Stories of Walt Disney World DVC Resort Hotels

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

I recently released a book titled Hidden Treasures of the Walt Disney World Resort Hotels that is filled to overflowing with some of the history, storytelling and theming details of over two dozen of the Walt Disney World Resort Hotels including some WDW Disney Vacation Club (DVC) properties.

Lately, I have gotten to thinking as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of DVC later this year that not every Disney fan is as familiar with the DVC and certainly not familiar with the artifacts, detailing and themed elements that are displayed in plain sight at those resorts.

The very first DVC resort opened on December 20, 1991, and was just known as Disney's Vacation Club Resort up until January 1996. It was renamed Disney's Old Key West Resort to distinguish it from the newer DVC resorts, Disney's Vero Beach Resort (October 1995) and Disney's Hilton Head Island Resort (March 1996), that were just opening.

The latter two DVC resorts were beautiful, if somewhat isolated on purpose, but Disney soon realized that its members were not as excited about different locations, as in the traditional timeshare format, but preferred ones directly connected to a Disney theme park. Today, there are over a dozen different DVC resort options just at WDW.

In addition to the sites at Walt Disney World, DVC has locations at The Villas at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa (Anaheim, California), Disney's Hilton Head Island Resort (Hilton Head Island, South Carolina), Disney's Vero Beach Resort (Vero Beach, Florida) and Aulani Disney Vacation Club Villas (Ko Olina, Hawaii.)

In December 2004, Bob Iger, who at the time was President and Chief Operating Officer of the Walt Disney Company, told the cast members at a town hall meeting at Disney's Coronado Springs Resort, "The Disney Vacation Club is a tremendous business. We have some DVC units off property, but by and large, if we're going to invest money in that direction, we're better off building more DVC units at the Walt Disney World Resort because our overall strategy here as a business is to extend stays and increase repeat visitation."

DVC is the timeshare arm of The Walt Disney Company and is operated by subsidiary Disney Vacation Development. The Walt Disney Company got into this business because it identified a need to develop larger on-property accommodation options which met the demand for longer-stay visitors.

Disney research including surveys of theme park visitors showed that many guests did not want to leave the Disney property and wanted to remain on-site, but they stayed off-site because of the additional space provided by resorts not located on Disney property. Members access their club resorts by purchasing into a points system - receiving an annual allotment of vacation points that can be used in a variety of ways for different types of accommodation.

Disney guests loved having exclusive access to on-property accommodations with multiple bedrooms, several pools, a general store, and various children's play areas that provided the larger units and flexibility they had been seeking for years and previously had found off property. DVC resorts represent more than 10% of Walt Disney World's total rooms.

For years, I have written a quarterly column about Walt Disney World history for DVC's membership magazine, Disney Files and during that time have become very familiar with the stories of these resorts.

Disney's Old Key West Resort

The theme of Disney's Old Key West Resort is the famous Florida Keys, a series of islands located off the southern tip of Florida beginning about 15 miles from Miami. Key West is the most famous and popular of these islands and is a mere ninety-four miles from Cuba. There is an elaborate storyline at the resort. It seemed natural at the time that the first DVC resort in Florida would try to capture the casual tropic feel of Key West in the early 1900s, with just a taste of the Caribbean.

Old Key West is themed to be Conch Flats, a well-maintained part of Key West. Turtle Krawl's marina is located on Trumbo Canal which, in turn, connects to the Sassagoula River… the Disney man-made waterway that connects Port Orleans Riverside, Port Orleans French Quarter, Saratoga Springs Resort, and Downtown Disney.

The fictional mayor of the town of Conch Flats is Cooter Trumbo, Esquire. "Cooter" is a call-out to a slang name for a turtle (turtles are a reoccurring theme in the resort with Old Turtle Pond Road and the Turtle Shack since capturing and selling turtles for turtle soup was a major source of income in the real Key West) in southeast United States, and "Trumbo" is for Trumbo Point, a man made addition to Key West in 1912 by the Trumbo American Dredging Company to accommodate a shipping port for the railroad.

The Gurgling Suitcase Bar has an interesting story behind its name. During Prohibition, people would come down to Key West to purchase illegal alcohol. They would pack it using their clothes to cushion the bottles so they wouldn't break in their suitcases. Law enforcement officers soon caught on to this practice and when they stopped people, they would pick up the luggage and shake it to see if it "gurgled," indicating that there was liquid inside.

At the far end of Hospitality House is Papa's Den filled with references to writer Ernest Hemingway who wrote part of his novel A Farewell to Arms while living above the showroom of a Key West Ford car dealership awaiting delivery of a Ford Model A roadster. While living in Key West, he was introduced to deep-sea fishing, got the nickname "Papa" and worked on other novels there including For Whom the Bell Tolls, To Have and Have Not and The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

Two of the newest DVC resorts, Kidani Village and The Riviera are filled with details that most guests take for granted.

Kidani Village at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge

In 2009, Kidani Village opened near Disney's Animal Kingdom as a DVC resort. Disney describes the resort as "immerse yourself in the wonders of the wild, surrounded by colorful creatures … Delight in African-inspired details while you relax in accommodations that capture the adventurous atmosphere of the wild. Feel at home in this village alive with the spirit of the savanna."

Kidani is the Swahili word for "necklace" and was chosen because of the resort's distinctive shape. It was designed as an African necklace with vacation villas forming the beads, walkways creating the knots in between, and the lobby representing the ornament or jewel at its center.

The lobby and the villas extend outward and resemble the curlicue shape of a water buffalo's horns.

With the opening of the resort, Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge was renamed Jambo House and the two resorts are now collectively known as Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge.

Kidani Village was designed with three themes: Fabric, Proverbs, and Art from various African cultures.

Kidani Village offers it own unique savanna view of giraffes, elands, impalas, greater kudus, wildebeests, marabou storks, flamingos, waterbucks and more. There are two savannas each with a different variety of animals, Sunset and Pembe, and guests are given a Wildlife Spotting Guide.

It has its own lobby and registration area as well as Samawati Springs pool, Uwanja (meaning "play area") Camp water-play area, Survival of the Fittest fitness center, a table service restaurant Sanaa ("African inspired cuisine with an Indian touch") and Johari Treasures merchandise shop.

According to Tim Wazecha, senior development manager WDI Resorts, the Imagineers came up with a back story for Samawati Springs:

"Here we have a watering hole and an animal observation camp from before the hotel was built and it's now abandoned. Because it's been abandoned, the water tower is falling apart and sprouting leak which acts as part of our interactive water-feature area.

"We also have a windsock area. In order to keep the animals away from the food, we started to hang buckets off of the windsock area. Because it's elevated, as it rains, the buckets spill out to get our Guests wet."

Kidani Village was designed with three themes: Fabric, Proverbs, and Art from various African cultures. The art does not refer to just paintings hanging on the wall but hand-carved masks, tribal symbols, sculptures and statuary in alcoves and on recessed shelves specifically designed for them.

The proverbs hold special significance due to their importance in African life. One of the most notable that is inscribed at the resort's main entrance comes from the Asante people of Ghana: "Proverbs are like butterflies. Some are caught. Some fly away." Referencing this proverb's philosophy a bronze-cast butterfly can be found next to each proverb located at the resort.

The "fabric" theme is very prominent in the lobby. The major patterns used throughout Kidani Village are from the fabrics of the kente cloths of Ghana and the kuba cloths of the Congo. "Beyond the obvious natural beauty of Kidani Village, the story and attention to detail created by Walt Disney Imagineers is truly amazing," said Kim Marinaccio general manager of Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge and Villas. "The themes of art, fabric and proverbs play an important part in telling the story of the African people and Kidani Village."

Kidani Village was designed by architect Peter Dominick Jr., who designed the original Disney Animal Kingdom Lodge resort and it is clear that the style is much the same. The towering ceiling, rich dark wood and grand windows are similar, but the artwork and smaller room size imparts a cozier feel.

Cultural representatives from Africa are the Lobby Greeters, Savanna Guides and Restaurant Greeters to share information about life in their country and their personal journey to WDW. They also share African folk tales each night at the Arusha Rock firepit.

However, in addition to authentic African culture, images of Simba, Rafiki, Timon, Pumbaa and others from Disney's animated classic The Lion King appear throughout the resort, especially in the rooms.

Other proverbs posted throughout the resort include: "Truth keeps the hands cleaner than soap" (Nigeria), "Life is like a ballet performance danced only once" (Mali) and "You must judge a person by the works of their hands" (Africa). "Friendship doubles joy and halves grief." (Egypt), "It is the pot that boils but the dish gets the credit." (Cameroon) "If you haven't been to two marketplaces you don't know which is the best value." (Burkina Faso) "Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors." (Ethiopia) "If everyone thought alike no goods would ever be sold." (Libya) "He who does not know the road holds back the one who does." (Kenya) "If you get rich, be in a dark corner when you jump for joy." (Zulu) "Wealth is bits of roasted meat. The great thing is one's kith and kin." (Zimbabwe) "Mother is gold, a father is a mirror." (Nigeria) "When you follow in the path of your father, you learn to walk like him." (Ghana) "It takes a whole village to raise a child." (Nigeria) "One who goes back to his home does not consider the night too dark. He knows his way." (Uganda) "Though the lion and the antelope happen to live in the same forest, the antelope still has time to grow up."(Ghana) "The road doesn't tell the traveler what lies ahead." (Tanzania) "He who learns, teaches." (Ethiopia) "Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable." (Tanzania) "When you are sick you promise a goat, but when you are well again, you make do with chicken." (Nigeria) "Life is a shadow and a mist; it passed quickly and is no more." (Madagascar) "One falsehood spoils a thousand truths." (Ghana) "Truth keeps the hands cleaner than soap." (Nigeria) "It's a bad child who does not take advice." (Asante) "No one tests the depth of a river with both feet." (Asante) "Sickness and disasters come and go like rain, but health is like the sun that illuminates the entire village." (Africa)

Disney's Riviera Resort

Disney's Riviera Resort, which opened in 2019, is the 15th Disney Vacation Club resort and the first stand-alone DVC resort to be built in over eight years.

It was based on a little documented European trip that Walt Disney, his brother Roy and their wives took in 1935 that took them through England, France, Germany and Italy.

During that trip, Walt brought back with him hundreds of books including children's books with illustrations of little people, bees, and small insects that he hoped would inspire the artists at his Burbank Studio. Those nearly 700 books from that trip became the foundation of the Disney Studio library that began that same year under the supervision of Helen Ludwig Hennesy.

That is the reason for the resort having the relaxing study called the Voyageurs' Lounge with its shelves filled with books, all foreign editions from the 1930s including several Disney storybooks.

A display case features an original Charlotte Clark stuffed Mickey Mouse doll from that time period and a similar one is shown in photos of Walt and his wife Lillian from the trip. Near the doll is a hat representing the fedora that Walt often wore, including on this trip, and a photo next to it shows him wearing such a hat.

In the hallway leading to the lounge are black-and-white photos on the wall from Walt's holiday. Many of these photos do not appear in any book like Walt Disney on June 13, 1935 playing with penguins at the London Zoo in a photo by Edward G Malindine for the Daily Herald.

Another set of such photos decorate the wall in Primo Piatto (Italian for "first plate") the principal quick-service venue on the first floor near the two pools. While I have spent time standing and studying these pictures in both locations, I have noticed that Disney guests generally ignore them or even question their significance.

The goal of the resort was to capture a European style and sensibility of art with a Disney twist - including the pool.

The resort only prominently features French and Italian influences to reference the Rivera rather than Walt's travels to other countries during his trip but still provides an opportunity to showcase the European influences on Disney heritage.

Inspired by the cliffside restaurants of the Riviera, Topolino's Terrace is a reference to Mickey Mouse's name in Italian, Topolino or "little mouse". In keeping with the emphasis on European art, for the character breakfast at this location the costumed performers are attired as Mickey the artist, Minnie the poet, Donald the sculptor, and Daisy the dancer.

The Italian Rivera also inspired the black-and-white painting "The Seaside Nap" featuring Mickey and Pluto lounging on their balcony overlooking the sea that is located under the television in the one bedroom villa.

The theme seems less Walt's visit to the Rivera in the 1930s but just an overall "European Disney" concept that extends to modern times including foreign movie posters of Disney animated films on the walls in the first floor hallway near the formal lawn.

Yet there are odd lapses. A framed picture of Lady and the Tramp eating spaghetti is meant to suggest Italy even though the story is wholly American.

While the story theme is not as immersive or consistent as some other Disney resort hotels like Disney's Boardwalk Inn and Villas, the concentration on the Disney connections to Europe is still appealing.

"The approach was to take the inspiration of a classical resort of a grand era along the European coast in a uniquely Disney experience. We do that by creating a level of casual elegance as part of the experience," said Imagineer Dean Huspen. "While the color palette itself is classical, the pops of colors on the awning and shutters and the area development and even the way we incorporate little discoveries in design features into the ornamental metal work and the railings became that approach."

According to Imagineer Missy Renard, "The inspiration came from the renowned art heritage of the Riviera region itself where there was a prolific amount of work that came from the late 19th century and 20th century masters. What we've done is taken our Disney characters and icons and work them into these series of paintings and different kinds of art that reflect the subject, brush strokes and technique of what the artists were studying."

The goal was to capture a European style and sensibility of art with a Disney twist. In addition, there is a variety of Riviera-themed artwork around the resort that doesn't have anything at all to do with Disney.

As Disney has stated, "During the early-20th-century, artists along the Riviera were exploring ways to make still life objects come to life on a flat canvas. Artists would first break the objects into individual shapes and forms then accentuate each object with strong outlines."

Inspired by the cubist style of art, Disney artists painted the enchanted objects from Beauty and the Beast (1991) – Cogsworth, Lumiere, Chip and Mrs. Potts – as they appear to come to life on a canvas entitled "Still Life With Teapot".

The dramatic hues of sunset inspired Disney artists in painting Rapunzel and Pascal as they watch the glowing lanterns illuminate the evening sky, creating a delightful pattern of shape and color in the painting called "Girl With Lanterns".

The S'il Vous Play interactive children's water play area draws inspiration from the grand public fountains seen throughout Europe with its patina and limestone-inspired design.

Another inspiration for it was the "Dance of the Hours" segment from the animated feature Fantasia. The area celebrates music, art, dance and storytelling by featuring whimsical animals from the film frolicking and playing in the water. An elephant filling a dump bucket with his trunk, hippos and ostriches dancing and playing, as well as hippos splashing water into decorative bowls and basins are meant to bring a smile to guests' faces.

A dedicated Disney Skyline station leads to an archway with two mosaic murals made from one million hand-cut tiles. One mural is the lantern scene from Tangled and other shows pixie dust circling the Tower of London and arching over to the Neverland Lagoon where the golden Jolly Roger pirate ship takes flight. Both reference flight to tie-in with the Skyliner and both feature European stories.

Artwork referencing Peter Pan is scattered throughout the resort including in the one bedroom villas a painting inspired by Mary Blair's concept art for that 1953 animated film with the Darling children flying out of their bedroom window and in the hallways a painting of Mrs. Darling reading to her children and Nana the dog.

In the deluxe studio by the bed, there is an homage to a vintage French poster with Mademoiselle Minnie and for sharp-eyed guests in another painting guests can see the red Lightning McQueen racing along a bridge over the sea.

Of course, there are many Hidden Mickeys, as well. The hallway carpeting is in gold, blue, and white to evoke a European elegance and hidden in the filigree pattern is the head of Minnie Mouse.

Rich colors, elegant metallics and metals, and playful artwork and décor once again show the care and skill of including artistic influences into a Disney resort hotel.