Walt Disney World Chronicles: The Story of Conch Flats

by Jim Kprkis
Disney Historian

Feature Article

This article appeared in the May 1, 2018 Issue #971 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.

Disney's Old Key West Logo

Disney's Old Key West Resort was the first Disney Vacation Club resort when it opened on December 20, 1991. It was assumed it would be the only DVC resort, so it was originally just called Disney Vacation Club Resort.

However, in 1996, with the decision to expand the increasingly popular franchise, the resort was renamed Old Key West to distinguish it from Disney's Vero Beach Resort (October 1995) and Disney's Hilton Head Island Resort (March 1996), as well as to reference the already existing backstory that was in place since the resort opened.

Disney had wanted an East Coast resort that specifically reflected the heritage of Florida and so decided to model the location after the famous vacation destination of the Florida Keys from around the early 1900s.

In the early 1900s, the only way to get to Key West was by plane, boat or train. It was not accessible by car until many years later. That is why the check-in desk at the resort resembles a train station with actual antique lampposts from Key West's Duval Street. It is also the reason that a guest, after they drive pass the security gate, drives over a bridge, to suggest that bridges have to be crossed to get to each of the fabled island Keys.

Just to the left of the check-in desk is a small lounge called Papa's Den filled with books on shelves. "Papa" was the nickname of famed author Ernest Hemingway. Legend has it that Hemingway wrote part of his novel "A Farewell to Arms" while living above the showroom of a Key West Ford car dealership awaiting delivery of a Ford Model A roadster. He was introduced to deep-sea fishing, got the nickname "Papa" and worked on other novels while living in Key West, including "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "To Have and Have Not" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

The Imagineers have cleverly decorated the den with several allusions to the writer. On either side of the fireplace are sets of framed pens, authentic to the early 1900s, to suggest Hemingway's writing. The marlin fish hanging overhead and vintage lures underneath suggest Hemingway's love of fishing and his famous book "The Old Man and the Sea," which featured a much larger fish.

Papa's Den at Old Key West

Hemingway had a great love for cats and so there are eight small statues of cats in the den. Hemingway acquired his first cat from a ship's captain in Key West. The white kitten he was given he named Snow White and it had an extra toe. (Today, The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West has roughly 60 cats, some the descendants of Snow White. About half are polydactyl like their ancestor, wandering the property and protected by his will.)

The two lion statues on the shelves allude to Hemingway's love of big game hunting, the bull to his interest in bullfighting and running with the bulls. There are also cigar boxes to hold his Cuban cigars and a hand bell to symbolize "For Whom the Bell Tolls."

The fictional mayor of the town of Conch Flats is Cooter Trumbo Esquire. Cooter is a call-out to a name for a turtle (a recurring theme in the resort) in the southeast United States. Trumbo refers to Trumbo Point, a man-made addition to Key West in 1912 by the Trumbo American Dredging Company to accommodate a shipping port for the railroad.

The town's logo includes an image of the city and three Latin phrases: Pro Bono Persona (For Your Own Good), Veni Vidi Veni Ad Infinitum (I Came, I Saw, I Came Again and Again and Again) and Carpe Diem Omni Diem (Seize the Day Every Day).

Papa's Den is also home to two authentic and detailed hand-made miniature displays by William E. Hitchcock, kept under plexiglass. One features the Florida East Coast Railway in G-Scale models, including Henry Flagler's own private yellow passenger car, Rambler. The other display showcases the Key West Electric Company First Electric Trolley Car System (1898-1926) with a 1200-gallon seawater sprinkler tank car heading home to the Samonton Street Car Barn.

Outside is the Conch Flats General Store owned by Beauregard ("everything from soda pop to poppy seed"). Miss Vickey did the interior decoration. The upper shelves and rafters reflect items from Old Key West's history of wrecking and salvaging, making them the richest city in the United States at one time.

Today the store, with a mermaid statuette on an upper shelf, also suggests Ariel's Grotto, which was also decorated with items from shipwrecks.

Outside Farnsworth Cottage and the entrance to Olivia's restaurant is an engine revolving indicator and a steering wheel from Rosebank Ironworks in Edinburgh, both of which were salvaged from a ship that foundered in the offshore reefs.

Olivia's Cafe at Old Key West

Olivia Farnsworth, the namesake of the restaurant, lived in a small cottage along Turtle Krawl. Sometimes spelled Kraal or Kraul, the word is an Afrikaans and Dutch word that refers to a corral for sea turtles that were often gathered in Key West for export and the making of turtle soup.

In 1896 a French chef named Armand Granday moved from New York to Key West and opened a turtle soup cannery that was beloved by the New York elite, such as the Rockefellers and Astors. The turtles were captured off the Cayman Islands, shipped live to Key West on schooners and released, sometimes 800 at a time, into Granday's "kraals." In 1971, the United States government banned the killing of Green Sea Turtles and today turtle soup is made from regular turtles. That reference to the turtle industry is also found in Old Turtle Pond Road and the Turtle Shack at the resort.

Olivia loved cooking, but did not have the money to open a restaurant of her own. She was very friendly and very proud of her cooking. Almost daily she would invite curious passers-by who smelled her cooking to come in to her dining room and pull up a chair to enjoy what she had prepared. Soon, these visits became more and more frequent, both for the locals and for visiting out-of-towners. Olivia quickly ran out of room and everything else. People began bringing their own tables and chairs and even silverware and then left them there for their next visit. That's why the silverware, plates and the chairs in the restaurant were originally distinctively mismatched.

Olivia's Cafe

When the restaurant first opened with the resort in 1991, there was a mannequin at the check-in podium that was dressed in a matronly outfit that was supposed to represent Miss Vickey, who helped decorate the place. She was welcoming you to the restaurant because Olivia was busy in the kitchen and couldn't do it herself.

In the lobby that is now filled with photos of DVC members was a second mannequin of Captain Wahoo, who was dressed in his nautical gear. He was then moved to a rear booth in the restaurant where he was enjoying a cup of coffee. He was to represent the heritage of the sea, especially with the marina just outside the windows. The front room is called The Dolphin Room so that guests in Conch Flats would be able to look out the windows and see dolphins playing.

Parties of three would sometimes join the captain at his table hoping to hear some "fish tales." As additional seating was needed for guests, he joined Miss Vickey at the check-in podium to welcome guests. Eventually both disappeared and are now only remembered today by some early Old Key West guests. Miss Vickey's pet cat Tabitha is immortalized in the mural behind the check-in desk under the painted archway.

The semaphore flags outside spell out the words "Welcome Home Members" and in the distance to the right is a bridge designed to resemble the famous bridges that Henry Flagler built for his railroad. In fact, crossing the bridge transports guests to the back of the check-in desk, which was meant to be a train station depot.

The Gurgling Suitcase Bar honors another popular industry in Key West. During Prohibition, people would come down to Key West to purchase illegal alcohol brought in from Cuba, which was just a short distance away from the island. They would pack it using their clothes to cushion the bottles so the bottles wouldn't break in their suitcases. Law enforcement officers soon caught on to this practice and when they stopped people, they would pick up the luggage and shake it to see if it "gurgled," indicating that there was liquid inside. The logo for the bar features a running man done in a 1920s design style with a suitcase presumably filled with illegal alcohol.

Disney's Old Key West Lighthouse

There is a lighthouse by the pool that calls to mind the famous Key West lighthouse opened in 1848 to help stop the inhabitants from causing shipwrecks. In the years following, the lighthouse underwent a number of upgrades. Today, the building is a museum dedicated to Key West's maritime heritage.

The brick road ends and REST Beach begins. Key West, because of its hard coral, had man-made beaches. REST is actually an acronym for Recreation, Exercise, Swimming and Tennis.

The "family tree" just beyond the gigantic sand castle was planted in 1991 and is one tree with multiple trunks springing from it. To the left of it is a similar tree that was planted to show the original height the family tree was in 1991.

The architecture of the pastel painted units purposely echoes Victorian and Caribbean influences and also reflects the many structures of Key West. The units are raised because the buildings in Key West are set on foundation piers about three feet above the ground to allow the wind and water to go underneath through the lattice work. Clever Disney fans might even notice a Mickey image in the lattice work at Old Key West.

When it comes to storytelling — even in its resorts — no one does it better than Disney. For those interested in more stories about Conch Flats, the resort currently offers a one-hour free walking guided tour (The Legend of Conch Flats) most Wednesdays and Saturdays at 10 a.m. Ask at the front desk when you check in.

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Old Key West Fact Sheet

Old Key West Photo Gallery

Old Key West Resort Videos

Old Key West Dining Locations

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Other features from the Walt Disney World Chronicles series by Jim Korkis can be found in the AllEars® Archives.

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Jim Korkis

Disney Historian and regular AllEars® Columnist Jim Korkis has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, Korkis has used his skills and historical knowledge with Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

He is the author of several books, including his newest, Secret Stories of Disneyland, available in both paperback and Kindle versions.


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.