Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Red-Headed Stepchildren of Walt Disney World

It’s not all moonlight and magnolias at Walt Disney World. One of my favorite behind-the-scenes stories at WDW involves lawsuits, backdoor deals, and nepotism. It’s the story of the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, and it is still generating bad blood in the Land of Magic to this day.

Let’s go back to the early 1980’s. The Disney Corporation was bleeding money, stock prices were falling like a bad soufflé, corporate raiders were land sharks at the door, and the quality of Disney movies and TV shows would make you swear that Goofy was behind the camera. So the pre-Michael Eisner regime (aka Ron Miller, Walt’s son-in-law) sold the rights to build hotels on WDW property to Tishman Hotel and Realty LP in an effort to raise quick cash. Tishman got a great deal on this and nearly complete control. The original plans for the hotels that are now Swan and Dolphin were enormous black towers built to pack in the hoards like in Vegas (Tishman did a lot of Vegas hotels).

Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney basically staged a coup to oust Miller and bring Eisner onboard (oh, the irony). Roy was assisted in this by other Disney board members, principally the Bass Brothers of Texas. When Eisner looked at the Tishman proposal he said, "No. No style, no substance... Sue me; the lawyers will be at it forever.” After the Bass Brothers wrote a very large check and bailed out Disney to keep the company intact, Eisner thanked them by letting them have the contract to build non-Disney hotels on WDW property (I believe they may have been involved in some Downtown Disney hotels). Tishman got angry and took Disney to court.

Well, all of this is going on in the early days of Epcot, and the new coveted location for hotels was right there in the heart of WDW. In a series of compromises and settlements, Tishman got a long-term lease on the property where the Swan and Dolphin now sit, and had several provisions in the contract on items such as transportation. Tishman figured participation in transportation meant a monorail connection, but Eisner and company extended a drainage ditch and put the Swan and Dolphin on the Disney Transportation System via boat service. Convenient, but not nearly as sexy. Tishman got even more ticked off.

Other compromises were on height and design. Tishman at this point was so irate that he was determined to put up giant all-black monstrosities, but Disney changed the zoning law on the height of buildings (Disney has its own governing body, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which is the entity that controls WDW taxes and zoning so that Disney never has to get approval from anyone but themselves). Another compromise was that Michael Graves, then an up-and-coming designer and a friend of Eisner's, would do the hotel design. His whimsical, fantasy-like style helped tie the properties in with their new home.

To this day, Disney and Starwood (the managers of the Swan and Dolphin) are still at odds. Disney is forced to abide by the terms of the contract, but refuse to extend any “new” privileges, like the Dining Plan. Starwood retaliates by offering some of the best deals in the area, right in the heart of Disney.

Is all of this true? Neither Disney nor the Swan/Dolphin will comment, but their poor relationship to this day adds credence to the tale…

And you thought I was all starry eyes and pixie dust!

1 comment:

  1. I've always wondered about this. I considered another possibility. I've heard the Swan/Dolphin is always 99% full. So, no need for them to pay their share of the cost for Magical Express since they don't need to offer that incentive for people to stay there. And the lack of the Dining Plan... since it's primarily a convention hotel, maybe there's also a cost involved there that they'd rather not pass along to their guests (who might not be inclined to ever use it)? Disney does allow them to participate in Extra Magic Hours, which I assume there's also a payment for. Did Tishman and Disney ever work together again in the future- MGM, Animal Kingdom, etc?