Secrets of the Swan & Dolphin: Surprising Stories from Disney World’s Most Unusual Resorts.

Some Walt Disney World hotels make you feel like you’re in old New Orleans as you stroll through bayous and mansions. Some take you to the grand Victorian beachfront hotels of yesteryear. Some place you in the Caribbean for a sunny vacation in a colorful village. But only one of Walt Disney World’s hotels is a post-modern abstraction; a geometric icon of architecture and a divisive remnant of 90s design somehow elevated to timelessness.

Say what you want about The Swan and the Dolphin at Walt Disney World, but these two unusual sister resorts located around Lake Crescent near EPCOT are captivating; interesting; different. Today we look at the origin, architecture, legends and history behind the swan and the dolphin. Hopefully, in the end, whether you love or hate these unique resorts, you’ll appreciate that Walt Disney World can use a little more of their boldness today…

The origin

Picture: Disney

When then-new CEO Michael Eisner inherited planning for Walt Disney World in the mid-1980s, he saw a 40,000-acre property with unlimited potential. Walt Disney World had certainly become the “World Vacation Kingdom” that Roy Disney had hoped for…but more accurately, Disney had transformed the rest of Central Florida with it. Many of Eisner’s projects in the ’80s – like Pleasure Island and the Disney-MGM studios – clearly read as the company’s attempts to outdo rivals that rushed into the mouse crowd, like Church Street Station and Universal Studios. This is also how the Swan and the Dolphin were born.

Believe it or not, when Eisner arrived in 1984, Walt Disney World had only two hotels: the Polynesian Village and the Contemporary, both dating back to when the resort opened in 1971! Recognizing the huge potential Disney was to own the Central Florida hotel market, construction has been working overtime. In 1988, Disney opened the Grand Floridian hotel on the Seven Seas Lagoon, and introduced a new, less expensive “moderate” hotel – Disney’s Caribbean Beach.

Picture: Disney

But even if Disney could attract more guests to Central Florida with increased hotel capacity, there was one crowd they needed more than any other: the convention crowd. Many companies and organizations have held conventions and seminars in Central Florida…they just weren’t doing it in the dated 70s facilities of Disney World. Eisner would change that. Built around a bespoke ride of nighttime attractions, the “Convention Kingdom” would isolate professionals in their own Disney World sphere, while offering rear entry to EPCOT for fine dining each evening.

When New York-based real estate firm Tishman learned that Disney was courting outside partners (architect Alan Lapidus and operator Marriott) to build and manage convention centers, it sued. (Tishman claimed that their role in building EPCOT and two Lake Buena Vista hotels came with a multi-year exclusivity agreement, preventing any other outside companies from building hotels on Disney property.) Eventually , Disney and Tishman have settled amicably, and Tishman has indeed resumed the construction and operation of two of the hotels in the “Convention Kingdom”…

But according to the story, Michael Eisner wasn’t happy with the hotels Tishman had planned and negotiated to bring in a world-renowned architect to do something daring…

The architect

Michael Graves and the Portland Building. Image courtesy of ©1982 Peter Aaron/Otto Archive

Another of Michael Eisner’s tastes of “fine things” was his selection of architects. Cartoon Brew’s Chappell Ellison penned a wonderful look at Eisner’s architectural flamboyance, and you sure can’t argue with the results: iconic buildings like the Disney Feature Animation Building (AM Stern), the Disney Orlando team office (Arata Isozaki) and Celebration Town Hall (Philip Johnson).

But one of the most controversial architects of Disney’s payroll at the time was Michael Graves. A lifelong architect, artist and designer, Grave’s is an icon of post-modern architecture – an intentional rejection of the clean lines and austerity of the 60s and 70s.

Picture: Disney, via D23

Emphasizing colorful facades and a playful style, Grave’s most iconic postmodern works are probably the Portland Building (1982) and the Denver Public Library (1995). For Disney, Graves also designed the iconic Team Disney building in Burbank, California – officially today the Michael D. Eisner Building – with its famous Seven Dwarf caryatid columns (above), the post office of Celebration, Florida, and Disney’s Hotel New York. at Disneyland Paris.

Marked by whimsy, symmetry and geometry, it’s no surprise that Graves’ style (and in particular his work for Eisner’s Walt Disney Company) is sometimes referred to as “entertainment architecture”. This made Graves the perfect no one to bring two iconic hotels from Eisner’s convention kingdom to life…


Image: Disney, via WDWInfo

When interviewed by Disney historian Jim Korkis in 1997, Graves described how he was chosen for the project, saying, “Michael didn’t like those big, all-glass buildings. He called them ‘refrigerator boxes.’ wanted the architecture to tell a story.” Even at first glance, the Swan & Dolphin does.

Why a swan and a dolphin to begin with? “I wanted creatures that weren’t part of existing Disney mythology and hoped that they would then be further developed as Disney icons,” Graves told Korkis. “[The dolphins] were inspired by the work of an Italian sculptor, Bernini [and his Fontana del Tritone]. Of course, there is a major change. Bernini’s dolphins had their mouths curved downwards and seemed to frown. Michael said it wouldn’t happen on Disney property, so I cocked my mouth up like I was smiling.”

Image: Marriott

The Swan is comprised of a 12-story rectacular tower with a gently curved roofline, with two 47-foot-tall swan statues (weighing 60,000 pounds each) drifting atop. Two 9-story wings jut out toward Crescent Lake, each adorned with a clapperboard.

The entire property is bathed in a warm sandy pink with teal, stylized, curving waves radiating from its center and along the towers – the post-modern pop that gives Graves’ work its whimsy. And between the two accessory towers, the Swan’s main entrance from Crescent Lake is a stylized gazebo covered in puffy tents – an ode to beach life in the Sunshine State.

Image: Marriott

A causeway through the center of Lake Crescent connects the swan to its sister, with soaring shell fountains and billowing water. With nearly twice as many rooms, the Dolphin’s most striking feature is its 257-foot-high central triangular tower – a turquoise “pyramid” rising from its 12-story rectangular core with 56-foot-tall nautical dolphins. high on each side. Four 12-storey wings extend from the core. Facing the rolling waves of the Swan, the Dolphin is covered in giant banana leaf paintings, unfurling on its towers.

The spectacular Square Feet Tours offers a free one-hour audio tour of the Swan & Dolphin that delves deep into Graves’ intentions with the shapes and colors of hotels, and even as modern refreshes have erased the colors and textures of years 90’s in favor of more modern, palatable designs and clean lines, there’s no denying that these two hotels stand out. And while the postmodern masterpiece doesn’t recreate a specific “place” like the Grand Californian or the Wilderness Lodge, it is a story to explain the swan and the dolphin… On the next page we will explore the lore created by Graves and discuss some famous rumors about these two hotels…

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