Home » Secrets of the Swan & Dolphin: Surprising Stories from Disney World’s Most Unusual Hotels.

    Secrets of the Swan & Dolphin: Surprising Stories from Disney World’s Most Unusual Hotels.

    Some Walt Disney World hotels make you feel like you’re down in ole’ New Orleans strolling through bayous and mansions. Some take you to the grand seaside Victorian hotels of yesteryear. Some place you in the Caribbean for a sun-drenched vacation in a colorful village. But only one of Walt Disney World’s hotels is a post-modern abstraction; a geometric icon of architecture and a divisive remnant of ’90s design somehow elevated to timelessness.

    Say what you will about The Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin, but these two unusual sister resorts set around Crescent Lake near EPCOT are captivating; interesting; different. Today, we’re taking a look at the Origin, Architecture, Legends, and Story behind the Swan and Dolphin. Hopefully by the end, whether you love or hate these two-of-a-kind resorts, you’ll appreciate that Walt Disney World could use a little more of their kind of boldness today… 

    The Origin

    When then-new CEO Michael Eisner inherited planning for Walt Disney World in the mid-1980s, he saw a 40,000 acre property with limitless potential. Walt Disney World had certainly become the “Vacation Kingdom of the World” that Roy Disney had hoped… but more to the point, Disney had transformed the rest of Central Florida along with it. Many of Eisner’s projects in the ’80s – like Pleasure Island and the Disney-MGM Studios – clearly read as the company’s attempts to outplay rivals who elbowed into the Mouse’s crowds, like Church Street Station and Universal Studios. That’s how the Swan and Dolphin came about, too.

    Believe it or not, when Eisner arrived in 1984, Walt Disney World had only two hotels: the Polynesian Village and Contemporary, both of which dated back to the resort’s 1971 opening! Recognizing the tremendous potential Disney had to own the hotel market in Central Florida, construction went into overtime. In 1988, Disney opened the Grand Floridian hotel on the Seven Seas Lagoon, and introduced a new, less-expensive, “Moderate” hotel – Disney’s Caribbean Beach. 

    But even if Disney could capture more Central Florida guests with expanded hotel capacity, there was one crowd they needed more than any other: the convention crowd. Plenty of companies and organizations hosted conventions and seminars in Central Florida… they just weren’t doing it in Disney World’s dated, ’70s facilities. Eisner would change that. Built around a custom-made Boardwalk of evening attractions, the “Convention Kingdom” would insulate professionals within their own sphere of Disney World, all while providing a back entrance into EPCOT for fine dining each evening.

    When the New York-based real estate company Tishman got wind that Disney was courting external partners (architect Alan Lapidus and operator Marriott) to build and manage convention centers, they sued. (Tishman asserted that their role in the construction of EPCOT and two Lake Buena Vista hotels came with a multi-year exclusivity deal, preventing any other outside companies from building hotels on Disney property.) Ultimately, Disney and Tishman settled amicably, and Tishman did indeed take over the construction and operation of two of the “Convention Kingdom’s” hotels… 

    But as the story goes, Michael Eisner wasn’t content with the hotels Tishman planned and negotiated to bring on a world-renowned architect to do something bold…

    The Architect

    Another of Michael Eisner’s “finer things” tastes was his selection of architects. Chappell Ellison of Cartoon Brew wrote a wonderful look into Eisner’s architectural flamboyance, and you certainly can’t argue with the results: iconic buildings like the Disney Feature Animation Building (A.M. Stern), the Team Disney Orlando office (Arata Isozaki), and the Celebration Town Hall (Philip Johnson). 

    But one of the most divisive architects on Disney’s payroll in the era was Michael Graves. A longtime architect, artist, and designer, Grave’s is an icon of post-modern architecture – an intentional rejection of the clean lines and austerity of the ’60s and ’70s.

    Emphasizing colorful facades and playful style, Grave’s most iconic post-modern works are probably the Portland Building (1982) and the Denver Public Library (1995). For Disney, Graves also designed the iconic Team Disney building in Burbank, California – officially today, the Michael D. Eisner Building – with its famous Seven Dwarf caryatid columns (above), the Post Office in Celebration, Florida, and Disney’s Hotel New York at Disneyland Paris.

    Marked by whimsy, symmetry, and geometry, it’s no surprise that Graves’ style (and especially his work for Eisner’s Walt Disney Company) is sometimes called “entertainment architecture.” That made Graves the perfect person to bring to life two iconic hotels within Eisner’s Convention Kingdom… 

    The Architecture

    When asked by Disney historian Jim Korkis in 1997, Graves described how he was chosen for the project, saying, “Michael didn’t like those tall, all-glass buildings. He referred to them as ‘refrigerator boxes.’ He wanted the architecture to tell a story.” Even at first glance, the Swan & Dolphin do.

    Why a swan and a dolphin to begin with? “I wanted creatures that were not part of the existing Disney mythology and hoped as a result they would then be developed further as Disney icons,” Graves told Korkis. “[The dolphins] were inspired by the work of an Italian sculptor, Bernini [and his Fontana del Tritone]. Of course, there is one major change. Bernini’s dolphins had mouths that curved downward and looked like they were frowning. Michael said that wasn’t going to happen on Disney property so I curved the mouths upwards as if smiling.”

    The Swan is made up of a 12-story rectacular tower with a gently-curving roofline, with two 47-foot tall Swan statues (coming in at 60,000 pounds each) drifting atop. Two 9-story wings jut off toward Crescent Lake each adorned with a clamshell.

    The entire property is bathed in a warm, sandy pink with teal, stylized, curving waves radiating out from its center and along the towers – the post-modern pop that gives Graves’ work its whimsy. And between the two accessory towers, the Swan’s main entrance from Crescent Lake is a stylized gazebo blanketed in billowing tents – an ode to beach life in the Sunshine State.

    A causeway through the center of Crescent Lake connects the Swan to its sister, with rising seashell fountains and billowing water. With nearly twice as many rooms, the Dolphin’s most striking feature is its 257-foot tall central triangular tower – a teal ‘pyramid’ rising from its 12-story rectangular core with 56-foot tall nautical dolphins on either side. Four 12-story wings branch from the core. Opposite the Swan’s rolling waves, the Dolphin is covered in paintings of giant banana leaves, fanning out across its towers. 

    The spectacular Square Feet Tours offers a free, hour-long audio tour of the Swan & Dolphin that dives deep into Graves’ intentions with the shapes and colors of the hotels, and even if modern refreshes have scrubbed the colors and textures of the ’90s in favor of more modern, palatable patterns and clean lines, there’s no denying that these two hotels stand out. And even if the postmodern masterpiece doesn’t recreate a specific “place” like the Grand Californian or Wilderness Lodge, there is a story to explain the Swan and Dolphin… On the next page, we’ll explore the lore created by Graves and discuss some famous rumors about these two hotels…

    The Legends

    Even today, the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin are among the most recognizable Disney Hotels… but they aren’t really Disney’s. (They’re still owned by Tishman on a 99-year lease and operated by Marriott. The Swan is part of Marriott’s Westin brand, while the Dolphin is under the Starwood brand.) That’s just the start of the “weirdness” that makes these two on-property resorts in Disney’s “Other Deluxe Resorts” category so captivating… 

    There are no hotels on Disney property subject to as many rumors, urban legends, and “secrets” as the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin… That makes sense. Michael Graves’ ambitious, post-modern design makes these two hotels unlike anything else on property… There’s something hypnotic about a teal pyramid rising over a Crescent Lake; hotels bathed in whimsical patterns and pastels; the artistic interplay of flat swans and not-quite dolphins. The whole thing just begs to conceal a secret or a mystery… So does it?

    The Black Box

    THE LEGEND: The nine-story black square on the face of the Dolphin’s triangular tower doesn’t contain any rooms. It was intentionally left empty so that a future extension of the Monorail could be built through the tower, just like the Contemporary Resort. Disney has added curtains to the windows there to give the illusion of guest rooms, but they never move because that section of the triangle is empty.

    STATUS: FALSE! There’s a lot going on in this legend, and none of it is true. The black box serves a narrative purpose (see “The Story” below) but operationally, the rooms in the nine-by-six room rectangle in the Dolphin’s main tower are no different than any other, except that they provide great, central views of the Swan. There are “fake” rooms at the Dolphin though… The windows above the black box don’t have any guest rooms behind them, leaving the top of the “pyramid” empty.

    Of course, the black box is far too high up to have a Monorail pass through… it would probably be just right for the Skyliner, though. 

    The Dimensional Detail

    THE LEGEND: There’s a subtle, secretive design rule in play at the Swan and Dolphin… At the Swan, any sculpture that a guest can physically touch is designed as a three-dimensional carving (above), whereas any two-dimensional, flat, cut-out design element is intentionally out of guest’s reach. The opposite is true at the Dolphin, where touchable sculptures are flat, and untouchable sculptures are three-dimensional (below).

    STATUS: TRUE… KINDA! Michael Graves himself confirmed that this mysterious design rule is in effect at the Swan and Dolphin. In fact, the iconic outdoor fountain at the Dolphin initially had three-dimensional Dolphins, but Graves believed that they were too large and overwhelmed the facade. As a result, he had the dolphins turned into 2-D “dolphin filets” and, in keeping with his own rule, made the fountain base smaller so that the new, flat dolphins would be within reach of guests. 

    The only reason this legend is “True… Kinda” is that many alterations have been made to the Swan and Dolphin in waves of refurbishment, and it wouldn’t be surprising if an exception to the rule snuck through somewhere. 

    The Swapped Statues

    THE LEGEND: During the placement of the 47-foot tall Swans and the 57-foot tall Dolphins, the statues were accidentally transposed by installation crews. The 60,000 pound Swans were installed atop the hotel that was meant to be the Dolphin, and vice versa. Rather than swapping the statues, it was decided to merely swap the hotel names to match the misplaced statues.

    STATUS: FALSE: The “evidence” used to explain this rumor is a very interesting one: that you can tell that the Swan and Dolphin were swapped because why else would the Swan be painted with rolling ocean waves and the Dolphin with park-like banana leaves? It’s a good story, and it’s easy to understand why it would spread – especially since the real story isn’t recorded anywhere in Disney’s official publications! But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist…!

    The Story

    Michael Graves made no secret of his relative dislike for Disney. In a conversation Jim Korkis had with Yesterland, Korkis recalled Graves expressing that “seeing a four-foot mouse walking around in the parks was just ‘wrong’ as far as he was concerned, and that he had no favorite Disney film.” So when it came time to design a hotel for the resort, he was determined to create his own story rather than leaning into existing mythology.

    Long ago, the sea bubbled to life. In a single night of cataclysm, boiling water and roiling waves overtook the ocean as steam danced across the sky. When the sun rose, a new landmass had arisen from below – a tranquil island born from the violence of an underwater volcano. That island is the Walt Disney World Dolphin. The entire hotel represents the uplifted earth now covered in foliage (the banana leaves), while the central green tower is the island itself, its heart (the “black box”) burst forth from the violent formation. Water cascades from the island’s heart (via clamshell fountains) while two dolphins were caught in the island’s formation and lifted from the water.

    Following the flow of water from the island’s heart, the causeway that connects the Dolphin to the Swan is lined with railings and landscaping that resemble waves, moving outward from the newly formed island. The waves along the Swan’s exterior represent the effects of the Dolphin’s formation, splashing against a rocky island nearby. According to Graves’ story, two birds were so transfixed by the island’s epic appearance, they were caught in its gravity and forever turned to stone. 

    Obviously unlike, say Port Orleans or Caribbean Beach, the Swan and Dolphin aren’t bringing a literal place to life. They’re abstractions, and likewise, the “backstory” to explain them is more parable than practical. Even so, it only adds to the mystery of these two monumental designs and the legends they inspire…


    Altogether, the Walt Disney World Swan and the Walt Disney World Dolphin are unique. They were born of a bold, brash mindset held by Michael Eisner at Walt Disney World’s most voraciously ambitious time.

    They were designed by the legendary Michael Graves, whose design practically begs to be either loved or hated – a very brave thing to add to Disney World in and of itself.

    And because the Swan and Dolphin are so different from anything else at the resort, they’ve become true landmarks, bolstered by legends and stories – some of which are true! – that add to the mystery and draw of two very, very strange sister resorts. They’re unusual. And that in and of itself makes them vastly different from anything Disney would attempt to build today – and that alone is worth celebrating.