Modular Construction And The Magic Kingdom

Image Credit: Brian Kendig

Walt Disney World’s Contemporary Resort
Image Credit: Brian Kendig

In previous blog posts we’ve talked about how modular construction has been emerging as a popular building method in the commercial construction industry. Places like New York City are experiencing a modular boom with projects like the Stack, My Micro NY project and the Atlantic Yards B2 tower and modular and prefabricated construction was one of our Top Five Commercial Construction Trends For 2014. I knew that modular and prefab construction is not some new concept, Sears Roebuck was shipping out mail-order prefab home kits at the beginning of the 20th century, but I’ve always been curious about its early uses for larger, multi-story commercial construction projects.

Early last week my wife and I were both home from work due to inclement weather in our area. I was at the kitchen table doing some work on my laptop while she was on the couch doing some grad school work and watching a program on the resort hotels at Walt Disney World. For me it was just background noise and I wasn’t really paying attention until they started talking about the construction of the Contemporary Resort. In case you don’t know, the Contemporary is the A-frame hotel that has the monorail running through the middle of it. My ears perked up when they mentioned that both the Contemporary Resort and the Polynesian Village were both built using modular construction.

Remember we’re talking about a 14-story hotel with hundreds of guest rooms being built using modular construction in 1969. Even more impressive was the fact that the Polynesian and the Contemporary used different methods to place the completed room modules once they arrived at the site from the assembly plant. For the Contemporary, the steel frame and elevators were erected and the room modules were slid into place and then were cemented together and welded to the frame. For the Polynesian, the modules were stacked on top of each other three units high and then connected together.

The construction of these two original resorts at Walt Disney World was a collaboration of Disney’s WED Enterprises, the architect firm of Welton Becket & Associates and U.S. Steel’s USS Realty Development Division. The guest rooms were built at a factory located three miles from the resort in an assembly-line fashion and then loaded onto trucks and hauled to the construction site. The steel-framed guest rooms came complete with everything installed including plumbing, electrical, carpeting, room furnishings, bathroom fixtures, lighting, doors, air conditioning and wallpaper. Once the modular units were placed an interlock system was used to connect all the plumbing and utility lines.

I located a press release from U.S. Steel dated April 30, 1969 which stated that construction of the two resorts would be the “world’s first major use of steel framed unitized or modular construction.” The press release went on to state that that the rooms “will each weigh approximately six tons – far less than the 30-ton modular hotel rooms that have been built using other construction materials.” U.S. Steel also used stacked modular construction to build the Court of Flags Resort in Orlando in 1972.

Just like modular construction today, the thought was that this type of construction method would save both time and money. Unfortunately, this was not the case for the two Disney resorts. Each room was initially estimated to cost about $17,000 by U.S. Steel, but ended up costing over $100,000 each. That’s over $577,570 in 2014 dollars. Installation of the units at the Contemporary didn’t go as smoothly as planned. In the end, two cranes had to be used to alternately slot the rooms into place on either side of the hotel to keep the steel frame from shifting too far off balance.

I also came across another hotel that used modular construction and predates the two resorts at Disney and is probably an example of the “30-ton modular hotel rooms” referenced in the U.S. Steel press release. The Hilton Palacio del Rio in San Antonio was built for and across the street from the site of HemisFair ’68, which was the 1968 World’s Fair. The hotel, which was built by the H.B. Zachry Company and designed by Cerna & Garza Architects, took only 202 working days to design, build and occupy. The rooms were precast offsite using lightweight structural concrete and each room weighed 35 tons. According to a 1968 press kit, each room was “fully decorated, including color TV, AM/FM radios, beds, carpeting, bottle openers, automatic coffee makers, ash trays, etc.”

The first four floors of the 21-story hotel were built using conventional construction methods and the 21st floor was constructed of light steel. Floors five through twenty were made of the concrete modular units that were welded together once in place and it took only 46 days to place the 496 modular rooms. The tail section of a Sikorsky helicopter was attached to the top of each room in order for an operator to control and maneuver the room into place once it was lifted with a crane. Apparently Mr. Zachry and his wife rode on the balcony of the first room that was lifted into place.

While large-scale modular construction projects didn’t achieve the “wide adaptability in meeting the needs of the growing population” that U.S. Steel was hoping for in the 1970s, these projects laid the groundwork for projects today by proving that this type of construction could last. Both the resort hotels at Walt Disney World and the Hilton Palacio del Rio are still in use today. Sadly, the Court of Flags Resort was demolished in 2006.

Bonus Fact #1: A common myth widely circulated about the Contemporary Resort is that the rooms were designed to be removable. This way when it came time to renovate a room they could be unplugged and taken offsite to be retrofitted but because they shifted and settled into the frame they could no longer be removed. This is completely false. There is no mention in the press release from U.S. Steel stating that the rooms were intended to be removed at any time after they were slotted into place. This would have been a very costly endeavor and would have involved disconnecting all plumbing and utilities, cutting all welds holding the units to the steel frame, demolishing the balcony and placing a crane onsite each time a room needed to be renovated.

Bonus Fact #2: President Richard M. Nixon delivered his infamous “I am not a crook” speech to the Associated Press Managing Editors Association at their annual convention on November 17, 1973 in the ballroom of the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World.

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