International Drive: The Disney Connection by Jim Korkis

In 1969, Roy O. Disney addressed a group of developers in Orlando: “One thing I learned from the Disneyland project is to control the environment. Without that, we get blamed for things someone else does. Little hotels on the fringe of the park would jump their rates three times. I’ve seen it happen and I just can’t take it because it reflects on us. If they don’t run a good hotel operation for the Florida project, and those little honky-tonks come in there, we’re blamed.”

One of the significant differences between Walt Disney World and Disneyland was to be that guests would stay for multiple days so it was necessary to offer outstanding accommodations, especially since Orlando only had roughly 5,800 hotel and motel rooms total and many of those left very much to be desired.

Roy Disney told a group of Orlando developers “One thing I learned from the Disneyland project is to control the environment.”

TIME magazine, in its October 18, 1971 issue published roughly two weeks after the opening of Walt Disney World stated:

“But it is the hotels, shops, beaches and other recreational facilities at Disney World that really set the new complex apart from Disneyland and its imitators.

“Disneymen call their creation a ‘total destination resort’ – not just a stopover, in other words, but a place to spend a weekend or a week. The prices at Disney World seem reasonable enough. Hotels range from $22 to $40 for a room large enough for a family of four.

“Package plans include one that offers three days and two nights at a hotel, three free days in the amusement area, free transport and $18 worth of sailing, riding or others sports – all for $61.50 per person ($25 per child).”

In 1967, the Walt Disney Company created a full-color map to indicate the various resort hotels that would surround the Magic Kingdom theme park. Disney’s seemingly only previous connection to a hotel was Anaheim’s Disneyland Hotel that was owned and operated by Jack Wrather, an entrepreneur who owned such properties as the Lone Ranger, Lassie, and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.

Wrather and his wife were friends with Walt Disney and so Walt asked him to build the Disneyland Hotel. Walt wanted a hotel nearby to his theme park to encourage guests to extend their stay by more than just a few hours but all of his own money was committed to building his park.

Wrather also knew, like Walt, that Anaheim was primed for major expansion. Walt was so desperate to have a hotel nearby that he gave Wrather a 99-year lease on the land across from the park that Disney had purchased (at a rate of $2,000 a year for the length of the lease, plus 2% of the gross on the rentals) and the exclusive rights to use the “Disney” name for the hotel and any future hotels that Wrather might build in Southern California (at a rate of $25,000 per year) and Walt’s assurance that he would not build a hotel in competition.

However, the Disney family had flirted with hotel operations before Walt was even born.

Walt Disney’s father Elias married Flora Call on January 1, 1888, in Kismet, Florida, roughly 50 miles from the land on which Walt Disney World would eventually be built. He was 28 years old and she was 19.

That same year, he took a job as the manager of the Hallifax Hotel in Daytona Beach. The hotel was very successful during the summer months when tourists who were visiting to frolic on the beach needed a place to stay.

However, once fall arrived, attendance dropped off significantly when these visitors returned north to their homes and Elias could not make a living especially with the birth of their first son Herbert. That hotel no longer exists, although there is still a Hallifax Avenue where the Hallifax Hotel once stood.

Elias worked briefly as a mailman in Kissimmee and finally bought a small orange grove but a frost destroyed his entire crop and he was stricken with malaria.

The Disney family relocated to Chicago because Elias’ younger brother, Robert had moved there in 1889 and built a hotel in anticipation of the upcoming Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 to accommodate the influx of visitors. That fair was officially named the World’s Columbian Exposition, to commemorate Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America 400 years earlier.

Elias hoped to find work as a carpenter building pavilions for the fair since construction would begin early in 1891. He was hired and was paid a dollar a day, seven days a week. After the fair opened, he found work as a building contractor thanks to that credit on his resume.

So both Walt’s father and uncle were involved with running hotels before Walt was even born in 1901. However, the Walt Disney Company was involved in operating a hotel in Central Florida before Walt Disney World was built.

Orlando attorney Finley Hamilton dabbled in real estate. He paid attention when in 1965 Walt Disney announced he was building an amusement enterprise. He purchased ten acres of palmetto-covered scrub land in April 1968, paying $90,000 for it. People thought he was crazy because it was quite literally in the middle of nowhere and only accessible by a dirt road.

“They called it ‘Finley’s Folly,’ everyone, all my friends,” Hamilton said. “They said it was in the boondocks.”

Finley thought tourists heading to Walt Disney World would see his hotel, exit on Sand Lake Road and head north on his new paved road. He was right. When WDW opened, it was the only hotel between Orlando and Walt Disney World property.

“It turned out to be highly successful. I made a lucky guess. That’s what it amounts to,” said Hamilton who died in 2012 at the age of 89 from complications of pneumonia.

“He quite enjoyed swimming against the current,” said his first wife Virginia “He was extremely intelligent and analytical. He also possessed tremendous foresight.”

A 1949 graduate of Stetson Law School, Hamilton opened a law practice in Orlando but saw a brighter future in construction, land development and the hospitality industry. He served as president of the Young Democrats of Orange County and of the Florida Hotel and Motel Associations. In the early days of tourism, his properties offered more than 1,000 hotel rooms.

His second wife Susan recalled he had a collection of silly hats he wore for fun including one with a lobster on top. “He just had a flair about him,” she said. “He was a little outrageous, but also the most generous, kindhearted man I’ve ever known.”

Hamilton had previously opened a Hilton Inn on West Colonial Drive making him the just the second franchisee of the prestigious Hilton chain. It was so successful that he earned enough to afford a Cadillac limousine and a chauffeur.

He called his new hotel that he built on Sand Lake Road The Hilton Inn South and it opened in May 1970, 17 months before Walt Disney World opened.

Three months later, Hamilton and his partner, Jack Zimmer, bought about 29 more acres of surrounding land for $10,000 an acre. They soon resold the land as hotel sites for up to $200,000 an acre. There were 11 hotels with 3,900 rooms along International Drive by 1973.

The two story, horseshoe shaped Hilton Inn South had 140 guest rooms and a covered pool as well as several meeting rooms.

Because it was so near Disney property, the Walt Disney Company offered to manage it for Hamilton for 16 months until Walt Disney World opened so they could train their staff for the Contemporary and the Polynesian Village resorts specifically.

Hamilton and his partner paved the nearby dirt road. Hamilton wanted to call it “Hamilton Drive” but there was another street by that name in Orlando already so he had to settle for “International Drive”.

“I came up with International Drive because it sounded big and important,” Hamilton said.

There was no overall plan for the International Drive property and they sold whatever size parcels buyers wanted to purchase which accounts for the chaotic nature of the area today.

When the Walt Disney Company determined they would run the WDW resort hotels themselves, Disney executive John Curry was put in charge and he hired about a half dozen managers from Western Interntational who were originally going to run the Polynesian. Marriott would have originally handled the Contemporary. Curry was personally hired by Walt Disney in August 1966 to oversee the hotel division.

Born in Yosemite National Park at Camp Baldy, which was one of a number of park properties his parents operated, Curry grew up helping run the operations after his father died at an early age.

The family’s company was Amfac, the successor to the Fred Harvey Company. Disney met Curry in the 1960s at Yosemite, where Disney was scouting opportunities to build a Mineral King hotel and ski park.

Curry later left Orlando in 1972 for Hilton Head, South Carolina, and soon became president of his own condominium-development-consulting firm.

Harris Rosen who would later go on to become a huge hotel owner in Orlando was then working for Disney as an administrator of hotel planning. One of his responsibilities was to mock up full size models for the front desks of the Contemporary and Polynesian to trouble shoot any problems like the width of the counter.

Dan Darrow was brought in from the Sheraton as General Manager. Bill “Sully” Sullivan who had worked at Disneyland since 1955 and assistant managed the “it’s a small world” attraction at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair was the assistant manager brought in to primarily to teach the proper Disney way of doing things to the hotel people.

As Sully told me in an interview I did with him in 2007:

“I came out in 1969. John Curry was the hotel director at that time. His family ran the hotels in Yosemite and they were very guest-oriented as we were. That was an easy mix. We had leased the Hilton Inn South. It was 110 rooms down here. It was a new hotel, the only hotel on International Drive at the time. We went down and we staffed it and we hired people to run it and all that good stuff.”

“I didn’t have any hotel experience. None at all. But they didn’t have any Disney experience and my job was to teach them how Disney did it. We taught them about training. We taught them about working with people. We taught them about scheduling. Just mostly about how we wanted our guests treated.

“The only one that was a minor problem was the guy that was made the general manager, Dan Darrow was an old-time hotelier and we just had to teach him the Disney way. Dan eventually accepted it and learned it and did quite a good job.

“We wanted to see what was available like laundries and what food was available and employees that were available. We did all that and it proved to be very beneficial for us because we learned where we could buy good meats and where we could buy good vegetables and stuff like that for the hotels. We, of course, did our own laundries, but we hired some great people.”

Although it had been open since 1968, The Hilton Inn South opened May 1970 under Disney management and was the location where Disney executives stayed, as well as Disney transfers who had not found a permanent home yet.

It was also open to the general public but the standards were extremely high because Roy O. Disney himself and other top Disney executives visited frequently and did not hesitate to comment on flaws in service and accommodations. The staff for the resorts was being trained to serve guests as if everyone staying there was a V.I.P. It was a hospitality training laboratory.

As Orlando Magazine writer Edward Prizer later wrote: “The Hilton South was not only a training ground for Disney hotel employees but a social headquarters in Florida for the whole Disney organization. Never was an inn so lavishly staffed nor so meticulously run.

“Garry Reich, one time White House chef, went to work with a team of subchefs in a gleaming new kitchens on the dishes that would be served at the World. For $3.50 you could partake in the candlelit dining room of a buffet that would have done credit to a transatlantic liner.

“The first time we ordered a steak there, we asked for knives. ‘You don’t need them,’ the waitress said. And so right she was. Never had such steaks been served in Central Florida.

“Those were exciting nights at the Hilton South. After an arduous day at the project, the tanned young Californians flocked in and jammed the lounge. Frequently, we joined them and sat under a cypress mural listening to the ragtime of Jim and Marthat Hession…the folk-rock of Don and Sam…the jazz of Norm Schooping. A moveable feast — fondly remembered forever.”

Contemporary Resort chef Joe Mannke and Polynesian Village chef Garry Reich (the personal chef of President Lyndon Johnson) used the kitchen to develop their distinctive menus.

Oddly even though he was an attorney, Hamilton was so excited to be working with the Disney Company that the running of the Hilton Inn South was just a “handshake” deal. No formal lease contracts have ever been located.

Former Disney Archivist Dave Smith told me he looked for one and couldn’t find it. When Walt and Roy were alive, many times they did deals simply with a handshake.

Hamilton claimed in a letter to Disney President Donn Tatum that he suffered an estimated loss of over $50,000 in revenue during the time Disney managed the hotel. Among other things, Hamilton’s Hilton Inn South staff was also servicing the five Bay Hill houses that Disney owned especially for parties and that Disney executives would put things on a “tab” and never pay it.

Hamilton never collected nor sued because he felt that Disney would be a great source of future business and he was in the process of building yet another hotel. In addition, Disney personnel stayed on to help manage and train new employees at the hotel for several months after WDW opened.

The Hilton Inn South was near where the Quality Inn is today.

The Hilton Inn South no longer exists but it was originally in the same general area where the entrance to the Quality Inn on Sand Lake Road is today.

Smith recalled, “To train the cast members who were going to manage our hotels, we leased the Hilton Inn South, on International Drive near Sand Lake Road. At least I assume it was a lease–I have never seen the actual documents. I stayed there on my first trip to Orlando, in June, 1971. They put up most of the traveling Disney executives there, but, of course, at that time there were few other choices nearby.”

While on his trips to Orlando, Roy O. Disney initially stayed at the Hilton Inn South, he and his wife later spent most of their time in a cottage at Bay Hill that the Walt Disney Company built for him.

Recreacres Incorporated was formed around 1968 to help The Walt Disney Company buy property for the Walt Disney World Resort. That company bought the land and Disney built five virtually identical two-bedroom, two-bath ranch-style homes in a cul-du-sac on Lake Tibet at Tibet Bay Drive. Roy and Joe Fowler’s homes were 1,490 square feet each while the other three homes were 1,252 square feet. Both of their homes were the only ones to share a large common driveway as well and their professional relationship and constant interaction developed into a close friendship. Roy and his wife Edna’s home was at 8922 Tibet Bay Drive and Joe and his wife Marguerite’s home was next door at 8928 Tibet Bay Drive. The other houses were at 8910, 8916 and 8934.

These houses were used by Card Walker, Donn Tatum and other Disney executives when they visited from California.

Roy would occasionally host backyard barbeques for Disney executives to improve morale and reward them for their hard work. The chefs, maids and other support staff for the Bay Hill homes were borrowed from the Hilton Inn South.

On October 31, 2001, the Walt Disney Hospitality Recreation Corporation sold all five homes to TBHC Inc., a holding company for the Arnold Palmer Bay Hill Country Club and Lodge.

Two other Central Florida hotels are also significant in Walt Disney World history.

The official confirmation to the press that the Walt Disney Company was building something in Central Florida came on November 15, 1965 at 2 p.m. in the Egyptian Room of the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando, Florida, with Walt Disney, his brother Roy, and Governor Burns in attendance. That hotel no longer exists.

By 8:30 a.m. on April 30, 1969, the parking lot at the luxurious new high-rise Ramada Inn on Highway 50 in Ocoee, Florida, was already filled with cars. News media from all over the world mixed with prominent Florida officials and corporate executives waited for the big event of the Walt Disney Company revealing exactly what was to be built in Florida and when. It was selected not just because it was new but it was close to WDW property where the guests would be taken on a tour of the construction site.