Saratoga Springs – Lake Buena Vista and the Disney Institute – Part One

Jack Spence Masthead

Saratoga Springs Logo

Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa (from here on simply to be known as Saratoga Springs) is a sprawling Disney Vacation Club resort located on the east side of the Walt Disney World property. It offers 1,260 studio, 1, 2, and 3 bedroom units along with treehouse villas. Facilities include several dining opportunities, five swimming pools, tennis and basketball courts, a spa, and shopping. It opened on May 17, 2004. But before I discuss this resort in detail, I must go back in time and provide you with a history of the acreage that this resort now sits on. As with so many things at Disney, there is a story behind the story.

We all know about Walt’s dream of Epcot – a planned community where real families would live and work in a quasi-utopian city. We also know how this idea was put on hold following Walt’s death in 1966 as most of his team did not believe in the project. But oddly enough, Walt’s successors didn’t abandon the idea completely. Although they weren’t keen on building a massive modern city, they liked the idea of real families living on their newly acquired land.

In 1972, the Buena Vista Land Company was formed. This arm of the Disney Corporation would be responsible for the planning and development of the acreage surrounding the Vacation Kingdom.

One of their early projects called for the construction of Lake Buena Vista, a 1,200 acre community to be located adjacent to Motor Inn Plaza (now Hotel Plaza Blvd). This project would feature an 18-hole Joe Lee-designed golf course, a shopping village, and dwellings consisting of townhouses, single family homes, and cluster homes. The plans called for these residences to be leased and sold to businesses as corporate retreats and to individuals as second-home vacation properties.

Lake Buena Vista Villas

Lake Buena Vista Villas

Here is a picture of the single family homes under construction. Only four of these were completed during Phase One as they were intended to be model homes from which individuals and corporations could select the type of retreat they would like to have constructed in Phase Two.

Single Family Homes

The Buena Vista Land Company also planned on building 900 apartments. These were intended primarily for the cast members working at the nearby Vacation Kingdom.

When the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village (now Downtown Disney Marketplace) opened on March 22, 1975 it featured 32 shops and restaurants. Here are two pictures of this venue, the first under construction and the second shortly after completion.

Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village

Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village

At the end of Phase One, 133 townhomes and 60 treehouse villas had been built. Construction on the apartments and additional single family homes was never begun as change was in the wind.

At some point during construction, the corporate lawyers pointed out that land owners of Lake Buena Vista would be entitled to voting rights in regards to WDW projects and construction. Of course, this could not be allowed to happen. So it was decided to abandon the “sales” idea and instead, include these units as another lodging option for WDW vacationers. So for many years, not only could guests rent a room at the Contemporary, Polynesian, and Golf Resort, they could also rent a townhome or single family home at Lake Buena Vista. And since their original design called for permanent residency, these accommodations featured full kitchens – much in the way DVC units do today.

Disney often says that no good idea ever goes unused. To that end, the idea of actually purchasing a home at WDW did not die with Lake Buena Vista, but was resurrected with Celebration and Golden Oak. But unlike Lake Buena Vista, these two communities were de-annexed from WDW to prevent the residents from having voting rights.

Michael Eisner became CEO of the Walt Disney Company in 1984. Part of his charter was to develop the Florida property beyond the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and the hotels clustered at the north end of property.

The following year, Eisner and his family visited Chautauqua Institution in southwestern New York. Each summer, this vacation destination offers guests the opportunity to attend lectures, see various theatrical performances, enjoy recreational activities, and attend classes designed to entertain and educate. Eisner was taken with this concept and knew something similar would be a perfect addition to WDW. In addition, an “Institute” in Florida would be available to guests on a year-round basis, not just during the summer months as with the Chautauqua Institution.

Disney Institute Logo

Disney Institute Concept Drawing

Eisner had a lot on his plate in the early years of his tenure as CEO and his idea for a Disney Institute took a backseat to other projects. Actual construction didn’t begin on the Institute until 1995. In order to cut costs, it was decided to build the Institute adjacent to the existing villas and use these accommodations for guests partaking in this new Disney experience. In this next picture, you can see the existing townhouses in the foreground and the Institute in the background.

Disney Institute

The Institute’s new structures were designed by Tom Beedy and given the look of a small, New England town. Initial construction began with the expansion of the existing Buena Vista Golf Club. This building grew to three times its original size and featured the Welcome and Check-in Center, a shop named “Dabbler,” a relaxation area called “The Gathering Place Lounge,” and a full-service restaurant to be known as “Seasons.” Other buildings being added to the “town” included a health club and spa, a 225-seat performing arts center, a 400-seat movie theater, a 1,150-seat amphitheater, and 28 state-of-the-art program studios (classrooms). Additionally, a closed-circuit TV station (DITV) and a radio station (WALT) were added to the mix.

Disney Institute

Disney Institute

Disney Institute

Disney Institute

Disney Institute

Disney Institute

Some changes and upgrades to the Lake Buena Vista accommodations were made, but most of these were cosmetic or simply name changes. For instance, Club Lake became Willow Lake to reflect its willow-dotted shoreline and give the area a more “country” feel.

Months before the official opening of the Disney Institute on February 9, 1996, the marketing department heralded this new experience in every Disney publication and advertisement. They wanted the public to know that WDW was not just about passive rides and attractions, but about learning and growing in a fun and entertaining way.

When the Institute first opened, a three-night minimum stay was required if you wanted to lodge in one of the Lake Buena Vista accommodations. However, staying here was not a requirement if you wished to partake in one of the programs offered. Guests staying elsewhere were still eligible to sign up for classes.

Originally offered were a number of programs under the following headings:

Television & Radio

Additionally, Disney lined up high-profiled celebrities and topic-authorities to present lectures on a wide variety of subjects. And the movie theater presented first-run films along with classic Disney animation.

The reviews from the early visitors were generally very positive. However, most of the public wasn’t interested in the Disney Institute. Within just a few months of operation, the classes offered were scaled back or consolidated. And within the first couple of years of operation, it became obvious that guests visiting WDW wanted to experience rides and attractions, not be “educated.”

Although Seasons was a fine addition to the Disney roster of eateries, it couldn’t compete with nearby Downtown Disney and other, more themed restaurants found around property. It was one of the first endeavors of this project to close.

The massive Disney marketing department continued to promote the Disney Institute, but it was a lost cause. As fewer and fewer guests signed up for classes, less and less was offered. And the slowdown in tourism after the 9/11 attacks didn’t help. The Disney Institute closed its doors in 2002.

Interestingly, the Disney Institute still exists today, not as a guest enrichment package, but rather a corporate development program. Disney uses their own success in the business world as a model for other companies to emulate. Their goal is to use time-tested practices, sound methodologies, and real life business lessons that can facilitate corporate culture change in other organizations.

New Disney Institute Logo

With the closure of the Disney Institute, the company was faced with a new problem, what to do with the aging Villa accommodations and how to repurpose basically “new” construction.

The Disney Vacation Club (DVC) had already proven itself as a popular commodity with guests and a good money-maker for Disney. So it was decided to transform the Institute property into the seventh membership resort. To that end, all of the townhomes and other buildings originally built as part of the Lake Buena Vista project would be razed (with the exception of the Treehouse Villas). In their place, new accommodations would be constructed and given a horse racing theme of Saratoga Springs, New York to tie it in with the remaining structures. The new resort would be built in phases with the first opening on May 17, 2004.

That’s it for today. Check back tomorrow when I’ll discuss the amenities of this “equine” resort.

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15 Replies to “Saratoga Springs – Lake Buena Vista and the Disney Institute – Part One”

  1. Great to hear about the old Lake Buena Vista Villas. We stayed in them many times in the late 80’s. We also rented one of the Fairway Houses several years in a row. Do you know if they are still there? We loved that house and have ‘looked’ for it and haven’t been able to locate them again.

    Jack’s Answer:

    All of the old buildings were razed to make way for Saratoga Springs, including the Fairway Houses. Sorry.

  2. Great post, I loved reading about the Disney Institute – I was sad it closed before I could see it!

    One thing you should know, the community in Western NY that the Disney Institute was patterned after, is called Chautauqua Institution (not Institute). I spent many happy summers working there in college (I believe I was there the summer Eisner visited!) and now take my own children there for a week every summer.

    I really enjoy your blogs, thanks!

  3. Where does the Disney’s Village Resort fit into all this ? We stayed there on our honeymoon in 1994, I could have sworn it was where Saratoga Springs is now.

    Jack’s Answer:

    Yes, Disney Village Resort is/was the Lake Buena Vista community I spoke of in this blog. The units were razed to make way for Saratoga Springs.

  4. Loved reading about the Institute. We are DVC members and have stayed at Saratoga Springs at least 5 times. Attended the Institue for cooking and gardening classes in the “old days”. Have tried to imagine where things were located.
    Was a nice idea, but see the reasons for not being successful.

  5. I remember the advertisements when DI first opened and thought it sounded really interesting, but our family couldn’t afford anywhere as expensive as it was.

  6. Wow, was it neat to see Disney Institute resurrected. I attended five of the three-day business courses held there on topics such as Customer Loyalty, Leadership, and Managing for Creativity. Lodging in the old golf course villas was included in the tuition. Participants in the courses got to go backstage often to see the “business behind the magic.” We visited the laundry, the huge merchandise warehouse, and several locations within the parks. One highlight was getting to operate the real black light puppets used in the Ariel attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (in between shows). I feel so fortunate to have been able to attend so many of those great training opportunities. Not to mention I met my future husband there (a fellow course participant)!

  7. My family had taken a few courses at the DI while it was open, most memorable my dad and I had taken a stage make-up course. You could choose to make yourself look like a zombie, “theatrical” cat, and I think the last one was an alien or something SciFi related. I ended up learning to make myself look like Grizzella from the stage show “Cats” and used that as my Halloween costume- wig, fake whiskers, make-up and all. It was really neat! Another youth course included a day on Discovery Island, now closed to guests, with a focus on ecology, endangered species, and environmental protection. Of course, my parents were teachers so education/learning has always been a big part in everything we did- going to “school” during our summer vacation sounded like a bummer at first, but we had a blast each time!

  8. Thank you so much, Jack, for your coverage of the Disney Institute! I visited there three times. The last two times were during the Animation Events, which I thoroughly enjoyed! Where else would you be able to meet Disney animators like Eric Goldberg and Andreas Deja, voice artists like Mary Costa (the original Sleeping Beauty) and create your own piece of animation with a team of fellow guests? My heart broke when I heard of DI’s closing as a resort. I may be in the minority, but the idea of an “adult summer camp” where we could explore new areas of interest and learn new skills appealed to me. Maybe you can investigate the Animation Event program and provide a more detaled article on it. Personally, I feel it was a hidden treasure.

  9. Quite a lot of this week’s blog was new information to me. I always wondered what had happened with the Disney Institute. Thanks for the education!

  10. Thanks for this information! As members of DVC, we have stayed at Saratoga Springs and were puzzled as to where the footprints of the townhouses were. You see, the very first visit we had to WDW was the opening of Epcot in October, 1982, and we rented one of the 3 bedroom townhouses near the golf course. I remember it backed up to a woodsy area. I am happy to know “the rest of the story”.

  11. Hi Jack –
    I was always intrigued by The Disney Institute – I remember the WDW planing videos of the era had a nice portion devoted to it. I would have loved to have taken quite a few of the courses, though wondered what you could really learn in a day. I never did any price research, but figured it would be very expensive to partake in. As you said above, I, like most people couldn’t see going to school instead of theme parks at WDW. Can’t wait for the rest of the article!

    – Jeff B.

  12. Jack, I know that the amphitheater gave way to the theme pool. As far as I know the performing arts theatre is still there. What about the movie theater? Are they now used for corporate programs or are they cast member areas? I was fortunate to visit both in the days of the Institute. They were so unique, it would be a shame if they were no longer available for guest use.

    Jack’s Answer:

    I will be answering these questions in Part 2 and 3.

  13. Hi Jack!
    Thanks for the blast from the past! I know Saratoga Springs isn’t the most popular Disney resort, but it really is one of my favorites. I’m so disappointed though that I never got to check out the Disney Institute! I love a little education in my vacation (I’m a little bit nerdy like that), and I would have loved to combine the carefree fun of Disney with once in a lifetime learning. Maybe someday they’ll find a more lucrative way to bring this idea back 🙂

  14. Interesting article, Jack. Always enjoy reading about “yesterland.” Was just wondering: what kind of restaurant was Seasons? Was it more elegant or casual?

    Jack’s Answer:

    I only ate here once — and enjoyed it.

    I would say Seasons was somewhere in between. It offered more upscale food than The Turf Club (a casual restaurant), but not as elegant as Citricos or Flying Fish (elegant restaurants). I think a lot of this had to do with the atmosphere. Although the décor of Seasons was charming, it was not upscale or sophisticated.

  15. In the second picture of the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village there appears to be a lot more land/trees in what is now mostly water. I assume some of the land is now the former Pleasure Island area but the waterways look much more open than they do in these historical photos. Is that just the angle of the photo or did they do some reshaping of the shoreline and land as the rest of the area developed?

    Jack’s Answer:

    I copied this picture out of an old Disney stock report — it was part of a collage of pictures. The corner of another picture overlapped the top of the Lake Buena Vista picture. I photoshopped the Lake Buena Vista picture with trees and some water to remove the overlaying picture.


    What is now Downtown Disney (Marketplace, Pleasure Island, and Westside) was nothing but trees before construction. Village Lake as we know it today did not exist until Pleasure Island was carved out of the land. Although I did alter the Lake Buena Vista picture slightly, it really does not misrepresent what the area looked like in the early years.