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A Friday Visit with Jim Korkis: The Story Behind Disney’s Riviera Resort

By Dave Shute

Welcome back to Fridays with Jim Korkis! Jim, the dean of Disney historians, writes about Walt Disney World history every Friday on


By Jim Korkis

One of the things that set the Disney resort hotels apart from other non-Disney accommodations is that they feature a storyline or theme that is consistently reflected in the design choices throughout the location.

Sometimes that theming is extremely immersive like at Wilderness Lodge and other times like at the Disney Riviera Resort it is done in a more superficial way, more of a suggestion rather than a commitment. The resort is the 15th Disney Vacation Club resort and the first stand-alone DVC to be built in over eight years.

So what was the story behind selecting the theme of Disney’s Riviera Resort? It was based on a little documented European trip that Walt Disney, his brother Roy and their wives took in 1935 that took them through England, France, Germany and Italy.

For those wanting to learn more, it is highly recommended to pick up a copy of Disney’s Grand Tour: Walt and Roy’s European Vacation, Summer 1935 by Didier Ghez that goes into that experience in great detail.

For instance during that trip, Walt brought back with him hundreds of books including children’s books with illustrations of little people, bees, and small insects that he hoped would inspire the artists at his Burbank Studio. Those nearly 700 books from that trip became the foundation of the Disney Studio library that began that same year under the supervision of Helen Ludwig Hennesy.

That is the reason for the resort having the relaxing study called the Voyageurs’ Lounge with its shelves filled with books, all foreign editions from the 1930s, including several Disney storybooks.

A display case features an original Charlotte Clark stuffed Mickey Mouse doll from that time period and a similar one is shown in photos of Walt and his wife Lillian from the trip. Near the doll is a hat representing the fedora that Walt often wore, including on this trip, and a photo next to it shows him wearing such a hat.

In the hallway leading to the lounge are black-and-white photos on the wall from Walt’s holiday. Many of these photos do not appear in any book, like Walt Disney on June 13, 1935 playing with penguins at the London Zoo in a photo by Edward G. Malindine for the Daily Herald.

Another set of such photos decorate the wall in Primo Piatto (Italian for “first plate”) the principal quick-service venue on the first floor near the two pools. While I have spent time standing and studying these pictures in both locations, I have noticed that Disney guests generally ignore them or even question their significance.

The resort only prominently features French and Italian influences to reference the Rivera rather than Walt’s other travels.

Inspired by the cliffside restaurants of the Riviera, Topolino’s Terrace is a reference to Mickey Mouse’s name in Italian: Topolino or “little mouse”. In keeping with the emphasis on European art, for the character breakfast at this location the costumed performers are attired as Mickey the artist, Minnie the poet, Donald the sculptor, and Daisy the dancer.

The Italian Rivera also inspired the black-and-white painting “The Seaside Nap” featuring Mickey and Pluto lounging on their balcony overlooking the sea that is located under the television in the one bedroom villa.

The theme seems less Walt’s visit to the Rivera in the 1930s but just an overall “European Disney” concept that extends to modern times including foreign movie posters of Disney animated films on the walls in the first floor hallway near the formal lawn.

Yet there are odd lapses. A framed picture of Lady and the Tramp eating spaghetti is meant to suggest Italy even though the story is wholly American.

While the story theme is not as immersive or consistent as some other Disney resort hotels like Disney’s Boardwalk, the concentration on the Disney connections to Europe is still appealing.

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Thanks, Jim!  There’s more on Disney’s Riviera Resort here.

And come back next Friday for more from Jim Korkis!

In the meantime, check out his books, including his new Halloween-appropriate Vault of Walt Volume 9: Halloween Edition, and his other new book, Hidden Treasures of the Disney Cruise Line.


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