Orange plastic flippers. Visiting the Contemporary Resort and carrying those around — that’s what kids did in the seventies. My first memories of Walt Disney World are of a tantrum over a Winnie the Pooh book at the Magic Kingdom, of splashing in the abandoned River Country, and of touring the Contemporary’s historic A-frame structure with the monorail running through it like Jonah into the whale. Attractive it wasn’t: too much concrete, I thought even then. An atrium instead of a proper lobby — how seventies (think Manhattan’s Marriott Marquis). But staying there represented status: staying in a Disney World resort before the expansion inaugurated by departed CEO Michael Eisner in 1989 signified both the ability to snag a reservation when WDW boasted only six resorts and the money to pay for it.
It turned out our first resort experience would be at the once and future Polynesian Village Resort in August 1987, and it was more to my liking: space and sand and impressive lobby and leis and hula girls. I dislike it now. Only one bar for a resort this size! Besides, Florida residents see enough palm trees. I didn’t stay at the Contemporary until an impromptu trip in 2001. Larger and tackier, it hadn’t aged well beside its neighbors. Yet it still exuded a sense that you were at the capital of Walt Disney World. Albany, Tallahassee, Sacramento, Springfield — they’re at the center of political action but no one visits unless he or she’s got business. Seek beauty elsewhere.
But it’s got a lot of history if you care for this sort of thing. Richard Nixon gave his “I’m not a crook” speech in one of its ballrooms. Mel Torme and Rosemary Clooney visited the Top of the World Lounge. The monorail still runs through the lobby. Disney replaced the resort’s north garden wing with time share properties that resemble an Adventura condominium complex without an intracoastal. A site I visit a couple times a year published this thorough and sardonic history of the Contemporary. For people fascinated by outdated visions of futurity, the Contemporary is its late sixties post-World’s Fair/pre-economic doldrums culmination:
Of course it’s relatively clear that the old Tomorrowland spires, Space Mountain and the Contemporary Resort Hotel (CRH) were meant to convey impressions of the future and modernity rather than meaningfully project 21st century life. That task was regarded as the province of the original EPCOT concept, allowing WED Enterprises and their resort-design counterparts from Welton Becket Associates to focus on more immediate forms, with more liberating functions, in and around the theme park. George McGinnis’ exciting 1969 artwork for the monorail, which shows a train bolting from the CRH’s midsection, could have sold the entire WDW concept single-handedly.
Passport2Dreams has posted a complete history of the Contemporary: a history of American hotel architecture, the influence of mall culture, and what Disney brought to a cow pasture called rural Orlando.