The Coronado Springs Story

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

While some guests consider the Walt Disney World resort hotels just a location to rest briefly during their extended trips to the parks, others realize that the resorts themselves offer the same attention to detail and Disney magic as the theme parks.

Most of these resorts have "hidden treasures" that are sometimes overlooked by guests as they rush to enjoy the parks. These treats include everything from authentic antiques to clever nomenclature to incredible artwork and details and more.

The Walt Disney Company never intended to get involved in operating hotels but in order to maintain the integrity of the overall Florida project it had no other choice.

After all, if the location was to be a vacation destination, there needed to be an option for guests to stay on property for several days and that meant hotels. Even Walt Disney's original plans for the Florida property included a massive thirty-story internationally-themed hotel tentatively called the Cosmopolitan right in the middle of Epcot.

Disney executive Dick Nunis said, "When we were building the hotels, we spent more for name architects. [CEO Michael Eisner] said that someday if we have every famous architect represented here, people will come from all over to see their work."

Eisner's contention was that any building on Disney property no matter how minor or mundane had the potential to be entertaining, educational or enlightening. He coined the term "entertainment architecture" to define what he wanted to see on Disney property.

In his biography, Work In Progress, Eisner wrote, "I was … exposed to art and architecture at an early age … When I went to Disney, I decided we ought to try and build great, innovative buildings rather than conventional, mediocre ones …" Eisner decided that architecture is storytelling and Disney was a storytelling company.

Under his leadership, Eisner aggressively built dozens of new WDW resort hotels starting with the deluxe Grand Floridian Resort & Spa and the first Disney moderate resort Caribbean Beach. Today, for a guest to stay just one night in each of the WDW resort hotel rooms would take over 70 years. More than 700,000 square feet of ballroom, meeting and function space is available in five convention resorts throughout the Walt Disney World Resort.

As my friend and fellow Disney historian Werner Weiss wrote to me:

"As we've talked about, there's a big difference between resorts that are fully themed (making you feel you're in another place and time), those that are more lightly themed (the moderates) those that are just decorated (the values), those that are products of their time, and those that are creative visions.

"I would call the Contemporary a creative vision (along with WDW Swan & Dolphin), but I would call Bay Lake Tower essentially a product of its time.

"I would argue that a 'themed' room at Art of Animation is really a decorated room. You're not staying in the worlds that Ariel or Lightning McQueen inhabits. You're staying in a room (or suite) decorated with colors, characters, and art from popular movies.

"What's so amazing about the best Disney resorts is that they feel absolutely real even when there's nothing quite like them in the 'real world'. There's nothing quite like the Animal Kingdom Lodge in Africa, yet it transports you Africa.

"Each resort has its own history too. There is a lot of misinformation about their themes online. Even the Disney people who renovate them periodically with new decor sometimes fail to understand their themes."

The Blizzard Beach water park was originally going to be connected to a Disney resort across the street. Located where the Coronado Springs Resort site now stands, Disney's Alpine Resort would have overlooked the melting snows of Blizzard Beach. The Alpine Resort would have been a moderately priced hotel and as one of the perks for staying there, guests would have been able to ride a chair lift to the water park. Several concerns sidelined that concept and a different theme was developed.

Disney's Coronado Springs Resort opened August 1997 as a moderate priced resort but with convention facilities and other enhancements not typical for that level. However, by carefully doing things like having a lobby that employed millwork, vaulted ceilings, a mural and a fountain, the resort seemed more luxurious than it actually was. It also included a fine dining restaurant (Maya Grill) that gave the impression of a more upscale resort. It is a full-service restaurant featuring a huge, wood-fired grill and seating around a Mayan temple replica.

The fountain at the entrance to the temple is themed after a Yucatanian cenote, a natural limestone pit exposing the swirling, underlying groundwater. Mesoamerican murals, dramatic ceremonial pillars and flickering torches decorate the location.

Project coordinator Cindy MacKenzie returned from a research trip to Oaxaca with three foot tall frogs, lobsters and iguanas to take up residence in the 420 seat Pepper Market food court meant to suggest an old warehouse where individual food vendors have set up shop. The restaurant had seven different serving stations and was divided into three areas: the fire temple near the exhibit cooking, the water temple and the sun temple. It has been rehabbed into El Mercado de Coronado to resemble an open-air market.

Boll Holland, who was director of Design and Development for the resort, stated at the time, "Some conventioneers see only business deals and don't want too much of a 'good time' atmosphere. However, the WDW Resort market requires more amenities. It's all very subjective and you must take into account the nature of convention business and meetings."

So the convention area is more neutral in tone than the rest of the resort. "There was a struggle between Southwestern and Mexican styles," explained Holland. "Southwest is more serious and acceptable for business while Mexico provides a fun and fanciful image. The architect, Graham Gund, is not a literal architect. His style is evocative and exterior details are never exactly the same as the historic precedent. He has a tendency to reconfigure historical architectural elements."

However, since it was intended to be a moderate resort, budget factors to contain costs were important. Assistant project manager Bill Hanus stated:

"Economic concessions were made for a design standpoint. For example, there are open air walkways as a motel would have versus indoor corridors.

"We used real ceramic tile in high visibility areas, while in other less prominent areas we mixed the real thing with fake. That meant that for every 10,000 feet of tile, 5,000 might be ceramic but the remainder were faux finished.

"In the rooms, the headboards are painted for texture instead of using wood molding. It all adds up when each room's savings is multiplied many times. The contractor purchased everything up front – door frames, hardware, roofing and then stockpiled the materials in site trailers which protected the project from price increases over a two-year period.

"He also used 'just in time' delivery for all 'pilferable materials', a significant cost containment step."

Looking for savings in low-maintenance, fan-coil air conditioning units resulted in the elimination of extra duct work systems, a more efficient unit with less maintenance for the operator and millions of dollars in savings for Disney. Lowering overall construction costs was a key factor in realizing the resort's moderate price point.

Of course, Disney is a storytelling company so there is a back story for the resort. Francisco de Coronado left Mexico in 1540 and headed north in search of the fabled seven golden cities of Cibola.

Imagineers used that actual story as a springboard for the back story that "Coronado Springs was founded by the descendants of a Spanish explorer named Juan Francisco. Searching for gold in 1569, Francisco stumbled upon the ruins of a forty-six foot tall Mayan pyramid."

A Mayan pyramid served as inspiration for the resort's pool.

The original Imagineering story for the Mayan pyramid is that it serves as a ceremonial center in the lake. According to Disney, "The temple sits five stories above the Coronado Springs, and the water cascades down the temple's steps into the Lost City of Cibola Feature Pool. Bas-relief sculptures, called stellae, have been carved on the pyramid."

Mayan symbols are inlaid into the bottom of the 22-acre Lago Dorado ("Golden Lake") pool and the pool deck.

According to an Imagineering document: "Hundreds of years later, relatives found his charts and decided to mount an expedition of their own. The rugged group liked the place so much that they built houses and put down roots."

Imagineer Wing Chao said, "We looked at a map to see where people go on vacation. After determining that they like to go to Mexico and the Southwestern U.S., we just blended the themes."

The project was actually put on hold several times for a variety of reasons after it was first proposed in 1992. The original plans did not include a convention center but studies showed that Walt Disney World did not have enough convention space. However, those WDW resorts with that space had room rates too high for many small business' smaller budgets.

Finally, with the introduction of tunnel form cost-conscious construction with poured concrete bays, it became feasible in 1995 for an economic solution to provide convention space and moderately priced rooms. The Coronado ballroom is roughly 60,214-square-foot and is the largest ballroom in the southeastern United States.

The resort was designed to reflect three themes: Cabanas, Ranchos and Casitas. The two-story Cabana buildings represent the coastal regions of the American Southwest and Gulf Coast villas. The Cabanas surround the rocky beach adjacent to the man-made lake, Lago Dorado.

The entrance sign of the Coronado Springs Resort

The architecture and landscape of the Ranchos suggest the more arid, country-ranch or farmhouse parts of the region with a small stream or arroyo tumbling over a rocky stream bed. Project coordinator Mark Kohl said, "We made sure the vegetation selected would really grow next to a river in the same region of Mexico."

The Casitas were inspired by the urban areas of Mexico and the American Southwest. The Casitas are interspersed with colorful plazas and fountains and palm-shaded courtyards.

"We had to find a balance between Mexico and the Southwest when it came to selecting colors and how they relate," said Kohl. "It was a two-year research process where team members went to look and bring back photos, art and books for inspiration. I have a Mexican stone calendar on my wall. The art we finally selected for the guest rooms provides a better fit for the theme of that particular area."

Palacios are decorated in shades of desert sand and sunset pink. The red tile roofs, mosaic accents, shady courtyards and sunny patios recall the grand haciendas of the Spanish Colonial era.

"In a moderate hotel there is little demand for room service, a concierge or beauty parlor so you couldn't justify those amenities," said Boll Holland.

The Coronado Springs team even sparked a competitive bidding war between commode manufacturers to obtain the optimum savings in toilets that provided water conservation, quiet flush and less stoppage.

Construction manager Dean Majors recalled, "The highest savings came from using Tunnel form system, a fast method of construction using two L-shaped metal forms to pour concrete room structures. The speed in which the rooms were built – twice as fast as regular construction – could not have been achieved without it. Lowering overall construction costs was a key factor in realizing the resort's moderate price point."

When the resort opened, Chao said, "The theme is attractive. It's something you can't find in other places in America. We offer our guests the opportunity to escape to a different geographic and time period. This resort was purposely designed to perform at the same level as a luxury class hotel with the individual products of the same quality because the expectation level of our guests remains high."

As might be expected, the resort has references to the Disney animated feature that takes place South of the Border, The Three Caballeros (1945) and its three stars: Donald Duck, Jose Carioca and Panchito the Mexican charro rooster, from artwork to topiary to "Panchito's Gifts and Sundries" gift shop that includes a large three-dimensional figure of Panchito singing.

A statue of Little Burrito, a flying donkey, from a segment in the film used to sit outside the gift shop.

The Gran Destino Tower opened July 2019 along with renovations of existing rooms at the Coronado Springs Resort. The new tower adds 545 rooms to the resort's existing 1840 rooms and includes a unique two story lobby.

The Gran Destino Tower opened in July 2019 as part of a massive renovation.

All of the rooms throughout the resort were updated according to Disney to "celebrate the daring spirit of the great Spanish explorers, artists, writers and architects".

The name of the tower was inspired by Destino ("Destiny") that began in 1945 as a seven-minute, experimental, animated short. It was a collaboration between Walt Disney and the famed surrealist painter Salvador Dali that was never completed during their lifetimes. It was the beginning of a long friendship between the two visionary artists. Dali's idea for the story was inspired by a melancholy love song titled Destino that Disney had purchased but never used for the animated feature film The Three Caballeros.

Walt teamed the Spanish artist with John Hench to help guide him through the mechanics of animation for several months with Hench creating some artwork for the film as well that was so close to Dali's style that decades later it was mistaken for being done by Dali.

The pre-production artwork of Dali and Hench was rediscovered by Roy E. Disney in 1999 when he was working on Fantasia 2000 (2000). He later championed the finishing and releasing of the film in 2003 that was shown at several international film exhibitions. Hench, who was still working at the Walt Disney Company at the age of 95, consulted on the work and Dali's wife loaned her late husband's notebooks on the film.

The Destino film plays on several screens in the main lobby, which is designed to be an homage to the Catalan Modernism style. The rooftop Dahlia Lounge, on the 16th floor of the Gran Destino Tower, is inspired by Spanish surrealism and features a wall full of photos of Walt Disney with Salvador Dali from over the years. The Dahlia Lounge is named after the heroine of the film, a young woman who struggles through the fluidity of time and unusual transformations to be united through destiny with her one true love.

Dandelion imagery and metal bell accents (at one point in the film she becomes clothed in the bell's shadow) all around the tower including a massive mural on the wall all draw inspiration from the film and its heroine.

"A lot of people don't know about the collaboration of Salvador Dalí and Walt Disney on the film Destino," said Cinde Meade, interior designer of the hotel project. "So, to introduce them, a lot of details from the film are woven into the interior and exterior of the resort."

"If you look at the ceiling, you see Dahlia's flowing hair in the wind," said Michael Scheifler, who is proprietor for the Gran Destino Tower restaurants referring to the Dahlia Lounge. "We have the movie showing on two screens so you can watch it. Then, if you look around the room, you see in a mural that Dahlia's head is a dandelion and the spores are flying away. The chandeliers are dandelions floating."

Disney Imagineer David Stofcik said that the tower pays homage to the Spanish origins of the stories of Mexico and the American Southwest already told at the resort. He said that the resort's Lago Dorado ties it all together and that the tower's ribbon-patterned lines on its exterior (which are illuminated at night) represent water that flows through the building and into the lake.

Stofcik said some of the Spanish influences in the architecture were extended to provide opportunities to allow more light into spaces in the building, and that the decorative panels around the lobby itself were inspired by five specific Spanish tile designs from around Barcelona and Toledo that the Imagineers discovered during their research.

However, even Dali himself probably never expected to be surrounded by all the playful Hidden Mickeys that abound in the resort slyly woven into fabrics, furniture, carpets, wallpaper, metalwork and décor.