Some people love it, some people hate it. Some say it is beautiful and whimsical, while others decry it as a grotesque scar on Mickey's face. The fans of Walt Disney World are a passionate bunch, and there are few places around the House of Mouse with the ability to stir emotions quite like The Dolphin Resort. To understand all this shouting at the wind over a hotel, it's probably best that we take a look not only inside this divisive resort, but at the interesting history which gave us this...
A Tift with Tishman
In the mid-1980's, the new, charismatic CEO of Disney - Michael Eisner - was on a mission to increase the hotel offerings around the Epcot theme park. At the time, Walt Disney World was only home to three resorts, and Eisner was determined to keep more hotel guests under the Mouse's spell. There was just one problem with this plan. Eisner's predecessors had signed an agreement with the Tishman Corporation which gave them the rights to build two hotels in the Epcot area. After a bit of legal wrangling in the courtroom, both sides eventually got their way. Tishman got their hotels, and Eisner got what he coveted more than anything...complete control over the design of the two properties.
The first order of business was to scrap the "refrigerator boxes" Tishman had planned in favor of something more bold and inspiring. Renowned designer Michael Graves was tapped by Eisner to bring what he called "entertainment architecture" to Walt Disney World. The buildings, like everything else in this fantasyland, were part of a larger story. One that brings some much needed context to the design of The Dolphin, which otherwise might seem like something out of a Salvidor Dali painting.
|Pyramid...check. Fountains...check. Six story tall dolphins...check.|
The Dolphin was born thanks to a catastrophic event which sprouted a tropical island in the middle of the ocean. The island was formed so quickly that dolphins - the fish, not the mammal - were stranded out of the water, as represented by the sixty foot tall sculptures on each end of the building. A mountain rose from the center of the island, creating a waterfall which originates from the heart of the peak - the black square in the center - and cascades nine stories down the front of the building. All the while, a lush tropical landscape grew around the base of the mountain, as depicted by the numerous leaves painted across the hotel's base.
|The fountain cascading from the "mountain."|
For over two decades, I've marveled at the puzzling beauty of The Dolphin, oblivious to the story behind this piece of "entertainment architecture." Although it's probably fair to say the majority of Disney fans have no knowledge of the story behind The Dolphin's design, there's no amount of perspective that could change the acrimonious opinions held by many for the hotel. The complaints range from their non-Disney ownership, to the "hideous" design, to the fact that the hotel is visible from inside the Epcot park. While there are plenty of things to be upset about in the world, I have a hard time accepting the sight of a hotel from within a theme park as one of them. The critics are certainly entitled to their opinion, but before forming one of my own, I decided to judge The Dolphin the only way I know how... As a guest.
Inside the Mountain
If there's one thing the critics of The Dolphin can't deny its the resort's incredible location. Come to think of it, I believe that is another entry in their laundry list of complaints; the fact that The Dolphin and its sister property - The Swan - were granted such prominent real estate in the center of Walt Disney World. And while I can see some merit to that point, it's hard to argue against a resort within a short walk - or boat ride - of two Disney parks. Especially when one of those parks is Epcot, after a long day at the Food & Wine Festival.
|Looking down from the hotel's entrance.|
Of course, I learned long ago that the best itinerary for the Food & Wine Festival should include a trip back to the hotel for an afternoon nap. The only problem with this plan when staying at The Dolphin is you have to find a way to pry yourself back out of the Westin Heavenly Bed. That's right. Not only does The Dolphin occupy one of the best locations at Walt Disney World, but inside you'll find arguably the most comfortable bed on the planet. Something you won't find anywhere else at Disney, since the Mouse seems to have a hard time parting ways with their old dingy bedspreads.
|The room and Heavenly Bed|
The Heavenly Bed isn't the only amenity at The Dolphin which can't be found elsewhere at Disney. First, as opposed to the swill which Disney calls coffee, the rooms at The Dolphin come with Starbucks and a single cup brewer. The Dolphin is also home to a true prime steakhouse - Shula's - something Disney tries hard to replicate, but typically falls short on the delivery. Of course, I might be a bit biased given my affection for the Shula's Cut steak. Last but not least, since the hotel is under the Starwood umbrella, frequent travelers will be pleased to know they will receive SPG benefits at The Dolphin. Keep in mind Gold and Platinum members that this is a huge convention hotel, and you're probably far from the only elite member with a reservation. I suggest you read my guide to scoring a hotel room upgrade before you check-in.
|The view of The Swan from our room. We had not one, but two balconies.|
The next morning I got up early and enjoyed an iced coffee under the tent-like ceiling in the lobby. For a convention hotel, the space was surprisingly empty, and all that could be heard was the sound of water from the dolphin clad fountain. As I sat in the comfortable chair, I couldn't help but wonder why there was so much fuss over a clearly great hotel. I pondered the question for most of the ride home until, as usual, MJ gave her insight which brought it all into perspective.
To put it simply, The Dolphin "moved the cheese" of many devoted Disney fans. While I think it is silly to complain about seeing a hotel from inside Epcot, to others it was important to maintain Walt's doctrine that the parks should be fully cut off from the outside world. In addition, during my visit to The Dolphin I had the luxury of learning the history and story behind the hotel's design. For over two decades, I saw it the same way as many others: a giant pink monstrosity topped with six-story tall dolphins and leaves painted on the side. Once I learned the story, not only did it make sense, but it changed my entire opinion of the building. The Dolphin went from being some gaudi out-of-place abstract, to a work of art who's "entertainment architecture" fit perfectly with the surroundings of Walt Disney World.
|Looking up from our balcony.|
While there are many that could never be convinced of The Dolphin's exterior beauty, what goes on inside the hotel is a much easier sell. Between the Heavenly Bed, superior coffee and dining options, and the ability to earn SPG benefits at Disney, The Dolphin embodies a true modern upscale hotel far better than most, if not all, of the Mouse's resorts. Bring in the fact that The Dolphin is within walking distance of two Disney parks, and you've got a combination that's difficult to beat.
Enjoy Your Stay