Mysterious empty hallway at Disney World hotel

The always-excellent Passport to Dreams blog (devoted to design analysis and critique of Disney parks) looks at the strange case of the Contemporary Hotel's out-of-place second floor mezzanine, a large and echoing emptiness that was once part of a busy convention space.
Today the Level of the Americas mostly houses a reception area for the California Grill restaurant which supplanted the original Top of the World supper club in 1994. Neo-modern furnishings scatter the handsome wide hallways randomly, sometimes housing guests, slumped in couches like vagrants waiting to be evicted from a train station in a snowstorm. Other times, guests wander aimlessly down those lifeless wide hallways, looking furtively for someone or something that's never there. Since the addition of the new Fantasia-themed convention center wing in the early 1990s designed by Michael Graves, those original Contemporary meeting rooms and banquet spaces seem desolate, remote, and unloved. Very few places in all of Walt Disney World exude the same sense of not belonging as the Level of the Americas. "Is this supposed to be here??"

It wasn't always this way. Convention going was a big part of Walt Disney World's bottom line all through the 70's and 80's, and continues to be so today. All through the first twenty years of the resort, the absolute top spot for Conventions in all of Walt Disney World was the Contemporary, and the cutting-edge Ballroom of the Americas featured a hydraulic stage which could raise or lower and even closed-circuit television linking one ballroom to another. All drenched in 1970's earth tones, full of hustle and bustle and strange geometric patterns. Because nothing says "here and now" like geometry.

Snapshot: Mysteries of the Second Floor

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  1. Richard Nixon delivered his “I am not a crook” speech at the Contemporary, and I’d like to think he still haunts the place.

  2. I’m not getting the location of this space. As the California Grill..and old Top of World Club, are/were located far above the 2’nd floor at the very top level. Is this really on the second floor or at the upper floor.

  3. The article mentioned “The Spirit World” liquor shop. I remember that place, as an 10 year old child I was very disappointed I couldn’t go in because I thought it was a haunted mansion shop.

    I also remember the folks going to the “Top of the World” for shows etc. (I think it was some big names, Bob Hope, Phylis Diller..etc). While the kids got stuck in the basement in the arcade area where they showed movies and served hamburgers. (which was probably more fun for us at the time).

  4. @sam1148 The Level of the Americas is the second level of the main building. Only the check in desk for the California Grill is on this floor. The restaurant itself is on the top floor.

    As for the rest of the level, very barren.

  5. You’d think they use the space for shops, or one of those educational activities that are appearing in Disneyworld these days.

    *SIGH*

    Reading this stuff makes me feel wistful and bitter. I grew up watching The Wonderful World of Color on NBC and tantalizing glimpses of the construction of Disneyworld.

    And it was clear from my parents’ attitudes that we’d never, ever, ever go:

    “Pffft! You couldn’t pay me to go there!”

    “Pffft! I wouldn’t go to the place if it was across the street!”

    So. Family vacations were camping trips to the same soggy campground or the same claustrophobic shack in a black-fly-haunted forest.

    Meanwhile Disneyworld seemed to get more and more exciting through the years. Future World! Epcot! Space Mountain! That futuristic Contemporary Resort loomed particularly large in my imagination. It was like a frigging space station, with a monorail running through it!

    I eventually went to Disneyworld, when Worldcon was held in Orlando. I was around thirty. This was about 19 years ago, but I still remember it fondly.

  6. HOLY CRAP THIS BLOG IS AWESOME. How have I not seen it ’til now?

    Two best dates of my life were at the Top of the World/California Grill.

    First was my first “date”, at age 8, with my friend Adam and our parents during one of our combined-families’-annual-trips-to-WDW. It was a dinner show at Top of the World. All I really remember is the chocolate mousse, and that I got to wear a pretty dress.

    Second was my first trip to WDW with a boyfriend, just a couple years ago, and I’d gotten us reservations at California Grill during the fireworks. We arrived just at sunset and they sat us next to the window. Everything about that night was perfect.

    Contemporary Hotel is one of my favorites, and I’m glad it still has kind of an 70s/80s-view-of-the-future feel to it.

  7. As a child., the Contemporary was always my favorite of the Disney World hotels because it so well fit with how I imagined my life in the future to be. Growing up in the suburbs of NJ, throughout my childhood I had felt like a refugee dropped into a Flintstone’s universe; a cargo cult cartoon parody of a civilization, all made up of sticks, bones, rocks, and animals in squirrel cages only mimicking the real thing -except in that building. Here was the real thing at last. The climate-controlled, car-free, pollution-free, electric-powered urban habitat I just knew we were heading toward. I so desperately wanted to live right in that hotel. It was one of the few vestiges of the original EPCOT architecture, inspired by the urban megastructure concepts of the 1960s. I could so readily imagine it expanded a hundred fold into a whole small city, self-contained for sake of a convenient and social indoor living and a close and pristine natural environment beyond its canyon-like atrium. Long before I ever stumbled onto Paulo Soleri, this seemed logical, rational, to me. But, alas, it would prove another Greek temple on a golf course, doomed to be superseded by Disney’s corporate branding of Michael Grave’s regressive kindergarten aesthetic. I’m amazed it survived the 90s. I guess it was just too iconic. Too close to the futurist aspirations of Disney himself.

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