“Situated in a peaceful, pine woods and water-entwined corner of Disney’s 43-square-mile Vacation Kingdom in Florida is Lake Buena Vista, the Host Community to Walt Disney World. Just off Interstate 4 and State Road 535, this nature-inspired city provides the ultimate in vacation lifestyles.”
What follows is the story of one of Walt Disney World’s most ignored and least understood construction projects. Disney themselves seem loathe to admit what they were up to, back in the early 70’s, which is a shame because the armchair Disney historian, so often so quick to condemn the seventies leadership for their shortsightedness and especially their failure to realize Walt Disney’s E.P.C.O.T. project, may be surprised to learn of the ways the company was actually working towards that goal – on a perhaps more realistic scale. Call it the second draft of the EPCOT city. Disney called it “the Resort Community of Lake Buena Vista”.
It’s debatable whether plans for the Progress City, as it was advertised at the finalie of the Carousel of Progress, in the Walt Disney Story and elsewhere, lived much longer than Walt Disney did. What is on record, however, is that the company continued to actively publicize the Progress City model, even taking time to remove a portion of it from the Disneyland Carousel of Progress and ship it over to Florida for installation along the Florida Peoplemover track in 1975. Since their own community building effort was underway by that time, had they wanted to suppress the Progress City concept they presumably would not have gone to such pains to keep the model on public display, as it still is today. So perhaps there is some truth to Disney’s old publicity claim that Lake Buena Vista was “the experimental prototype of the experimental prototype”. Where the connection may be may lie in the fact that much of Disney’s efforts in Lake Buena Vista lay in community planning, ecologicly friendly construction, and the involvement of American industry leaders and Florida state transportation.
But I’m getting ahead of myself… what exactly was Lake Buena Vista?
To answer that we have to start at the beginning, further back than the existence of Walt Disney World itself, actually. Back in January 1970, Disney opened the first little bit of Walt Disney World available to a paying public, an unassuming square building which stands today, but which was then known as the Walt Disney World Preview Center, on Preview Blvd, off state road 535 in Orlando. At this time, a natural body of water behind the preview center, called Black Lake, became Lake Buena Vista.
The name Lake Buena Vista has always struck me as the most inspiring of names for almost-fake towns, a romantic invocation, three of the best words in the Disney lexicon put in the best order possible. Buena Vista, of course, was Disney’s distribution company created out of his break with RKO in 1950. Walt Disney World did then and does now incorporate the municipalities (Disney callas them “towns”) of Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake, which looks better and less commercial on government maps than “Disney World”. In any case “Lake Buena Vista” is a way better moniker than “Celebration” any day of the week for my money.
A few months after the opening of the Preview Center, construction began along Preview Blvd on the Lake Buena Vista Hotel Plaza, ready to open for guests by Walt Disney World’s second year: Howard Johnson’s still distinctive white tower, a sprawling Dutch Inn, a Royal Plaza which still is memorable for looking like the Contemporary cut in half, and a TravelLodge. By this time, Disney engineers had already begun excavation on Lake Buena Vista, carving out of a canal leading from Black Lake a wider lake which they named Village Lagoon, and kept on digging a complex canal system which eventually wound its way westward and then northward, branching and working its way north all the way past Fort Wilderness and emptying into Bay Lake. These canals still exist today and are known as the Sassagoula River by modern day guests staying at Dixie Landings and Old Key West.
Around this time, the first Vacation Villas began construction on the Village Lagoon and this, my friends, is where our story truly begins. At first, the idea behind these two-level modern little townhouse style homes is that they could be leased or sold to corporate partners to provide a company owned, Disney maintained getaway or to provide incentives or other rewards. In Disney World terms these were truly “out in the sticks”, nearby nothing except the hotel plaza and SR 535 – and this was back in the day when the Lake Buena Vista complex was not internally linked to World Drive, the major tourist artery to the Magic Kingdom – you would have to get back on Interstate 4 via 535 and continue down until you got to the formal 194 / I-4 interchange and could proceed to Walt Disney World.
Entertaining on the Villas' porch
But the Villas faced a peaceful little inlet, and there was a secluded pool, a cove for water launches, and in the earliest years they must have seemed like you had all of Disney World to yourself.
Relaxing at the Villas' pool, late 1970's
The Vacation Villas were perhaps most famous and well-remembered by longtime Disney World visitors as being the strange, low, grey buildings which faced the Walt Disney World Village / Marketplace until 2001. They were perhaps not too astonishing in design – looking more or less like any other apartment complex that could’ve been built in the 1970’s or 1980’s – but for accommodations, they were working overtime. From a 1976 Disney World publication: “For larger families and groups, the spacious one- and two-bedroom Villas provide plenty of room. Each is elegantly furnished and includes all the conveniences – kitchenware, color television, linens and daily housekeeping service. In addition, [Vacation Villa] guests receive complimentary motor coach transportation to the Magic Kingdom and the Walt Disney World Resorts.”
Above, a 1974 promotional image showing the dramatic three-level interior of the Villas. Below, a 1980 view of the outside of a Vacation Villa, and if you look through the window you can see the distinctive wallpaper and signature modern staircase at the back of the living room. A 1987 promotional image better showing the staircase and living room follows.
The Vacation Villas were not long all by themselves along the Village Lagoon. By early 1974, the Lake Buena Vista Golf Course opened alongside the Village Lagoon and extending northwards towards Bay Lake. Designed by Joe Lee, the golf course was “designed with mid-handicap players in mind [but] the Lake Buena Vista course is still challenging enough to be included on the TPA Tour.” Still one of the best and few remaining places to escape back into old Walt Disney World still operating today, the Golf Course was soon followed by its own clubhouse – the Lake Buena Vista Club.
Concept art for the Clubhouse
Opening November 22, 1974, the four million dollar Club was an unassuming little two level structure, the first floor buried to provide a charming entryway from the driveway while allowing the ground to slope away on the water side to provide diners a spectacular elevated view. Built in a Swiss Chalet style, the Clubhouse more or less accommodated just five functions: the Lake Buena Vista Club restaurant, the Lake Buena Vista Club Pro Shop, a pool, lighted tennis courts, and a boat rental and transport marina. In May of the following year, the Marina would host boats leaving every twenty minutes to putter their way across the Village Lagoon over to the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village.
As inauspicious as it may seem today, the Lake Buena Vista Club was amongst Disney’s earliest efforts towards providing a truly high-end dining experience, along with another early restaurant at the Contemporary which has similarly gone by the wayside, the Gulf Coast Room, and The Trophy Room at the Golf Resort. Here is how the Club is described in a 1976 issue of The World News in their Dining Directory Index: “Continental Cusine served in a country club setting. Sportsman’s breakfast from 7 – 11:30 am $.70 - $2.40. Luncheon served 11:30 am – 3 pm. $2.10 – $4.75. Gourmet dinners from 5:30 – 9:30 pm (until 10pm Friday & Saturday). Atmosphere entertainment. Dinner reservations necessary. $5.75 - $12.95. Full menu selection for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 6:30 am – 11 pm $1 - $7.95.” (To put this in perspective, $12.75 in 1974 is the equivalent of over $55 today, and only the Gulf Coast Room and the Trophy Room offered this sort of price point in all of Walt Disney World.)
Here’s another testimonial, this time from the Summer 1981 issue of Disney News, perhaps a bit more evocative:
“Sparkling Evenings at the Lake Buena Vista Club… Imagine yourself comfortably settled amidst the intimate atmosphere of an elegant, private club. A personable, tuxedoed wine captain glides to and fro, attending to your every need; the serving of a sumptuous gourmet meal, or perhaps, the cork-popping of a bottle of vintage wine.
As you savor your meal, you take in a stunning view of a moonlit lagoon, while a trio of strolling musicians lingers near your table, gently rendering a melodic offering you have specially requested.
After losing yourself in the musician’s stylings, you partake of the ‘house specialty’ – a fiery, devilishy delicious concoction containing rum, liquer, and whipped cream. Cares and worries are light years away.”
(The after-dinner coffee mentioned, by the way, is Café Buena Vista – almond liqueur, brandy, coffee, whipped cream and a candied cherry, according to my Cooking with Mickey Around the World from 1986.)
“Lake Buena Vista Club evenings, in particular, offer seekers of “the good life” – couples, singles, families, the young and the young-at-heart, a truly exceptional experience, enhanced by lush, foliaged surroundings, sparkling waters, personalized attention and expertly prepared gourmet meals, highlighted by such unforgettable entrees as Roasted Duck with orange sauce, Supreme of Red Snapper and Steak Diane Flambe.
Add to this gracious environment the stringed instrumentalizings of the ‘Dixie Deltas’ (except Thursdays), an outstanding selection of fine wines, and the Club’s own Café Buena Vista (that ‘devilish’ potion mentioned earlier) and you might very well be ‘spoiled’ by the time you have capped this captivating evening!”
It’s worth noting that, emphasis on alcohol aside - which was indeed a very big difference between Disneyland and Walt Disney World in 1981 – the atmosphere conjured here is pretty similar to Disneyland’s Blue Bayou. In California, Disney had to build an optical illusion of such a place. In Florida, it could be found in nature, waiting for them there.
One short lived and under documented event around this time was the conversion of the Preview Center into “Buena Vista Interiors”, a “quality contract interior decorating firm […] Personalized decorating assistance is available to corporations and individuals leasing townhomes, as well as to Central Florida residents and businessmen.” (interior view at left) Headed by WED’s in-house interior designer Emile Kuri, it’s another intriguing puzzle piece in the story of Disney and American Industry in Lake Buena Vista. This swings us ‘back round to EPCOT and Progress City, of course. From the very get go Disney (Walt) and Disney (Company) knew that much would rise or fall on the involvement of Industry in EPCOT, and part of its’ eventual conversion into a theme park may be a result of Card Walker’s inability to get as many companies interested in forking over huge sums of money during the economically uncertain seventies as was needed to make the Progress City a reality. Disney tried a number of tactics to entice these companies to sign with Disney, and the “lease or buy” program at Lake Buena Vista was one of these.
The construction of the Vacation Villas in 1972 was more or less unpublicized, indicating that Disney initially hoped to sell all of the units or buildings to various companies. “A limited number of one- and two-bedroom villas, fully furnished and complete with linens and kitchenware, are available to families visiting the Vacation Kingdom for short-term rentals.” reports Disney in 1974, several years later, but this was prefaced by the following:
“More than 100 townhomes, incorporating four distinct design styles, already are completed and are available to corporations for two- or three-year-term leases or outright purchase in full. Ideal for executive family vacations, customer entertaining, or sales-incentive-reward holidays, the townhomes come furnished or unfurnished.”
Ah-ha. If at first these townhomes were meant to be purchased in full by companies, then the establishment of a separate interior design firm to furnish these empty Vacation Villas makes perfect sense. Once Disney began publicizing these Villas outside the ‘Host Community’ and in the ‘Vacation Kingdom’, in fact, this “lease-or-buy” theme is constant. While a Spring 1974 Vacationland boasts of an “Exciting, New Lifestyle for American Industry”, a June 1976 World News edition contains the following from a certain Dan W. Darrow, manager of sales and marketing for Lake Buena Vista: “Clients would be impressed with staying in a Treehouse overlooking a fairway, and employees might work harder if they could win a week’s stay in a luxurious Vacation Villa. […] The spacious Villas are ideal for client receptions, business discussions, or cocktail parties with friends.” Those are dollar signs in Disney’s words, there, one must admit, and this sort of angle doesn’t actually vanish from company literature until around 1979, when plans for EPCOT Center the theme park were more or less primed and underway.
Opening in late 1974 and early 1975, some of the most famous and memorable of all early Walt Disney World lodging structures became part of the Lake Buena Vista complex – 60 “Treehouses”, constructed in, in what was an engineering feat for the time, an undisturbed natural wetland – the Treehouses were elevated to allow for natural drainage, as well as protect the structures from the possibility of flooding. What they actually were were a cluster of three bedrooms and a living room apiece, one bedroom on the ground floor, connected to the living room via a spiral staircase, which shared the “top deck” with two bedrooms and a bath.
The Treehouses must be counted amongst Walt Disney World’s most romantically wacky creations. Complete with an outside deck and all-electric kitchen, with parking for electric carts (one presumably left her car at the Club and the cart was free with your room) and a cart pathway which wound alongside the Walt Disney World canal system, past the Lake Buena Vista Club and eventually to the Village, the original Treehouses are emblematic of Disney’s commitment to not repeat themselves with Walt Disney World and offer something sophisticated and different.
All of this development came to the head in May 1975, with the opening of the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village. The Village was intended to be the cornerstone of the Lake Buena Vista community, literally its downtown. It included such diverse offerings as restaurants, an oyster bar open until 2am, a lounge with jazz performances nightly, and a grocery store to give those people in Vacation Villas and Treehouses something to cook in their kitchens and kitchenettes. The Gourmet Pantry even delivered direct to those staying in the “host community”. Nearby, the hotels of the Lake Buena Vista Motor Lodge were hosting lively nightlife and dining, popular with Walt Disney World guests as well as locals and Cast Members.
The Village's waterfront in 1975
Things were looking up for Lake Buena Vista.
Return next week when we discover Club Lake and the Convention Center!