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Getaways: Disney World’s Contemporary Resort Lives up to its Name

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027homespunweb.jpgRISMEDIA, Feb. 7, 2008-(MCT)-Here’s good news for all of us who are still collecting birthdays. You can be 36 years old and as cool as you were at 18 or 20. Walt Disney World’s Contemporary Resort proves it.

One of the two Disney hotels that opened with the park in 1971 (the Polynesian Resort was the other), the A-frame Contemporary is aiming to be fabulous at 40 and further. An ongoing facelift has erased its garish `60s room decor and is adding 21st-century atmosphere and attractions.

“Every space will be touched,” Kevin Myers, vice president of resort operations for Disney World, says of the work expected to continue into 2009. (Room updates are complete.)

Two drawing cards from the beginning-the monorail trains that hiss through the hotel’s soaring atrium and the Contemporary’s primo location just two minutes by train or five minutes by footpath from the Magic Kingdom-will be unchanged. Also ticketed to infinity and beyond is the Mary Blair ceramic mural of pueblo children that leaps 90 feet from the Concourse floor to the atrium ceiling.

A mastermind was at work here.

“Walt had his hands on the design for the property,” Myers says. Although Disney died in 1966 before construction began, “He would have known where things were to be placed.”

Considered the least-themed of the Disney World resorts, the Contemporary would feel like the convention hotel it can be (90,000 square feet of exhibit and meeting space) were it not for its kind staff and the Mouse spirit that spills from Chef Mickey’s, a prime venue for character meals. Before the breakfasts and dinners at which the cartoon stars in costume mingle with children and their families, stroller gridlock and happy excitement are added proof that all is not business at the Contemporary.

What’s amazing is that even with the cavernous atrium, the hubbub of diners and the swooshing trains are all but inaudible in the 385 generously sized guest rooms in the 15-story tower. (The detached South Garden Rooms offer another 270 units in low-slung wings. The North Garden Rooms were demolished in early 2007. Although Disney hasn’t announced plans publicly, reports in the Orlando Sentinel and documents on file with local government indicate that a 15-story tower is being built on the site, possibly with suites to be available through the Disney Vacation Club, a buy-points-to-lodge plan.)

Thick carpet, drapes with liners, pillowed suede headboards and rich bedding in standard rooms seem to soak up noise that might seep into each soothing cocoon. Gone are the primary colors in modernistic designs that Imagineers of 40 years ago deemed contemporary. The busy patterns and self-conscious chic have been replaced by restful creams, beiges and taupes set off by moss tones, dark wood and subtle stripes in fabrics.

Most rooms have two queen beds and a day bed and can sleep five. In a show of mercy to families and budget-minded travelers, a refrigerator and coffee maker are provided, and cereal and milk are available in the sundries store on the Concourse.

Business travelers or laptop junkies aren’t forgotten. A roomy work area provides good lighting, a pullout table for added space, a comfortable desk chair, two data ports and free Internet access.

Above a faux fireplace emitting a soft glow is a flat-screen television. On a higher shelf (perhaps beyond little hands) are decorative ceramic vases.

Sliding doors to the bathroom and a separate toilet nook save space but don’t lock. The bathroom’s beige marble floor and brown-and-white marble tub and shower are handsome. But the new twin sinks are large, shallow squares that leave little vanity space, don’t drain as readily as bowl styles (aim carefully when you gargle) and are barely deep enough for rinsing small items.

Towels hang on a brushed metal rack across the room from the tub. Forget your towel, and you skate on wet feet to get it.

Tower rooms on the Seven Seas Lagoon side of the resort overlook a parking lot, but also the nearby Magic Kingdom. Their balconies offer wonderful views of nightly fireworks. On the tower’s other side, rooms have a view of Bay Lake, the marina and the large swimming pool.

The glorious vistas are reserved for the award-winning California Grill atop the hotel. The market-minded American dishes from the open kitchen are creative and full of flavor, the setting sunny and sophisticated. Diners can go onto the roof’s walkway after dark to watch fireworks at the Magic Kingdom or rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, east across the central Florida flatland.

Although the California Grill is expensive, it is the park’s most popular place to dine, according to the 2007 Zagat Walt Disney World Insider’s Guide.

“It’s our flagship restaurant,” says Rick Sylvain, Disney World media director.

The Concourse Steakhouse often is busy but, nonetheless, is expected to go away during renovations. A new restaurant, The Wave, is expected to open on the first floor this summer.

The Grab and Go fast-food eatery has moved to the fourth floor. Such quick-bite spots can be a money-saver for families. At the recently closed first-floor site, a generous serving of tuna salad was enough for sandwiches to satisfy two small appetites, and the tab (lettuce and tomato included) was about $5.

Club and concierge rooms on the 12th and 14th levels offer personal service, serene lounge areas open to guests on those floors only, continental breakfast and snacks, Mickey Mouse cupcakes among them. Some guests never spot the health club and beauty salon on the tower’s third floor or laundry facilities in the garden complex.

With four theme parks a monorail ride away and the Downtown Disney entertainment area on the bus route, it’s not surprising that attractions at the hotel are limited.

Young people have the new Game Station arcade. A freshened kids’ play area across from the registration desk offers Disney films on a big screen. People taking a cooling break from the parks have that rambling swimming pool studded with slides, spouts and plenty of lounge area. Fishing or other water sports excursions depart from the marina. And there’s always the lure of Concourse lounges-with-a-view, or the calm of your tower balcony.

The BVG shop (Bay View Gifts) is a glass cube stocked with Disney-logo apparel, character toys and collectibles. They’re a far cry from the “Saturday Night Fever”-style polyester clothes, enamel wear and pottery sold in 1971.

From the beginning, the Contemporary Resort has been novel.

It was assembled like a dresser with drawers. Rooms, constructed offsite, were brought to a prepared steel framework and slipped one by one into place.

It was thought that when the time came to refurbish a room, the module could be pulled out, redecorated then pushed back into place. But settling ground scuttled that plan-the “drawers” essentially are stuck.

Current renovations are being done gradually to minimize disruption for guests, and changes won’t be allowed to go too far.

“Guests came here as a child with parents and grandparents,” says Thea Sargent, general manager. “They have traditions here. We have to be careful to preserve traditions.”

But, she adds, “The generations of the future will have different desires and needs. We’ll always evolve.”

Then and Now: How Contemporary Resort has evolved:

Now: refrigerator
Then: ice bucket

Now: coffee maker in room
Then: room service

Now: 32-inch LCD flat screen TV
Then: analog TV

Now: laptop-size electronic safe
Then: lock the door

Now: clock radio with iPod adapter
Then: clock radio

Now: earth tones in soothing solids or stripes
Then: primary colors in eyeball-rattling geometric patterns

Now: array of Disney souvenirs and collectibles
Then: Mickey Mouse ears, one style

Now: The Concourse, evolving
Then: Grand Canyon Concourse

Now: Steakhouse Platter (breakfast) with two eggs, French toast, bacon, sausage, potatoes and biscuit, $11.99
Then: The Grand Canyon with juice, two eggs with bacon, ham or sausage, toast or croissant, jam, beverage, $1.95

Now: California Grill gourmet restaurant atop building
Then: Top of the World restaurant and dinner show

Now: Oak-fired filet of beef in California Grill, $35
Then: Midnight sirloin strip steak at Top of the World, $3.95

Now: rooms from $270 per night
Then: $30 per night

© 2008, The Dallas Morning News.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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