Within weeks of Michael Eisner’s arrival as the new CEO and Chairman of the Board at The Walt Disney Company, he put in motion many projects to revitalize the Disney brand that included new theme parks and the expansion of existing ones, new hotels, new film projects and changes to every other division at Disney.
In 1985, one of Eisner’s new changes was the creation of the Disney Development Company (DDC), a fully owned subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company. The DDC was charged to develop, design and construct property, including certain resorts and shopping areas within the Walt Disney World Resort, but outside of the theme-park gates, as well as Celebration, Florida (In May 1996, the DDC was merged with Walt Disney Imagineering).
“Michael Eisner’s entry into the wonderful world of architecture, “wrote Patricia Leigh Brown in the April 8, 1990 edition of The New York Times, “Is in part a practical response to the growth of his company.” “Michael Eisner is serious about architecture,” she goes on to say. “The bookshelves in his spacious office in Burbank are lined with weighty tomes… In addition to [Michael] Graves and [Robert] Stern, Eisner’s impressive architectural cast includes Frank O. Gehry… Charles Gwathmey and Robert Siegel… Antoine Predock and Japan’s Arata Isozaki – stars plucked from the architectural stratosphere.”
“Architecture, like any great art, is a little threatening,” said Eisner. “Great art and great architecture have to be intellectually challenging.” Thus started the era of what became known as “entertainment architecture.”
One of the immediate challenges was to expand and build out Walt Disney World. According to Eisner’s biography Work in Progress, “Fewer than 3,000 of the 28,000 acres Walt originally purchased had been put to use. Even with more than 7,000 acres devoted to conservation and water management, there were still nearly 18,000 left to dream about…”
Chuck Cobb, who was in charge of the Disney Development Company from 1984 to 1987, said in a 2012 interview with Florida Trend, “I would say Michael Eisner intimidated me a little bit. Michael Eisner was very smart, very opinionated. If you look at Walt Disney World today, 90% of my game plan was accepted.” Within a few weeks of Eisner’s arrival at The Walt Disney Company, Cobb informed him that there was a deal with John Tishman, whose company built Epcot, to be able to construct two new hotels at the Walt Disney World Resort. “I instantly hated the designs,” said Eisner. “I associated Disney with fun, theatricality, magic. These were perfectly serviceable buildings, but they were bland, boxy, and completely unimaginative – typical of the hotels that large chains have put up all across America.”
In 1985, Al Checchi, of the Marriott Corporation, who helped the Basses, the largest Disney shareholders from 1984-2001, acquire a 25% stake in the Walt Disney Company, was offered an unofficial role as an adviser to the Disney Company. Checchi suggested to Eisner and Frank Wells that they go into partnership with the Marriott Corporation by having them [Marriott] build and manage all of Disney’s new hotels and convention space. Up until this time, according to Checchi, “Disney was a mediocre hotel operator.” When Eisner and Wells met with Bill Marriott in Washington, D.C., Eisner was impressed with Marriott’s detailed knowledge of the Marriott Hotels and how functional they were, but thought they were uninspiring. Eisner didn’t think Marriott would ever embrace anything that was ambitious and theatrical.
Shortly after the meeting with Marriott, John Tishman found out about the meeting and the proposed partnership. “You can’t do that,” Tishman told Eisner. “It’s a breach of my agreement with Disney.”
On February 4, 1986, a few days before Disney held their annual shareholder meeting at the Boca Raton Hotel & Club, Tishman, and their partners in the hotel-convention project, filed a lawsuit against Disney. The suit sought $371 million in compensatory damages and more than $1 billion in punitive damages. Tishman also evoked the RICO Act against Disney. The RICO Act [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act]. It would have doubled penalties for violators and potential criminal sanctions. “The possibility that the Mouse could become a convicted felon was enough to bring Eisner back to the table,” said architect Alan Lapidus.
Vickie Vaughan, of the Orlando Sentinel, wrote in 1986, “The lawsuit… charges that Disney is planning to renege on a promise to grant Tishman’s complex a privileged status by giving another company – Marriott Corp – the go-ahead to build a convention center, a convention hotel and as many as 20,000 other moderately priced hotel rooms on Disney property. (During the shareholder meeting, Eisner announced that they would build about 800 moderately priced rooms called the “Wilderness Inns” and briefly mentioned they would build an “Industrial Kingdom”. Although Eisner didn’t elaborate, but it is speculated that he was referring to a high-tech industrial park that Charles “Chuck” Cobb, Arvida’s chairman, once said he would like to build on Disney property)
Vaughan continued, “Tishman said, it told Disney officials that it would stop work on the hotel-convention complex unless Disney agreed to stand by its promise not to allow hotels or convention space to be built on Disney land for 10 years.” Tishman also said it learned that Disney was ‘contemplating or negotiating’ an agreement with Marriott and also “considering allowing Marriott Corp. to manage or operate the three Disney-owned hotels at Walt Disney World.”
Two years later Disney and the Tishman Realty & Construction reached an agreement and dropped the lawsuit. Tishman was originally going to build their convention complex on a 68-acre parcel of land at Lake Buena Vista, but agreed on a new site between EPCOT Center and the recently announced Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park. In a January 29, 1988 Los Angeles Times story Richard M. Kielar, a first vice president of Tishman Realty & Construction said, “Now we are right next to Epcot; we feel that it’s a much better site, and this was part of the settlement.” Michael Graves was announced as the project architect.
“Under the original proposal, Sheraton Corp. would have operated the larger hotel while Holiday Inns operated a 12-story Crowne Plaza hotel,” according to Kathryn Harris, Los Angeles Times staff writer. “Holiday Inns is no longer part of the project. In its stead, Westin Hotels & Resorts will open a 760-room hotel in 1989.
The Swan and Dolphin Hotels under construction (circa: 1987)
Photo: The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel / Facebook
With the lawsuits out of the way, it was time to start building.
According to the settlement, Tishman would finance, build and own his two convention hotels and convention center (and in a better location) but the names on all the buildings would be preceded by the Disney name. Disney would also have creative control over the two properties and since they are leasing the land to Tishman, Disney would get a percentage of the profits. In addition, Disney agreed to be financially responsible for any “unusual special ornamentation.” (Including large swans and dolphins.) Because Eisner didn’t like the original concept for the hotels (and Tishman already budgeted these hotels), Disney would also compensate them for the additional expense over the original costs. According to Alan Lapidus, this would be achieved by abating the rent to the amount of the “design premium.”
HELP FROM AN OLD FAMILY FRIEND
In Building A Dream – The Art of Disney Architecture, Beth Dunlop said that Eisner chose architects that he admired “whether or not the fit with Disney seemed seamless.”
Eisner got help in finding some of his architects by consulting an old family friend, Victor W. Ganz. Although Ganz was president of D. Lisner & Company, a small, but respected costume jewelry company, and was not wealthy by today’s standards, he built one of the most formidable contemporary art collections of its day. Ganz gave Eisner an informal art education by taking him to museums in New York and Europe. When they were in Rome, the two men wandered the streets discussing the various buildings.
Eisner consulted with Ganz about architects and to start Ganz suggested two architects: Philip Johnson and Michael Graves. According to Patricia Leigh Brown’s article “Disney Deco” for The New York Times, “…the three men met by chance at the Metropolitan Opera House: ‘Philip didn’t know who Michael Eisner was and went to get a Perrier,’ Graves said.” Graves was in and Johnson was out.
L to R: Michael Graves, John Tishman, Michael Eisner, Frank Wells
Photo: The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel / Facebook
Eisner actually wanted Graves to collaborate with another architect, Robert Venturi, on designing the hotels. Graves asked him, “…if that wasn’t a little bit like putting Steven Spielberg and George Lucas together?!” Eisner responded, “Remember, I did that.” Venturi refused to collaborate with Graves and instead told Eisner he wanted a competition so that Disney could choose the best architect. Eisner agreed and asked Venturi, Graves and Alan Lapidus to submit proposed designs. According to Beth Dunlap, “Alan had been the architect for the original hotels proposed by Tishman Construction, and including him was a conciliatory gesture to John Tishman…” Eisner liked Graves’s bold structures, but found the designs a little too dull. He told Graves to “lighten them up” and he got the job. In Work In Progress, Eisner writes, “Tishman looked genuinely ashen. ‘This design is outrageous and impossible,’ he insisted. ‘The buildings make no sense practically or economically.’” Eisner told him not to worry. “We’ll get this built on time and on budget.
Michael Graves’s soft furnishing designs
Image: Princeton University Press
Tishman wanted to work with his own architect, Alan Lapidus. So in a compromise, Graves and Lapidus would collaborate on the two new convention hotels. Graves would design the exterior and interiors of the hotels thus giving Eisner the spectacular hotels he wanted and Lapidus would give Tishman buildings that actually functioned like hotels.
Bernini’s Fontana del Tritone
Image: Bede735 / Flickr
To “lighten them up”, Graves sought inspiration to bring more whimsy to his designs and eventually looked to the seventeenth-century Italian architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. “I wanted to do something a child could identify with but wasn’t sappy.” Graves eventually settled on the dolphin and the swan, which are typically classic symbols of water and because “they are not Disney characters.” When Lapidus found out about the swans and dolphins he exclaimed, “But Michael! We’re in a swamp!”
ALAN LAPIDUS – A FAMILIAR FACE
Alan Lapidus was no stranger working for and with The Walt Disney Company. In 1979, The Walt Disney Company was planning to build an 800-room themed hotel, The Mediterranean Village, at Walt Disney World. Disney decided to look outside of Imagineering for an architect. Going outside The Walt Disney Company to find other talent, in particular architects, did not start with Michael Eisner. That distinction would belong to Card Walker. This would be the first new hotel since the Park opened eight years earlier. The hotel would be located on a stretch of land between the Ticket and Transportation Center and the Contemporary Resort Hotel.
If the hotel was built no one would have known that Lapidus was the architect. In his biography, Everything By Design – My Life as an Architect, Lapidus said he had to sign “the oddest legal document of my career…” The document said that he could not let anyone know he designed the hotel, nor use it in any collateral. In fact, all documents would list the architects WED Engineering. All this would change in 1984 when Michael Eisner came on board. The Mediterranean Village was “put on hold” in the mid-80s because tests on the ground proved that it was logistically and economically unsuitable. After The Grand Floridian Resort Hotel opened and was profitable, the Mediterranean Village resort was long forgotten.
In the early 1980’s, John Tishman won the contract to start building EPCOT Center, it was then that he realized Disney’s second theme park would bring considerably more visitors and business to the resort. Soon after, Tishman negotiated a favorable lease for a prime hotel in Lake Buena Vista. Tishman asked Disney who they liked for an architect. Once again, Lapidus was chosen for the job.
Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista
Photo: Hilton Hotels & Resorts
While working on the hotel, which would eventually become The Hilton at Walt Disney World (now Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista), Tishman told Lapidus that he just negotiated to lease two additional hotel sites with Disney execs. The hotels would also include a huge, state-of-the-art convention building. Tishman offered Lapidus the job to build the two hotels and convention center. This time, Lapidus was working for Tishman, not Disney.
DESIGNING THE SWAN AND DOLPHIN HOTELS
Graves and Lapidus’s home-away-from-home in Los Angeles was the Beverly Hills Hotel. In an office at the Disney Design Studio in Hollywood, Graves and Lapidus started working on ideas for this ambitious project. When the two architects first met everyone thought they were not going to get along with each other and this would be a painful process. “Wrong!” said Lapidus. “Graves and I got along famously. Michael’s structures were colorful and weird, and flew in the face of the sedate glass boxes I had always hated.”
An example of an Etienne-Louis Boullee structure
One of the first designs that Graves designed for the yet-to-be-named hotels was a “long, Astraight [sic], slope-sided bar of a building, with a mysterious and somewhat somber sphere half sunk into the middle of it. When they made their design presentations to Eisner, the Disney staff and the other project executives, Eisner asked John Hench for his opinion. Hench, who knew immediately that Graves design was based on a variation of an Etienne-Louis Boullee funerary monument, said “Well, this should undo the sixty years of goodwill Walt generated!” Lapidus told Graves that the basic shape was not feasible for a hotel. Graves asked why and Lapidus said, “Imagine a guest getting out of the elevator. He looks down the hotel corridor, which is six feet wide, eight feet high, and nine hundred feet long.” Graves understood and went back the drawing board.
Original layout of the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel
Image: Princeton University Press
Keeping the original concept, Graves added four perpendicular wings to the main building and the sides were modified into a pyramid. Having a building in the shape of a pyramid gave the architects another problem, there was no practical way of making any use of the last 80-feet since it is at the pointy top of the structure. They decided to go ahead with the building, but just put in fake windows. After the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel opened, Eisner was touring the hotel and finally saw the enormous, triangular empty space and asked what it was for. Graves replied, “Why Michael, this is for your apartment.”
Graves decided to call the two hotels the Swan and the Dolphin, for no other reason than he believe that they both evoked fun and delight in the “aquatic world of Florida.”
Every day after work, Graves and Lapidus would retire to the Beverly Hills Hotel. To get to their rooms, they would have to walk the winding corridors that were wallpapered with giant banana leaves. They certainly inspired Graves because he painted this exact design, from top to bottom, on the exterior walls of the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel.
Hallway of the Beverly Hills Hotel
Image: Beverly Hills Hotel
Lapidus said that one of Graves’ many talents was describing what the ‘feel’ of the space will look like without ever delivering actual design presentation boards and samples. For example, the Swan hotel was to have a coffee shop called the Orangerie, modeled after French greenhouse-type structures. Instead of showing models, drawings and sketches to Eisner, Tishman and the other executives models, drawings and sketches of what the space would look like, Lapidus said “Graves presented a slide show illustrating classic examples of the genre in Paris. .. his was an enchanting talk, filled with historical allegory. . . form. . . and the symbolism of design. When the lights went up, I could see that Eisner and Tishman were enthralled. . . The plan was approved enthusiastically. . . So impressive had Michael Graves’ presentation been that I was halfway back to my own office before I realized he had not shown anything to illustrate what he intended to do in the hotel. He did the exact same style of presentation for everything including a bar and cocktail lounge called Kimonos.
As many Florida residents know, the southern sun can be hard on house paint. All the exterior colors used at Disney are tested to hold up under these conditions. The paint used on the Swan and Dolphin hotels is no different. Before any paint was applied to these two buildings they were first tested on another building, the Mexico Pavilion, and applied on an area away from public view.
While Jim Korkis was at the Disney Institute Performance Center, Graves came in March 1997 to give a presentation about his work for The Walt Disney Company. Afterwards, Korkis and some other Disney employees went out with Graves, where he continued to talk about his work.
The walkway between the Swan and Dolphin Hotels
Image: The Walt Disney Swan and Dolphin Hotels
Graves gave the group his backstory about the Walt Disney World Swan Hotel (758 guest rooms)and the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel (1,509 guest rooms). His basic concept for the Dolphin hotel “was that it was a tropical island formed by a sudden cataclysmic event. An upheaval by an underwater volcano or earthquake. When the island emerged from under the sea, it lifted dolphins out of the water and these are the dolphins on the room. A mountain struggled to thrust its way upward out of the tropical rain forest. That is the reason for the banana leaves painted along the side of the building…” The railings and landscaping, lining the walkway that connects the two hotels, Graves designed to mimic waves. According to Graves, the reason why there are large waves painted on the Swan hotel is because the water was metaphorically splashing up from the walkway area.
As for the Swan Hotel, Jim Korkis said that Graves told them that the backstory for the swans on the roof was that they were so awed by the birth of the Dolphin Hotel that they “alighted on the top of the waves to get a better look and were magically turned into stone by the awesome sight.”
There have been many stories that the swan and dolphin statues were placed on the opposite hotels and to avoid the costly expense of switching the statues, they simply changed the names of the hotels. Michael Graves, Alan Lapidus and Jim Korkis have all said these statues were placed on the correct hotels from the very start.
One of the two 47-foot swans looms over John Tishman, Michael Eisner & Frank Wells
Photo: The Walt Disney Swan and Dolphin Hotels / Facebook
ABOUT THE STATUES
The two swan statues are 47-feet high and weigh twenty-eight tons each! According to Alan Lapidus, “The two huge swans sitting on pedestals on the roof of their namesake hotel were elegant beasties, their wings spread out over their backs.” He continues, “. . . with their upraised wings, [they] would also act like giant sails in any hurricane or heavy storm.” Because the swans are the highest point of the hotel, lighting rods would have to go on them, as would aircraft flashing red warning lights. “Michael Graves would not hear of such crass and unlovely appendages to his elegant birds,” wrote Lapidus. How to deal with the lightning rods and red warning lights issue, Lapidus said he converted each of the swans into giant lighting rods complete with demonic red, blinking eyes.
The Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel
Image: The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel
At the Dolphin hotel, the two dolphin statues are 56-feet high and were inspired by Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. According to Jim Korkis, “Bernini’s dolphins had mouths that curved downward, and Eisner insisted that wasn’t going to happen on Walt Disney World property – so Graves’ dolphins have their mouths curved upwards as if smiling.”
The Fountain outside of the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel
Image: The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel / Facebook
In the back of the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel is a large fountain. Holding up a large clam shell are four dolphins. Originally, Graves’ dolphins were three-dimensional, but their size blocked the view in all directions. Instead of replacing them, Graves sliced them so they are two-dimensional. He referred to them as “dolphin fillets.” In addition to modifying the dolphins, he also made the entire fountain a bit smaller.
The hotels’ locations actually mirror each other and their orientations are the same. The entrance to the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel actually faces the Walt Disney World Swan Hotel and the Walt Disney World Swan Hotel’s entrance is at the porte cochere. Everything in the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel that is three-dimensional, guests cannot touch and the two-dimensional things can be touched. The exact opposite is true for the Walt Disney World Swan Hotel. In 2002, there was a redesign of both hotel’s guest rooms and public spaces into more modern, luxurious properties. Although Graves was involved in the room design, he was not responsible for the public spaces. There is another renovation currently underway, this time a $125 million makeover. The project started in August 2014 with the Swan Hotel and by the end of 2016, the Dolphin Hotel will be complete.
TISHMAN FORGETS LAPIDUS
Developer John Tishman was one of Alan Lapidus’s biggest champions. He told Lapidus that when he signed the contract with Disney that he and Graves would get equal billing and that all press releases would include both their names. However, when Tishman delivered the opening address to celebrate these buildings, Lapidus writes, “John may have started celebrating a little too soon and a little too enthusiastically. Slurring his speech, John congratulated Michael Graves for his genius. . . Michael Eisner for his boldness. He thanked all his financial partners. Then he sat down.” He never mentioned Lapidus’s contributions and hard work. Lapidus said that Michael Graves was the next speaker and his opening words were, “The first thing I would like to say is that there would be no Swan and no Dolphin without the effort and talent of Alan Lapidus, the architect of these buildings.”
Lapidus said that even Michael Eisner, who “wanted to replace me with Graves. . .” and “. . . who has often been spoke of unflatteringly. . . began his speech by saying, “I would like to congratulate Michael Graves for his magnificent vision for this complex, and I would like to congratulate Alan Lapidus, who actually made the Swan and Dolphin work as hotels.”
Lapidus was truly touched by these gestures and said, “To the two Michaels, Eisner and Graves, I will be everlastingly be grateful.”
A LOVE / HATE RELATIONSHIP
Aerial view of the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotels
Image: Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotels
In the January 25, 1990 edition of Los Angeles Times, Leon Whiteson wrote, “Swans are everywhere, spouting in fountains, floating on bench backs, pressed as outlines in the ashtray sand. . . On the carpets, a riot of vivid floral motifs appears; the hotel’s favored, somber palette of turquoise and terra cotta fights a losing battle with buttercup yellows, corpuscle crimsons and meadow greens. The total effect, as one visiting architect remarked, is rather like spending the night with a friendly Venus flytrap.” He continues, “when told that one local wit had described the Swan as ‘a cross between a big playpen and a Babylonian brothel,’ Graves smiled enigmatically, then replied, ‘I can’t really argue with that when you consider the two main kinds of clientele the hotel is meant to attract – kids and conventioneers.”
On October 30, 2002, Michael Brick of The New York Times, wrote a story about the initial remodel of each of the hotels and said, “The architect Michael Graves decorated the lobbies and breezeway with fountains flowing around cartoonish swans and dolphins and painted the hallways with beach scenes. . . A standard-issue hotel ashtray in this setting gives the appearance that a 10-year old child lives here and frequently entertains George Burns and Tom Waits.
Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for The New York Times, wrote on April 8, 1990, “. . . it is Graves’s Dolphin and Swan Hotels, in Orlando, that are the most conspicuous products of the Disney architecture crusade. In truth, they are no more like Disney’s themed buildings than they are like traditional hotels; they are extravagant, flamboyant, works of decoration, willfully eccentric and dazzlingly entertaining. . . Inside. . . it is a much happier story. . . There is a joyous spirit to these interiors, which at their best are brilliantly conceived. . .”
The writer even gave a nod to exactly what Michael Eisner wanted to achieve from the start. “No company has ever tried to market serious architecture to the masses the way Disney is now doing. . . there can be no doubt that Disney is a force to be reckoned with in architecture in the last decade of the 20th century – a corporate patron like none other, past or present. It is in Disney that the worlds of architecture and entertainment, which have been moving closer to each other for years, have achieved their most powerful intersection yet – becoming so intimately intertwined that it is almost impossible to tell which is which.”
Lapidus, Alan, (2007), Everything By Design: My Life as an Architect, New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press
Dunlop, Beth, (2011), Building A Dream: The Art of Disney Architecture, New York, NY: Disney Editions
Eisner, Michael, (1999), Work In Progress: Risking Failure, Surviving Success, New York, NY: Kingswell
Brick, M., (30 October 2002). Commercial Real Estate; A Disney Resort Remodels for Business Travelers. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/30/business/commercial-real-estate-a-disney-resort-remodels-for-business-travelers.html
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Harris, K., (7 February 1986). Eisner Says Lawsuit Won’t Affect Other Disney Plans. Los Angeles Times. http://articles.latimes.com/1986-02-07/business/fi-5417_1_disney-world
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Booth, C., (1997, December). Can’t Buy Me Love – Airline Tycoon Al Checchi Wants To Be California’s governor, and He’s Getting Ready To Spend His Way There.http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,987446,00.html
Goldberger, P., (8 April 1990). Disney Deco: And Now, An Architectural Kingdom. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1990/04/08/magazine/disney-deco-and-now-an-architectural-kingdom.html