The Wilderness Lodge Saga - Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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At Disney's Wilderness Lodge that opened May 28, 1994, the Walt Disney Imagineers attempted to maintain a linear time lime for the entire area that is divided into three distinct-but-connected sections that were all built at different times.

The arrival of the Transcontinental Railroad in the Pacific Northwest spurred the development of rustic, residential communities housing the railroad workers and that is the story of Boulder Ridge Villas, formerly known as the Villas at Wilderness Lodge when they first opened in November 15, 2000. They were renamed Boulder Ridge Villas in May 2016.

With the completion of the railroad, grand vacation lodges that attracted visitors coming to the U.S. National Parks became hugely popular for tourists and that is the story behind Disney's Wilderness Lodge. The Lodge has design elements that are clearly reminiscent of Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park and the Awahwanee Lodge in Yosemite National Park.

Decades later, the abandonment of the railroad (in favor of cars, planes, etc.), resulted in the resourceful locals turning railroad relics (abandoned quarries, train stations, railroad-supervisor residences, etc.) into new living spaces for today's travelers and that is the tale of Copper Creek Villas & Cabins that opened on July 17, 2017.

However, the real saga behind Disney's Wilderness Lodge and its development is even more fascinating and began almost as soon as Walt Disney World opened in October 1971.

The Cypress Point Lodge That Never Was

Phase One of WDW in October 1971 included the Polynesian Village Resort and the Contemporary Resort with Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground opening one month later in November 1971.

The plan for Phase Two was to build within the next three years, three more resort hotels: The Asian, The Venetian, and The Persian.

In those years, the vast majority of guests came to WDW by car. There was no Orlando International Airport, just McCoy Airfield, and part of that was still being used by the military. That's why baggage tags in Orlando still say MCO on them.

The Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 that dropped attendance at WDW by 20 percent or more prompted Card Walker, the conservative and cautious chairman of the board of the Walt Disney Company, to delay proceeding with the building of any more resorts even though land and infrastructure were already being prepared for The Asian.


Disney's Wilderness Lodge at Walt Disney World was at one point going to be called Cypress Point.

With the development of EPCOT Center, the need for more hotel rooms on property to accommodate the hoped for influx of visitors became apparent and so plans were announced for more resorts.

Disney executive Dick Nunis was quoted in the May 1982 issue of the cast newspaper Eyes and Ears: "We also have in design three hotels. The Mediterranean will be located between TTC [the Transportation and Ticket Center] and the Contemporary. The Cypress Point Lodge will be west of River Country and be themed as a western hotel. It'll include log cabins along Bay Lake."

The third hotel would become Disney's Grand Floridian Resort, in place of the previously announced Asian resort, since preparation for the area had already been done years earlier. All three hotels were announced in 1980.

The November 4, 1982 issue of Walt Disney World Eyes & Ears provided the following description of the rustic, moderate resort:

"Cypress Point Lodge will be a medium-sized hotel facility, located on the south shore of Bay Lake near our Fort Wilderness Campground Resort. Encompassing 550 rooms and 50 log cabins on the beach, Cypress Point Lodge will offer a romantic notion of a turn-of-the-century hunting lodge secluded in a deep forest.

"Neither the trees nor the buildings dominate the entire area; but blend together in a natural harmony. One can almost hear the crackling fireplace and feel the large wooden beams offer a haven of security and comfort.

"Cypress Point Lodge will also include: two restaurants, a pool, extensive beach, and lake dock. Guests will commute in and out of Cypress Point Lodge by watercraft."

The land in the area had been cleared of trees by 1971, although some claim that this was originally meant for additional campgrounds. The 1973 WDW souvenir guide states that an unnamed "Lodge" was planned to be built at Fort Wilderness for guests. A rough replica of the resort was featured in the model in the post show area of Magic Kingdom's The Walt Disney Story attraction.

However, cost overruns for the building of Epcot Center resulted in Cypress Point Lodge being cancelled, and it is no longer mentioned in any documentation after 1983.

The Birth of the Wilderness Lodge

When Disney CEO Michael Eisner arrived in 1984, he chose to develop both Disney's Grand Floridian Resort, in place of the proposed Asian resort, and a lodge-themed resort, similar to the announced Cypress Point Lodge, which became the Wilderness Lodge.

It was Eisner's goal to entice lauded architects, like Robert Stern and Michael Graves, to design buildings on WDW property, giving them an inordinate amount of freedom.

"In our architecture, Disney continues to produce the kind of groundbreaking entertainment that keeps the Disney name magical to people around the world. Our architecture is part of the show," said Eisner in August 1992 at the ground-breaking ceremony for the Wilderness Lodge.

Peter Dominick Jr., who headed the Urban Design Group of Denver, Colorado, and was an avid outdoorsman, had been commissioned to design the now-premium resort. He was well known for having a great passion and understanding of the building traditions of the Rocky Mountain West.

Dominick's primary inspirations for the Wilderness Lodge were clearly the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park and the Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite National Park that are referenced in his final design.

"[Disney's Wilderness Lodge] does, in fact, capture the spirit and sense of place one associates with our National Parks, icons of our American heritage …with their art, architecture and dramatic landscapes," Dominick said.

"There are romantic and endearing qualities associated with the early national parks movement—the Northwest, the Native Americans, the great lodges. All of these elements have been combined in wonderful detail, creating a unique wilderness experience."

Dominick was inspired by Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, who insisted that architects use whatever building materials were indigenous to an area in building a hotel so that it blends all aspects together and becomes more organic to the setting.

This style was known as "rustic architecture." Robert Reamer, the designer of the Ahwahnee Lodge, did use whatever building materials were indigenous to the location to make that iconic resort in Yosemite.

Dominick set out to create a log hotel from the early 1900s in the Northwest Rockies, incorporating authentic Native American elements, natural lighting and, wherever possible, traditional building materials like natural limestone.

Eighty-five loads of lodge pole pines were harvested from "standing dead forests" (meaning the trees had been killed from a natural cause, like insects or volcanic soot) in Oregon and Montana to build the resort. No living trees were chopped down to create the lodge poles and Disney replanted new trees wherever they took trees. Stretched end to end, the lodge poles would be forty miles long.

The wood floor in the lobby is composed of Brazilian cherry, white oak, bird's eye maple, and burl walnut. It actually mimics a Native American Hopi rug that tells a "storm creation story".

There is the center of the earth and from it flow four rivers in a lightning pattern to the four corners of the earth where lodge poles extend upward to hold the canopy of the sky. Standing on an upper level looking down into the lobby, the design is clearly prominent.

Cast members will tell you the wooden "carpet design" also depicts the symbol of unity among the four seasons, wildlife, man, and the cosmos.

When the Wilderness Lodge first opened, and then every November annually as part of Native American Heritage Month, there would be a ceremony performed called the Blessing of the Four Directions, which is rooted in the belief that human beings are tied to all things in nature.

It is this belief which assigned virtues to the four cardinal directions; East, South, West and North. It was conducted by James Hansen (Black Wolf) and Anita Hansen (Quick Silver) and the ceremony symbolically drove out negative energy and purified the resort for the year ahead. The Hansens also told stories and answered questions for guests about Native American culture.

The last ceremony was held in 2009. Apparently, the Hansens decided they no longer wanted to travel to do it and Disney decided not to find an alternative.

The Wilderness Lodge Lobby

The Bright Angel Lodge at the Grand Canyon has a small geologic fireplace that was quarried directly from the layers of the Grand Canyon but the WDW Imagineers went for a more dramatic storytelling version for the Wilderness Lodge.

The fireplace is an intricate 82-foot-high replica of the South Rim Grand Canyon Strata. As you ascend the levels of the lobby, you travel upward to modern times. To see evidence of the first creatures to squirm over and under the surface of the earth, guests should go to the fourth floor and search the layers of Tapeats Sandstone for worm borrows and trilobite trails.

Paleontologist Robert Reid (who was also an artist) was sent to study the actual walls of the Grand Canyon. His studies were reproduced in a detailed book that was used to help contractors create the fireplace replete with a kaleidoscope of colors, rocks and fossils—many of which are real.

Some of the fossils of prehistoric plant and animal life are several hundred millions years old and are carefully embedded in the correct stratus for a historically accurate view. They pre-date the dinosaur era.

More than 100 colors in hues of green, magenta, buff, red, black and brown are visible. From the Vishnu Schist to Bass Limestone to Tapeats Sandstone to the Redwall and Temple Butte Limestone and finally ending with Kaibab Limestone and Toroweap Formation, the fireplace represents the 1.6 billion years of the time it took for the layers of rock to form.

The variations are recreated in the same proportions as those that appear in the real Grand Canyon that range from 50-700 feet thick.

The fireplace is built to scale with the geologic layout of the Grand Canyon, complete with geologic disconformities (periods of deposition, erosion, tilting and renewed deposition on top of the older rocks). The detail is nearly perfect with the textbook diagrams documenting the geology of the Grand Canyon.

Samples of elements from each strata are housed in glass display cases near the fireplace on each floor level. These displays describe the epoch that section of the fireplace rock represented.

One of the things that does not exist in the real Grand Canyon is a Hidden Mickey, but it does in the Wilderness Lodge fireplace.

Directly facing the fireplace, on the right hand side of the three-sided fireplace, where a lodge pole on the left is jutting out before the start of the next floor (in the reddish rock) is the famous three-circled Mickey Mouse head.

At the Guest Services front desk, guests can get a riddle clue sheet to help them locate the more than two-dozen Hidden Mickeys at the Wilderness Lodge Resort.

The Wilderness Lodge fireplace is a real working fireplace. Originally, it burned wood, which caused several challenges over the early years including, raising the humidity level in the lobby that caused problems, like cracking the wood used in the massive totem poles. It was converted to a gas burning fireplace for a number of reasons, including the fact that gas is safer and can be more easily controlled.

A variety of Native American tribes, including Cheyenne, Crow, Sioux, and Blackfoot are represented in the lobby and throughout the lodge, including the guest rooms that feature fabrics representing different tribes.

Hanging above the lobby are four massive, 500 pound floating tepee chandeliers. Made from actual rawhide that was stretched over the framework, each of the tepee shades are hand-painted with geometric Native American symbols in red and black. Inside each tepee is a 48-bulb fixture which provides 2,880 watts needed to illuminate the entire lobby. The tepees are approximately 10 feet in diameter at the base and 10 feet high at the peak. Additionally, they are framed with a bronze and steel ring (with an aged finish) of silhouetted buffaloes and Native Americans on horseback. The images were inspired by photographs and the work of artist Thomas Molesworth.

Behind the front desk is a beautiful collection of reproductions of cradleboards, a wooden frame and a soft skin pouch used for the protection of a baby or "papoose" to prevent it from falling. Within the first few weeks after a baby was born, the mother would begin to lace the baby into the cradleboard so that it could be carried on the woman's back or hooked onto a saddle. Left to right, the cradleboards behind the front desk represent the North American Indian tribes of Crow, Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Ute, Kiowa, Navajo, and Comanche.

A striking and unique garment is the Elk Tooth Dress located near the lobby elevators. It is made of red wool blanket or Stroud Cloth, which was considered a desirable decorative fabric. This type of dress was typical of one that might be worn by the Kiowa and Arapaho Plains tribeswomen. This particular dress was obviously the possession of a great hunter's wife since elk teeth are a great display of wealth. An elk only has two teeth and a dress might take hundreds of them. Most hunters saved the teeth as a memento of the hunt or traded for them with other warriors. This rare dress, which has been determined to be from around 1875, was worn for special ceremonial occasions like a wedding, a special dance or a young girl entering womanhood.

An authentic display of moccasins made by the Plains Indians is at the far end of the lobby near the fireplace along with other displays that bring a sense of reality and history to the lobby.

Headdresses are displayed in the lobby. Some Native Americans believed that by wearing the feathers of the eagle, one of the most respected and revered birds, it was possible to impart the characteristics and power of the eagle to the wearer. Today, it is illegal to use eagle feathers, so the WDW Imagineers had to adapt turkey feathers when they recreated headdresses for display. There are four headdresses in the lobby: the Double Trailer (circa 1875) from the Sioux tribe, the Feather Duster (circa 1890) from the Crow tribe, the Ermine-Tipped Raven (circa 1830s), and the Single Trailer (circa 1835) from the Mandan tribe.

The Disney Company hired Duane Pasco to carve the two 55-foot-tall totem poles for the lobby. Though not a descendant of Pacific Northwest Indians, Pasco is considered one of the most adept among the handful of Canadian and American master carvers. His work is done for both private and civic groups. One pole is dedicated to the eagle while the other to the raven. These animals were chosen because most Northwest Native American cultures have these birds as a significant part of their cultural mythology.

Pasco did not want the stories to depict a specific version by a particular tribe or clan but to capture a "pan coastal" interpretation. Originally, it was planned for the two poles to directly face each other but in native cultures this suggests conflict, not harmony, so they were placed slightly askew.

"These totem poles measure 3-feet wide at the top and 5-feet wide at the bottom and each is constructed of two 27-foot sections spliced together," Pasco said. "The choice of characters and their placement were the choice of Disneyworld's consultants."

"I made very detailed drawings for this project because there were to be three assistants helping me: Pat Huggins, Loren White, and Scott Jensen," he said. "I drew front, side, three-quarter views and lots of cross sections. In this way the client, the contractor and all the carvers can see exactly what the end product should look like."

"The goal in designing the totem poles was to use legend and lore that was common among many tribes of the Northwest Coast but not necessarily specific to any one tribe," wrote Pasco's wife, Katie. "This was easy to accomplish because the figures and the stories they represent remain fairly consistent. Characters on the Disney poles are pan-coastal in nature, with a particular attempt to portray figures not associated with inherited stories or family crests."

Pasco and his assistants began cutting away material with chainsaws. For finer details they used adzes, knives and other traditional carving tools. The entire process took roughly six months. The poles are made from four old-growth red cedars each about 5 feet in diameter at the base. The big cedars had to be hollowed out and there was considerable rot inside that had to be removed. Pasco reinforced the centers by splicing in new wood. After the poles were carved, they were finished with Thompson's Water Seal and then painted. The installation, which took place January 1994, took five days. The poles are flanked by stone walls and tied to steel I-beams.

The Eagle pole, located near the registration counter, and the Raven pole, located near the Whispering Canyon Café, are both "story" poles. Stories are read from the bottom to the top so with these particular poles there is no "low man on the totem pole" in terms of significance. The poles tell a mixture of stories rather than just one tale.

The Raven pole tells the story of the Whale Chief who had a beautiful daughter, Dolphin. Many animals wanted to marry her so the Whale Chief held an archery contest, which was unexpectedly won by the little Wren, which angered the others. Hootis, the Bear Chief, and his family protected Wren and his new bride as they journeyed away to a small island where they enjoyed the company of the Salmon people. At the very top of the pole is Raven and tells a version of the trickster bird flying into the Sky Chief's house where he pulled out a glowing orb that became the sun, the moon and the stars to light a darkened world.

The Eagle pole story begins at the bottom with the Bear Chief. Frog tells the Bear Chief that he should hold a potlatch feast for his young nephew, Bear Cub, and give him a magnificent gift. At the top of the pole is another tale of Raven and how the bird released the first humans who ever walked on earth.

Next time, we look at the many contributions of sculptor William Robertston, as well as the stories of the Boulder Ridge and Copper Creek DVC villas.