Contemporary Resort: Garden Wing v. Tower
My recent experience staying in the A-frame Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort in a Bay Lake View room was wonderful–and worth it. This sentiment is at odds with our full Contemporary review, which reviews our Garden Wing stay. In this post, I try to reconcile these experiences and why the tower stay was a significantly better experience.
I plan on editing our full Disney’s Contemporary Resort Review soon to walk back some of my previous thoughts. Not because I want to revise history and not admit that I’m wrong (the whole point of this post is to say “I was wrong/I’ve changed my mind”), but because I’m constantly editing posts as my opinions change and “evolve” so posts can serve as my current take on various aspects of Walt Disney World.
To be fair to “Past Tom,” in that review, I also said, “Our stay was in the Garden Wing of the Contemporary…When I envisioned staying in the Contemporary as a child, it was always in one of the rooms that ‘overlooks’ the monorail. While a main building room wouldn’t have a different theme…I’m betting that if we stayed in this building, my opinion of the Contemporary might be higher.”
Well, it turns out that is exactly the case. With this stay in the Tower, I spent a lot more time in the room and resort, and really felt I got the chance to enjoy the hotel. I spent a lot of time on the balcony looking out over Bay Lake, watching the sunset over the water, trying to catch a peak of IllumiNations in the distance to the south (without much success), and watching the Electrical Water Pageant.
I also spent more time than I care to admit leaning over the railing outside of our room watching the monorails pass (they really ought to put bar stools out there!)–actually, I have no problem admitting to that. I think virtually every adult who has grown up as a Walt Disney World fan has childhood memories of wanting to stay in the fancy hotel the monorails pass through. Suffice to say, the overall experience of staying in the Tower was so much better than the Garden Wing.
The whole of the stay made it feel like being in a “Vacation Kingdom” resort, rather than just a generic high-end hotel within walking distance of Magic Kingdom. While the rooms were very similar to those in the Garden Wing, the lack of theming didn’t matter as much since this was compensated for by the spaces immediately outside our front door and balcony.
I know it’s cliche, but it definitely felt that the whole was better than the sum of its parts, and there was an inarticulable quality about staying in the A-frame. The “energy” (for lack of a better term) of the room reminded me much more of our stay in a Grand Villa at Bay Lake Tower than it did our prior stay in the Garden Wing.
The kicker, naturally, is money. A Tower room with a Bay Lake view costs around $200 more than the cheapest room in the Garden Wing. Want a Magic Kingdom view? You’re looking at another $100 on top of that. We’re talking peak prices over $900 on the high end of the spectrum, versus Garden Wing rooms mostly in the $500 range (although that spikes to over $600 for some dates).
Fortunately, we were visiting for an event that offered a great convention rate, and I shared the room with a few other people, so my personal total for the 4-night stay in the Tower was ~$300. Still, I can recognize that this isn’t what most people will be paying, and if I were paying for the entire room out of pocket at a regular rate, I’d be more inclined to balk at the price.
The criticism remains about the theme of the room itself, I just found it mattered to me a lot less when in the Tower. It skews too much towards generic chic luxury for my taste, and the rooms look like something you might find at any upper-mid level chain. This could easily be a Wyndham, which is a bit disconcerting when you’re paying Disney prices.
This is nothing new. The theme of the Contemporary has been a challenge throughout its existence, and arguably stems from the chosen name, itself. Stories on the naming of the hotel vary, but Marty Sklar recounted the following during a Destination D presentation. He indicated that during planning for the Seven Seas Lagoon resorts–back when the Persian & Venetian Resorts were planned–each ‘Vacation Kingdom’ resort was to evoke a different real-world destination, including America.
No one in WED (Imagineering) at the time could agree upon a name for the America resort (which was also to have an ultramodern style), so “contemporary resort” as used as a descriptive placeholder on the plans. One day, a more vibrant name, the “Tempo Bay Resort Hotel,” was chosen by the team working on the project. Later, Roy O. Disney objected and the Contemporary Resort name stuck.
Despite this, the Imagineers moved forward with a design inspired by the National Parks of the Southwest (most of this style has since been stripped away, save for the Grand Canyon Concourse), which I’d say conjures something diametrically opposed with what the word “contemporary” connotes. The result for a long time was a Puebloan design with earthy 70s tones that clashed with the ultramodern design elements.
While I take exception to a lot of the clutter in the Grand Canyon Concourse, I think a lot of the design choices in the last decade-plus in the Contemporary’s public spaces have been well made. I’m not a huge fan of gratuitous hidden Mickeys to the extent that they are a surrogate for thoughtful design because it strikes me as a thematic crutch.
However, I think it’d make sense for these rooms to feature an edgier Mid-Century Modern style with Mary Blair designs subtly weaved into fabrics. (Perhaps incorporating visual motifs from the Blair murals from Disneyland’s Tomorrowland as a way of paying homage to Disney’s past.)
I think this would be less gratuitous, and provide a connective tissue from the style of the resort as a whole to the individual rooms. This would work in the context of the hotel, wouldn’t be too over-the-top so as to turn away conventioneers, and would offer appropriate fan-service.
The danger of a “contemporary” theme is that it risks obsolescence sooner than other styles, but Mid-Century Modern mixed with Blair stands a greater chance of remaining evergreen.
Most importantly, it would draw a clear distinction between the Contemporary and generic modern luxury. Ultimately, I don’t care what specific changes are made to the rooms (this shouldn’t be read as a list of unreasonable fan “design demands”, but rather my thoughts on the room style). I’d just like to see something unique and on-theme.
Overall, I really liked my stay in the Contemporary A-frame Tower, and would definitely do so again if the price were right. I would not pay rack rate (or anywhere close to it), but I would pay a premium to stay here over the Garden Wing. I’m not sure how significant of a premium, but for me, the Garden Wing felt generic and lacked the x-factor that the Tower most certainly has. If you’re considering the Contemporary solely for its walking distance proximity to Magic Kingdom, this shouldn’t tip the scales in favor of the Tower, but for everyone else, the whole of the Tower experience is something to consider.
I’m not trying to upsell anyone on the Contemporary; I’m just offering this perspective because I know many people (myself included) tend to skew towards saving money when it comes to room categories within a particular resort, and I think that’s a mistake here. Stated differently: if you’re willing to pay the Contemporary’s incredibly high nightly rates, consider paying the higher rate for a Tower room. In relative terms, it’s worth it.
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Do you agree or disagree with my take on the Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort? What about the Garden Wing? Do you think it’s worth the (extra) money for a Tower room? Share any questions, tips, or additional thoughts you have in the comments!
I enjoy your articles and appreciate the work that goes into them – it’s a tough job but someone has to go to Walt Disney World…a lot. 😎
My wife and I went to Disney in the summer of 2018 and took our daughter, son-in-law and three grandkids, 8, 6 and 1 (at the time), along for the ride. We split our stay between the Contemporary (for the monorail and proximity to Magic Kingdom), and the Animal Kingdom Lodge (for the animals, of course.) At the Contemporary, my wife and I had a 12th-floor Tower room on the Bay Lake side and our daughter’s family had a room on the same level, but on the Magic Kingdom side. They could come to our room to see the Electrical Water Pageant and we could go to theirs for the Fireworks. By that time of night the little kids (and the big kids) were bushed from a full day of activity anyhow, and being able to watch both shows from the air conditioned comfort of our rooms was sheer bliss. The rooms were also a nice size. It is from that perspective that I make my next comments. For their family the Contemporary was perfect, as it gave them room to set up a port-a-crib for the baby and still navigate the room without having to crawl over two beds to do it. Not so in the Animal Kingdom, where floor space was so much less, and the furniture, while appropriately-themed, was heavy and clunky and took away still more space. The bathroom door was also appropriately-themed (i.e. large, heavy and carved) but it was so big that one had to stand to the side of the commode just to close it. Compared to the Contemporary Resort, Animal Kingdom Lodge was like the phone booth/coat closet Clark Kent used (in the old days) to change into his Superman outfit.
Also, the Contemporary Mousekeeping staff, realizing there were small children in the room, took the stuffed Disney animals the kids had brought along and the Mickey sorcerer hats we bought them in the gift shop, and each day created a special arrangement, many times with balloons, which greeted them as they returned from a visit to one of the parks. To me that was worth far more than a themed room. You might counter that by thinking that such a display might not be comparable to seeing wild animals right outside your room – when at the Animal Kingdom Lodge we had low-level, savanna-view rooms – but when taking advantage of early extra magic hours we found it was too early to see most of the animals. So, that was a perk that did not fully materialize…unless we happened to get back to the room before dinnertime, and then it was more important for the little ones to hit the pool.
It all depends on perspective. My wife and I first went to Disney World in 1972, during its first year of operation, and had a really great time, but that was nothing in comparison to seeing Walt’s wonders through the eyes of grandchildren. We’ll be going back soon…with the whole gang again! I hope to run into you and your wife then, so I can thank you in person for the knowledge I have gained through your blog. Keep up the good work.
My two cents are worth exactly that, and maybe less, but we’ve done the Contemporary three times (preferring the Grand Floridian) and the noise in the A-frame (done it two of those times), especially with younger kids, will always make me lean towards the Garden Rooms.
The monorail stop makes that the noisiest hotel lobby I’ve ever stayed in. Exhausted kid in bed at 9? Well, here’s the monorail dropping off charged up families right outside your door. Good luck sleeping.
I’m glad nobody nose-dives off the ledge after 5 hectic WDW days with no sleep.
We booked the garden wing for our trip this past May. It was my daughter’s first trip (age 5) and, ostensibly, my husband and I’s as well. Neither of us had been since we were kids. By some Disney magic, we were upgraded to the Tower (I faxed a room request for a ground level garden view room closest to the Tower, I think that helped.
I heartily agree with Tom’s assessment. We would have been fine in the garden wing but the upgrade to the Tower made for a world of difference. The balcony alone made our time in the room (nap/rest time and 10pm bedtime) an easy, restful experience for both kid and adult. We did not experience too much noise issue from the monorail but were on the 8th floor, so that could have helped. There are so many resorts to explore at Disney but for convenience to MK (we spent 3 days there), you cannot beat the Contemporary. We’ll be hard pressed to choose something new on our next trip.
I think like many who have been going since we were kids, has the dream of staying in the A-frame. We will have to cut a few days but i have to do it once. Park view maybe club level, cause why not
Well, I just switched from Bay Lake Tower to Contemp tower (park view) for our upcoming 30th anniversary trip – Crazy expensive, but this may be the last WDW trip until and if we have grand kids
Tom, will you be at this year’s Destination D? 🙂
I would LOVE a Blair inspired touch up – even just in the common areas. The Contemporary is already my dream stay (although I’d settle for the Poly), but more-Blair-EVERYWHERE is my life motto…
We stayed there with a RO discount for our first, very short visit. Because we only had 2 park days and one party night, the proximity to MK was really a plus, as was the view of the water pageant. But I still felt like the overall vibe does not match the high luxury price point at all. When we stayed at AKL last trip, we were blown away in comparison. Judging the oldest by the newest might not be fair, but the Contemporary could really use a facelift. With so many gorgeously themed places to choose from, it’s hard to imagine we’ll stay there again anytime soon.
My husband and I usually stay at Port Orleans French Quarter when we visit, but I’ve always wanted to stay at the Contemporary. We plan to do that for our 30th anniversary in 2018. I planned to book a Tower room for three nights (all we can probably afford), then POFQ for the rest of our stay, and I’m glad to know my determination to end up in the Tower room will give me the experience I’ve looked forward to since the first time the monorail took me and my family into the resort back in the mid-70s. Thanks for a great article!
My only complaint with staying in the tower, and I know this wouldn’t be an impact to younger folks or those staying up late to photograph, was we did it with a young child; when the parks closed and the throngs of folks started pouring off the monorail the noise was a bit too much.
Summer 1983. We booked reservations at the Contemporary, but could only get a garden wing room. Fortunately, they were able to move us, after two days, into the A-frame, so we experienced in the course of a week what you have generally described here. Our room overlooked Bay Lake, and my parents spent most of their time on the balcony watching the goings-on there, while my brother and I (age 12 and 10) would hop on the monorail and zip over to the Magic Kingdom whenever we wanted. I also remember gazing over the railing down into the Grand Canyon concourse and watching the monorails come and go. The Contemporary was in its original incarnation then and first-rate in every way. Staying in the main building of the Contemporary gives you a feeling of being right in the heart of things that you can’t get anywhere else.
Good God, Brickles, but that California sun has baked your brain and turned you into a total lifestyler. I’m trying to decide which of you – you, Kendra “hint of spy,” or “Foxxy Hooves” – is the most joylessly self-regarding in his or her commentary.
” I think virtually every adult who has grown up as a Walt Disney World fan has childhood memories of staying in the fancy hotel the monorails pass through.”
Nope, we drove a camper and stayed int he campground. But I do have memories of riding the monorail *through a freaking hotel*. That was awesome. I can imaging that staying in the A-frame is significantly better because of it.
I worded that really poorly. I meant “memories of childhood experiences passing through, and dreams of staying…”
I never stayed in the Contemporary as a kid. We started by camping at Fort Wilderness, and later made Shades of Green our “regular” place once the Department of Defense purchased it.
We were similar when I was a kid – we stayed off site (what were my parents thinking??) until Shades was purchased by the DoD and then we stayed there. My parents still stay there each visit. I too dreamed of staying at the Contemporary. I hope to rent points on our next trip for Bay Lake Tower though. Close enough, and cheaper!
Enjoyed your feedback as always. Our first time at WDW we stayed in the garden wing. This was 31 years ago. No Disney atmosphere. After that it was the Grand Floridian, wow!! Was our home for 10 years. When they redecorated the hotel, I tracked down the furniture and. we have the Grand at home!
Sorry I digress, what happened to Spectromagic?? Really miss it.
Thank you, Tom
My husband & I stayed at the Contemporary for our 25th wedding anniversary. I had always dreamed of staying in the monorail hotel & it was as great & special as I expected. During the time we were here WDW was celebrating their 25 anniversary so it made things even better. (Hello birthday cake castle!) It was the first time we’d stayed on property & it was a wonderful introduction to the “Disney bubble”. Since then we have stayed at many Disney resorts but the Contemporary remains our favorite.
Oh, love the history part, please continue to include that! I am always trying to find old photos of the resorts and the parks under construction.
Regarding the history of the Contemporary, I think I remember reading that each of the rooms had been built as individual (and in the future removable) blocks? I could be wrong about that. But, with that in mind, do you have any pics of the inside of the rooms? I was curious what they look like. I have stayed at BayLake several times but have never stayed at the Contemporary.
You can do a google image search for Disney Contemporary construction, or similar, and see the original rooms of the Contemporary being lifted into the frame by crane. According to an interview at the yesterland website (which I recommend reading in its entirety since you’re curious about the subject), it was done to save time on construction and the rooms were never intended to be removed in the same way.
Beside you camera review posts – I think this is one of my favorite articles. I really like hearing about Disney history and how the hotel was named and the southwest design was really neat. If you have more history please share.
I do agree if you are going to pay the price to stay here make sure you take a hotel day and don’t travel all over WDW and enjoy the Contemporary. I think any child would love to stay in a hotel were a monorail goes right through it. Even as a big kid I hope one day before I am 40 I can stay a night in the tower.
Thank you Tom for another great post!
In the early years of WDW, we stayed in both the tower and wings a number of times. But then, in the early years of WDW, it was affordable, even if you consider inflation. Despite the lack of theme, we always enjoyed our stays (just being at Disney kinda ensured that). IMO, the original three hotels should be considered historical landmarks. Just sayin’…
We have stayed at almost all of the Disney hotels, but the Contemporary will always holds a special place in our hearts. It’s too bad the cost is so prohibitive for many, as I should think the experience of staying at the “monorail goes through it” hotel would be something every family would want to experience. (Heavy sigh).