Disney’s BoardWalk Architecture Recalls a Golden Era of American Styles

Filed in: Walt Disney Imagineering, Walt Disney World Resort Hotels

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Time was, families gathered at Atlantic
beach towns to stroll the boardwalks in search of entertainment.
That was just about a century ago, in the golden era of amusement
parks, when Ferris wheels and carousels were set out on vast piers
protruding into the Atlantic Ocean. It was a giddy, innocent era, a
time when lively games of chance and penny arcades lured in
youngsters and adults alike.

The offerings along the boardwalk were both honky-tonk and
glamorous, and for anyone who went there, the memories were
indelible.

For Disney’s BoardWalk, New York architect Robert A.M. Stern
chose to conjure up a host of those seaside recollections and put
them together in one place. Thus, this resort seems to be an urban
seaside village that grew and changed over the first decades of the
20th century, as if no single hand crafted it.

“The theory behind Disney’s BoardWalk is that the Second World War
marked a decisive change in American architecture,” says Stern, an
authority on American architectural styles who is also the
architect of the nearby Disney’s Yacht Club Resort and Disney’s Beach Club
Resort and one of the master planners of Disney’s town,
Celebration. “Disney’s BoardWalk is intended to look as if it evolved
over time.”

Thus, though it has a specific idea behind it — to recall the
pleasures of the old Atlantic beach towns — and a general time
frame, Disney’s BoardWalk is not intended to express a single idea.
Rather, its architecture — which draws on a host of late 19th and
early 20th century sources from the Victorian to the Vienna
Secessionist movement — is really about both nostalgia and
imagination.

Most Disney hotels conjure up images of another time and place,
the past compressed and simulated. They are stage sets, not
reproductions, and Disney’s BoardWalk is no exception. Its
architecture is cinematic and episodic — like a walk through a
movie and its many sequels.

Disney’s BoardWalk is a colorful complex of buildings, with
types of accommodations — the more intimate Disney’s BoardWalk
Inn, with 378 rooms, and Disney’s BoardWalk Villas, featuring 520
Disney Vacation Club villas. There is an ice cream parlor, a piano
bar (with dueling pianos), and a big dance hall (“very 1930s in
inspiration,” says Stern). The swimming pool is a gesture to the
elegant Luna Parks that were built in a number of cities in the
earliest decades of the century.

Also, as an ode to the earliest American amusement parks,
Disney’s BoardWalk is home to a number of artifacts of the era.
There is an authentic miniature carousel designed in the 1920s by
premier carousel craftsman M.C. Illions as well as a vintage scale
model of the Flip Flap, the world’s first loop-the-loop roller
coaster.

Disney’s BoardWalk completes an ode to America’s early Atlantic
beach resorts by Disney and architect Stern.

The resort sits across Crescent Lake from the paired Disney’s
Yacht Club Resort and Disney’s Beach Club Resort, completed in 1990.
While those hotels also were inspired by the turn-of-the-century
oceanside resort, they each allude to a different style and a
different place. Disney’s Yacht Club Resort — a sedate and rather
natty structure that would not be out of place in New England — is
after the shingle style. The more casual Disney’s Beach Club Resort
is what architectural historians term the stick style, the term for
the sprawling wooden buildings built between the 1880s and the
1920s.

With the arrival of Disney’s BoardWalk, more tourist history is
revived and reinvented — in a three-dimensional tribute to the
beginnings of the last century.

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