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Disney’s AmeriWHA?!

Disney hotel site at National Harbor outside Washington D.C.Your newest magical vista?! The new Disney hotel site in Maryland (Washington Post)

Continued apologies for my prolonged absence – it looks like it’s going to be a few more days before my interwebs are up and running again. But this story just came across my transom and I couldn’t resist getting online at work to put this out there. It certainly qualifies as the “WTF” story of the week – Disney has spent $11 million to purchase a 15-acre tract in Prince George’s County, MD., across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. Part of a 300-acre development called National Harbor, the site will be used for a Disney-branded resort hotel.

No, seriously. Behold the mighty press release:

National Harbor Sells Land to Disney

Site Being Considered for New Resort Hotel

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md., May 19 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — The Peterson Companies announced today the sale of land at its National Harbor development near Washington, DC to Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. Disney is considering using the 15-acre site overlooking the Potomac River in National Harbor, MD as the location for a resort hotel for families and others visiting the National Capital Region.

“We’re thrilled Disney has decided to invest in National Harbor,” said Milton V. Peterson, chairman of the Peterson Companies. “Disney is the top family entertainment company in the world, and its purchase is a great vote of confidence in the future of National Harbor and the Washington area as a top family tourism destination.”

The new resort hotel would be one of Disney’s stand-alone resort hotels separate from the Disney theme parks. This new resort hotel, like the project under construction in Hawaii, will be in a prime geographic location and will provide guests with the same comfort, fun and amenities for which Disney is famous.

“As we began identifying possible locations to grow our business, the Washington, DC area immediately jumped to the top of the list,” said Jay Rasulo, Chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. “National Harbor offers an array of entertaining activities for regional visitors, but it is also a family-friendly base camp, from which visitors from around the world can explore the stirring sights and inspirational stories of our nation’s capital. We believe National Harbor has the unique opportunity to offer a new level of family-friendly hospitality.”

Disney purchased the Maryland property from the Peterson Companies for $11 million.

About National Harbor:

Rising from the banks of the Potomac River in Prince George’s County, MD., National Harbor is a new 300-acre destination waterfront resort. With six hotels and 3,000 rooms, National Harbor features the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center. Many attributes include the tree-lined avenue American Way, public art including “The Awakening” sculpture by Seward Johnson, shops and offices, numerous high rise residences and the largest marina on the Potomac River. It is also the future home for the new Cesar Pelli-designed National Children’s Museum. The master developer for National Harbor is The Peterson Companies, one of the largest privately owned development companies in the greater Washington area specializing in large mixed use developments.

Disney Maryland project site map (Washington Post)

Of course the immediate thing that most Disney fans will think of upon hearing this news is the aborted Disney’s America project of years ago; this project obviously has no relation to that park design, and will consist only of a hotel development. This National Harbor development, which has run into problems recruiting developers due to the economic downturn, seems to be a rather conventional mixed-use hotel, restaurant, convention and conference project.

The 500-room Disney hotel would provide a prominent anchor for the project, and one assumes will provide a base for “Adventures by Disney” tours of the area.

It’s rare that Disney does something that completely surprises me, but this really takes the cake. Their upcoming resort in Hawaii was much less surprising, as it seemed to fit with many tried-and-true Disney formulae. Dropping a Disney hotel into the middle of an urban area, though, is something new, and it indicates a direction in which the company is obviously headed. Between DVC and Adventures by Disney, it’s clear that they intend to expand the concept of these smaller-scale projects across the nation or possibly the world.

I’m not sure really what to think about that. While I regret their decision not to build Disney’s America in 1994, I don’t really know what Disney can bring to a rather typical city-bound hotel development. Will it be highly themed, or just another high-rise hotel structure? The obvious historical themes – Colonial, Federalist, Georgian, etc – don’t meld well with the high-rise structure that they’ll no doubt want to build. Will they instead build some towering, cookie-cutter structure that looks like every other hotel in the area? Or, heaven forbid, will they try to slap some Jeffersonian pediment on for style?

I guess I just don’t understand what the purpose of this is. Still, $11 million is pretty cheap in Disney terms, and I suppose that they took advantage of the real estate crunch to get a good deal. I can’t say that I’m itching to stay in a Disney hotel near Washington D.C., but it can’t hurt, can it?

Regular posting to resume in a few days…

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3 comments to Disney’s AmeriWHA?!

  • As you mentioned, I really think this is the start of a new, static Disney footprint across the globe. It’s one thing to try and live in the hearts and minds of people through collectibles, multi-screen presence, and general marketing, but to have an actual permanent structures practically anywhere on Earth – in anyone’s backyard – makes a lot sense.

    It’s a smaller investment – meaning it’s flexible in size, design, development time, and termination (if need be) – but it’s also an expansion of DVC to me. Not timeshare-wise, but the capability of central command (wherever that may be) to shoot you off to any part of the globe and experience the world under Disney control – a constant in expectation of theme and CS for any destination in the world. For people who like predictability, reliability, and comfort of Walt as the father-figure and tour guide everywhere they go, this will be great. Not only this, but it’s another great way to entice people to come to the mother ships. A couple of major hubs on several continents, and hundreds of little satellites everywhere else to fill the void – very smart.

    And honestly, if the overall plan avoids the slippery slope of brand over-saturation, and it becomes a “reserved” but enticing reliable Disney experience, I hope one opens in my neck of the woods.

  • I think it most definitely makes sense as a business decision – aside from “growing the brand” issues, it makes sense to have a centralized spot to support their Adventure tours to DC, Williamsburg, etc. It also helps to take advantage of the depressed real estate market in the area.

    I guess my confusion from a creative standpoint comes from how I percieve Disney. I think of Disney as a destination, and yet this project will be far from a destination in and of itself. I really, really love this historical sites and museums in D.C., and can’t imagine heading to the area with the Disney hotel as a main draw.

    It’s different in Hawaii, where their project there is both highly themed and in a very desirable location to just hang out and enjoy the atmosphere. I doubt anyone would be as equally satisfied to stay at the hotel in D.C. and soak up the breeze coming off the Potomac.

    It’s possible that it’s not their intent to present this as a destination, but as just a “familiar” place for families to stay as they explore D.C., but there are many, many hotels in the metro area that provide just as high a level of service as Disney and probably for a much lower price. I doubt many families head to the Disney hotels in Florida for some vague percieved level of “service”, but rather because they have a well-themed environment and provide the easiest access to all the parks and resort amenities. In D.C. there are dozens of hotels on Capitol Hill that provide better access than Disney’s site, so there will have to be some “draw”. I think you’re right that DVC tie-ins will be part of that, as well as package deals with Adventures.

    It’s also possible that I have the America park stuck in my brain; I still think that would have been so cool and building anything in the area will invite a conceptual comparison. If indeed this is “just” a hotel, what can they offer to overcome an inoptimal location and (one assumes) a steep pricetag?

    Of course, though I’m asking all these questions I’m still in favor of the project. It’s definitely possible that my limited imagination has missed something really cool that WDI could do with this 15-acre plot. And as you point out, this level of investment makes it easy for Disney to back out should the experiment not succeed. Not that I’d bet against them succeeding, though!

  • Points well taken, Michael. I haven’t had the past level of mental commitment that you have with the Disney’s America concept, but it did look awesome – and amazing how close it was to becoming a reality!

    I don’t know, though, something about that location being so close to WDW seems odd and a little scary to me (even though Busch has done it successfully) – would it have diluted the brand? Growing up, there was always something special about having a major park on each coast – living in middle-America, they were close enough for a good family trip, but just far enough away to build that much more enticement. You know what I mean?

    This again brings up the current issues surrounding your article, but again, I really don’t see these hotels as a major draw in and of themselves, but rather an expansion of their “world-travel” plans. It will be interesting to see the Imagineers’ concepts (realized and unrealized visions) for these places.

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