AD Classics: Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort / Michael Graves

© Flickr - User: Jeff B.

In a world where anything in your imagination can become a reality, Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida stayed true to their word and hired architect to design a resort consisting of two hotels that would become part of Disney’s famous collection of “entertainment architecture.” Graves’ postmodern, colorful style was the perfect choice for the playful themepark resort, and his whimsical design decisions and statues of grandeur contribute to the famous Disney kingdom. The theme for the design of the hotels sprung right from its early conceptual stages, where Graves developed an entire story to create characters for both the Swan and the Dolphin in a magical tale that he thought could potentially become Disney characters.

More images and information after the break.

Graves’ story behind the hotels began with the idea for the Dolphin, which he said was an island that was formed by a sudden cataclysmic event, such as an underwater volcano or earthquake. When the island emerged from underwater it lifted the dolphins up as well, and these are represented by the dolphins on the roof of the hotel, each 63′ feet tall. The banana leaves painted on the side of the hotel represent the foliage on the island, and the “black box” on the front elevation of the building is the heart of the mountain. In Graves’ tale, this burst open and water began flowing down to the dolphin pool. This water also splashes up on the side of the Swan, which are painted on the hotel displaying another large mural. The story continues with two birds that were entranced by this event and when they went to view it up close they were magically transformed into swans, thus explaining the 28-ton, 47 foot high statues. Both the dolphin and swan figures are made of steel, wood, and fiberglass. They are hollow inside except for structural beams and staircases for maintenance purposes.

© Flickr - User: Paul Gowder

Graves chose a swan and a dolphin on purpose, creating two characters not yet used by Disney. The dolphin was inspired by the work of Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. An example of these dolphins can be seen at the King Neptune fountain at the Italian pavilion in Epcot. The major difference, however, is the dolphins in Bernini’s work all have their mouths curving down as if they are frowning. Michael Eisner, CEO of the Walt Disney Company, insisted the dolphins were not to be displayed this way on Walt Disney property, and so Graves’ dolphins have their mouths curving upward to give the impression that they are smiling.

© James Cornetet -

An important element in both hotels is the integration of water. There are two main fountains on the exteriors and interiors of each hotel. The interior of the Swan has a small fountain with swans in the lobby, and the interior of the Dolphin has the same idea of a main fountain in the lobby but with dolphins instead. At the Swan, fountains in giant clam shells climb seven stories high. At the Dolphin, water cascades nine stories through five huge seashells, each one bigger than the next, culminating in a 54-foot clamshell.

© James Cornetet -

Both inside and out the hotels were designed for guests of all ages, an important aspect when considering the many children that visit Disney. The hotels resemble the Florida landscape. The exterior of the buildings are painted peach and teal and dotted with small windows along its facades and the large murals of plants and waves. The interior is also decorated with these murals. With more than 200 renderings done by Graves himself, guests are likely to see one of the architect’s original works along the walls in one of the public main spaces or even in their own rooms on the headboards.

© James Cornetet -

Although never used for a Disney story, the hotels create a playful environment within their landscaped courtyard intricate with details that engulf visitors into a different world. Graves used his postmodern style highlighted with majestic elements to create a magical place that the Walt Disney Company is known for, a resort where both the imaginations of children and adults alike can run wild.

Architect: Michael Graves
Location: Lake Buena Vista, Florida
Client: Walt Disney
Project Year: Completed in 1990
Photographs: Depending on the photograph: On FlickrJeff B., Sky Noir, Paul Gowder, teruterubouzu, and – James Cornetet, and – Werner Weiss
References: Michael Graves & Associates, The New York Times, and

Cite: Perez, Adelyn. "AD Classics: Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort / Michael Graves" 14 Jun 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed 25 May 2015. <>
  • d.teil

    a classic?

  • hovaard

    ahem….i really respect michael and everything he has done. however, i think we were all a bit lost at this time with these cartoon structures – po-mo jokes, despite the fact of their locations. thankfully, this was short lived; as unfortunately are the structures. case in point – portland’s county courthouse.
    there are classics, and i would not vote for this as one.

  • Virginia Hall

    So this is what’s become of Michael Graves….

  • archaalto

    [tummy hurts]

  • GLK

    Apparently Graves couldn’t decide between creating a whimsical sea-themed playhouse or an Orwellian nightmare. The monstrous pale green triangle looks more like a dystopian Hall of Justice than a hotel for families at “The Happiest Place on Earth©”.

  • Larry Hill

    …on the other hand, Graves is showing us that architecture can be fun as well. As you notice in the text, the whole project stems from a crazy narrative, vaguely suggesting that the architect watched too many Disney flicks as a child. This narrative and thinking in terms of symbols is typical of most post modern theory and building, and hate it or love i; it’s not boring for one second. I mean, who has never dreamt of creating giant swans or 54-foot clamshell fountaines?

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  • KL

    Is this a joke?

  • Michael

    why does my mouth taste like vomit?

  • Ben

    Are you serious, I would have expected better from you guys.

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  • Remkool

    Ah ah… so nice typical AMERICAN KITSCH !

  • dezzo

    i wonder if this will ever come back in fashion?

  • James

    Until you visit the site, you cannot appreciate the completeness of the concept and the scale of the campus. Although the style of the architecture is not what you would want for your home. One must be aware of the context to understand this project. It is adjacent to Disney Hollywood Studios in Orlando, which is 35 square miles of Disney development. At no point during your visit to this resort does the project seem out of place. The design is complete in every detail, which makes the reality of Graves’ Disney fantasy a reality. It is a project rooted in history and enlivened by wit, a damn shame we don’t have more projects that embody this spirit, rather there are hundreds of one-liners floating around on the blogs that don’t match half the wit of this project, which receives little attention.

    Great project if you can look past the colors.

    By the way, thank you for the photo credits.

    • hovaard

      sorry man, but i think you might have a vested interest

      • James

        How is offering a critical opinion equated to having a vested interest. A vested interest would be if I designed the structure or worked for Graves. In order to maintain a line of critical thought without being swayed by opinion you must ask yourself two questions about any project. What is the architect attempting to accomplish? And how well have they succeeded in attempting such? If you can critique the project according to the rules and orders established by the architect you avoid a biased opinion or ‘vested interest’ as you have stated by critiquing what is there rather than discussing the project in terms of one’s opinion or personal likes and dislikes.

      • hovaard

        i meant, by taking the photos used and getting the credits.

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  • James

    A vested interest would imply that I have something to gain by the success of this project or how well people like it, which is not the case. Credit for taking photos of a good building and a bad building is just the same, it is credit.

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