Since the Walt Disney Company imported its brand from Anaheim, California to Orlando, Florida, in 1971, its themed empire has become synonymous with the family vacation. A trip to Disney World is a childhood rite of passage, and, for some adults, akin to the fulfillment of a religious pilgrimage. But over the decades, other entertainment enterprises have edged in for a piece of the action, and now 62 million tourists flock to Orlando'the most-visited U.S. destination'every year. Comcast, which owns Universal Parks & Resorts, has played aggressively, winning significant market share. Contributing to Universal's expansion is the recent arrival of Diagon Alley, its second Harry Potter'themed attraction. Also making an impact is the nearby Cabana Bay Beach Resort, a sprawling, fanciful, midcentury-themed family hotel designed by Miami-based Shulman + Associates that, with 1,800 rooms, is Universal Orlando's fourth and largest such facility.
Approaching this massive project, Shulman riffed on his deep knowledge of midcentury hotel design. “The most important component, which we elevated to the major organizing feature, was the pool deck,” he says, referring to the ubiquity of this element as lifestyle space in the postwar era at Florida institutions from Miami's luxurious Fontainebleau to the smallest motel on the strip in Sunny Isles Beach. Traditionally, follies were scattered around this sheltered area'shade structures, diving platforms, barbecue pits'features that animated the open space and became distinguishing features of each hotel. True to this model, at Cabana Bay the architects created a kind of “great room,” with a large pool at the north end, by enclosing the space with four-story orthogonal bars of guest rooms that open to exterior walkways. To the south, the seven-story guest room wings (with interior corridors) extend out as long zigzagging arms embracing the breezy green space and pools in between. Projecting concrete floor plates and colorful grids of aluminum panels provide depth and character to the huge facades, stylistic moves that borrow from popular midcentury architecture, which often relied on simple means and legible functionality for expression. “In Florida,” notes Shulman, pointing to the shadows cast across the elevations, “architects who could not indulge in expensive materials understood that they had the sun to work with.”
Linking the north and the south is a curvilinear arrival building that contains the lobby, restaurants, lounge, and recreation spaces. Recalling grand entry sequences of the past, a broad circular drive-up space with a swoopy porte cochere whisks guests into a soaring, white, terrazzo-floored lobby with a giant palm-tree “terrarium” as its focal point. This space hums throughout the day as guests come and go from the theme parks and spill out in bathing suits to the enormous pool area beyond. A mall-like “concourse” also leads from the lobby, linking a gift shop, Starbucks, food court, double-height 14,000-square-foot dining hall, and, on a mezzanine level, an arcade and bowling alley. (The program developed over the rapid, 26-month design and construction period, notes Shulman.) Big, open public spaces are complemented with smaller environments: conversation areas, cabanas, fire pits, and other amenities that break down the scale and facilitate intimate gatherings.
In sync with Shulman's approach, Philadelphia-based Daroff Design considered the interiors also as a modern interpretation of the time. “Every element of the lobby was imagined to be 'bigger than life' rather than a slavish recreation of the period,” says principal designer Karen Daroff. Sprightly finishes and motifs throughout the resort underscore the pursuit of leisure. The conceit is potent, but it doesn't quite go over the top: a vibrant palette of aqua, orange, and lime green is tamed by terrazzo, teak, walnut, and bronze. And the smartly designed guest rooms, the suites in particular, evoke the traditional motel room while correcting its missteps, offering added daylight, privacy, and flexibility with logical floor plans and screening devices.
With Cabana Bay, the design team has taken an outsize commercial venture and used it to elevate the experience of the middle-market family vacation. Despite the staff's bowling shirts, the '50s pop soundtrack, and vintage cars out front, the hotel does not lapse into nostalgia. “For me, the midcentury era represented a time of optimism, the feeling of endless possibilities,” says Shulman. The complex, with its logical spatial organization, clean lines, and jaunty vibe saluting simple pleasures, communicates this idealism while bringing dignity to a building type that typically lacks this quality.
Formal name of building:
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Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
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Interior Designer & Interior Architect:
Structural Engineer: Greg Brayfield
Lighting Consultant: CDM, Hilary Wainer
Graphics: WrenHouse Design
Colorist: Lynne Cerro
Low Voltage Design:
Food Service: LGM Design/Lutz
Purchasing Company: Benjamin West
1,250,000 square feet
Phase 1 - Cast in place concrete slabs/CMU bearing walls
Metal Panels: McNichols Perforated Prefinished Metal Panel
EIFS, ACM, or other: EIFS (Dryvit)
Other cladding unique to this project: Ipe wood louver and lattice panels on Cabana structures.
Insulated-panel or plastic glazing: Insulated exterior glazing infill panels (Mapes)
Fire-control doors, security grilles: Won fire doors
Wall coverings: Vinyl
Special surfacing: Formica
Floor and wall tile: Custom mosaic tile throughout
Special interior finishes unique to this project: Terrazzo flooring; acoustical spray for large public areas; intumescent paint on structural steel columns