side just before entering the lobby itself, is a huge, colorful banner under glass. It features a well dressed man holding a small horse in his hand and on the side, the banner proclaims: "Seeing is believing. Let's Go See It. Let's Go. Let's All Go."

The small sign near it states: "Wonderful Showcloth Banner. The showcloth banner or 'ballyhoo' is a holdover from the late 19th century when seasonal venues whose façade architecture was little more than a collapsible wall of elaborately painted canvas. The 'ballyhoo' enticed passerby to partake of a particular attraction—in this case, a jewel-size living horse. On canvas with gold and silver leaf."

These types of banners were most common for sideshows at a circus. Miniature horses, although none so tiny they could fit in the palm of a hand, were first seen in the United States in the late 1800s. However, since "ballyhoo" is a "sensationalized promotion," I am sure the banner perhaps exaggerated the smallness although today there are perfectly proportioned miniature horses only seventeen inches tall.

Below is a cabinet with four illustrated scenes from Atlantic City: the Steel Pier diving horse, Lucy the elephant building, the first Miss America and a typical Boardwalk scene with a store offering Fatima cigarettes (popular in the late 1800s through the 1940s and was a blend of exotic Turkish tobacco), and Lipschutz's 44 Cigars (popular five-cents cigars produced in Philadelphia that had opened another factory in New Jersey in 1911).

Miniature Carousel in the Lobby

Marcus Charles Illions (1872-1949) was a master carver particularly famed for his work on carousel horses and their carousels. He worked at many of the finest and most prestigious carousel companies and finally opened his own company.

He was an expert horseman and owned a few of his own. His knowledge of horse musculature, even their facial veins, translated into his creating legendary figures that are still revered today.

His style, known as the more flamboyant "Coney Island-style" of carousels, dominated the Coney Island area with at least 10 of his carousels in residence during the 1920s.

In the 1920s, he created three grand machines known as the Supreme series. There is a small flag flying from the top of this miniature proclaiming "M.C. Illions Supreme Carousel."

There is a known photo (unfortunately not displayed by Disney) of Harry Illions, M.C.'s oldest son (who was only 16 years old when Illions formed his own company in 1909), with this same miniature model carousel.

M.C. Illions would take this salesman's sample to the conventions of the National Association of Amusement Parks or NAAP (formed February 1920). This group is now known today as The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions or IAAPA.

Disney purchased this model direct from Illions' granddaughter at auction in 1995. It had been hidden from general public view for nearly 80 years.

This sales tool featured 44 4-inch-tall horses that were each unique. No two horses were similar. The horses even moved up and down when the machine was turned on. Illions never intended that the model would be displayed publicly.

The Walt Disney Company purchased it in 1995 and spent more than a year restoring the wood, mechanisms, flaking paint and other elements that were in disrepair. The original paint colors and decorations were researched (using the still existing full size Illions' carousels and horses as partial reference). Brass was replated, gold leaf applied, and miniature leather stirrup straps were attached. Even the tiny pearl-headed pins that were to represent light bulbs were replaced.

The Imagineers scaled the speed of the carousel to match that of the King Arthur Carrousel located at Disneyland Park in California. As a final playful touch, a Hidden Mickey was added to two of the horses (You can find one of those horses on the outer circle about two horses up from the green-blue chariot). Approximately every 20 minutes or so, the carousel springs to life playing a medley of Disney instrumental songs.

Between the two restrooms down the hall near the Belle Vue Lounge is an interesting artifact that looks like a face on an elaborate stick. The small sign reads: "All manner of sculptural elements decorated the turn of the century Boardwalk carousel to provide sumptuous ornament for the usual feast of the amusement business. Carved by M.C. Illions this figurine originally surrounded mirrored panels and was accompanied by dozens of similar figures. Cast from the circa 1910 original, hand painted and gold lettered."

Hippocampus Electrolier

Hanging directly above the miniature carousel is the Hippocampus Electrolier that supposedly is a one-of-a-kind original rather than a reproduction.

The classical hippocampus comes from Greek mythology and is a sea monster with a horse's forequarters and a fish's tail, quite literally a seahorse.

Poseidon was not only the god of the sea, but also earthquakes and horses. He was often accompanied by hippocampi who pulled his chariot.

Electrolier was the name for a chandelier powered by electric lights, rather than gas or candle, but the term never caught on in common usage.

Reportedly, it was inventor Thomas Edison who coined the term.

The Hippocampus Electrolier Chandelier weighs 3,000 pounds and is finished entirely in 22-karat gold leaf, hand-cut Austrian crystal, and custom-blown glass. Underneath there is a glass globe that used to be filled with sand and a time capsule to be opened on the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World. The globe developed a leak (or fell and cracked depending upon who tells the story) and the sand and the time capsule were removed and are supposedly in safe keeping.

Registration Desk Display

Above the registration desk are three carousel "rounding boards." These would be found on the outside of a carousel and traditionally feature pastoral scenes. These three paintings feature Disney Imagineers interpretations of three castles. From left to right, the Disneyland Resort, Disneyland Paris and the Walt Disney World Resort as if they existed in a real world are shown.

Nanny Chairs

Placed on either side of the fireplace are the scary "nanny chairs" that were originally found on 19th century European carrousels. They were intended for adults to rest upon while their children rode the moving animals. From this concept developed the more traditional "chariot" benches. It would have been inappropriate for female nannies to even ride side saddle on a carousel horse. These reproductions were cast from circa 1889 originals, hand painted and highlighted with gold leaf. In a moment of cleverness, the two Imagineers involved in the reproductions printed their names on the back of each chair: Todd and Paul.

Lucy the Elephant

Above the fireplace is a statue of an unusual elephant and a black and white photo is framed nearby. This is one of the earliest examples of programmatic architecture which is commonly known today as "California Crazy." There are several examples at Disney Hollywood Studio, including the Darkroom on Hollywood Boulevard and Gertie the Dinosaur in the Echo Lake area.

James Lafferty owned a number of sandy lots in the South Atlantic City area (today it is known as Margate) and he needed to do something to attract attention (and property buyers) to the area. The 65-foot high elephant was constructed in 1881 at a reported cost of $25,000 (although Lafferty always claimed that by the time it was finished it was $38,000). To protect his idea of an animal-shaped structure, Lafferty applied for and received a patent from the U.S. Government for exclusive rights for 17 years to make, use or sell animal shaped buildings.

Lucy the Elephant is one of three such structures designed and built by Lafferty. It is the only one still intact and survived the ravages of Hurricane Sandy. Lucy's nearest relative was the Light of Asia, a 40-foot wooden elephant built on South Cape May. Lucy's other relative, the 150-foot high Elephantine Colossus, was built at Coney Island, New York, purely as an amusement attraction in 1885.

In 1887, to try to recoup after some financial downturns, Lafferty sold his South Atlantic City holdings, including Lucy, to Anton Gertzen. It was Gertzen's wife, Sophia, who named the elephant Lucy (despite the fact that it had tusks making it a male elephant) and the reason for the name is apparently lost to the ages.

Lucy was a business office, a hotel and even a speakeasy right before prohibition. She was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

So both Atlantic City and Coney Island had elephant shaped structures

Here's a site to read more about the three elephants (and in particular about Lucy).

Flip Flap Railway

In the lobby is a glass encased model of the Flip Flap Railway which was located in Sea Lion Park at Coney Island. (This park site was later bought and transformed into Luna Park.)

Built in 1895, this early ride featured a 25-foot loop and was the world's first inverted (upside down loop-the-loop) roller coaster. Because of its design (and no seatbelts), there were neck and back injuries among other discomforts.

Atlantic City had its own version of the Flip-Flap (sometimes called the Looping the Loop) on Young's Pier from 1902-1912. So, once again, both Coney Island and Atlantic City shared similar attractions.

The Coney Flip-Flap produced 12 Gs, enough to knock riders out. To put this in comparison, Epcot's Mission: Space produces about 2.5 Gs for 45 seconds. Even the high-flying aerobatics of the Blue Angels only produces 9-11 Gs maximum.

It is my understanding that this model is an original produced by Imagineering.

Swan Ride

On a table in the middle of the room is an authentic two-headed "Swan Seat." According to the nearby sign, it "is of European origin from the period of large-themed carousels dedicated to one species of animal, bird or fish. These grand rides had dispensed with rocking gondolas or spinning tubes in favor of these more fanciful creations. Giant baskets carried the passengers on a "Manege des Cochons" (ride of pigs). This swan seat originally hung from chairs and rocked on the carousel floor from the shifting weight of the children inside. Iron and tin with hand painting and gold leafing circa 1890."