The Forgotten Story of the Wilderness Lodge

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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When I talk about storytelling at a Disney theme park, it is usually instantly apparent that an area, attraction, store, or food and beverage location has been carefully themed to tell a specific story. All the details enhance that storyline. When I talk about storytelling at Disney Resort Hotels, the story usually revolves around the architecture rather than a particular traditional storyline.

Recently, thanks to the generosity of good friend and fellow Disney enthusiast Jeff Pepper (and do yourself a favor and visit his site (link), I was able to uncover an elaborate and convoluted storyline for the Wilderness Lodge that was similar in style to the one developed five years earlier for Pleasure Island.

I am a huge fan of Peter Dominick Jr.’s Wilderness Lodge at Walt Disney World for many reasons, even though I have never stayed there as a guest. Most Disney fans know its design was inspired by the Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite National Park and the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park.

Dominick and members of Disney Development Company visited lodges at Yosemite, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. “[The Wilderness Lodge] does, in fact, capture the spirit and sense of place one associates with our National Parks, icons of our American heritage …with their art, architecture and dramatic landscapes,” stated Dominick at the opening of the Lodge in May 1994.

The Wilderness Lodge is an outstanding representation of what is now known as “rustic architecture.” Robert Reamer, the designer of the Ahwahnee Lodge, used whatever building materials were indigenous to the location to make all aspects blend together and be more organic to the area. There are many wonderful stories that are told extremely well in the design of this particularly impressive Disney Resort Hotel.

It is a wonderful sensory experience to seemingly leave Florida property when you turn off World Drive onto Timberline Drive, into a world of wildflowers, pine forests and bears of the Pacific Northwest. The lodge was supposedly built around a hot mineral spring that becomes Silver Creek and flows toward Bay Lake, stopping briefly to ignite Fire Rock Geyser.

However, generally unknown to guests and cast members, there was a fairly detailed back story created by the Imagineers about the Lodge when the resort first opened May 28, 1994.

According to articles in a commemorative edition newspaper titled The Silver Creek Star Vol. B, No. 28,928 (actually a clever way of communicating information to guests staying at the Lodge about the guest services procedures as well as sharing the colorful Imagineering back story), Wilderness Lodge had a rich history and it centered around the exploits of one man: Colonel Ezekiel Moreland.

A magnificently beautiful valley in America’s Northwest was discovered by Colonel Ezekiel Moreland in the early 1800s. He described the location in a letter to his daughter as “a tranquil valley along the shores of a splendid lake…a cathedral of trees that touch the sky, a stream that glitters with radiant light, rocks and minerals of every color and description…I call this sweet valley—Silver Creek Springs.”

Later, he returned to settle this frontier area and make it his new home along with with his daughter Genevieve (a young art curator nicknamed “Jenny” who took a temporary leave of absence) and her traveling companion, a young Austrian artist, Frederich Alonzo Gustaf, who desired to capture in painting the new frontier he had been hearing so much about from written and oral accounts.

Moreland was a veteran of the War of 1812. Recently widowed and inspired by the accounts of Lewis and Clark, the retired colonel mounted a westbound expedition in 1823 starting from the Missouri River. His party of 50 or so intrepid adventurers quickly met with disaster. They encountered a stampede of more than 10,000 buffalo that destroyed nearly all their provisions just 80 miles from their starting point. The men limped back to St. Louis, and all but Moreland gave up on the expedition. In a letter to daughter Genevieve he wrote:

“I take to the wilderness alone. The good earth will provide me with everything I need to survive. I have my gun. I have my courage and I have my determination. What need I of anything else, especially of cowardly scoundrels who turn ashen in the face of the smallest adversity.”

During his explorations, Moreland stumbled across a wilderness paradise that captured his imagination and heart. Thanks to a substantial collection of beaver pelts and other valuable furs he obtained while on his travels, he emerged from the frontier two years later a very wealthy man.

Genevieve and Gustaf joined Moreland in St. Louis to make a return trip to Silver Creek Springs with the intent of making it their new home. Silver Creek was named for its mineral deposits coming from a natural hot spring that made the water shimmer. According to the Silver Creek Star:

“Using the small fortune her father had raised from the fur trade, they brought out a crew of men from St. Louis and had a small lodge built near the fresh water spring. Jenny would remain in Silver Creek Springs for the remainder of her life. She established a preservation area in her father's honor, where others could enjoy the natural beauty of the wilderness. The Wilderness Lodge welcomed artists, scientists and nature lovers of all kinds over the years. As the number of visitors grew, the Lodge expanded to accommodate them. Eventually, they added rooms that grew around the spring, making it part of the Wilderness Lodge.”

Standing upon high rocks above the valley that Colonel Ezekiel Moreland discovered, the young artist Gustaf immediately unpacked his gear and set up his easel on a rocky outcropping that provided the best possible views of the surrounding area. According to an article in the Silver Creek Star:

”No sooner had the brush touched the canvas than the ground began to tremble. The artist quickly grabbed his seat and managed to keep his easel from falling. After the tremors had subsided, he looked to the Colonel and Jenny and smiled assuredly. ‘You see Colonel, I am something of a frontiersman myself.’ Only the Colonel knew what lay in store.

”The tremor was only a warning. The explosion of the geyser was sudden and swift. The sound of so much water being propelled to such a height was earth shattering. As expected—and unexpected, the easel, the artist and all his supplies tumbled over the ledge. Gustaf survived the fall, and despite its obvious dangers, the ledge became his favorite place from which to paint.

”The ledge soon became a favorite of other artists, as well, such men as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. who soon flocked to the area in search of the perfect landscape. Years later, when the Lodge was finished, a formal dining room was built on the exact location and was aptly named Artist Point.”

Artist Point became a location where guests could experience the grandeur of the vistas that inspired the painters whose work decorated the dining room. According to legend, Gustaf produced some of the most magnificent paintings of the West, inspiring the imagination of an entire nation.

Just as every area on Pleasure Island tied in with the larger story of Merriweather Adam Pleasure, early every location at the Wilderness Lodge had a back story, as well. The Teton Boat and Bike Rental building, located near the lake shore, was supposedly the original cabin that Colonel Ezekiel Moreland built shortly after arriving in the valley for the first time.

The Colonel learned the legend of the Fire Rock Geyer from the Indian elder known as Running Elk. That first winter Moreland spent in the valley was a harsh one. He soon found his camp (a simple tent) set up on the shores of the lake was a bad idea with the combination of moisture from the frigid water and the cold wind that blew off the lake. He moved closer to the hot springs.

One morning he was surprised by the arrival of an Indian hunting party that for many generations had used the same location for the same need of heat as the Colonel. Offering them food and a friendly smile, Moreland made friends and in return was told the tale of the area. During one especially bad winter, an Indian hunting party had been trapped in the valley by excessive snow.

They built a fire and were forced to keep it burning continuously. After five days, the rock beneath them began to crack and tremble. The next day, the trembling became even greater and as they placed another piece of wood on the fire, the Earth opened up and a great pillar of hot, steaming water erupted upwards, launching a nearby teepee high into the air. The frightened group fled the valley with warnings to avoid the location where they had angered the earth with their wasteful use of continuous fire.

A host of now forgotten colorful characters inspired other familiar places at the Lodge. Georgie MacGregor, an unlucky prospector, arrived in the valley in 1852 seeking his fortune. According to the Silver Creek Star:

“Even if Ol' Georgie was ‘a few logs shy of a full load’ in the common sense department, he was nevertheless cunning. When he approached the Wilderness Lodge, he presented himself not as a prospector, but as a cook. The frontier, at this time, did not have a surplus of chefs, so such skills were highly valued. The Lodge had become a gathering place for artists, naturalists and others, and Jenny thought Ol' Georgie would be a welcomed addition. She offered Ol' Georgie a room in the Lodge in exchange for his services. He responded, ‘Now, Miss Jenny, I reckon the best place fer me is yonder, by that thar stream. Thataways I won't bother any of your guests an' I'll be closer to the trout. I kin clean the pans easier thataways, too.”

Miss Moreland soon discovered MacGregor’s deception when in a surprise visit to his camp, she discovered cooking pans filled with water and silt from the stream since he was using them to pan for gold. Ol’ Georgie was shooting trout point blank with his Hawken pistol to gather a meal to cook. Jenny quickly hired a new cook, a former Army sergeant. That action did not stop MacGregor who stayed on doing odd chores including serving (but not cooking) breakfast.

”On a supply run to the trading post for cooking utensils and fishing gear, Georgie returned with two crates. He took one to the kitchen and the other he carted off to his cabin. Ol' Georgie was cooking up one last plan to uncover his fortune. The next morning, Ol' Georgie doggedly served breakfast and slipped away quietly to his cabin. The guests were still gathered around the table, discussing how much better the food tasted when all of a sudden, a tremendous explosion shook the very foundation of the Lodge, knocking them to the floor.

”After collecting themselves, they scrambled down the stream in a panic. Where the stream once flowed gently over rocks was now a cavernous, smoldering hole, deep in the earth. Ol’ Georgie was no where in sight. His cabin was splintered and roofless. The group stood in silent amazement at the damage around them. A faint voice was heard from above. Ol' Georgie had blown himself 20 feet up a pine tree, black as tar and barely conscious. A box labeled dynamite stood under the tree.

”It was the last time Ol" Georgie ever looked for gold or silver. And the cratered pool he blew into the ground serves as one of the fondest recreational pastimes at the Lodge.”

The name of the area obviously brings to mind the very famous Silver Springs in Marion County, Fla., home to one of the largest artisan springs in the world and forming the headwaters of the Silver River. The location is a famous tourist attraction (with glass bottom boat rides) and has been used as the site for filming many movies including some scenes for the classic Tarzan flicks.

The Wilderness Lodge no longer has a copy of the Silver Creek Star that was given so freely to guests over a decade ago. There is no documentation of this story in their “Big Book of the Lodge” that is used by the rangers who give the outstanding “Wonders of the Lodge” walking tour four days a week as a reference to answer guests’ questions.

The vivid adventures of Colonel Moreland just like those of Merriweather Adam Pleasure have completely disappeared from Disney history in less than two decades along with so many other interesting tales that should be recorded for future researchers.

 

Comments

  1. By schnebs

    The Imagineers came up with some great backstories to explain the features of the various resorts; I personally remember the stories behind places like Ol' Man Island and the Cotton Mill Co-Op at what was then Dixie Landings. It's a shame that someone later decided to stop printing this stuff in the resort guides - they probably got too many complaints from guests that they couldn't find the info they needed quickly, or just decided they could economize by shrinking the size of the guides, I guess. I hope you'll share more of these backstories with us in the future, Jim!

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