Twenty-five years ago, on December 20, 1991, the brand-new Disney Vacation Club Resort at Walt Disney World welcomed the first stays by members using their points.
Now called Disney’s Old Key West, the resort was the very first DVC resort.
Let’s take a look back at how this resort came to be, and along with it, how DVC itself came to be.
How Old Key West Came to Be
In the late 1980’s, Disney Chairman Michael D. Eisner unveiled a massive and ambitious ten-year building plan, which included the development of several resorts. He called it The Disney Decade.
Eisner and team looked outside the gates of Walt Disney World and saw a booming business. Orlando had become the timeshare resort capital of the world – an estimated $400 million annual industry in Central Florida. That success was largely because of the presence of Disney, but Mickey wasn’t getting a piece of it.
In the late 1980’s, Disney executives formally recognized that hotel guests were a potential market for the purchase of timeshare products at Walt Disney World. To evaluate this market, Disney used focus groups and quantitative research methods to understand the needs of consumers and gauge consumer reaction. They didn’t want to be associated with the deplorable sales and marketing practices associated with the timeshare business. The big question was: would time-sharing fit the Disney image?
They decided they could develop and market timeshares with a Disney twist. The Disney name lent a level of credibility to their product. “There is a level of trust and expectation from people that we will deliver a quality product”, said Peter Rummell, president of Disney Development Company. To ensure a quality sales staff, some 1,600 prospects would be reviewed before the first 30 salespeople were hired.
Plans for the first DVC Resort
In the summer of 1989, Disney Development selected the 150-acre site they would build their timeshare resort – next to the Lake Buena Vista golf course. Disney used market studies and competitive analysis to prepare a development program and to determine site capacity. Disney would develop 74 acres on this site into their first timeshare resort.
Disney Development asked several architecture firms to submit proposals for the timeshare project and, after a design competition among the finalists, chose Bassenian/Lagoni for the residential portion and Richardson Nagy Martin Architecture to design the Florida project’s clubhouse and sales office. Both firms were based in Southern California.
Disney specified a Key West theme that captured the flavor of an architectural style described as turn-of-the-century Victorian with a lot of Caribbean influence. Atypical of attached housing, the buildings were arranged on the diagonal so that there are windows on three sides rather than just in the front and back of each unit. Since units were designed as a “home away from home”, interiors were to have upscale designs with a casual style.
In January 1990, Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner revealed to the public that Disney planned to sell “shared vacation ownerships” at Walt Disney World. “We didn’t use the word timeshare, not that we’re afraid to use it,” Eisner said. “We’ve hired the best people in the industry to work for us,” he said. “We feel that we can do it in a really attractive, honest and capable way, and we’re very excited about it”.
Construction of Phase I of the Disney Vacation Club resort began in September 1990.
Below is the initial site plan for the resort, later referred to as “Conch Flats”. Notice the “Sales Center” (to the right of building 16), which would be the first of three at Walt Disney World (the second one would be at Boardwalk and the third one at Saratoga Springs). Building 16 would be used as model rooms.
Pre-sales started at $48 per point and rose to $51 per point when sales officially began in October 1991 at the DVC Preview Center (renamed to Commodore House on Dec 20, 1991), a 15,000-square foot sales and marketing center. As a comparison, DVC today charges $140 per point for this resort.
The marketing and sales program was intentionally low key, informative, and professional. Besides the DVC Preview Center, marketing brochures were left for visitors at Disney World’s 9,000-plus hotel rooms. Two booths, one at the Magic Kingdom and one at Epcot Center, also distributed information to those who asked for it.
No gifts or other incentives were offered for visitors to go to the Vacation Club Preview Center and hear the sales pitch. The first 30 minutes of the sales presentation consisted of an informative and entertaining ten-minute multimedia overview about the Walt Disney Company followed by two six-minute video introductions to the key features, benefits, and realities of the Disney Vacation Club.
The rooms and amenities of the resort were positioned as upscale.
Here is a photo from 1992 of the antique yellow bus under the portico at the Commodore House at the Disney Vacation Club resort. This bus was used to transport guests to the sales center and return them to their resort afterwards.
Commodore House had a covered porch that ran the entire length of the building looking over the golf pond. It had rocking chairs and was an elegant setting (and very conducive to selling a luxury timeshare). The porch was accessible from the ground as well as from the interior of the center – so guests could stroll along the porch and enjoy the rocking chairs even during after-hours for the sales center. Your DVC Guide would then walk with you next door to Building 16 to view the models.
With the benefit of Disney’s reputation for quality, a large consumer base, and a new twist on an old product, approximately one in four families who visited Commodore House decided to purchase. Around 1,500 sales were made during the first six months alone (an average sale consisting of 250 points – the minimum was 230 points). Sales in the first year totaled about $50 million. One fantastic perk that new buyers received back then was free theme park admission until Dec. 31, 1999.
The Opening for Members
The Disney Vacation Club Resort opened for members using their membership on December 20, 1991 with just 50 units open, along with Turtle Krawl, the village center, and core recreational facilities, including a main swimming pool and two tennis courts.
The resort continued to open in phases, with phase I completed in August 1992, phase II completed in October 1993, and phase III completed in May 1994. By the end of 1994, the resort was 45% sold.
With the opening of Disney’s Vero Beach Resort in September 1995, the resort’s name needed to change. On January 15, 1996, the Disney Vacation Club Resort was renamed to Disney’s Old Key West Resort.
Final Expansion of OKW
In 1998, Old Key West Resort finally sold out, but then Disney announced a minor expansion. When DVC announced the Villas at the Wilderness Lodge in August 1998, they also announced that the Commodore House DVC Sales Center would be demolished to complete the plans for the resort. OKW buildings 62, 63 and 64 were constructed on the site of the Commodore House.
At that time, the DVC Sales Center was moved to Boardwalk Villas where it remained until sales began for Saratoga Springs in 2003. The WDW DVC sales center has been at the Saratoga Springs location ever since.
Old Key West Resort Today
Old Key West, the original “Disney Vacation Club” resort, with its waterfront village of colorful, clapboard-sided vacation villas, created a new type of accommodation. For the first time, guests had access to an on-property resort with multiple bedrooms, several pools, a general store, various children’s play areas and outdoor barbecue grills.
The first members bought ownership in “The Disney Vacation Club” with no guarantee that additional resorts would ever be built. Yet here we are now with 13 DVC resorts available and certainly more in various stages of design and development.
For more information on Old Key West, see our OKW Resort page.
A look back at the early DVC marketing
Below is a DVC promotional video from 1993 with images of the Disney Vacation Club resort.
See Our Complete DVC History
For a comprehensive telling of the entire DVC story, please refer to our History of DVC section.