September 24, 2015

In Defense Of: Walt Disney World's Contemporary Resort

Our "In Defense Of" series explores largely overlooked or undervalued historic places that nonetheless make an important contribution to our collective culture and tell an essential part of our shared American story.

Walt Disney World Contemporary Hotel

photo by: Christian Lambert, Flickr

The Contemporary Resort at Florida's Walt Disney World was completed in 1971.

In this edition of "In Defense Of," the PreservationNation blog speaks with Ashley Wilson, the National Trust Graham Gund Architect, about Walt Disney World's Contemporary Resort hotel.

What is it?

It is one of the original resorts built in the Orlando Walt Disney World in 1971. It embodies this really utopian view of the future as a place of excitement and wonderment. It’s such an optimistic place compared to where I think we are today. It’s Tomorrowland.

The monorail goes right through the atrium so it’s sort of taking hot architecture and sticking a train in the middle of it. It was truly a contemporary hotel.

Walt Disney World Contemporary Hotel

photo by: Scott Smith, Flickr

A monorail runs through the center of the Contemporary Resort hotel and carries visitors around the park.

Why is this place important?

Architecturally it embodies the concept of kitsch; with Disney World, everything is sort of better than real life. It’s that wonderment that makes it so good. It shouldn’t be taken seriously, yet it became a serious piece of architecture.

In the '70s, for a lot of kids in the South who had never been to a city before, the idea of the monorail and transportation at this level, it was their first insight into what the future could be. And now that we’re in the future, it’s not that outdated. I find it really strange; the world has changed so fast, yet this managed to keep up.

Walt Disney World Contemporary Hotel

photo by: Christian Lambert, Flickr

The Contemporary Resort hotel has become a valuable piece of architecture and design over the last 44 years.

Why is it undervalued?

I don’t think it was ever considered architecturally important. This is amusement architecture. And then because it’s a building that so many millions of people have been to, it becomes an important building.

Where does this fit in to the American narrative?

It might represent that generational shift to “the child is important.” You’re coming out of the ‘50s and ‘60s with the concept of an ideal family and you want to entertain your children. This was a place that you saved up your money and you took your family to.

David Weible headshot

David Weible is a former content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation is inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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