Permits filed by Walt Disney World suggest new hotels are coming to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot areas. The latter is the resurfacing of a rumor about a main entrance hotel, while the former is a Disney Vacation Club project on the abandoned River Country parcel at Fort Wilderness. (Last updated June 3, 2018.)
Permits for the Fort Wilderness resort have been uncovered over the course of the last month by danlb_2000 in this thread on WDWMagic. These permits are all under the name “Project 89” and have been filed with the South Florida Water Management District.
June 3, 2018 Update: This rumor just gained a lot more credence, as Central Florida business community site GrowthSpotter is reporting a number of concrete details about Project 89. The design firm Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo (WATG) has been selected as the lead designer for the resort, with Balfour Beatty will be the construction manager for the project. The hard construction cost of the resort is projected at $350 million, with additional design and development (think Imagineered details) by Disney of an unknown amount.
GrowthSpotter reports that the new hotel and resort at the River Country site is being planned for 1,340 bays, an industry term used for a standard room measurement when considering the variability of multi-room suites. Disney Vacation Club would utilize approximately 940 of those bays with rooms of various size, with standard hotel rooms constituting around half of the resort in terms of room numbers, but one-third in terms of size.
WATG has designed hotels for Disney in Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Florida, most notably the original Grand Floridian Resort & Spa at Walt Disney World. Balfour Beatty has led numerous projects in the Orlando area, including the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, work within Pandora – World of Avatar, and Cabana Bay & Loews Sapphire Falls Resorts at Universal Orlando. They are currently constructing the new tower at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort.
Initially, the Fort Wilderness permits focused on “geotechnical investigation to assess the suitability of subsurface soils.” Basically, whether the swampy area was suitable for construction. Unsurprisingly, this is a concern with any area to be developed at Walt Disney World, but that’s especially true on the shores of the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake.
During the Eisner-era, land was actually cleared for work to begin on the Mediterranean Resort, only to be abandoned once it was discovered that developing the site would be cost-prohibitive. It should also be noted that the Mediterranean Resort is one of many hotel concepts for the Magic Kingdom that has been dropped–several have even been announced before having the plug pulled.
This is also not the first time there have been plans for an expansion project between Fort Wilderness and Wilderness Lodge on/around the old River Country location. Several years ago, permits were filed similar to what has occurred recently, and numerous insiders corroborated rumors that there were plans for a Disney Vacation Club wing at Fort Wilderness.
This culminated in the filing of actual site plans in September 2011, which made it Fort Wilderness DVC sound like a done deal. DVCInfo.com shared some of these site plans, as well as this concept fly-through produced by the design firm:
It’s unclear why these plans were abandoned, but one theory is that expanding at Grand Floridian and Polynesian Village were prioritized, as those were safer bets in terms of sales. To my knowledge, there have been no reliable rumors that it was determined that this site was unsuitable for construction (to the contrary, the previous progress suggests it was/is suitable).
It’s entirely possible these plans were placed on indefinite hold, and we’re now seeing them resumed. Disney has a “feed the beast” mentality with Disney Vacation Club, with one project typically beginning as soon as the previous one ends. With Disney’s Riviera Resort slated to open in Fall 2019, it only makes sense that construction on another DVC resort would begin by 2020.
For starters, I think both of these rumors will end up being confirmed sooner or later. To my knowledge, specifics about the Future World re-imagining for Epcot remain in flux (hence zero concept art having been released). We would not be surprised if the 2-3 different hotel locations are still vying for the green-light. Disney making another splashy announcement within the next year about a comprehensive ‘vision’ for Epcot that includes this hotel seems like a distinct possibility.
In the case of the Fort Wilderness DVC, that confirmation will probably come much later. Past practice for Disney Vacation Club is to not confirm projects, even those under construction, until sales targets for the current project have been satisfied. I still chuckle when thinking about Bay Lake Tower’s existence being denied even as it was going vertical.
Sales have not started for Riviera Resort and Copper Creek has also yet to sell out. In other words, it could be several years (2021?) before there’s even an announcement for Fort Wilderness. What little we’ve seen of Riviera Resort thus far doesn’t look all that exciting, so it wouldn’t surprise me if early sales of that are slow-going, leading to even further hesitation on the Fort Wilderness project.
I would not expect the Epcot entrance hotel to be Disney Vacation Club, both because Fort Wilderness seems to be the next development in that regard and since a Deluxe Resort overlooking Spaceship Earth is a slam-dunk concept that would command high nightly rates and would easily achieve occupancy goals.
Even with the assumption that they are happening, there’s the question as to whether they should happen. In our last post about the Epcot entrance hotel rumor, I focused primarily on occupancy rates. I believe that Walt Disney World should continue to build hotels to satisfy current and future demand, lest we want to see rack rates driven up to stratospheric levels.
I’m also on board at the conceptual level, as I think both of these locations have the potential to be really cool. We are huge fans of Fort Wilderness, and regret that we don’t take the opportunity to visit there more often. This resort would definitely expose more guests (us included) to the greatness that is Fort Wilderness. I also like its location relative to key Fort Wilderness amenities, as it would make those more accessible.
This, however, is a double-edged sword. Part of what makes Fort Wilderness so special is that it’s been relatively undisturbed by time, and is one of the last bastions of “Vacation Kingdom” Walt Disney World. It’s almost remarkable how different Fort Wilderness feels from the rest of Walt Disney World–even its neighbor, Wilderness Lodge.
There’s a very legitimate concern, especially after seeing how the Copper Creek and Boulder Ridge projects at Wilderness Lodge unfolded, that any expansion at Fort Wilderness will destroy some of the primitive and secluded characteristics of the campground that give it so much appeal. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the case, but it very well could if Disney takes a ham-fisted or overzealous approach when building at Fort Wilderness.
My other concern, and this applies equally to both resorts, is that Walt Disney World’s recent hotel developments have placed an emphasis on function and scale at the expense of theme. This is borne out, for example, in the heights of Bay Lake Tower, Villas at Grand Floridian, Riviera Resort, and Coronado Springs Tower.
All of those developments are taller than they should be to maintain appropriate scale with their surroundings. Contrast these to the 1990s developments of BoardWalk Inn, Yacht & Beach Club, and Wilderness Lodge, where more restraint was exercised in scale. I think Disney fans widely view the Swan & Dolphin a mistake that has blighted Crescent Lake and the Epcot area for a while…if so, why be cool with Disney repeating this same mistake?
Then there’s the issue of the core theme and resort’s style. While I do not believe the developments at Grand Floridian, the Poly, or Wilderness Lodge to have this problem, the generic design of Riviera and the Coronado tower worries me. These hotels have a bland sense of luxury, presumably aiming to appeal to the broadest selection of guests. (Or, in the case of Coronado, conventioneers who probably don’t care about Disney for the most part.)
I can understand Walt Disney World developing more hotels that aim for classy luxury and clean, contemporary designs. It’s hard to fault the approach with the Coronado tower. The obvious market for that hotel is not going to be Disney fans, but convention and business guests. Even beyond those demographics, there are plenty of normal guests who will favor that style. To be sure, luxurious designs like that certainly have their place.
I do not think that place is at the front entrance to Epcot, and it is certainly not in the heart of Fort Wilderness. Epcot’s front entrance deserves an eye-catching, imaginative resort that evokes the sense of optimism and futurism highlighted in Future World. No matter what you think of the slow decline of EPCOT Center, I think it’s undeniable that the architecture is still very inspired. I fear this front entrance resort will just apply some mid-century modern flourishes to a generic hotel and call that “futuristic.”
Likewise, Fort Wilderness deserves something that meshes with the existing design of both it and Wilderness Lodge. I worry less that Disney will botch the theme here, if only because a fairly good job was done with the recent Copper Creek and Boulder Ridge projects in terms of thematic work (the deforestation is a project and some of the wide open spaces are a problem).
Moreover, wedging a modern luxury resort in the woods between Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness is such a preposterous idea that even those within Disney who want to build more hotels of that nature must realize it’s a bad idea on this parcel. I still have concerns that the depth and detail of a Fort Wilderness DVC resort might not be on par with Wilderness Lodge, but I think there’s enough potential upside that I’m willing to be cautiously optimistic.
Cautious optimism is ultimately where I stand with both of these potential hotels. I think both resorts have a tremendous amount of potential, and could be among the absolute best resorts at Walt Disney World if done right. As previously noted, Hotel MiraCosta (Tokyo) and Disneyland Hotel (Paris) demonstrate what an asset a front entrance hotel can be if done right. Wilderness Lodge demonstrates what that a rustic high-end resort can be if done right. If these resorts live up to even half of their full potential, they will be assets to Walt Disney World. The questions are how Disney well will balance form with function in each hotel, and whether the sheer number of projects currently being undertaken at Walt Disney World will cause corners/budgets to be cut in development of these resorts.
What do you think of the potential of new hotels in these locations at Walt Disney World? What do you think the likelihood is that these rumors will come to fruition? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback is part of the fun, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!