Playful Architecture at the Swan and Dolphin

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Michael Graves Takes on Walt Disney World Resort, Lake Buena Vista, Florida

Swan and Dolphin Hotel reflected in its own lake, Orlando, Florida
Swan and Dolphin Hotel, Orlando, Florida. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Archive Photos Collection/Getty Images

Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort at Walt Disney World® is not just a couple of Florida hotels. They are also entertainment architecture. Designed by postmodernist architect Michael Graves, in association with Alan Lapidus and the interior design firm of Wilson & Associates, the two connected hotels (the Swan and the Dolphin) have more than 2,500 rooms and suites, 17 restaurants and lounges, five swimming pools, two health clubs, and five nearby golf courses.

But these facilities are only part of what makes the Swan and Dolphin so entertaining. In keeping with the whimsical world of other Disney Architects, Graves designed a postmodernist environment to amuse, delight, and stimulate the imagination.

How did the architect make these buildings so entertaining when they were built back in 1990? Here are five reasons why we keep smiling when we visit Orlando.

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Water Architecture

Rooftop Dolphin Fountains Designed by Michael Graves for the Disney Corporation
Rooftop Dolphin Fountains Designed by Michael Graves for the Disney Corporation. Photo courtesy Swan & Dolphin Media

Michael Graves goes wild with water at these hotels. Inside the lobbies are fountains, either swans or dolphins. Outside the hotels are ponds and lagoons—man-made beaches and rentable Swan paddle boats just steps away. At the Swan, twinkling fountains in giant clam shells sit atop seven-story wings. At the Dolphin, water cascades nine stories through five seashell-shaped troughs into a 54-foot clam shell. The fountains are regulated by special wind gauges that reduce water pressure and keep guests dry on gusty days.

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Mural Magic

Michael Graves Designed Waves on the facade of the Swan and Dolphin hotels near EPCOT in Orlando, Florida
Michael Graves Designed Swan and Dolphin hotels near EPCOT in Orlando, Florida. Photo courtesy Swan & Dolphin Media

Florida's tropical landscape is echoed in hand-painted murals on the exterior walls of the Swan and Dolphin. The Dolphin mural features banana leaf patterns. The Swan is painted with stylized waves. The murals took nearly six months to complete.

Custom-painted murals and nearly 7,000 prints are on display in the guest rooms, corridors, and public spaces of both hotels. Architect Michael Graves selected art from artists whose style influenced him, including Picasso, Matisse, Hockney, and Rousseau. Graves, himself, produced more than 200 design renderings for the resort’s murals. These renderings were then commissioned to artists for completion. So when you spend the night at either hotel, chances are that your room will include a signature work by the architect.


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Playful Statues

Michael Graves Designed Playful Statues and Mural Magic for the Dolphin Resort in Orlando, Florida
Michael Graves Designed Playful Statues and Mural Magic for the Dolphin Resort in Orlando, Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images News Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Enormous statues, weighing 60,000 pounds each, perch atop each hotel. The Dolphin has two 56-foot tall fish sculptures. The Swan has a pair of 47-foot high swans. Representing classical and contemporary symbols of water, the fish and swan sculptures invest the hotels with personality and a sense of fun without using actual Disney characters.

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Streamlined Interiors

Michael Graves Designed Dolphin Guestroom at the Swan and Dolphin hotels near EPCOT
Michael Graves Designed Dolphin Guestroom at the Swan and Dolphin hotels near EPCOT. Photo courtesy Swan & Dolphin Media

In his original room designs, architect Michael Graves took a whimsical approach. Striped cabana-style doors lead to playful peach and teal colored interiors with floral-shaped lamps and beach-theme furnishings. Note the view from this room, overlooking a huge swan. The sculptures are everywhere.

Since the hotels opened in 1990, rooms have been regularly updated. One of the first remodelings came fourteen years after opening. The hotels aspired to a more sophisticated look, so Graves launched a complete redesign of the interior spaces. Armoires were replaced with sleek, maple wood bureaus with frosted glass details. Headboards were painted with Michael Graves designs that suggest some of his streamlined postmodern architecture. Custom-designed carpeting and draperies, with a Graves-designed insignia, complement new designer wall coverings. A sleek, maple wood bureau with frosted glass accents replaces existing armoires in the guestrooms, providing ample drawer space for guest belongings.

Michael Graves is renown for his product designs, and guest rooms at the Swan and Dolphin are like mini-museums filled with signature items. From the occasional chairs to the trash basket, the draperies to the bathroom amenities, every detail works together to create a sleek, unified, and decidedly "Gravesian" look.


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Back to Architecture Basics

Aerial Photograph Shows Distinction of the Swan Hotel and Dolphin Hotels, Separate Entities connected by a bridge over a lagoon
Aerial Photograph of Swan and Dolphin as Distinct Hotel Buildings. Photo courtesy Swan & Dolphin Media

Architect Michael Graves is no dummy. With designing the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort, the architect creates a stand-alone storybook destination to fit in with the Walt Disney Company's branding. But Graves' playful ornamentation is just the icing on the cake of good design.

The resort is an entertaining mix of geometries—pyramids and rectangles mingle with circular pathways and roadways. The Swan and Dolphin are two distinct hotels—the Swan a bit more upscale than the Dolphin—but they are connected by a walkway over a shared lagoon. The placement of the buildings and water areas are precise. Graves knows that how a building is sited is as important as the design itself.

Graves carries the theme of swans and dolphins inside and out, allowing playful views from interior spaces and extraordinary perspectives that mix and mash the two buildings when photographed at street level (or lagoon levels).

The casual observer—or the Walt Disney World visitor—may be unaware of the architecture, and that's the genius of the architect. All that matters is that the architecture entertains. And it does.