Walt Disney World Memories: The Magic of Making the First Disney Resort Hotels

April 1, 2023 , ,

From the Disney Parks Blog and written by: Disney Parks Blog

Throughout the 50th Anniversary celebration of Walt Disney World, we’ve been sharing some of our favorite memories from the resort’s history, like the dedication of Magic Kingdom Park by Roy O. Disney and the creation of fan-favorite attractions and transportation vehicles by retired Walt Disney Imagineer and Disney Legend Bob Gurr. While the 18-month event will soon be coming to a close, we’re continuing to celebrate the lasting impacts cast members have made at Walt Disney World for more than 50 years.

One of these inspiring minds behind the magic is Howard Roland, a former cast member who played a major role in building the first two resort hotels at Walt Disney World: Disney’s Contemporary Resort and Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. As someone who grew up staying at Walt Disney World Resort hotels, I’ve always been dazzled by the way they welcome you into the story with their immersive theming and expert-level attention to detail, so imagine my excitement when I had the opportunity to sit down with Howard during the 50th Anniversary celebration and hear firsthand about how our earliest Disney resort hotels were brought to life.

Howard’s Disney story began in 1968 when he penned a letter to Roy Disney himself asking to join the Disney team. He had just helped open two hotels in Santiago, Chile, and was looking for his next challenge in the hotel industry. On his flight back to the U.S., Howard was inspired by what he read about the newly announced plans to build Walt Disney World in Central Florida and in a moment of ambition, decided to write his letter to Roy. Little did he know that would be the first step in an incredible journey.

“Everything about the project was so interesting,” he recalled. “I addressed the letter to Roy because it was the only name in the company I had.”

After being brought onto the team by John Curry (Disney’s first-ever hotel executive) as a hotel planning manager, Howard was assigned the monumental task of bringing the iconic Contemporary Resort and Polynesian Village Resort to life. With detailed engineering plans from United States Steel Corporation and grand visions from WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering) in hand, Howard moved to Florida to make the designs a reality.

Left: John Curry, John Hench, and Richard Irvine inspect the Contemporary Resort model in 1969.
Right: Disney’s Contemporary Resort under construction. 

For the next two years, Howard worked feverishly to get everything up and running. He had no roadmap for his entirely new role as the first hotel planning manager for Disney, so it was up to him to create it. He learned on the go while traveling the country to hire hotel staff, all the while monitoring the production of the hotel rooms in the steel plant, ordering appliances and everything in between.

Along the way, Howard met a number of cast members who inspired him and his work, including two Disney Legends and Imagineers: John Hench, a Disney studio artist-turned-Imagineer, and the famous artist Mary Blair, whom he first met in a jet hangar in St. Louis where she sat drawing the iconic mural that still graces the lobby of Disney’s Contemporary Resort today.

Left: Mary Blair’s iconic mural in the lobby of Disney’s Contemporary Resort.
Right: Mary Blair stands in with the tiles that make up her mural. 

“I always had respect for Mary, and for John for letting her be creative in her own way and do her own thing,” Howard said.

We know how much guests love the rich theming and storytelling of our Disney Resort hotels and we continue to find ways to honor that legacy while bringing new magic to life to enjoy during their stays. If you step into the lobby at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, you’ll find Mary Blair’s original mural on display as well as new design elements inspired by her unique artwork, and the design accents at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort continue to draw inspiration from Polynesia, which inspired Howard’s own designs.

To complete these one-of-a-kind properties, more engineers and specialized experts were eventually brought in to help finish the construction and open the hotels alongside Magic Kingdom Park on October 1, 1971. While Howard moved into a new role in purchasing before the resorts’ completion, he and the visionaries he worked alongside — like John Hench, Mary Blair and many others — were instrumental in the completion of the project.

Left: Construction of Disney’s Contemporary Resort in November of 1970.
Right: Construction of Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort in 1971.  

As he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming vice president of purchasing & contract services, Howard worked on many other high-profile projects including the opening of EPCOT and Disneyland Paris.

Looking back, he still feels that building Disney’s Contemporary Resort and Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort — and paving a way through uncharted territory — are some of his proudest achievements. Thanks to the passion and ingenuity of Howard and his colleagues, these became the first in a long list of innovative, boundary-pushing projects carried out by dedicated cast members over the 50-year history of Walt Disney World.

Howard Roland today, holding one of his many mementos that honor his Disney career.

Next time you’re at Magic Kingdom Park, see if you can spy Howard’s name printed on a window on Main Street, U.S.A. above Casey’s Corner — a special recognition that he received in honor of his service to Disney. Each current and former cast member whose name is represented on these windows has their own incredible stories, and I’m honored to help tell Howard’s as we look back on our resort’s 50-year legacy. The next time I stay at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, I’ll have an even greater appreciation for the magic and history that comes along with it.

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