Roy O. Disney’s Home Away From Home


On May 30, 1967, ground was broken for the construction of the Walt Disney World Resort. Fast forward to this time 45 years ago, Roy Disney, Joe Fowler and many others were frantically busy working to get Walt Disney World ready for its grand opening just a few months later in October. In order to accommodate the numerous Disney executives, managers and staff who were transferring to Florida to open the resort, Disney took over the management of the Hilton Inn South. According to Jim Korkis, “… [Finley] Hamilton trusted the Disney Company and the running of the Hilton Inn South was just a ‘handshake’ deal”. Disney decided on this hotel for a couple of reasons: 1) at the time there were so few hotels in the Orlando area and 2) the hotel was close to Disney property. The Disney Company managed the hotel for Finley Hamilton, the owner, for sixteen months until the Walt Disney World Resort opened.

hiltonSite of the former Hilton Inn South Image: Google Maps

The Hilton Inn South served as a training hotel for the managers and staff who would be working at the Contemporary Resort and the Polynesian Village Resort. In addition to serving as housing for Disney management and staff, the hotel was also open to paying guests. “The Hilton opened in May 1970 and quickly became the default destination to relax and enjoy a drink after a long day on the jobsite,” said David Koenig in his book Realityland. “[Dan] Darrow [the Hilton’s assistant general manager] and his team were always on their toes, since Roy and the other Burbank bigwigs visited the hotel often – and noticed any flaws.” Roy Disney and Joe Fowler initially stayed at the Hilton Inn South, but then moved to different accommodations.

Image-1Joe Fowler (L) and Roy O. Disney (R) Photo: Fowler/unknown & Disney/The Walt Disney Company

So where did Roy Disney and Joe Fowler stay? In custom built homes about three-and-a-half miles northwest of the Hilton Inn South.

driveThe Drive from Roy's home to Walt Disney World Image: Google Maps

Disney built virtually five identical two-bedroom, two-bath ranch-style homes in a cul-du-sac on Lake Tibet at 8910, 8916, 8922, 8928 and 8934 Tibet Bay Drive. “They wanted to get additional locations – private homes for some of the executives to stay in.” according to the Retro Disney World podcast.

roydeed100Roy and Edna Disney's Bay Hill House Deed Image: Official Records of Orange County Florida

“Three people who had permanent houses were Roy Disney, Admiral Joe Fowler and John Hall, who was the original Disney World contractor – who eventually got fired.” The other two homes (eventually three) were used by Card Walker, Donn Tatum, Disney executives and others were traveling between Burbank, California and Orlando. Roy and Joe’s homes were 1,490 square feet each and the other three homes were 1,252 square feet. Both their homes were the only ones to share a large common driveway as well.

joeroyRoy O Disney and Admiral Joe Fowler's homes Image: Google Maps

Roy and Edna’s home was at 8922 Tibet Bay Drive and Joe and Marguerite’s home was next door at 8928 Tibet Bay Drive. Their houses were next door to each other so they could easily see each other and discuss how the Park’s construction was progressing. Their professional relationship quickly turned into a close friendship as well.

fowlerdoc_100Joe and Marguerite Fowler's Mortgage Image: Official Records of Orange County Florida

According to David Koenig in Realityland, there would be cookouts in the backyard of the cottages, as well as retreats for the Disney World Operating Committee. “As Roy told his executives during one such Bay Hill barbecue, “I hope you guys are having fun, because for how hard you’re working, you’re going to kill yourselves if you’re not enjoying it.” (p. 68) There is a letter in the Disney Archives from Finley Hamilton to Donn Tatum how he [Hamilton] lost over $50,000 while Disney was managing the Hilton Inn South. The losses were in large part due to Disney having “the chefs, maids and other support staff going over to the Bay Hill homes and servicing them on Hamilton’s dime,” said Brian Miles on the Retro Disney World podcast. According to Jim Korkis, “Hamilton never collected nor sued because he felt that Disney would be a great source of business and he was in the process of building yet another hotel.” “A television special had been produced to celebrate the opening of Walt Disney World, and Roy and Edna watched it at their Bay Hill house, along with their family,” writes Bob Thomas in Building A Company. “The show featured Hollywood celebrities with song-and-dance routines in major areas of the park. It had been taped in empty streets and attractions and Roy inquired, “Where are the people?’”

After the resort opened, Roy headed back to California never to return to Walt Disney World or his Bay Hill home.

propertysale2

The Special Warranty Deed to TBHC, INC. Image: Official Records of Orange County Florida

Recreacres Incorporated was formed around 1968 to help The Walt Disney Company buy property for the Walt Disney World Resort. The company changed names three times before becoming the Walt Disney World Hospitality Recreation Corporation.  The five Bay Hill homes were part of this portfolio. On October 31, 2001, the Walt Disney Hospitality Recreation Corporation sold all five homes to TBHC Inc., a holding company for the Arnold Palmer Bay Hill Country Club and Lodge. Today visitors to the Orlando-area can reserve these homes on a nightly basis and possibly stay in the home (albeit remodeled) that Roy and Edna Disney lived in for a brief time.   References: “Listener’s Choice Q&A” Audio Blog Post, RetroDisneyWorld. 26 July 2016 (Episode 21) Thomas, B. (1998) Building A Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire. New York, NY: Hyperion Sullivan, W. (2015) From Jungle Cruise Skipper to Disney Legend. Theme Park Press Koenig, D. (2007) Realityland: True-Life Adventures at Walt Disney World. Irvine, CA: Bonaventure Press Orange County Property Appraiser: www.ocpafl.org Wikipedia  
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