I was in the process of delivering one of my monthly reports to the Disney executives and board members in California when the discussion turned to the need for a convention center hotel. “What about us?” I again asked. Since we were already building the Hilton and had completed their Polynesian renovation, we were a logical, available, and trusted source.
I jumped at the chance. But I insisted on inserting into the contract for the convention center hotel a clause specifying that Disney must not build (or allow others to build) a larger convention center facility in the area for ten years after ours opened. This meant that no other hotel would be permitted to have a ballroom larger than 100,000 square feet ours would be much larger than that. A huge ballroom is the key to accommodating significant numbers of conventioneers in a single place. Another part of the clause said that competing hotels could also not have ancillary facilities such as a high number of meeting rooms.
With a minimum of fuss, the Disney executives signed this contract, and we planned a groundbreaking ceremony. Disney took over the preparations for that ceremony and made it into a grand one, replete with Mickey Mouse leading the festivities, marching bands, and their top executives turning over shovels full of dirt for the benefit of the television cameras. Those executives included two brand new ones, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells who, that day, were all smiles as they took part in the festivities and examined the detailed, full-scale model of the entire Disney World area, including EPCOT and our proposed hotel.
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Ground-breaking for our first hotel at Disney World. Michael Eisner and Frank Wells had only recently joined the Walt Disney Company.
Between the signing of our contract for the convention center hotel and the ground-breaking in 1984, The Disney Company had fallen into a weakened financial position and two outside buyers had sought to purchase the company, break it up, and sell off its component parts. Roy Disney, Walt’s brother, had fought to preserve the company, and in that battle one of his advisors had been Frank Wells. A former vice-chairman of Warner Bros., Wells had been biding his time outside of Hollywood climbing the highest mountains in the world. Wells advised Roy to have the Disney company hire as its CEO Michael Eisner, who in eight years as head of Paramount had produced a string of movie hits ranging from Saturday Night Fever to Terms of Endearment. Beginning as a page at ABC in 1963, Eisner had worked his way up in television to be head of that company before moving to Paramount. The Disney board was willing to hire Eisner as CEO but only if Wells came along as the financial guru and COO. One of the duo’s first accomplishments was to convince a major Disney stockholder, the Bass family, to make a public statement that they would not sell their Disney stock for five years; this helped quell market misgivings about The Disney Company’s prognosis for recovery.
Two months after the ground-breaking ceremony for our hotel that Eisner and Wells had attended, and as construction on our hotel was about to begin in earnest, I learned by reading an article in the Orlando Sentinel that Disney was planning to build a larger hotel than ours at EPCOT. This was a clear violation of our contract, so I had our lawyer write Disney a letter citing the existing contract and directing them to cease and desist on any plans for a competing convention-center hotel. Eisner and Wells refused, saying that the existing contract was non-binding, for various reasons. Among them (at various times) they asserted that the contract did not have the proper signature on it, or that the person who had signed it for Disney had not had the authority to do so. We showed them that a parent company Disney executive had
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