Port Orleans / Dixie Landings Resort History
In an interview in 1982, Walt Disney World Executive Vice President Dick Nunis proposed a new development near to the Empress Lilly steamboat-inspired restaurant in the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village area — now better known, after several expansions and name changes, as Disney Springs.
The expansion was to include an intricately-themed resort hotel complex designed to evoke the relaxing laid-back feel of the city of New Orleans, very reminiscent of Disneyland’s New Orleans Square. Surrounding the ‘recently docked steamboat’ would be a variety of themed buildings, with affordably priced guest rooms on the upper levels and restaurants and retail outlets on the ground floor.
Sadly this plan never materialised during the turbulent early eighties, with the soaring costs and lower attendance figures of the early EPCOT Center and subsequent hostile corporate takeover attempts which would eventually be fought off and result in Micheal Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg taking the helm of the Disney corporation in 1984. However in the world of Imagineering, good ideas never really die and the two-level resort hotel and shopping/dining concept eventually reappeared in the mid-1990s as Disney’s Boardwalk Resort.
In the meantime, as part of the massive expansion plans brought about by Michael Eisner, in October 1988 Walt Disney World opened its first more-affordably priced resort hotel, the 2,000+ room Caribbean Beach Resort. Spurred on by that success, the old New Orleans theme resort concept was resurrected from the vaults, but instead of being located directly within the rapidly expanding Disney Village Marketplace area, it was relocated to create a brand new themed area to be accessed via a new waterway.
The project architects were Fugleberg Koch Architects of Winter Park, FL in collaboration with the Disney Development Company, and ground-breaking commenced in the fall of 1989. The same company was also responsible for designing the Old Key West Resort, which opened in December 1991, and the earlier Caribbean Beach Resort.
So it was that Disney’s Port Orleans Resort first opened its doors to the public on 17th May 1991. Originally featuring just 432 guest rooms in three buildings, the room count was soon increased to 1,008 as construction on the remaining four buildings was completed.
The new Port Orleans Resort was linked back to the existing Disney Village Marketplace by the Sassagoula River, a completely man-made 2½ mile waterway named after the Native American word for the Mississippi. A new Disney Vacation Club Resort (now known as Old Key West) was located along a tributary branch of the same waterway.
But that was just the start of an even more ambitious project. Further down this new river, Disney’s Dixie Landings Resort opened to the public on 2nd February 1992 featuring the rustic styled Alligator Bayou Lodge buildings. Shortly after that, phase two of this second resort opened with the more elegant sophistication of the Magnolia Bend mansion buildings bringing the total number of guest rooms up to 2,048.
For more background information about the resorts, with some fun facts, figures and interesting trivia, see the Trivia Page.
Back at Port Orleans, Bonfamille’s Café, the full-service restaurant adjacent to the main lobby, closed its doors for the last time at the end of service on 5th August 2000. Boatwright’s Dining Hall, the remaining full-service restaurant at Dixie Landings, continued to serve both sections of the resort.
On 1st March 2001, the transformation of Dixie Landings and Port Orleans into one large resort began with changes to road signage around the two resorts.
On 1st April 2001, Port Orleans and Dixie Landings officially merged to form one large resort. In fact, the two sections had always shared the same management team but this process completely removed all vestiges of the old Dixie Landings terminology, even down to changing some of the road names. The reason for the merger has never been made completely clear, but many think it was largely due to the inferred racial and slavery undertones of the Dixie Landings cotton plantation backstory.
The combined resort was now to be called Disney’s Port Orleans Resort, with the area formerly known just as Port Orleans changing its name to Disney’s Port Orleans French Quarter and the area formerly known as Dixie Landings changing its name to Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside. The combined resort now spanned some 325 acres and featured a total of 3,056 guest rooms, making it the largest in Walt Disney World.
After the terrible events in New York in September 2001, the subsequent drop in tourist demand meant that Disney needed to urgently reduce some of its resort capacity. From late November 2001, French Quarter was completely closed and Riverside’s capacity was severely curtailed to around 350 rooms. Guests who had bookings were contacted and offered alternative resort choices. The Sassagoula River Cruise was also taken out of service for several months. As demand picked up again, French Quarter was reopened for new bookings starting from 31 May 2002. Disney apparently used the six month downtime to undertake renovation work on the food court.
A year later, French Quarter was once again closed for more extensive update and renovation work to all guest rooms from 4 May 2003 until 21 March 2004, see the Local News 6 website for details. The freshly renovated rooms had new furniture, new carpeting, new wall coverings and remodeled bathrooms. 200 new or rehired staff were recruited to reopen the resort.
Subsequent year-long renovation work at the larger Port Orleans Riverside resort was undertaken by Friedrich Watkins Company of Orlando, FL on a building-by-building basis. Work started with the Magnolia Bend mansions (March 2004 — August 2004) and then continued to the Alligator Bayou Lodges (August 2004 — February 2005), progressing at a rate of about 64 rooms per week. It did not require the closure of the whole resort.
On 1 June 2007, all Walt Disney World resort hotels became completely non-smoking, with just a few designated outdoor smoking areas defined for those who still feel the need to light-up. Smoking is no longer allowed in guest rooms, on balconies, in corridors or in any other public areas. Prior to 2007, smoking was permitted at Riverside in Lodges 17, 27, 28, 34 and 36, Acadian House and Oak Manor, and at French Quarter in buildings 2, 4 and the upper floors of 6.
2010-2012 Refurbishment Program: Brand new decor, Queen Beds and Flat-screen TVs
Work commenced on refurbishing the Port Orleans French Quarter guest rooms on Monday 1 November 2010, starting with building 7 which three weeks later was complete and ready to accept guests. On Friday 15 April 2011 the final building (number 3) was completed and rededicated, meaning that the whole of French Quarter had newly renovated rooms.
Work then started on the Port Orleans Riverside area on 26 June 2011, starting with the rooms in Acadian House. By September 2011 both Acadian House and Magnolia Terrace had been reopened with newly refurbished rooms, and then Alligator Bayou lodges 14, 36, 37 and 38 were completed just prior to Christmas 2011.
During the first four months of 2012, all 512 rooms in Oak Manor and Parterre Place were refitted to the new “Royal Guest Room” theme. Oak Manor reopened on 9 March (slightly delayed from 17 February, see our news pages) and Parterre Place reopened on 13 April.
Finally, the remainder of the Alligator Bayou lodges were completed, starting with building 24 which closed for refurbishment on 15 April. The last building to be completed was 26, which reopened to guests on 1 August 2012.
Also in 2012, the Port Orleans Riverside main registration hall was refurbished to include all new floor tiles and carpeting, plus elegant dark-wood registration desks. Work commenced on 23 April 2012 and the first half was completed by 17 May (a week behind the original schedule). The second half of the lobby was reopened on 26 June, with various details such as the sumptuous new carpet/rugs added over the next couple of days. Over the next few months more furniture was added — such as custom-made child-sized chairs next to the TV — and a newly carpeted seating area completed the whole program on 5 September 2012.
Port Orleans French Quarter’s lobby also received a fresh new open-plan look in 2013, and it was closed for the refurbishment work from 13 May until 12 July 2013. More recently in early 2016, both of the main feature pool areas have been refreshed, including the installation of extra perimeter fencing and gates, and the addition of a new Aquatic Play Area at Doubloon Lagoon which opened on 7 March 2016.
Original Resort Layout Maps
The Sassagoula Times is the free handout information sheet which has been issued to guests staying at the Port Orleans / Dixie Landings Resorts since they first opened. It started as two extremely elaborate eight-page tabloid newspapers (the Sassagoula Times for Dixie Landings and the Sassagoula Sentinel for Port Orleans) which documented the entire fictional backstory to the two resorts, but more recently has been reduced to a single, simpler four-page letter-format resort information handout.
For more details of the elaborate faux history of the resort, please visit the Backstory page, or for scanned/downloadable copies of the newsletters from 1996 to the present day, please see the Documents page.
Here are a few other related websites I’ve found which may be of historical interest:
- Matt’s Dixie Landings page (Link now appears to be broken)
- Walt Dated World’s Dixie Landings page
- Sassagoula Times content from a 1996 issue (from “Iago’s Disney Pages”) (Hometown sites now appear to be defunct, well done AOL!)
- Big Brian’s Walt Disney World History in Postcards, POR/POFQ pages