Remembering The Disney Inn - Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Walt Disney World's Shades of Green resort originally opened as a Disney-owned resort known simply as the Golf Resort in December 1973, with roughly 150 rooms.

The Golf Resort was originally a building located in the middle of the Palm and Magnolia golf courses and was meant as an amenity for golfers using the courses in 1971-72. It was designed with wood and volcanic rock to look like a two-story country clubhouse and did not have any guest rooms.

Guest wings were added in 1973 as part of Walt Disney World's Phase 2 expansion that was also meant to include three other Magic Kingdom resorts that were never built. It retained the name The Golf Resort, but was not generally considered a WDW resort because of its small size and not being on the monorail loop among other things.

Guests preferred staying at the Contemporary Resort or the Polynesian Village Inn resorts, which were often booked to capacity, and guests usually only booked The Golf Resort if they couldn't find lodging in those two larger resorts. In February 1986, Disney expanded the resort and renamed it The Disney Inn in hopes of attracting more than just golfers, promoting it as having the intimate and rustic charm of a quiet country inn.

The Snow White themed Disney Inn was evolved from The Golf Resort.

One of the travel brochures described the resort as:

"Tucked away in a quiet corner of the world is an enchanted inn of incomparable delights. The Disney Inn boasts all the luxuries of the more famous Walt Disney World resort accommodations with an equally renowned location minutes from the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT Center.

"In the mood for tennis? Fine dining? A siesta poolside? We've got it all. In fact, we've become the Inn place to stay at the World's Greatest Resort. Just ask any of our guests who return to us again and again."

It was mildly re-themed to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in hopes of reinforcing the Disney connection. However, the resort still could not match the popularity or attendance of the other WDW resorts.

The U.S. military was looking for a continental America location to build an Armed Forces Recreation Center (AFRC) and surveys showed that Orlando, Florida was the highest-ranking location for its service members.

To Disney's delight at the declining attendance, on February 1, 1994, the U.S. Department of Defense leased the resort and the land it sits on with a 100-year lease to use for the MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) program and limited the resort to eligible active and retired military personnel.

In 1996, the resort was purchased outright by the DOD for $43 million due to its high popularity and success with the military personnel, Disney still owns the land on which the resort sits. The resort was renamed Shades of Green because, at the time, all military fighting uniforms had some shade of green.

Like many things about early Walt Disney World, there is scant documentation that exists and often only fuzzy memories about the Disney Inn as a Google search will reveal.

Fortunately, when I worked as an instructor, starting in 1998, as part of the Disney Adult Discoveries program that offered special tours for guests, I became friends with a fellow instructor named Rich Cullen who still works for Walt Disney World today.

Rich worked at the front desk at the Disney Inn for roughly the three years before it closed and, recently, he was generous enough to answer some of my questions about the too often forgotten WDW resort and help clear up some of the misinformation that is out there.

Jim Korkis: When did you start at the Disney Inn?

Rich Cullen: I started working there in 1991 and spent almost three years there. I began my Disney career at the Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground front desk and, at that time, Disney resorts had an ancient computer system (Sperry) which was confusing and really not-so-user friendly.

The monitors were huge and the screen was mono-chromatic. When I was trained on them, my trainer, Jim Sator, jokingly said to not get used to Sperry because a whole new system called HRGS was going to be installed at all of the Disney resorts.

It was a huge improvement over Sperry. We pronounced HRGS, "har-guess." My HRGS instructor was Mike Lambert. Great guy. He eventually became a front desk manager at the Disney Inn, so long story short, he brought me over from doing the night audit at Fort Wilderness to working days at the Inn.

JK: What was your role at the Disney Inn?

RC: I worked at The Disney Inn at their check-in front desk. What was cool about working there is that you had a chance to do a little bit of everything. You could do ticket sales/dining reservations at a desk in our lobby. You could also help at dispatch out at the bell stand so some of the staff there could break for lunch.

The resorts at Disney now are so big and compartmentalized that this most likely doesn't happen anymore. Our back office was not big at all. Maybe it was a little larger than our space in the trailer where you and I worked at the Disney Institute, so not big at all. We handled all hotel account practices in the back, as well as "room assignment."

For a while, I worked a lot of graveyard shifts on the front desk. I did the night audit. This is what you did when you were the low-man and were a "relief Lead." That's how you earned your wings. It wasn't easy working those crazy hours and doing the accounting, etc. I was by myself but there were a few people who made it better.

I used to chat and joke with two of the restaurant managers, Ruben Alvarez and Baha Sidani. Great guys. They let me have all of the cappuccinos I wanted when working the overnights. Also, there was the late Felix Rivera. He was the houseman on third-shift and he would bring me coffee at 3 a.m. or mind the front desk so I could go outside and get some air. Lovely guy. It really is the people that make working at Disney different.

JK: What were some of the procedures like for handling a guest reservation?

RC: For example, two days out, we would look over a computer-printed roster a few times a day and try and weed out duplicate reservations and look for special requests that people might need like a crib, mini-fridge, connecting rooms, smoking/non-smoking rooms, etc.

We would also by hand (!) put together guest ticket packages. This was a project and a half. You might have a family of five with a specific plan. This would include park tickets, dining tickets, recreation tickets, etc. etc. These tickets came in packs like decks of cards in steel strong boxes twice the size of a lunch box. I always joked that they looked like the boxes that Marley's ghost was chained to in Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Whoever was assigned "packages" for that day would set up at a vacant desk in the back and you had to make sure the right tickets went with the right plan. Since the tickets came in packs, like a deck of cards, you also had to date-stamp the tickets for when they expired. They could not be "open-ended." So you could be sitting there trying to figure it all out and putting this all together and whoever was doing it we knew not to disturb them…well, not too much. (Laughs)

Whenever any of us were doing this and went to lunch we would just say loudly before we left: "I'm doing packages so don't move anything…" or something to that effect. It was like working on putting a ship in a bottle. It wasn't bad really, but you didn't want to make any mistakes.

Disney then also had what was called "The Gold Key" package/plan. This covered EVERYTHING: Room, meals, park admission, etc. In this case, the guest received a plastic card like a credit card with their name embossed on it and their check-in/check-out dates.

This was a very expensive plan, maybe $4,000 for a week's stay back then. We had the blank stock cards and an embosser where we made up the cards in the back.

At the Inn back then, we started selling ticket media to the hotel guests so they didn't have to bother with a hard ticket. The name for it was "Length of Stay."

So let's say the guest is staying for three nights, if they were interested, we would modify their resort ID card with ticket media.

The guest name for the ticket media was called, "Be Our Guest." Our backstage name for it was "Length of Stay" or "L.O.S." When it started, I would say that most people did not want it only because we sold a "hard" multi-day ticket at our Guest Service desk that was open ended. It didn't expire.

The adult ticket was a blue bar-coded sticker and the kid's ticket was an orange one. Once purchased, they could scan their way into any one of the parks during their visit. That seemed pretty advanced in those days, but seems so ancient today.

Some of the systems at The Inn back then were really not that sophisticated. I was always astounded at how we had to count the ticket boxes to make sure the count was correct, like counting a lot of cash. It was tedious work. We did not have voicemail then. That came much later. So, like in an old movie, a guest would drop by the front desk to see if they had any messages. If someone called for a guest, we had a machine that was like a typewriter/telex.

We would receive a phone message from someone who wanted to leave a message. We would look up the room number to make sure the person was staying with us. We would take down the message, type it in and it would print on a stock that you could fold over and seal it like a letter.

Every hour or so, one of us from the front desk would deliver these messages to the various rooms and slide them under the door. This all seems so quaint now and hard to believe with e-mails and texts today!

JK: Actually it sounds pretty complicated especially having to do everything by hand.

RC: Another thing we did when a guest checked in is that we would ask if they had stayed at The Disney Inn before. Let's say they had stayed there twice before, we would print on their resort I.D. with 'RG 2'. Meaning 'Return Guest' and the number signifying the number of previous visits.

Those guests were put on a list for their check-in night and, later on in the evening, room service would deliver to them a complimentary order of chilled milk and warm Toll House chocolate chip cookies. This was a great "welcome back" touch and it always made an impression.

I think the longest I ever saw the list of returning guests was a dozen names or so for a night, so it wasn't crazy for the kitchen to do this. Anyone who was a VIP received the milk and cookies nightly, as well. With the size of resorts now and the number of people staying there, this would be impossible to do but at the time, it was one of the things that made the Disney Inn feel more intimate, friendly and special.

JK: I had heard that Imagineer John Hench liked staying at the Disney Inn.

RC: My buddy who I worked with, Todd Merrick, is/was a HUGE Disney fan told me all about John Hench. One day, Todd pointed out Mr. Hench to me in the lobby of the Disney Inn. You know, he really did resemble Walt Disney! There was a likeness. Over the time I worked there, I exchanged small talk with him.

I remember seeing him a couple of times wearing his Disney Imagineer name tag in the center of his shirt. Just clipped on. I thought this was very avant-garde! See, back then, all cast HAD to wear their tags on their upper left.

I also remember him sometimes wearing a blazer and an ascot. Now, not many people can get away with that look, but it suited him. He looked great. He enjoyed staying at the Inn. I once casually asked him why he didn't stay at The Grand Floridian. He mentioned that he liked the quiet atmosphere of The Inn, etc.

Of course, when he stayed there, he received the fresh milk and Toll House cookies nightly. Many years later, I was wandering around the area of Pleasure Island that was being expanded. About 100 yards away, I spotted John Hench touring around with a couple of younger Imagineers, I went up to Mr. Hench and said "hello" and told him that I had worked at the front desk at The Inn some years back. He brightened up and said, quot;I sure do miss those milk and cookies!" I thought that was so cool that he remembered that. That was the last time I saw him.

JK: Do you know why the name changed from Golf Resort to The Disney Inn in the 1980s?

RC: It is my understanding that when people heard the name "Golf Resort" they thought they had to be golfers to stay there. The story goes that when the name was changed to The Disney Inn and a Snow White theme was created, occupancy went up significantly.

I was told that when it was the Golf Resort that the occupancy was maybe 60 percent or slightly higher, usually with people who couldn't get into the Contemporary or the Polynesian.

We had plenty of sell out nights as The Disney Inn, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas. We had slow periods, as well, as any hotel does, so there was a "value season" with a lesser price. We were always booked solid for the Disney Pro/Am Golf classic, which took place in October.

At Christmastime, the lobby was decked out in very tasteful holiday decor. The lobby was not very large and the sitting area would remind you of an upscale living room. From what I remember, Dopey and Snow White would make nightly appearances with the kids and I believe warm cider was served. The lobby always smelled so good during the holidays. I also remember that Mrs. Claus would make appearances to read a Christmas story.

JK: Did the rooms change significantly when the resort was renamed?

RC: When I started there, half the rooms were still the old décor of the Golf Resort. The rooms were large compared to other Disney resorts, a little less than 500 square feet as I recall. They made the rooms at Wilderness Lodge look tiny when I started working there later. The old decor reminded me of a Marriott. Nothing really special with what I would call a masculine color scheme.

The newer rooms were brighter and the decor had a cottage charm with details like an oak headboard but nothing crazy in terms of a Snow White/Dwarfs theme. There were just subtle touches that didn't hit you over the head. The wonderful sign at our entrance was a yawning Sleepy holding a candle as if he was going off to bed.

T-shirts in the gift shop had this logo. So did the matchbook covers and other things. It was cute, but other than a publicity photo or two, Sleepy wasn't at the resort.

A guest once called me at the front desk and inquired about Dopey and Snow White tucking their kids in at night. I told him I would get back to him. I mentioned this to our front desk manager, John Formica, and John suggested I call up the Entertainment department at the Magic Kingdom and see what they had to say.

I mentioned the situation and the request didn't seem to surprise them in the least. This sort of request apparently was not that unusual. The cast member mentioned that it would be a four-hour appearance minimum. It entailed costs in terms of wardrobe, make-up, transportation to and from the venue, cost of the performers and stage attendant, etc.

I believe the fee was a few-thousand dollars. So, it was possible. I called the gentleman back who inquired and told him about the cost logistics. There was a long pause and then he said, "Oh, well…thank you. I think we'll pass."

Most of the remodeled rooms had a framed original muted color print that included some images on a shelf that included a picture frame with a drawing of Snow White, an antique cuckoo clock, a candle holder, a beer stein, Doc's glasses, the key to the dwarf mine, a dwarf hat and strangely, the box that was supposed to have held Snow White's heart and behind it the crown of the evil queen.

I had never seen the image anywhere else and have never seen it since. There was no label on it to help explain what it was and the artwork was not signed. Fortunately, my sister took a photo of it when she stayed there and recently sent it to me, so it jogged my memory. When the Inn closed, I got her one of the framed prints and she still has it. I should have picked one up for myself, as well, but it just didn't occur to me.

I don't recall any other themed Snow White items in the rooms.

Two queen beds and a pullout love seat were in the rooms, as well as a small round table with two chairs. Some of the rooms had King beds, which we commonly reserved for honeymooners. I don't recall that we had any suites, but we did have a lot of connecting rooms. Back then, smoking and non-smoking rooms were the norm. In my experience, most guests were happy with non-smoking rooms. It depended on their requests. Double sinks in the bathrooms, tub/shower combo.

Next Week: Rich talks more about: what the Disney Inn looked like, some celebrities he met who stayed there, and about Joe Shapiro, who should probably be considered for a future Disney Legend award for the work he did for the Walt Disney Company.