Contemporary Tower: What A(-Frame) Difference

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A while back, I had the opportunity to stay in the A-frame Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort in a Bay Lake View room, which I felt was a wonderful and “worth it” experience. This sentiment is at odds with our full Contemporary review, in which I spent a lot of time critiquing the hotel for embracing a style that is basically the same as most high-end real world luxury hotels, which thereby undermined one of the biggest distinctions Disney hotels offer as compared to their real world counterparts: theme.

The review was based upon our stay in the Garden Wing, and about the theme, I wrote: “To a large degree, the Contemporary lacks [theme], instead choosing to with a style identical to real-world luxury hotel brands…Disney cannot compete with the luxury and boutique hotel brands of the world.” I babble on like this for several more paragraphs, and you can read my thoughts in context there for now.

I plan on editing the review over the weekend 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.” (Okay, no more quoting myself, I swear.)

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 (it was for a D23 weekend event that was being held at the Contemporary), and really felt I got the chance to enjoy the resort. 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 staying 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.

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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 $800 on the high end of the spectrum, versus Garden Wing rooms mostly in the upper $400 range (although that spikes to $600 for some dates).

Fortunately, the D23 event offered a great convention rate, and I shared the room with a few other people, so my grand total for the 4-night stay in the Tower was $302. 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 (side note: you can see the unbuilt resorts on this map that originally hung in the rooms of the Contemporary)–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. (Okay, history lesson–that few of you probably cared about anyway–over.)

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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–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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Your Thoughts

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!


21 Responses to “Contemporary Tower: What A(-Frame) Difference”
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