Walt Disney World announced Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge, a new nature-inspired resort for the former River Country water park location along the shore of Bay Lake between Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness. This development would be mixed use, with both hotel rooms and Disney Vacation Club villas. (Updated September 15, 2023.)
Originally announced back in October 2018, Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge will “be a celebration of Walt Disney’s lifelong love and respect for nature” with more than 900 hotel rooms and Disney Vacation Club villas. Reflections resort was slated to be the 16th Disney Vacation Club property, part of a significant expansion on the hotel side of Walt Disney World. That plan would have brought a total of more than 1,700 new hotel rooms and Disney Vacation Club villas online over four years.
Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge was further elaborated upon at the 2019 D23 Expo, and it was billed as one of the “most unique resorts ever built” at Walt Disney World. Concept art was shared of the novel accommodations, including both treehouse suites and waterfront A-frame cabins that would be available at the resort. Reflections — A Disney Lakeside Lodge would also feature a restaurant inspired by Princess and the Frog, located “along the bayou of Bay Lake.”
September 15, 2023 Update: Let’s start by bringing you up to speed, as this is the first time we’ve had an update on Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge in over 3 years. Back when the parks closed and all construction stopped, Walt Disney World mothballed the construction site for Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge.
The project was effectively cancelled and crews on site removed concrete and rebar. At that point, pretty much all that had occurred was site clearing and staging for construction to begin. The project had yet to begin foundation work, let alone vertical construction. Fast-forward three years, and it’s essentially an empty parcel. The future home of Reflections is still very much visible from California Grill or even the boat en route to Wilderness Lodge–it’s the big empty area amidst the trees.
Today’s development is that Florida has granted Walt Disney Imagineering a 5-year extension on a permit related to the construction of Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge. That permit will now expire on May 31, 2028. Note that this permit is not for the Reflections site itself, it’s for the STOLport Site–near the former Walt Disney World Airport, with STOLport standing for Short Take-Off and Landing. Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge wouldn’t be built on the STOLport site, but it would act as a convenient staging ground located between the TTC and Fort Wilderness.
It’s entirely possible that the STOLport is intended to be used as a staging site for something else, but Imagineering addressed Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge in its extension request, asserting that it was needed because the project was shut down during COVID-19, which therefore delayed the completion of the project. To be honest, I don’t have enough experience with this sort of thing to know whether it’d be appropriate to request an extension in this manner for a materially different project.
In the intervening years since Reflections was mothballed/cancelled/delayed indefinitely, a trio of new Disney Vacation Club projects in the Magic Kingdom resort area has been announced, indirectly replacing Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge. The first and smallest of these was at Walt Disney World’s flagship resort, converting one outlying building to new Resort Studios at the Grand Floridian. That project wrapped up last year and is now available for sale.
The next of these is the New DVC Tower at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort (pictured above), which is currently under construction and is slated to open in late 2024 at Walt Disney World. Based on the incredibly quick pace with which that expansion is being built, there’s no reason to believe it’ll be delayed. This will be a license to print money for DVC, as everyone loves the Poly.
Finally, there’s the Cabins at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort – A Disney Vacation Club Resort (concept art below). This was announced earlier this year and work has not yet started, but these are slated to open in 2024–potentially before the Poly tower. The new cabins being pre-fabricated off-site and installed unit-by-unit, not built on location. Accordingly, the turnaround time could be a matter of months from start to finish. This is the project that could theoretically be using the STOLport Site for staging, but I wonder whether that’s even necessary. I assume these things are build hundreds of miles away and trucked in–is a staging site necessary?
The other reason it’s worth drawing attention to these projects is because there are a lot of them. In addition to this trio, the Villas at Disneyland Hotel just went on sale earlier this year and will open in September 2023. Then there’s Disney’s Riviera Resort and Aulani in Hawaii, the latter of which has been on sale for years now; there’s a decent chance Aulani will never sell out of DVC points.
While Disney Vacation Club has demonstrated a willingness to go full steam ahead on new projects, there are already a lot of them underway. This is significant because it means a ton of points being sold simultaneously, and numerous resorts competing with one another for the attention of buyers.
This is all happening as there’s been something of a Disney Vacation Club Sales Slump. That’s occurring against the backdrop of rising interest rates, slowing consumer spending, and the possibility of a recession in the next year or two.
It thus seems ostensibly unlikely that Disney Vacation Club will resume Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge anytime soon. They’ve started too many projects and have too much for sale right now already. However, it’s not just the permit. That alone could be ignored or explained away as pertaining to another project, housekeeping, or Imagineering wanting to keep its options open.
In addition to the STOLport permit, there are rumblings that Reflections will soon be revived. Nothing concrete or specific, but there’s enough smoke that this seems plausible. Personally, I’m skeptical as this doesn’t make a ton of sense on its face. I’m also increasingly open to the possibility based on current rumors.
Reflections resuming defies past precedent and would’ve been deemed crazy even ~5 years ago, back when Disney Vacation Club didn’t announce the next project (and literally denied the existence of construction occurring in plain view), but a lot has changed since. Back then, DVC tried to space its additions so they wouldn’t directly competing with one another and cannibalize sales. Announcements for the next DVC property didn’t start until sales were healthy and had progressed for the previous one.
Things have changed more recently, and Disney Vacation Club has had several properties for sale simultaneously for the last several years. There hasn’t been hesitation in announcing the next big expansion or starting construction–it seems like there’s been a philosophy change. Perhaps now Disney Vacation Club is fine with a larger number of properties being available for sale, with the thought process that more variety equals greater consumer choice and a higher likelihood of selling memberships. (After all, they’re all going to sell out eventually…well, maybe minus Aulani!)
Another possibility is that Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge is on the precipice of resuming, but not as a Disney Vacation Club project. At least, not right away. Walt Disney World needs more hotel inventory, too. There’s nothing to say this previously mixed-use development couldn’t start as a hotel project, but be built with the long-term intentions of “conversion” to Disney Vacation Club when point supply and demand dictated as much. That does seem very plausible to me, and might be what Walt Disney World opts to do. (In that case, I wonder how they message the ‘nature’ of Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge.)
A final possibility is that the Fort Wilderness Cabins project has been scrapped, or at least abandoned as a Disney Vacation Club development. It’s my understanding that the existing cabins are slated for replacement one way or another, but there’s nothing to say they couldn’t remain as a hotel inventory. Or maybe they’ll be rolled into the Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge condo association–who knows!
Regardless of what happens in the near-term, it’s pretty safe to say that the Reflections site will be developed at some point down the road. Walt Disney World only has so much prime parcels for resorts, and this is one of them. Not only that, but a lot of the site prepwork was already done and it’s still in pretty good condition. It just makes sense for construction to happen here in the future, and my guess would be that it starts before 2030.
Whether that’s Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge or a totally new concept is anyone’s guess. I’d speculate that the further removed we get from the prior mothballing/delay/cancellation, the more likely it is that Disney will revisit both the name and the concept. Even if this project were re-announced tomorrow, I think the odds are pretty good that the concept art would look materially different and the name wouldn’t be the same.
Turning to my original commentary, I love Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness. I’m a Disney Vacation Club member. In theory, Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge seems perfectly tailored to some of my favorite things about Walt Disney World. I want to love the idea of the River Country parcel finally being redeveloped, instead of rotting in plain sight. I’m truly hopeful for the best here.
Unfortunately, like pretty much every Fort Wilderness fan, I’m very apprehensive about this Disney Vacation Club project (well, mixed-use, but presumably mostly DVC). Part of what makes Fort Wilderness special is that it’s been relatively undisturbed by time, and is one of the last bastions of “Vacation Kingdom of the World” era of WDW.
It’s almost remarkable how different Fort Wilderness feels from the rest of Walt Disney World—even its neighbor, Wilderness Lodge. It’s almost as if Walt Disney World leadership has forgotten about Fort Wilderness, and it hasn’t seen the same fiscal mandates, changes in emphasis, or character as every other resort over the last couple decades. In large part, it’s been doing its thing, more or less unchanged since the 1990s.
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 or around Fort Wilderness will destroy the primitive and secluded characteristics of the campground that give it so much appeal. After all, this is a campground with wilderness right in the name–the environment is the heart and soul of Fort Wilderness.
The development of Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge doesn’t necessarily have to destroy the tranquil and secluded atmosphere of Fort Wilderness, but that seems like a very distinct possibility. Disney’s recent approach to developing hotels adjacent to existing resorts doesn’t inspire much confidence, and if there’s a ham-fisted approach when clearing land or an overzealous mentality when it comes to the size or proximity of the resort to the campground, it will be incredibly detrimental to Fort Wilderness.
As for the design, only a couple pieces of concept art have been released, and they’re nothing special. I don’t want to rush to judgment here, as I think there is potential for this to end up being interesting once more is released, but right now it looks like a fairly generic hotel with some modern rustic flourishes.
On the plus side, Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo (WATG) is the lead designer for Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge, and they have a very good track record with Disney. They designed the original Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, along with Disney hotels in Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong.
If this were a decade or two ago, I might be more deferential to Disney with regard to this concept art. However, the last several years have shown that Walt Disney World is very hit or miss with resort development and redesigns, skewing towards boring designs. It seems the approach is to choose the most middle-of-the-road offerings as possible so as to not alienate those with bland tastes.
When you compare Walt Disney World resorts built before the mid-1990s to ones built or redesigned in the last few years, there’s generally a clear division. Contemporary projects are often interchangeable with real world Holiday Inns or other mid-tier chained brand hotels.
Look at the difference between BoardWalk Inn or Beach Club and the new Gran Destino Tower at Coronado or Disney’s Riviera Resort. Don’t get me wrong–I like both for the amenities they offer, luxuriousness, and room designs. However, the exteriors of both leave a lot to be desired, and neither are exactly exemplars of themed design. (Admittedly, they have both grown on me a lot, but I still wish they were more ornate or unique.)
One explanation is that Disney wants to make things as crowd-pleasing as possible so as to not alienate any potential customers. The thing about this approach is that when you try to appeal to everyone, you end up appealing to no one.
Another explanation is that Imagineering’s talents are spread too thin. I know some readers might only follow the projects at Walt Disney World, but every single property around the world has huge projects in various stages of development or construction.
In the past when less was occurring simultaneously, maybe some top-tier Imagineering talent who “got” Disney’s distinct approach to hotels worked on a resort project. Now? Maybe they’re mostly designers who view working for WDI as “just another job” no different than Best Western or IHG.
Along those same lines, with so many projects in development, it’s entirely possible–if not probable–that leadership in the Parks & Resorts division is trying to trim the budget from each one, cutting aspects or details viewed as superfluous.
The problem is that those leaders are not creatives, and their experience is often in consumer products or other division of the company. They have absolutely no insight into what details are actually superfluous, and what are necessary for reinforcing theme or creating a sense of immersion.
Ultimately, more concept art could be released that’s really good. The project could employ a deft hand when developing around Fort Wilderness in a way that doesn’t damage that landscape. (Disney, just think of how much you could pat yourselves on the back by utilizing eco-friendly and sustainable construction practices–it’d be worth it in the PR alone!) It could end up being really good–a true tribute to both Walt Disney’s love of nature, but the spirit of River Country, which was never coming back anyway.
I’m cautiously optimistic that’s what could end up happening, but I think it’s equally likely that we’ll get a generically modern and vaguely rustic design. It’s also more likely that instead of eco-friendly construction that preserves the natural beauty and wilderness of the area, we get excessive tree clearing for the construction, and an end product akin to Copper Creek and Boulder Ridge in terms of wide walkways and bare grounds.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge? What do you think of the potential of this and other new hotels at Walt Disney World? Any other questions or comments? Hearing your feedback is part of the fun, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!