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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.