Opened on May 28, 1994, Disney’s Wilderness Lodge Resort quickly became a popular destination for those who wanted to be near the action, but not in the middle of it. Acclaimed for its spectacular lakeside setting and magnificent lodge-like lobby, Disney’s Wilderness Lodge the quintessential destination resort.
Even though the hotel opened in the mid 90’s, Disney’s Wilderness Lodge can be traced back to the early 80’s.
The Master Plan for Walt Disney World
Copyright: Walt Disney Productions
Back in the 1960s, when Walt Disney World was in the planning stages, Disney management had the bold plan of building five resort hotels surrounding the Seven Seas Lagoon. The Contemporary Resort and Polynesian Village Resort hotels were the first to open in 1971 and three more, the Asian Resort, the Persian Resort and the Venetian Resort (later the Mediterranean Resort) were scheduled to open in the mid-70s. The 1973 oil crisis hit, travel was curtailed, hotel occupancy dropped and Disney Chairman E. Cardon Walker, who wasn’t a big risk taker, opened up the Golf Resort and then shelved any plans for additional hotels. It would be 15 years before any additional hotels were constructed.
According to Jim Hill, “… when construction of EPCOT Center was underway, Walker and others knew that it was time to start building new hotels. Sometime around 1980, it was announced that three new hotels would be built at Walt Disney World to coincide with the opening of EPCOT Center.” EPCOT Center opened in 1982.
In 1984 Michael Eisner came on board as Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company. It was around this time that three new hotels were announced – the Grand Floridian Beach Resort [on the old Asian Resort land parcel], the Mediterranean Resort [between the Contemporary Resort Hotel and the Ticket and Transportation Center] and Cypress Point Lodge [on ground near Ft. Wilderness].
The Fort Wilderness Railroad
Image: The Walt Disney Company
As a side note – From 1973 to 1980, the Fort Wilderness Railroad transported guests around Fort Wilderness’s 700 acres of campgrounds. It was billed as an attraction and guests paid to ride the train. There is no official reason why Disney discontinued running the trains at Fort Wilderness, but there are a few theories. According to Jim Korkis, “Some claimed that safety was an issue and that the nearness of the tracks to the guests made Disney Legal fearful. Some claimed that the train produced too much noise and it disturbed guests. Some claimed that there were challenges with the engines that required constant refilling with water. Some claimed that it was just too expensive to operate and could never recover its costs. The bottom line is that since the track was not laid correctly in the first place that even with attempts to make adjustments, the basic problem still existed that could not be overcome. Literally, the entire length of track needed to be re-laid correctly and the estimated price tag was over three million dollars. At one point, the Disney Company looked to General Electric as a possible corporate sponsor to help defray all or most of the estimated cost.”
The upper right is Fort Wilderness Junction and lower left is the Wilderness Lodge. Connecting the two resorts was the proposed new train tracks.
Image: The Master Architect Series V: Urban Design Group/Inc., (2003). Mulgrave, Victoria, Australia: The Images Publishing Group.
Wilderness Junction, also known as Buffalo Junction, was another resort that was supposed to have been built around 1992 on land between the Ft. Wilderness Campgrounds and where the Wilderness Lodge Resort is today. This 600-room resort, according to Jim Hill, was to have been a moderate resort, with an Old West theme complete with horses on sawdust-strewn street and a Buffalo Bill Wild West Show (as in Disneyland Paris). The complex of shops, dining and entertainment would have been reminiscent of a western town. A new version of the Fort Wilderness Railroad would have been built connecting the existing campgrounds, Wilderness Junction and the Wilderness Lodge. Although never built, the concept was re-purposed a few years later at the Boardwalk Resort.
In 1981, construction for EPCOT Center was moving along and Dick Nunis, who was the executive vice president for Disneyland and Walt Disney World at the time, came to the realization that once the second park was open attendance would increase and so will the demand for more on-property hotel rooms. “So Dick had the Imagineers dig out some of their original hotel pans for the WDW Resort for review,” writes Jim Hill. “The project that Nunis then decided to revive was Cypress Point.” The reason Nunis decided to move ahead with the Cypress Point Lodge is because it wasn’t on the resort monorail line thereby causing little to no disruption to the operation of the Magic Kingdom.
The proposed Cypress Point Lodge
Image: The Walt Disney Company
The Cypress Point Lodge was to be a moderate resort with 550 guest rooms and an additional 20-50 lakeshore cabins. During 1968-1971, although there was no mention of the Lodge there are aerial photos from 1971 showing land cleared from the planned site. In the 1973 Walt Disney World souvenir guide there is a mention of a lodge at Fort Wilderness but, according to a 2009 Progress City blog post, it’s unclear if this was the Cypress Point Lodge or something else connected to the former Wilderness Junction project.
Proposed Cypress Point Lodge
The building of the Cypress Point Lodge was still alive in the early 80s as it was included in a large model of the Walt Disney World resort in the post-show area of the Magic Kingdom’s “Walt Disney Story” attraction. However, around the time of the opening of EPCOT Center, any mention of the Lodge disappeared as funds were being diverted to the second park due to its cost overruns.
Artist rendering of the Wilderness Lodge (notice the train is included on the right)
Image: The Master Architect Series V: Urban Design Group/Inc., (2003). Mulgrave, Victoria, Australia: The Images Publishing Group
That brings us to the Wilderness Lodge. Next to the Yacht and Beach Club Resorts, the Wilderness Lodge is one Michael Eisner’s favorite resorts.
When Eisner took over the reins at The Walt Disney Company he made major changes in all divisions – including architecture. Out-of-the-box architecture was part of Eisner’s Disney Decade. When he and Frank Wells took over as CEO/Chairman and President respectively, they put together a bold plan for the entire Walt Disney Company. In the introduction of The Walt Disney Company’s 1990 Employee Annual Report Eisner said, “[we have] been doing a lot of dreaming lately. And we’ve given the dream a name. It’s called the Disney Decade. The Disney Decade is about a dream, and it’s about us. The plans are incredibly exciting and will touch every aspect of this Company … New hotels, new attractions …” In his biography, Work In Progress, Eisner writes, “I was … exposed to art and architecture at an early age … When I went to Disney and decided we ought to try and build great, innovative buildings rather than conventional, mediocre ones … “
When Eisner decided to start building new hotels for the Disney Resorts he turned to top-notch architects and not Disney Imagineering to make his vision a reality. Eisner chose his architects carefully. Depending on what Eisner envisioned he found an architect whose skill, talent and portfolio best suited the job. Some of the architects that were involved in building Disney hotels were Michael Graves (Swan & Dolphin Hotels), Robert A. M. Stern (Yacht & Beach Club Resorts) and Peter Dominick Jr. (Wilderness Lodge Resort).
In August 1992, at the Wilderness Lodge groundbreaking Michael Eisner said “in our architecture, Disney continues to produce the kind of groundbreaking entertainment that keeps the Disney name magical to people around the world. Our architecture is part of the show.”
There is a “history” to The Wilderness Lodge, but that is a backstory that the Disney Imagineers had created. We’ll cover that in part two.
E. Randal “Randy” Johnson
Image: 4240 Architecture
The architect of record for The Wilderness Lodge and the Villas at the Wilderness Lodge (now Boulder Ridge Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge) was Urban Design Group. Peter H. Dominick, Jr., FAIA was the Design Principal and E. Randal Johnson (Design) and Ronald D. Armstrong (Management) were other Principals.
Growing up in Colorado, Dominick was an avid outdoors man and noted fisherman. Dominick deftly translated his love, passion and deep understanding of the west into his architecture. According to Michele Decker, Principal for 4240 Architecture, “The late Peter H. Dominick, Jr., FAIA, [who passed away on January 1, 2009] then principal at Urban Design Group and founder of 4240 Architecture, had designed a hunting lodge in Colorado that was published in an industry magazine. A senior staff member at Disney came across the article just when they were looking for potential architects for the lodge and invited Urban Design Group to submit.”
According to Beth Dunlop in Building A Dream: The Art of Disney Architecture, “Dominick had been selected because he was a Western architect, based in Denver, who had a facility for the vernacular as well as for the modern. To design Wilderness Lodge, he visited all of the great hotels of America’s national park system, extrapolating what he loved most about each. Dominick brought to the design an innate understanding of the West that was integral to the conception of the hotel …” Dominick said that the Wilderness Lodge was designed to ensure “a roughness and a trueness of how things were put together.”
Dunlop also recounted a story that Dominick told a Denver newspaper, “Michael Eisner leapt up from the conference table to examine the drawing more closely, challenging his creative team to accept our idea.”
“We poured a ton of energy into it [Wilderness Lodge Resort],” said Donimick to The Pennsylvania Gazette. “[We] … found that a client like Disney had resources, questions, and demands that were bigger, deeper, and more thorough than we were used to on a smaller scale.”
The Wilderness Lodge Resort project was completed by Urban Design Group under the leadership of the founding Principals of 4240 Architecture. “Randy Johnson and Peter H. Dominick Jr., FAIA were involved in the project,” said Michele Decker. “Christian Barlock led the design for the Villas at Wilderness Lodge Vacation Club, as well as subsequent hotels with Disney.” One other person who was very involved in the design process was Michael Eisner. “Michael reviewed the design completion and was involved in design presentations at each stage of the design process,” said Randy Johnson. Instrumental to the project’s success was constant collaboration with Wing Chao, Executive Vice President for Master Planning, Architecture & Design and Franc Zorc, Senior Development Manager, both now retired from Walt Disney Imagineering.
Image: WDWKOOK/Photobucket/Disunplugged boards
Talking about the design of the Wilderness lodge, The Master Architect Series V: Urban Design Group/Inc, notes “The Lodge’s ‘wild northwestern landscape’ and beautifully wrought log and stone architecture demonstrate a reverence for authenticity and attention to detail … The original design intention was to bring the magic of the unspoiled Pacific Northwest wilderness and its rustic National Park architecture to a flat and wooded 100-acre site in central Florida that is adjacent to Bay Lake and within the grounds of Disney World.”
“Models and renderings of the Wilderness Lodge were built at each phase of the project from general schematic plans through to construction, as the design was fine-tuned,” said Randy Johnson. “The initial design presented at the competition stage remained throughout the process, and is reflected in the final design built today.”
Image: 4240 Architecture
An extensive amount of research went into the planning of the Wilderness Lodge. It began with the architects taking a tour of the National Parks including Yellowstone, Glacier and Yosemite. “These visits subsequently let to extensive research on the National Park System, the great western painters, indigenous peoples and western craftsman who helped shape the American west,” said Randy Johnson. “This influence shows up throughout the building – in the lobby floor, a Hopi storm pattern; in light fixtures and furniture, inspired by craftsman Thomas Molesworth; in the fireplace representing the strata of the Grand Canyon.”
In addition to Peter Dominick, Randy Johnson drew inspiration from his childhood experience growing up in the west. Their memories influenced the execution of the building’s detailing and interaction with its surroundings. For example, “Silver Creek comes from my experiences growing up and camping in Oregon,” said Johnson. “From experiencing the origin of the Metolius River, a spring bubbling out of the ground, hiking in Silver Falls State Park, and seeing the great bundled railroad support piers in the Columbia River [which] inspired the lobby columns.”
Because of an excellent relationship between Disney, the Imagineers, the contractor and 4240 Architecture, there were no construction delays for this project. The design phase took place from 1989 through 1991. Groundbreaking occurred in August 1992 and the hotel was completed in 1994.
As with everything else, Disney created a backstory for the Wilderness Lodge. “The idea for a great western lodge was Disney’s charge,” said 4240 architect Christian Barlock. “4240 worked hand-in-hand with Disney to create the experience, including the backstory of the Lodge – which infused the building with details that formed the lore of the Lodge.”
Top: Old Faithful Inn / Bottom: Majestic Yosemite Hotel
Image: Old Faithful Inn website/Majestic Yosemite Hotel website
Primary inspiration for the Wilderness Lodge came from the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park and the Ahwahnee Hotel (In 2016, the Ahwahnee was renamed the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, due to a legal dispute between the U.S. Government, who owns the property, and the outgoing concessionaire, Delaware North, which claims rights to the trademarked name.)
“As mentioned earlier, The National Parks System, Native cultures, and western craftsman were part of how we defined the spirit, romance, and independent spirit of the west,” said Randy Johnson. “In additional to Thomas Molesworth and Hopi Indians, the team researched Northwest Coast Natives, Landscape Painters such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, and architects like Mary Coulter, Robert Reamer, and Gilbert Stanley Underwood.”
Disney’s Wilderness Lodge “captures the spirit and sense of place one associates with our National Parks, icons of our American heritage … with their art, architecture and dramatic landscapes,” said Peter Dominick Jr. “There are romantic and endearing qualities associated with the early national parks movement – the Northwest, the Native Americans, the great lodges. All of these elements have been combined in wonderful detail, creating a unique wilderness experience.”
Approaching the Wilderness Lodge
Image: WDWKOOK/Photobucket/Disunplugged boards
As with everything else at Disney, everything comes down to telling a story and Disney’s Wilderness Lodge represents ‘architectural story telling’ at its best. As guests turn on to Timberline Drive from World Drive, they pass through an archway adorned with buffalos and “leave” Florida, guests drive along a curving roadway.
Image: WDWKOOK/Photobucket/Disunplugged boards
After a few minutes, through the trees, the first view of the Wilderness Lodge begins to appear. “Enhancing the journey of arrival, the Lodge is sited on the oblique, and not approached head-on.” The position of the Lodge was made primarily due to the fact that the hotel, and subsequently the DVC property, are surrounded by wetlands. According to The Master Architect Series V: Urban Design Group/Inc, “This strategy, which suggests a pathway to an isolated retreat destination, has the guests entering at the Lodge’s second level … achieved through extensive site re-grading.” This also had a practical purpose of keeping the guest immersed in the theme – guests would also have a view of Bay Lake thereby reinforcing the wilderness feel. Additionally, building services and parking are below the entry level and out of sight, as well as the futuristic monorail system glides unnoticed through a grove of trees at the back of the site.
As with every themed area at a Disney Park or Resort, the plants and trees were carefully researched to assure they were appropriate for the setting. The plants, flowers and shrubs that were chosen had to resemble those that would be found out in the Pacific Northwest, but be well suited to the Florida climate.
Image: Google Maps
The Villas at the Wilderness Lodge (now Boulder Ridge Villas at the Wilderness Lodge) were positioned with the same considerations. “The site and wetlands dictated the placement of the DVC hotel,” said Christian Barlock. “The site dictated the shape and position of the hotel – constrained on all three sides by two acres of wetlands. The form of the building mimics that of the main hotel with the four-story atrium lobby positioned close to the main hotel. By sitting the building at right angles to the Wilderness Lodge, the DVC exposes the narrowest building profile to the hotel guest of the Lodge while maximizing the views to Bay Lake. Additionally, the Villas’ rooflines step down toward the Lodge, again lessening the impact of the Villas on the adjacent Lodge.” Additionally, the DVC roof was made in a dark clay red color to suggest they were there before the appearance of the Lodge.
The Wilderness Lodge is designed to resemble an old timber lodge. Walking through the main entrance, a soaring six-story lobby reveals itself. There isn’t one main focal point because the four six-story-high columns of bundled logs, the 82-foot tall stone fireplace, the two 55-foot tall hand-carved totem poles and four teepee chandeliers all are equally impressive.
The Lobby Pillars
“Hearkening back to the hunting lodge article that brought the design team and Disney together, we knew a key material in the hotel would be wood,” said Randy Johnson. “The idea for the bundled lobby pillars came from the railroad piers on the great Columbia River and reference the four corners of the earth in the Hopi Storm weave pattern.
The actual material used in the Lodge’s poles is standing dead Lodge Pole Pine from Montana. (Meaning no live trees were cut down). The carvings were added to depict the different species living as the elevation changed up the poles.”
The Lobby Floor
The lobby floor in an interpretation of a Hopi “storm pattern” weaving. Lightning bolts extend out from the “storm pattern” and radiate out to the four corners of the earth. The weaving was re-interpreted into the wood floor. The wood, Brazilian cherry, white oak, bird’s eye maple and burl walnut wood, was chosen for their ‘natural’ colors.
The Lobby Fireplace
The stone fireplace, which is the only element in the lobby that is fabricated, depicts the many layers of the Grand Canyon. “Due to laws restricting the removal of material from National Parks, the fireplace was constructed and sculpted in place by artisans using similar materials,” said Christian Barlock. “A paleontologist was hired to spend time in the Grand Canyon and document the strata and fossils. He then directed the construction of the fireplace at the lodge – including inserting actual fossils into the correct strata. This was done so we could ensure it was an accurate and successful representation.”
The Teepee Chandeliers
Image: WDWKOOK/Photobucket/Disunplugged boards
Piercing through the lobby ceiling are four massive, 600 pound teepee chandeliers. Made from actual rawhide, each of the teepee shades are hand-painted with Native American symbols painted on them in red and black. Additionally, they are framed with a bronze and steel ring of silhouetted buffaloes and Native American Indians and cowboys on horseback and buffalo. The challenge for Wilson & Associates, the interior designers was to have these four chandeliers light the entire lobby.
Image: WDWKOOK/Photobucket/Disunplugged boards
“We were involved in the lighting design [with Wilson & Associates],” says Christian Barlock of UDG. “The silhouette scene was inspired by the great Arts and Crafts American furniture designer Thomas Molesworth.”
The Lobby Totem Poles
Raven Totem Pole (left) / Eagle Totem Pole (right)
Image: Wildernesslodgesite.com/Donald Fink – Mouseplanet.com
The two 55-foot totem poles, which are on either side of the lobby and you enter, are known for the animals on the top of each of them, as the Eagle Totem Pole (near the registration desk) and the Raven Totem Pole (near the Whispering Canyon Café). According to Wilderness Lodge website, “Traditionally, Native Americans in the Northwest were able to trace their lineage back to either the Raven Clan or the Eagle Clan, and so these two have represented many of the tribes throughout the years.” Commissioned by Disney, these two totem poles were created by Duane Pasco. Pasco, who is not of the Pacific Northwest Indians, was raised in Alaska and Seattle. He is considered one of the preeminent carvers known particularly for indigenous-style work.
According to Jim Korkis, “the poles are made from four [hundred] year old growth red cedars each about five feet in diameter at the base. The big cedars had to be hollowed out and there was considerable rot inside that had to be removed. Pasco reinforced the centers by splicing in new wood.”
“These totem poles measure 3-feet wide at the top and 5-feet wide at the bottom and each is constructed of two 27-foot sections spliced together,” Pasco said. “The choice of characters and their placement were the choice of Disney consultants.”
“I made very detailed drawings for this project because there were to be three assistants helping me: Pat Huggins, Loren White, and Scott Jensen,” he said. “I drew front, side, three-quarter views and lots of cross sections. In this way the client, the contractor and all the carvers can see exactly what the end product should look like.”
“The goal in designing the totem poles was to use legend and lore that was common among many tribes of the Northwest Coast but not necessarily specific to any one tribe,” wrote Pasco’s wife, Katie. “This was easy to accomplish because the figures and the stories they represent remain fairly consistent. Characters on the Disney poles are pan-coastal in nature, with a particular attempt to portray figures not associated with inherited stories or family crests.”
Silver Creek Spring Source
Nature’s story continues with a hot spring located towards the back of the main lobby. This spring flows from the lobby, down and outside through the courtyard, into the swimming pool, down to Fire Rock Geyser and finally into Bay Lake.
In part two we’ll discuss the DVC construction, the interior design and Disney backstory for the Lodge.
Part Two of the History can be found here.
Interview – Christian Barlock & Randy Johnson – 4240 Architecture
Interview – Connie Jackson & Susan Seifert – Wilson & Associates
Dunlop, B. (2011). Building A Dream: The Art of Disney Architecture, New York, NY: Disney Editions
The Master Architect Series V: Urban Design Group/Inc., (2003). Mulgrave, Victoria, Australia: The Images Publishing Group.
Wilderness Lodge Site: An Unofficial Tribute to Disney’s Wilderness Lodge and Villas website
Your First Visit website. “A Friday Visit with Jim Korkus: Peter Dominick, Jr. and the Wilderness Lodge
The Silver Creek Star – Commemorative newspaper & guest directory. Walt Disney World.
Pedicini, S. (22 September 2015). Disney announces new timeshares at Wilderness Lodge. Orlando Sentinel. www.orlandosentinel.com
Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. In Wikipedia. Retrieved 21 April 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disney%27s_Wilderness_Lodge
First Look and Review: Geyser Point Bar and Grill at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. In The Disney Food Blog. Retrieved 20 April 2017 from
Originally from Philadelphia and now living in New York City, Chuck has worn many hats including pastry chef, hotel manager and his current position as a publicist. Ever since he was a kid, Chuck had a passion about everything Walt Disney including going on a local Philly quiz show when he was twelve where his area of expertise was Walt Disney. He loves going to see great performers, amazing museums, seeing Broadway shows, eating in all kinds of restaurants and traveling. Chuck's favorite cities to visit are Paris, London, Las Vegas and Turin. He, of course, loves Walt Disney World and Disneyland.