Remembering the Disney Inn - Part Two

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Last week, my friend Rich Cullen talked a little bit about the procedures as a front desk cast member at the Disney Inn and what the rooms looked like. Today, he continues with his memories.

Jim Korkis: What was the rest of the interior of the resort like?

Rich Cullen: The gift shop was right across from our front desk about 20 feet or so away. Various sundries, souvenirs, beer, wine, snacks were sold there. It was a small shop but it had a lot of things people on vacation needed.

The Summer Room was the only formal meeting space at the Inn. It was small and maybe you could have less than 100 people for a cocktail party. I saw a few luncheon set ups in there. When the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, I was recruited to facilitate a class in the Summer Room for the cast that worked at the Inn.

Once when the room wasn't booked, we arranged for a young lady who was staying there to use it as an impromptu rehearsal room so she could practice her violin in peace.

Our front desk might have had about five computer stations for check-in. Beautiful black marble tops that we always kept shiny. The back office also had a small desk where the cashiers could tally their receipts for the day. Our managers had their own room and our front office manager had a private cubby hole of a space. All of this was windowless.

Our general manager had a beautiful office downstairs with large picture windows that overlooked the landscaping. It was the nicest office I've ever seen at Disney! I even mentioned this to Ed Fox, who was our GM, and he good-naturally agreed.

The Sleepy logo as seen on the cast member costumes.

The only time I really ever spent time in there was when the Inn was closing. We had parting gifts for the cast. It was a medallion with the Disney Inn logo of Sleepy. My buddy, Todd Merrick and I sat in Ed's office and sealed the coins in hard plastic covers. There were a few hundred. I still have mine. I've never seen them for sale on eBay. When we closed down the Inn there was an evening reception in The Garden Gallery. Some of my front desk cast members donned in our Sound of Music Von Trapp costumes, sang the song from the show "So Long, Farewell" and the CFO of WDW at the time, Judson Green, accompanied on the piano. Great guy and great musician.

The Garden Gallery was the main restaurant right off of our lobby and it served breakfast, lunch and dinner. I think I had breakfast and lunch there a couple times but never dinner for some odd reason. It was standard fare like chicken and steak, etc. No "cute" Snow White/Dwarfs names for the items. Their specialty was "fried ice cream" but I never had it. Some one told me it was similar to the fried ice cream that was popular at the Mexican chain restaurant called Chi-Chi's. There was a bar/lounge right off the restaurant but nothing memorable about that really.

It was country club like in design. The Garden Gallery was light and airy with skylights. Out front where the bell stand was there were quite a few rocking chairs.

JK: It is my understanding that the resort still focused on serving golfers.

RC: We had the golf pro shop/locker rooms and golf cart storage downstairs. You could take a couple of outdoor stairs from near the lobby area to get down there. There were actually three golf courses. The Palm, The Magnolia and a great nine hole walking course called Oak Trails. I played a lot on Oak Trails. It was a great place to practice because a lot of people didn't really know about it and would rather play a full 18, with a cart, on the Palm and Magnolia. The Disney courses were designed by "Gentleman" Joe Lee. He designed many courses including Cog Hill outside of Chicago, the Blue Monster at Doral, Pine Tree in Boynton Beach, Florida and Bay Hill here in Orlando.

JK: Weren't there also two swimming pools when it became The Disney Inn?

RC: There were two swimming pools at the Inn. The smaller, quieter one you could see from the windows of the Garden Gallery. This pool was never crowded. There was a small snack bar area set up around here, the Sand Trap, so the golfers could grab hot dogs, drinks, etc. as they headed to the back nine.

The pool did have three "blooming water"-type fountains. Chaise lounges and umbrella tables were around this pool. Life guard always on duty at both pools, of course. The large family pool in the back was very popular. It was in the shape of Mickey Mouse's head. There was a mill and a stream connected to the pool for decoration that was charming. The building for the mill was the room for the pool pumps and supplies, etc. The snack bar by this pool was then called, "Happy's Hollow," after the dwarf Happy. That area also included the Diamond Mine Snack Bar. There were some arcade games, as well.

There were two lighted hard court tennis courts near our cast parking, and people could play on them at night. Once in a while I saw people playing. Never busy. The lights went off automatically and there might have been a sign-up in the golf pro shop to use them. People could rent racquets in the Golf pro shop.

JK: What did the resort look like when you drove up to it?

RC: The resort was three stories and I think we had maybe 287 rooms or so. It was originally about 150 as the Golf Resort. Three types of room view categories: Garden View, Golf Course View (both of which were roughly $185 during the regular season) and Pool View (that was $195 during the regular season). A standard room could accommodate five people. All rooms had a balcony/ small lanai. The Inn itself was small enough that we got to know all of the people who worked in the gift shop, room service, golf ops, housekeeping, etc.

I would swear that the great John Hench had something to do with the exterior color scheme of the resort. The drive up approach with nature on both sides seemed to blend into the front design of the hotel.

Lots of wildlife lived in the area. The deer would often graze in the front open lawn and sometimes walk right up the circular driveway! Fearless. I guess that related to Snow White and being in the woods.

There was also a large enclosure of flamingos and a large pond to the left as you drove up the main drive. They were well taken care of. I wonder what happened to them? Maybe they eventually ended up at Animal Kingdom?

JK: Did guests complain that the resort was not on the monorail loop?

RC: Guests knew that we were not on the monorail line and I never heard a complaint. A Disney bus came by every 15 minutes, so there was transportation.

Some guests elected to walk to the Polynesian to catch the Monorail there. It wasn't that far a walk. I spoke with many guests who liked the fact that the Inn was tucked away and quiet rather than the hustle and bustle of the Contemporary or Poly.

It was one of the things that appealed to Disney executives, being close to the parks, but still secluded. I've read that supposedly some guests were upset that it wasn't on the monorail loop but my personal experience there in three years is that I never heard that complaint.

JK: Did you wear a themed outfit?

RC: Our front desk costume originally for guys was a blue blazer, gray slacks, white dress shirt, and print red tie. I liked being "professionally dressed" after having to wear the non-flattering, silly, bolo-tie outfit at Fort Wilderness. The women wore navy skirts, white blouse and reminded me of a classic flight attendant look. The guys wore red hankies in our left breast pockets. I tried to fold mine "just right" but it never looked "just right"! A friendly guest checking in and I were chatting about it and he made a suggestion about how to fold the hankie. I took his advice and voila! The hankie looked "just right". He was a haberdasher.

JK: Was it fun to work the front desk at the resort?

RC: One of the best things about working the Disney Inn front desk was that every guest had to walk by through the lobby when returning back to their rooms. You would get to know their names, their kids' names, so you could engage with them by saying stuff like, "How was the luau, Mr. and Mrs. Francis?" …"How did you do out at the Magnolia today, Mr. Tyson? "and similar things.

People would often stop by to chat if the desk wasn't busy. It was a perfect environment for that and people were impressed when you remembered their names. It made it seem more family friendly which is one of the reasons we had repeat visitors.

JK: Did you meet any celebrities?

RC: One day, actor Robert Conrad stopped by to see if he had any messages. We were the only two in the lobby. He was wearing mirrored sunglasses just like the stereotype of a celebrity. I was chatting with the guys who worked in the golf pro-shop later that week and they said the couple of times Conrad played golf, he requested to play by himself. This is an unusual request but they obliged. Usually when you play, you are paired up with others and hence that is why golf is referred to often as a social game.

One day I was working at the front desk and a kid came out of the Garden Gallery restaurant with one of the linen napkins. On it were drawings of Chip & Dale. It turns out that animator Bill Justice was eating there and spending time entertaining people with his drawings, etc. One of the girls from the front desk got one of those lucky napkins. I thought that was pretty cool.

There was the rock band, Kansas, famous for the song Dust in the Wind. They were friendly. Each band member came down to the desk individually to settle their incidental charges. I think they were at Disney playing a private event at that time.

I used to chat with a guy named Samuel E. Wright. He used to stop by the desk around 11 p.m.-midnight when things were quiet and I could talk. He was an actor from NYC and he told me that he was the voice of a crab in a new Disney movie, The Little Mermaid. I hadn't seen it so I didn't know. What I thought was cool about Sam was he was one of the "Fruit of the Loom" fruit guys that used to appear like magic in the ads. I think he was the grapes! Funny!

Oh yeah, a magician/illusionist named Franz Harary stopped by the desk for messages, etc. I recognized him only because he had been on the cover of the magician magazine The Linking Ring a few months earlier and I had always been interested in magic and had a subscription. I think he was consulting with Disney on some show where Mickey was doing a magic show in the Magic Kingdom.

The late Joe Shapiro stayed with us quite a lot at The Inn. He was a very busy man who seemed to have a lot on his mind. He was always flagged as a VIP. He always stayed in the same room off the lobby and he clearly was not on vacation. He was working. He seemed quite stern and mysterious.

Korkis note: Joe Shapiro, the husband of tennis star Pam Shriver and the former general counsel for the Walt Disney Company died September 23, 1999 after a long battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was 52. Known to wear a Mickey Mouse tie in court, Mr. Shapiro aggressively pursued those who used copyrighted Disney characters without permission—including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which apologized for using the Snow White character in an Academy Awards broadcast. Shapiro who oversaw the company's early lobbying efforts in Washington and famously declared that "Mickey Mouse is not a Republican or a Democrat" told the Congressional Quarterly that Disney's reluctance to discuss its lobbying activities was linked to its desire to protect its family-friendly brand image. Shapiro was the chief negotiator for Disney in the construction, financing and operation of Disneyland Paris. Shapiro additionally recruited top lawyers to work in Disney's law department. He was lured to the Walt Disney Company by Michael Eisner personally in 1985. When he was first diagnosed with cancer he left his role as vice-president in 1994.)

One of my managers told me that Mr. Shapiro was a Harvard trained attorney and was handpicked by Eisner to work for the Walt Disney Company. Joe Shapiro was the chief negotiator when it came to putting the deal together for what was then EuroDisney.

Back then, we would receive faxes for guests and then deliver them to their rooms. We would constantly get legal faxes and Fed-Exes for Joe regularly. These were important legal documents. I suggested privately to our front desk manager that we really shouldn't be seeing these faxes and perhaps we should set up a fax machine in Joe's room so he could have instant access. That was eventually done. In fact, a type of mini-office was set up in Joe's room.

Joe always seemed to wear the same clothes: jeans, Gucci loafers and the type of white Disney sweatshirt that had a large image of Mickey face on the front and the back of Mickey's head on the back. I don't remember him wearing anything else! I would also see him carrying a full pot of coffee much of the time acquired from the Garden Gallery. He would take it back to his room and no one complained or questioned it.

So, one day, The Disney Inn came into the way of modern communication and the whole phone system with voice-mail was installed throughout the resort. Joe's room was the first to be installed. We were constantly receiving Fed-Ex letters for Joe and it was customary to deliver them right as we got them. We just slid them under the door.

I did this one time and as I was heading back to the lobby, his door opened and he called after me: "Hey, kid!" (I was probably 27 at the time and thought that was pretty funny) He waved me over and invited me in.

"What in the world is THIS all about?" I thought. See, we were all a little intimidated by Joe. He brings me over to his phone and there was a blinking red light. He asks, "What does this mean?"

I explained that he had a phone message and showed him how to retrieve his voice-mails. I was standing there while he was listening to his messages. He started laughing out loud and said something to the effect of…"If that bitch thinks I'm calling HER back she's nuts!"

I stood there like a statue. Afterward, whenever I saw Joe passing through the lobby, I always gave him a smile and a "hello" and he always responded. Many years later I learned that Joe had married the tennis great, Pam Shriver. They were married maybe a year and then Joe passed away. I believe he was 52 or 53.

I would have sworn he was much older than that. He did not seem like a guy in his forties when he regularly stayed at The Inn. Perhaps he was not well then. Another thing that dawned on me later was that Joe most likely stayed at The Disney Inn because of the negotiations between Disney and the U.S. government regarding the creation of Shades of Green resort from The Disney Inn.

JK: Any personal adventures you had at the resort?

RC: I once caught a snake by the back area pool! It was a quiet afternoon on the front desk and a guest called from the pool deck via the house phone. We milled it over in the office and all of the ladies I worked with were squeamish and wanted nothing to do with it. We should have called Disney Pest Control but who knows how long that would have taken?

I volunteered only half-believing there was a snake down there. I got a canvas bag from housekeeping and a set of grabbers and off I went. It was a hot day and I was wearing our new corduroy costume. I went over to the snack bar area and some little kids took me over to some bushes by the deck. I looked around and didn't see a thing. I shook the bushes and sure enough, a black racer short of three feet slithered out onto the manicured lawn. I got him with the grabbers with one shot! All the kids "oohed" and "ahhed" in unison. Funny! I put the snake in the sack, got in a golf cart and released it way back in the woods.

A couple of weeks later, a kid was walking through the lobby with a rubber snake that he got in Adventureland. I asked to borrow it and nonchalantly took it into the back office to remind people of the snake I had caught. I showed it off and there was a shriek of horror! I had NO IDEA people would be that frightened. I apologized up and down. I figured they would all knew it was fake from the get-go.

We had an elderly couple that stayed at The Inn for almost a month…Mr. and Mrs. Dick Francis. They were from the UK. Very nice to chat with. They really didn't go to the parks but just enjoyed being at the Disney Inn. One day when he was in the lobby I quietly asked him if he was the mystery writer, Dick Francis. He chuckled and in his delightful accent said, "No, No but Dickie is a good friend of ours!"

Mr. Francis once gave me a bottle of champagne one time when they left. We were not permitted to accept gifts of alcohol as cast members so I told my manager and he told me to take it home. I brought it months later to our Cast Xmas party and we had a toast to Mr. and Mrs. Francis.

I believe they came back the following year, again for three or four weeks. When they checked out, they arranged for every cast member who worked at the Inn to get complimentary ice cream bars. They insisted and worked out the payment with our manager. A very nice gesture to say the least. The guests who stayed at the Inn were always extremely nice.

JK: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I am sure people will be interested since so little is known about the Disney Inn.

RC: It was great fun trying to remember those days. Reviewing this interview brought back a flood of memories and images. I loved working at the Inn but it seems like another lifetime ago. Let me know if you get any comments from people.