Preserving a Masterpiece…The Battle to Save the Polynesian Resort Waterfall

Written by Keith Mahne. Posted in Features

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Published on May 23, 2014 at 2:00 am with 22 Comments

The Polynesian Resort is one of two Disney World hotels that began operation on October 1, 1971. It is here that guests find themselves immersed in a tropical paradise. The resort originally opened with 492 rooms and has a South Seas theme reminiscent of 1950s style Polynesian hotels that Walt Disney and his wife Lillian often enjoyed. Welton Becket and Associates took care of the design while US Steel Realty Development handled the construction.

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In fact, United States Steel used a then newly developed construction process for its original longhouses by erecting steel frames on-site followed by lifting pre-constructed modular rooms into these frames via cranes, similar to the process used for Disney’s Contemporary Resort.

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Guests are enticed to visit by brightly-lit tiki torches, luscious vegetation, and the soothing sounds of the waterfront that create the perfect escape from the real world. The real centerpiece of the resort is found in the lobby area and welcomes visitors with a three-story rock and waterfall fountain that is truly captivating.

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Imagineer and Disney Legend Fred Joerger created the beautiful atrium. Fred’s ability to create gorgeous rockwork out of plaster led to his reputation as Imagineering’s “resident rock expert.” Among his creations are the huge stones featured on the Jungle Cruise and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. In fact, he designed and constructed mostly all of the rockwork for Walt Disney World for its 1971 opening, including the breathtaking waterfall featured in the Polynesian Resort. This waterfall has found a special place in the hearts of many over the years and has become the centerpiece of the resort.

You may have heard several months back, the rumors that Disney was going to break ground on its newest addition to Disney Vacation Club (DVC), which I, myself am a new member. After the recent addition of the Villas at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort, which is our home resort, I was thrilled to learn that another DVC add-on was about to emerge at the Polynesian, making every hotel on the Magic Kingdom monorail loop a part of DVC. Then came this…

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Word came down that the spectacular waterfall centerpiece was under threat. Walt Disney World president George Kalogridis officially announced that the Polynesian Resort will be refurbished to accommodate the Disney Vacation Club expansion. It is said that because of the new additions, traffic in the lobby is expected to increase and the iconic centerpiece of waterfalls, pools and exotic flora will now be removed. I am heartbroken. So many memories…that oddly fantastic smell that immediately brings back childhood memories of past trips…the real centerpiece of the resort, I realized, will soon be gone forever. I felt I had to do something.

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So I started a petition to save the Polynesian waterfall area. As of this moment we have over 1,700 signatures. This petition is not meant to divide people as I know there are some that welcome change, as I often do in certain situations that I believe call for it. It’s actually meant to bring people together as a way to hopefully get management to realize the connection many of us have with it. I realize Walt wanted his parks to always be in a state of becoming and not a museum. But Walt also believed in a simple concept, as stated in his original Epcot film, that “whatever worked became the code. Whatever failed to meet the public’s needs was changed, replaced by a better idea.” The key word here is “better”. If you’re familiar with Walt’s term “plussing” then you’ll know that what is happening to the waterfall area seems to be the exact opposite. I could be wrong, but from the new design a big part of what makes the Polynesian tropical is about to be torn out for something bland and soulless. Here are some comments left by supporters on the petition page:

“The lobby of the Polynesian Resort is a wonderful treasure, created by Disney’s legendary Imagineers, and unique–it does not appear at any other Disney hotel. It is important to both the heritage of the Walt Disney Company, as well as the many guests who revere the Polynesian Hotel for its welcoming lush recreation of a far-away place. Without the lush vegetation and the waterfall in the lobby it will lose the unique qualities for which its customers return. Rather than pleasing customers with your proposed redesign, you will do nothing but disappoint them.”

“I’ve only been to Disney World 3 times since 2008 but my first visit to the Polynesian was on my last trip. I fell in love with it as soon as I walked in the door. It’s like stepping onto a beautiful island! My 11 year old daughter and I constantly talk about how we would LOVE to be able to stay there one day. For now, we are glad to be able to stay at value resorts and visit the deluxe resorts for meals and exploring. Please do not destroy the beautiful lobby!”

“I grew up in Hawaii so I brought my daughters to the Polynesian so they could get a feeling of my childhood. The first thing we did when we arrived was take several pictures in the lobby. All around the gorgeous waterfall. It makes the resort! I will be saddened if you remove it and have open space. I understand the need to change the lobby, but please don’t remove the waterfall!”

Recently, construction walls have started to pop up around the waterfall. I have been told since starting the petition that the real reason for its removal is that it has literally been corroding and destroying the surrounding foundation of the Great Ceremonial House lobby over the years from the moisture and humidity it creates being inside.

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If this is the case and there really isn’t any other choice then for it to be removed, I ask that another design be created which incorporates something similar to what many of us have come to love. There are hundreds of hotels that feature a water theme in their lobbies so I’m sure there are ways to fix and refurbish it safely. But this is Disney we are talking about and I believe it can be saved or at the very least they can create a new design that features something similar to the current, welcoming lush recreations of Polynesia.

If you would like to be part of our attempt to save the Polynesian resort waterfall area,  you can find our petition here on Change.org. Word is definitely spreading as I was recently interviewed by the Orlando Sentinel. You can also read more articles by me and others on our site Disney Avenue and our new Disney Avenue Facebook page where we will continue to post updates and any response we receive from the company. The Polynesian Resort motto is Aiita Peatea, which means “There will be another day tomorrow, just like today.” Whatever tomorrow brings for the resort lobby, we will always have our memories to look back on and new ones to create. I appreciate your time and support in helping us save the Polynesian Resort waterfall. Please let us know how you feel in the comments below.

About Keith Mahne

Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and producer of Disney Avenue and the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true everyday. Keith is proud to be a part of the MiceChat family.

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  • NashSmartGuy

    One thing that folks may not be considering is that indoor water features such as this have the potential for harboring legionella (which causes Legionnaire’s Disease). I’m sure that the water is treated and that Disney has protocols for preventing this, but there is a risk. For this reason, most hospitals no longer have indoor water features.

  • Buffett Fan

    There are indoor water features in It’s a Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Land, The Mexican Pavillion, etc, etc. (many of which the guests come in contact with.)
    The Waterfall makes the Polynesian. The Tiki Torches make the Polynesian. The rooms really are nothing special (from a design standpoint), the beach no longer allows swimming (which is the correct decision).
    There are three hotels atriums that really stand out to me at WDW (I’ll confess that I have not visited all of the properties)–Polynesian, Contemporary, and Animal Kingdom.
    Rebuild the Waterfall or even build two waterfalls, if it is absolutely necessary for guests to traverse directly through the lobby. (In this design, make the path curved and have a bridge cross a “stream” between the two waterfalls.
    The new concept is not terrible, but the Waterfall is about the Sight, the Smell, the Feel (yes, the humidity) and the Sound.
    Thanks for championing this cause, I signed the petition last week!

  • michael darling

    Great points^^^

  • davidrusk

    I too wish the waterfall would remain. When we fans try to change what Disney has decided to do it reminds me of an elephant walking along a path with small ants biting at his legs. He doesn’t even notice and what’s worse doesn’t care.

  • Disney_Dad

    I have loved the Polynesian ever since my first visit in 1982. The waterfall is so important to the theme and feel of the resort and its removal would be a tremendous loss. I do wish they would keep it or, if there is a problem with damp, rebuild it from scratch. If crowds in the lobby are a problem set up a separate reception area for DVC elsewhere in the resort.

  • disneypafrank

    Some of the cited rumors don’t make much sense to me. The conversion to DVC villas will undoubtedly reduce the number of rooms even taking into account the new water villas, more guest traffic doesn’t wash. Of course, there will likely be a short term increase in traffic from people coming to check out the changes. As for the potential damage to the structure from the water fall, how could they know that? There hasn’t been any core sampling in the lobby which would indicate a problem. My guess is that having a water fall is somewhat costly and removing it will reduce some of the operating/maintenance costs. Too bad, losing the water fall is losing a treasure from the earliest days of the world. The sounds from the water fall makes a very nice background in the lobby.

  • Edward Allen

    Thanks for this report, Keith, but I am not hopeful at all. This is very similar to the situation at the Disneyland Hotel when it was announced that the spectacular waterfalls in front of the Bonita Tower would be leveled. Many people were outraged and protested loudly but…………………..the SOBs went ahead and destroyed them anyway. I’m still angry. Let’s hope something can be salvaged at the Polynesian. As you stated, if the waterfalls in their present form are taken out, something BETTER should take their place, Let’s hope so.

    Stay well. Over and out.

  • ChrisNJ

    The main reason for the water/foliage in the lobby was to set the scene. Remove it and you have just another lobby.

    Hopefully someone will step in and make the space fresh again and also retain the character of the original design.

  • solarnole

    Disney is all about saving money now. The new lobby looks like it will have 90% less water and plants and will be much cheaper to maintain but I’m sure the price that the guest pays will go up.

    They could had built bridges and walkways around it if they really needed to get more people through the lobby. Disney is all about packing them in and paving over its history to chase an extra penny.

  • Ravjay12

    I think the purpose of the new design is to open up the area a little to give the illusion of a grand space. It looks real modern and nice to me. I’m a little surprised they couldn’t incorporate at least an aquarium or something. Maybe the upkeep on a large waterfall is just too much.

  • Haven

    Humidity ruining the lobby? In Florida???? Come on.
    It looks like the new lobby is another knock off of Wilderness Lodge & Animal Kingdom Lodge with a Tiki man centerpiece to differentiate it. I say leave the waterfalls.

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