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Disney's time-share kingdom grows

The Walt Disney Co.'s rapidly growing time-share division takes an aggressive step forward today when it unveils plans for two new resorts in Orlando -- even as Disney Vacation Club battles some of the strongest financial headwinds it has ever faced.

Disney this morning will formally reveal plans for its Bay Lake Tower at Disney's Contemporary Resort, confirming earlier reports that the 15-story tower rising just beyond the Magic Kingdom will be used for time shares. The company also will unveil plans to sell time shares at the Treehouse Villas at Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa, a secluded community of 60 units that is being rebuilt in a forested pocket of Walt Disney World.

The twin announcements ensure that Celebration-based Disney Vacation Club, which has grown to nine resorts and more than 350,000 members, will have more time shares for sale in 2009 than it has ever had before.

Company executives say they are confident of strong demand for their newest resorts despite the slumping U.S. economy, which has eroded consumer spending and made financing for big-ticket purchases such as time shares harder to obtain.

"What we're trying to do, particularly with the resorts that we build on site [at Walt Disney World], is really provide something that's unique, something that you can't get any other place in Central Florida -- and, really, in the world," said Jim Lewis, president of Disney Vacation Club. "With these two resorts, we believe we've done that."

The company is especially optimistic about the roughly 300-unit Bay Lake Tower, which will be linked to the iconic Contemporary Resort by a fifth-floor pedestrian bridge and will feature the first time shares Disney has ever sold within walking distance of the Magic Kingdom theme park. Sales will begin Sunday, with first crack going to existing Vacation Club owners.

"We think it's going to do very, very well," Lewis said. "That is a premium location . . . right across the street -- literally -- from our flagship park."

Disney will command a premium price for that convenience. Lewis said prices at Bay Lake Tower will begin at $18,000 -- the most expensive starting point of any Vacation Club resort. Prices at Disney's Animal Kingdom Villas, which opened its first phase last year, begin just below $17,000.

The 60 elevated homes comprising the Treehouse Villas will be built as a new phase of the Saratoga Springs resort near Downtown Disney. A sales date and prices haven't yet been set.

The Treehouse Villas will open next summer. Bay Lake Tower will follow in the fall.

Although different in size and theme, Disney says both resorts share a similar heritage.

The Contemporary, which was just the second hotel to open at Walt Disney World, is one of the park's most recognizable monuments, with its mammoth, A-frame structure straddling the resort's monorail. The Treehouses have stood in a quiet corner of the park since 1975, used at various times as hotel rooms, Disney Institute housing, and dorms for international student-employees.

Design challenges

When designers first set to work on blueprints for an addition to the Contemporary, concepts ranged from copies of the main hotel to a "George Jetson"-like theme, said Bill Hanus, director of development at Walt Disney Imagineering. But they worried about constructing a building that could be seen as competing with the original. They opted instead to build a crescent-shaped tower, hoping the Bay Lake Tower's curved architecture will complement the angular Contemporary.
There are touches of symmetry: Exterior grooves marking each floor are aligned in both buildings, and a rooftop lounge on the Bay Lake Tower matches the California Grill restaurant on top of the Contemporary.

Inside, designers have made sure to emphasize the views that they hope will ultimately make Bay Lake Tower one of Disney Vacation Club's most sought-after resorts. Rooms will contain nearly wall-length windows that open to views of the Magic Kingdom or Bay Lake. Some bathrooms will even have sliding walls allowing guests to watch fireworks while soaking in tubs.

"It feels like a Tomorrowland building," Hanus said, alluding to the section of the Magic Kingdom that the tower overlooks.

Saving trees

Each of the new Treehouse Villas has been manufactured in sections at a factory in Wingate, Pa., and they are being installed by cranes that lift them over existing treetops. That approach will allow Disney to build modern, 1,200-square-foot homes without damaging the lush, campsite feel that many Disney fans recall, said Jim Durham, vice president of resort projects for Imagineering.

Disney Vacation Club is now scheduled to have space in four time-share resorts for sale in 2009, with Bay Lake Tower and the Treehouse Villas joining the Animal Kingdom Villas and the upcoming Villas at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa at Disneyland in California. It will be the first time the company has had four resorts for sale at once.
Disney is also in the early stages of developing a roughly 800-room resort in Hawaii that will include both time shares and hotel rooms.

"It's certainly going to be challenging," said Jeremy Glaser, a lodging industry analyst with the research firm Morningstar Inc. "I think they'll find buyers, just not at the same speed as they were before."

But Lewis said Disney's investment in Bay Lake Tower and the Treehouse Villas demonstrate its confidence that its time-share business will remain strong.

"During tough economic times, people are really a little bit more receptive to a message regarding how you can save money on future vacations," Lewis said. "Clearly, we're not recession-proof. But we are recession-resilient."

Jason Garcia can be reached at jrgarcia@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5414.

Related topic galleries: Natural Science, Downtown Disney, Recreational and Sporting Goods Industry, Personal Service, Walt Disney, National Government, Hotel and Accommodation Industry

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