The Dolphin: A Photo Tourby Donald and Bonnie Fink, contributing writer
The Walt Disney World Dolphin hotel is one of the few hotels on Disney property that is not exclusively operated by Walt Disney World. Instead, it's Disney branded, meaning that many of the same amenities enjoyed by guests at other Disney-operated hotels (transportation, booking, and so on), but operated by Starwood Hotels and Resorts under the Sheraton Hotels brand. There are a few other differences that we'll touch on later in this article.
Like all things Disney, there appears to be a very rich backstory surrounding the creation and design of the Dolphin but it's difficult to talk about the Dolphin without mentioning the Swan (the hotel directly across from the Dolphin) because the backstories are so entertwined. Without including both hotels, any backstory would be incomplete. There's even a somewhat persistent urban legend about the two hotels that some folks seem to prefer over the actual story.
The Urban Legend
The urban legend comes from the seemingly strange design and decorating of both the Swan and Dolphin. On the Swan, the side of the hotel is decorated with waves with two large statues of swans on the roof. On the Dolphin, the side of the building has palm leaves, or jungle leaves, with two dolphins on the roof. As the story goes, the helicopter pilot who placed the statues on the respective roofs misplaced them, placing the dolphins on what was to be the Swan hotel, and the swans on what was originally to be the Dolphin. Rather than going through the expense of bringing in another helicopter to correct the mistake, the builders simply swapped the names of the hotels and called it good.
Also, on the face of the triangular portion of the building of the Dolphin, you can see a dark colored square. This square was rumored to have no rooms but was instead a removable section to make room for a future Monorail. There's a similar square in the Swan hotel that probably helped to fuel this legend. We read an account from Jim Korkis on another blog that indicated the rooms above the black square are the real "fake" rooms, and that the black or dark square has another meaning completely. We'll get to that in a bit.
The Real Backstory
The real backstory of the Swan and Dolphin says that the Dolphin began as a mountain that rose up from the sea. In doing so, it trapped two dolphins, which are the two statues you see on the roof today. The palm fronds and jungle leaves you see on the side of the building represent the jungle that emerged after the mountain rose up. The dark spot on the side is the heart of the mountain.
As the mountain rose, the pressure from water running off the mountain broke the heart and the water cascaded down the side, which you see as the clamshell waterfalls seem to pour from the heart down to the fountain below.
As the water cascaded and ran from the Dolphin (the mountain), it splashed up on the side of the Swan hotel, which is indicated by the waves painted along the side of the building. Two swans were so intrigued by the activity of the water, they landed to see what was happening and were turned to stone, forever adorning the top of the Swan Hotel.
So you see? It all makes perfect sense when you know the whole story.
The entrance to the Dolphin from the back may be more spectacular than the front. We've read that this back entrance is actually intended to be the main entrance, but it doesn't open up to the main lobby inside. Here, you enjoy a grand walkway as you stroll from the Swan, the Boardwalk, or Epcot. Urban legend has it that the dark area in the center was originally intended to be an open area for Monorail service, but the backstory we read says it represents the "heart" of the mountain. Photo by Donald Fink.
The Dolphin is not a Disney hotel, but as a privately operated hotel on Disney property, you can still expect all the customary transportation. In this case that includes water service as seen here with the Friendship boat docked at the hotel. From the Dolphin, boats take guests to Epcot and Hollywood Studios, with stops at the Boardwalk and the Yacht and Beach Club hotels. Photo by Donald Fink.
The beach is shared by the Swan and Dolphin hotels. The paddle boats are decorated like swans. On top of the building, you may be able to notice that the Dolphin's mouth is turned up into a smile. Photo by Donald Fink.
There are various views from the room in the Dolphin. Some look north, toward the Magic Kingdom and others look more to the south, like this view of Tower of Terror at Hollywood Studios. Photo by Bonnie Fink.
The lobby of the Dolphin sits under a massive rotunda with glass spheres and prisms suspended from above. The light refracts through the glass, causing unique and interesting effects throughout the day. Photo by Donald Fink.
We keep mentioning dolphins, which might confuse some folks. These "dolphins" look like fish, not the mammals we're used to seeing in pretty much all oceans in the world. It turns out that the dolphins used in the design of this hotel were the mythical dolphins of Poseidon, and the ones sculpted by Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. His work in Rome, the Fontana del Tritone in the Piazza della Republica, is the sculpture we believe is the underlying inspiration.
Another interesting story is that when this hotel was being planned, the original dolphins had their mouths turned down, accurately imitating the original sculptures. Disney CEO Michael Eisner insisted, "that wasn't going to happen," on Disney property, so architect Michael Graves reimagined the dolphins with them smiling. You'll see them smiling above in the fountain of the lobby and on the roof outside.
If you want to learn more about the design of the Dolphin, read a story submitted to MousePlanet a few years ago, called Understanding the Swan and Dolphin, by Wade Sampson.
There's no food court at the Dolphin, but just off the main lobby is a quick service restaurant called Fuel where you can get a quick meal including sandwiches, pastries, or maybe a salad. There's also seating, but the idea is probably to take the meal back to your room. Photo by Bonnie Fink
You can get ice cream at Fuel in the lobby of the Dolphin, which has an extensive condiment bar. We counted over 27 different toppings available for your ice cream snack, making it as unique as you might want. Photo by Bonnie Fink.
There are nearly 30 Shula's locations throughout the country, but this restaurant has been here since 1989, the year the Dolphin opened. It was the original restaurant that started it all for the Shula's brand.
We find it interesting—or at least amusing—that Shula's was founded by Don Shula. He was a legendary Miami Dolphins football coach, with 347 NFL career wins. That explains all the football photos as you approach the restaurant.
So, was it just a coincidence that Don Shula chose the Dolphin to start his restaurant? Maybe with a hotel name like The Dolphin, it was just an opportunity he couldn't pass up.
We normally refrain from posting images of a sign, but the entrance to Todd English's Bluezoo, with its water feature, was too compelling to pass up. Todd English is a celebrity chef based in Boston, Massachusetts. Photo by Bonnie Fink.
On the first level of the Dolphin is a more casual dining experience called simply, The Fountain. Here, you can expect a good quality burger and other meals of that type. They're open for lunch and dinner. Photo by Bonnie Fink.
Another casual restaurant on the first level of the Dolphin, the Fresh Mediterranean Market, is open for breakfast and lunch from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Breakfast is buffet style or a la carte; lunch features wraps and salads. We noticed a dessert bar during the lunch service that looked interesting too. Photo by Donald Fink.
Picabu is a quick service, grab-and-go restaurant on the first level of the Dolphin that features an extensive menu of quick foods. Their signature is undoubtedly the taqueria because of the large number of taco combinations. They also provide pizzas and burgers if a taco isn't what you want. Picabu is open 24 hours a day, every day. Photo by Bonnie Fink.
It might be a good idea to mention that some of the restaurants at the Dolphin (and the Swan too) have a suggested dress code. Rather than rehash them here and end up being wrong in a couple of years when the hotel changes their requirements, we think you might want to take a look at the information directly by looking at the recommended attire page from the Swan and Dolphin Hotel web site.
We found the rooms at the Dolphin to be of the quality you might expect for one of the better hotels on Disney property. It was quiet, comfortable, and included a refrigerator and coffee pot. When you book a room here you can request a fireworks view. Our fireworks view included Hollywood Studios, but you could easily see Epcot or the Magic Kingdom, depending on the room. Photo by Donald Fink.
There's a lot to do at the Dolphin, especially when you consider the close proximity to the Swan and the fact that the Swan and Dolphin share their resources. You should also remember that the location of this hotel is very close to Epcot, the Boardwalk, and Hollywood Studios. We spend quite a bit of time walking between Hollywood Studios and Epcot, passing by the Swan and Dolphin along the way. The walking paths are some of the best on Disney property. In case walking or running isn't your thing, there is Disney transportation to these parks in the form of boat service. Getting to either Epcot and its International Gate, or the main entrance to Hollywood Studios is as easy as stepping out of the first level of the Dolphin and on to a boat, which accepts scooters and wheelchairs too.
Let's see some of the stuff available on this property:
At the beach, between the Swan and Dolphin hotels, you can find a play area full of all sorts of fun looking structures for the kids. We didn't have a kid with us to try them out, but the kids that were there seemed to be having a good time. Photo by Donald Fink.
There's a water feature on the beach near the play structure that sprays water. Kids can activate it by pressing a button on a post nearby. Again, no kids with us to try it out, but the children that were using it seemed to be having fun. Photo by Donald Fink.
One of the main theming features of the Grotto Pool at the Swan and Dolphin is this waterfall. There is lounge chair seating under the falls for a shaded view of the pool, and there's access to a water slide from the top of the falls. Photo by Bonnie Fink.
There are various sporting activities near the pools for guests of the Swan and Dolphin Hotels. Here, a basketball hoop has been arranged at kid-appropriate height. It looks like it could be raised to accommodate adults for a little half-court team building. Photo by Bonnie Fink.
When you spend a lot of time on Disney property, especially staying at Disney hotels, you get used to the way things are done. Whether or not you like what they do, you learn what to expect. Staying at the Dolphin was a little different experience for us.
It's clear that we were still in the "Disney Bubble" because theming and overall experience was easily up to Disney standards, but there were a few differences that folks should be aware of. Here's a brief list:
Things That Are the Same
- Fastpass reservations are available at the parks just the same as any other Disney hotel.
- Disney transportation, including busses, boats, and Minnie Vans are the same as other Disney properties.
- Extra Magic Hours at the theme parks are available to guests at the Dolphin.
- Complimentary parking is provided at the theme parks.
Things That Are Different
- Reservations are not made on the Disney web site or at the Disney call center. Instead, reservations are handled at the Swan and Dolphin Web site.
- Guests can't charge on their Magic Bands. In fact, you don't use a Magic Band at the Dolphin Hotel.
- Disney's Magical Express—the free bus transportation service from Orlando International Airport—does not go to either the Swan or the Dolphin hotels. You'll need to rent a car or take some form of taxi or car service to get from the airport to the hotel and back again.