What Did Each DVC Property Bring to the Program – Part One

In 1991, The Walt Disney Company finally stopped looking the other way with the timeshare industry. At the time, estimates indicated that the Central Florida area had $400 million in timeshare revenue going to companies that weren’t Disney. They said, “Enough!” and promptly designed the greatest timeshare-adjacent concept in the industry, the Disney Vacation Club (DVC).

Over the past 27 years, Disney’s added 14 properties to the DVC lineup, each of which has brought something new and exciting to members. Today, let’s examine the first seven resorts to see what each one brings to the DVC program. In other words, what’s great about each resort and why did Disney want it in DVC?

Disney’s Old Key West Resort

Everything that you love about the Disney Vacation Club started here. That’s why so many long-time members speak of it with reverence. Disney even keeps signs on one of the walls to commemorate the timeless nature of this resort. Olivia’s Café has framed pictures of visits from DVC families over the years.

In 1991, this property was known as Disney’s Vacation Club Resort, and the name speaks volumes about the importance of this hotel to Disney’s vision of their fledgling program. It was to replace the failed premises of regular timeshares with better and more creative Disney ideas.

All the concepts you know and love about DVC such as the Points Chart and dazzling hotel amenities started here. There was even a feature that everyone misses now, free theme park admission through 1999 for the earliest program participants.

Old Key West also set the standard for hotel renovations by having maintenance fees that assured DVC members that all resorts are of the highest quality. In fact, Old Key West is going through its latest renovations as we speak! Disney’s dedication to its most loyal fans is commendable and appreciated by those of us lucky enough to call ourselves DVC owners.

Disney’s Vero Beach Resort

To some, the presence of Vero Beach may seem incongruous today. What you must remember about the early days of the DVC program is that Disney had carefully researched the industry of the era. Back then, a timeshare was largely synonymous with the thought of sandy beaches where owners could relish in a bit of scheduled relaxation each year.

If anything, the oddity was the placement of the first resort on the Walt Disney World campus rather than at a beach. For this reason, the introduction of Vero Beach as a DVC resort was a brilliant move at the time. It was only an average of 111 miles away from each of the three Disney theme parks open in Orlando back in 1995.

Vero Beach combined the known timeshare standard of the time, luxury beach accommodations, with the fantasy of every Disney fanatic, convenient park access. DVC members could and did split their vacations between Vero Beach and Walt Disney World, giving them the best of both worlds. To this day, it remains one of the smartest trips possible, with the perfect combination of park entertainment and fun in the sun.

Disney’s Hilton Head Island Resort

The distance from Disney’s Hilton Head to Walt Disney World is *ahem* a bit longer. The hotel is located 339 miles away from Magic Kingdom. Until Hyperloop becomes a thing, that’s not exactly convenient access. What I would point out about the introduction of this resort is that it arrived less than six months after Vero Beach. Disney doubled down on the beach timeshare premise, with the two properties operating on a similar timeline.

Hilton Head was a bit different in that Disney didn’t purchase land directly on the beach. Southerners who travel a lot know that this South Carolina island area is small and insular, with unique criteria for land owners and developers. Even neon signs are banned in Hilton Head. Business owners must display wooden ones of a certain height. I say all of this to note that even a corporation as powerful as The Walt Disney Company has to play ball to build in Hilton Head.

Why did Disney want a DVC resort in Hilton Head? Call it a kindness to DVC members. Hilton Head is in the conversation for best beach in the south, and the city has somehow navigated the tricky balance of being a tourist destination that still has a communal vibe. I’m a lifelong southerner who could have gone anywhere on the planet, and I chose to honeymoon in Hilton Head. The place is majestic.

Disney’s presence here guarantees that program participants can vacation at one of the most beautiful places in the United States. Plus, they can spend time doing a remarkable number of events onsite. The one knock of the resort is that you have to walk or drive to the beach. Having done both, either way is fine. The beachfront space that Disney uses is insular enough that you’re not fighting the standard beach crowds.

I view this property as the hidden gem in the entire DVC lineup. It was a savvy addition to the program.

Boardwalk Villas

Disney’s BoardWalk Villas

One of the oddest aspects of the DVC program is how the evolution occurred. From December of 1991 through September of 1995, Old Key West was the only DVC resort. By July of 1996, Disney had four properties in its DVC lineup. Two of them were outside the Walt Disney World campus, which made them “safer” choices in the timeshare industry landscape of the time. Old Key West had been the gamble, and Disney doubled down with its BoardWalk Villas.

Before we get to BoardWalk, let’s backtrack to 1990, the year before the start of DVC. Disney’s Beach Club Resort opened 13 months prior to Old Key West. It quickly became a favorite due to its proximity to Epcot, particularly the World Showcase. Disney executives learned that the idea of a back entrance to the parks had some appeal…and not just to DVC members.

To capitalize on the idea, Disney went all-in on the idea of a special entertainment district behind the World Showcase. Called the BoardWalk, it hearkened back to a simpler time when vacationers traveled to Coney Island and other resort destinations with boardwalk areas. Disney’s BoardWalk featured specialty shopping and resorts plus an adjoining resort. While Beach Club still didn’t have DVC villas yet, the new BoardWalk Resort debuted with them.

With the introduction of BoardWalk Villas, DVC owners received unprecedented benefits for the era. They could walk outside the hotel lobby and enter several restaurants and shops. They had a boating transportation system that could take them to the International Gateway at Epcot or the front entrance to Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Also, DVC members could stay at a hotel that was only minutes away from the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. This factor is the primary reason why BoardWalk Villas is frequently booked during special Epcot events, ones that offer food kiosks and alcoholic beverages. For better and for worse, it’s the favorite of DVC members inclined to get hangovers.

Due to its resort proximity and the amenities of the nearby BoardWalk, BoardWalk Villas is one of the most important additions ever to the DVC lineup.

Wilderness Lodge

The Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge

Quick, name the flaw with the DVC program at the end of 1996! The answer is right there in front of you. Disney added two resorts in beach communities, a resort near Epcot, and a resort kind of off on its own near Disney Springs. What they lacked was a presence near Magic Kingdom, the seminal theme park at Walt Disney World.

In 1994, Disney introduced their latest resort, Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. It was an architectural triumph that dazzled vacationers with its stunning lobby and breathtaking hotel grounds. It was also only a boat ride away from Walt Disney World. While DVC members had dreamt of the three monorail resorts for some time, villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge were unmistakably the next best thing.

Six years later in November of 2000, The Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge opened to DVC members. These rooms quickly became fan favorites due to their rustic style. The overall theming at the resort also won over members who still expressed frustration that DVC wasn’t available anywhere on the monorail.

Recently, Disney changed the name of the original DVC rooms at this hotel to Boulder Ridge Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. They also revamped the rooms to modernize them, although Disney kept the same rustic philosophy. Plus, the resort added some new features that we’ll discuss in part two of this piece, the one that covers Copper Creek Villas & Cabins at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge.

Beach Club Villas

Disney’s Beach Club Villas

We’ve already touched on the history of Beach Club Resort, one that intersects with BoardWalk Villas in many key ways. Still, Beach Club has one thing that BoardWalk (and every other DVC property) lacks. That amenity is Stormalong Bay, a pool/mini-water park that’s remained a hotel exclusive since virtually the beginning.

The only people who get to swim here are the ones who stay at Beach Club. From 1990 until 2002, DVC owners looked on Stormalong Bay with pure envy. Finally, Disney added DVC villas to Beach Club and thereby satisfied its most loyal customers. While the subject is divisive to many, I think it’s fair to say that Beach Club Villas has all the benefits of BoardWalk Villas PLUS the huge amenity of Stormalong Bay access. That’s why I think it’s in the conversation for best overall DVC property.

Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa

As Disney entered the 21st century, their DVC additions took on a more strategic tone. With Wilderness Lodge, they provided DVC members with better access to Magic Kingdom. At Beach Club, they offered more rooms near the back entrance to Epcot, and they threw in Stormalong Bay to boot.

Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa covered the one glaring omission to the current lineup in 2004. It gave guests ultimate access to Disney Springs, which was then known as Downtown Disney. The entertainment district here was a hotbed of nightlife at the time, but it already had several of the restaurants and stores that you love back then. Close proximity to this area was the missing piece to the DVC puzzle at the time. Only one other addition could have a similar impact, and that resort that we’ll discuss next time arrived in 2009.

Before I close out Saratoga Springs, however, I want to mention two other huge benefits for DVC members. The first is that the resort has golf onsite. Lake Buena Vista Golf Course is so easy to reach that I’ve stumbled onto the course a couple of times looking for other stuff. And the other benefit is the onsite spa, Senses. Before another, more storied resort joined the DVC lineup, Senses represented the finest (and only) DVC spa for stressed out guests looking to relax and unwind for a while.

These seven DVC resorts debuted from 1991 through 2004, a 13-year period. In part two, we’ll look at another seven DVC resorts, ones that cover the period from 2005 through today, another 13-year period. From the meta perspective, it’s impressive how Disney has meticulously scheduled improvements and additions to the DVC lineup. You’ll see more of what I mean in the companion article.