Disney’s Gulf Coast Disaster

Today we are going to take a break from Shane’s video game opus and shift gears to something much more serious; the many tragedies to have befallen upon the Gulf Coast. 

If it wasn’t so sad it would almost be pretty… and there is nothing funny about it.

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the Gulf coast devastating the region, and then 5 years later BP decided to dump a couple hundred million gallons of crude into its previously pristine waters. Lives and businesses were destroyed; even regional parks have been forced to close and life if far from being back to normal. What’s next? Will something truly tragic like a Universal theme park come it’s way?

Even Disney will turn down some sponsors… maybe.

However these are not the first disasters to strike the Gulf Coast. In fact one happened a number of years ago that completely wiped the Gulf Coast off the map, unceremoniously eliminated… gone forever. Of course I am talking about the once exclusive Gulf Coast Room restaurant housed within the Contemporary Resort (this is a Disney blog after all). 

Two remain, two gone forever.
Before there was Victoria and Albert’s, back in the days when the Empress Room aboard the Empress Lilly was THE fancy la-dee-da place to wine and dine there was another gourmet destination for the well-heeled guests of Walt Disney World. We are not talking about hot dogs and Handwiches here folks… no this was Beef Wellington and Lobster Thermidor and any other rich, sauced, 1970’s decadence bathed in butter and cream that you can imagine… this was the splendor of the Gulf Coast Room at the Contemporary Resort, this was the pinnacle of Disney dining. 
If its got lobster, cream, liquor and fire the Gulf Coast Room has it.
(From 1970’s Disney Publicity)
From 1971 to 1988 the Gulf Coast Room sat unobtrusively on the second floor of the Contemporary’s main tower. Unadorned with a fancy marquee or even the most basic of restaurant trappings, from the outside the Gulf Coast Room appeared to be little more than a corporate meeting hall, yet inside the upper crust of Disney diners would find subdued elegance and a full (if over-rout) continental menu. Dated even upon opening the Gulf Coast Room strived to be a chic extravagance for those seeking more than typical park fare, or perhaps those on the corporate expense account. Wide lapels, polyester pants and  bubbling fondu pots were all hallmarks of the establishment. Disney may not have known much about cutting edge trends but it certainly knew how to roll out traditional indulgences. 
This completely natural, obviously candid and un-staged photo
shows Carlos making two Sears catalog models very
uncomfortable. Note the single rose… keep it classy baby.
Unlike modern Disney fine dining restaurants the Gulf Coast Room did not feature stunning vistas from broad windows, in fact it had no windows whatsoever. Nor did it feature a fancy entranceway; rather it was a nearly unmarked door that gave the place a vibe of a private club (Club 33 East perhaps?). What it did feature was a tuxedo clad wait staff, tables festooned with white linen and single pink roses, fat ladened recipes, a wandering guitar player named Carlos, a jackets required policy and fried ice cream… yes, FRIED ICE CREAM!

Although The Gulf Coast Room was the fanciest and most expensive restaurant at the hotel (or the entire resort save for the Empress Room) it was also a last minute stopgap measure to address the high end dining and business market. 

Frozen treats, hot oil, canned fruit and flowers…
Natural partners if ever there were.
(from Disney News Fall 1978)
At some point prior to the opening of Walt Disney World the powers that be realized that they would be attracting people willing to drop some serious coin for 3 pound Maine Lobsters smothered in a heavy brandy sauce and they needed an answer and fast! The solution came in the form of the Grand Republic ballrooms. This series of three banquet rooms was intended to be rented out to corporations for private events and meetings. A quick cladding in dark wood paneling and some silk flowers and there you go… instant fine dining venue. The Gulf Coast Room was born; it ran its course tucked away amongst the banquet halls unnoticed by all but the most dedicated gourmands. But for those who did have the pleasure of gorging there a memorable time (as well as a future Lipitor prescription) was had by all.

Before heading upstairs to the “Top of the World” lounge to catch a performance by Mel Torme or Vicki Lawrence patrons could relax in the dark, shag carpeted, windowless chambers of the Gulf Coast Room while partaking in good food and drink. 

Yea, not really that good, but man… I loved pouring through them as a kid.
The Birnbaum guide to Walt Disney World described the Gulf Coast Room as follows in a mid 80’s edition:

Gulf Coast Room – One of the most elegant of Walt Disney World’s continental restaurants, with a subdued, relaxed atmosphere that seems worlds away from the bustling Grand Canyon Concourse and the congestion of the elevator lobbies. Roast lamb chops Orloff, beef meunière, seafood brochette, and veal piccata are specialties of the house. There are delicious flambéed coffees for après. Carlos, the strolling guitarist, plays just about any song a guest may request. Children who don’t delight in the leisurely pace of the service can be dispatched to the Fiesta Fun Center Snack Bar. Jackets are required. Reservations are suggested. 

Sure, why bother dining with your kids while on a once in a lifetime family trip to the vacation kingdom of the world. Screw ‘em… dispatch little Suzy and Jr. to the arcade and order up another cognac and maybe a fine cigar. You’re living the high life here and no rug rat is going to stand in your way! 

A single pink rose, fancy gold script: Tres’ Elegante.

As you can see the menu was indeed heavy on cream and oddly enough, fire. They really liked to set things ablaze in the Gulf Coast Room… Coffees… yup, light those babies up. Flambéed steak Diane… check… cigarettes? A-OK if you are in the smoking section (ornately embossed matches available on all tables) and then there was the fried ice cream. While technically not on fire if you take frozen milk and sugar (i.e.: ice cream) and deep-fry the sucker it is close enough… and crazy, and crazy good, but mostly just crazy. It is indicative of the days when Walt Disney World relished in uniqueness and individual experiences. You could not get fried ice cream at the Magic Kingdom, or in any of the EPCOT World Showcase pavilions or anywhere else on property for that matter (except for the Trophy Room at the Golf Resort which was sort of a Gulf Coast Room cousin… plus who the heck went to the Golf Resort anyway?). If you wanted semi frozen Haagen Daz enrobed in an oily yet somehow still crispy fried skin and served on a half of a canned peach in an old school Champagne glass… well your choices were wonderfully limited. In many ways the Gulf Coast Room and it’s style were indicative of Disney at this time… a little out of step with the times, a little square, and in many ways trying too hard to please, and yet somehow it’s naiveté and innocence worked to create a special and individual experience.

Not a good night for Carlos
And lets not forget Carlos “the strolling guitarist” because nothing says modern fine dining more than tableside José Feliciano covers. I have no idea if there was only one “Carlos” or if this was more of a character made up of a revolving list of performers but sure enough there was a guitar player available nightly for guests to enjoy.

The Gulf Coast Room continued to serve its country club-like fare to dwindling crowds throughout the mid 80’s. By 1986 the Eisner regime had dug deeply enough to discover the oddly placed restaurant and its days were numbered. The Gulf Coast Room quietly closed in May of 1988 taking with it it’s retro frozen in time menu and serving style as well as a unique bit of Disney history. Shortly thereafter the new Grand Floridian Resort, the new flagship hotel of Walt Disney World, opened with many new and “improved” fine dining options. 

Today’s fancy wavy ceiling leads to what once was
a dark hidden away gem… plus they had a guitar and lots
of things on fire.
Today the space has once again been converted back to corporate conference space (though no longer named the Gulf Coast Room). The California Grill has taken over the high end dining duties for the resort and the sad guitar stylings of Carlos can be faintly heard wafting through the hallways forevermore.  If you would like to show your respect to this once proud room leave a rare lamb chop smothered in Burgundy sauce at it’s door, a small offering to one of Disney’s best.

Comments (26)

  1. The “Gulf Coast Room” was a gem in 1983! My late wife and I spent our May, 1983 honeymoon at the Contemporary Resort (before honeymoons in Disney World were a thing!). We had what was then a very generous “Meal Plan”! We had a blast there! The food was truly wonderful and the strolling musicians were a great touch. We weren’t “corporate types” or “deep pockets”. Almost 40 years later, I have very fond memories of it. She had a lobster tail, I enjoyed a steak! It was delicious and fun! At the time, “Top of the World” was a kind of boring Broadway Show restaurant. I miss the “Gulf Coast Room”, but my late wife and I came to LOVE the “California Grill”! We were there with our sons around 2001. Sitting next to us was Yogi Berra and his family, what a thrill! My wife and I returned for our 25th anniversary in 2008 and I walked around in the Contemporary to look at where the “Gulf Coast Room” once existed. Wonderful memories!

    • I also have a “Gulf Coast Room” matchbook tucked into our wedding album! (With the matches removed)!

    • Those are great memories Henry, thanks for sharing them.

      • It did seem a bit “off” at the time when you came off of the elevator and saw an empty “conference room” and “convention” kind of spaces at either end of the wide corridor. But there was a door to a restaurant with a small sign. Inside, it was a 60’s elegant steakhouse space. Close quarters, but comfortable at the same time.

  2. I must have been the only kid who pestered my folks to take me there. They did, when I was a teenager, and I thought it was awesome. And yes, it was intriguing how it was a sort of hole-in-the-wall and relatively poorly promoted. Good times.

  3. This article, “Disney

  4. Ah yes, Carlos was always good for the mildly racist jokes… good times!

    It really is funny though how small details, small jokes or interactions with people can make lasting impressions. Disney used to be full of them, I feel like to a large extent they are gone but maybe it is just because I am older now. Are those things still out there and still having lasting effects on kids I wonder.

  5. I dined here with my parents when I was a young teenager. Carlos made quite an impression on us. Believe it or not, we still tell one of his jokes in our family: What is a specimen? Waaaaiiit for it….A specimen is an Italian astronaut. (crickets chirping…). I blew away one of my junior high classmates with that one. I’ll bet she’s still laughing.

  6. I am so obsessed with the Gulf Coast Room and the Pueblo Room. You just can’t find decent images of these places!!! And they only make sense when taken in the historical context of The Contemporary Resort.

    Thank you for bringing this issue to light, er, flame. Or something. It is an idea whose time has passed.

    • Also fascinated by the Pueblo Room. Can you even imagine what those Mary Blair dioramas tucked in the walls at the entrance would be worth today?

      • The conference spaces in the Contemporary have a very interesting history. From the Fiesta Fun Center to the Gulf Coast and Pueblo Rooms. Makes me long for the past a bit I must admit.

  7. I have fond memories of the Gulf Coast Room… I think my Mom’s hair once caught on fire there.

  8. I really have to commend you for digging this one up. I had never even heard of this before. I think they were trying to hide it from me and my Handwich-loving family.

  9. I think the proper memorial offering is actually a flambéed lamb chop for sure… fire is always appreciated!

  10. And it would be considered…bad…if I left the lamb chop on fire, right? Just asking.

  11. A memorial of lamb chops, butter and silk roses awaits…

  12. I will be sure to bring a lamb chop or two on my next visit.

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