The Illumination of Disney's New Site-Specific Hotels

In celebration of the history of California and the splendors of an African safari, the team at Walt Disney Imagineering has created two fabulous new hotels, each one specific to its surroundings and a tribute to innovative architecture and lighting design. Both hotels, the Grand Californian at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, and Animal Kingdom Lodge at Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL, were designed by the Denver, CO-based architecture firm Urban Design Group. Architectural lighting for the Grand Californian is by Lighting Design Alliance in Long Beach, CA, and for Animal Kingdom Lodge by the Brandston Partnership in New York City. In both cases, the lighting accents the distinctive architecture to create warm, inviting environments for the hotel guests.

On Safari in Orlando

“The goal was to give the Animal Kingdom Lodge a real African theme,” says Howard Brandston, principal of the Brandston Partnership. “I've been to Africa on real safaris. I've been out there walking in the back country, and not just staying in fancy lodges.” What the designer successfully evokes at the Animal Kingdom Lodge is the sense of life in the African wilderness, of “being in the dark with just a fire, of seeing animals in the daylight and at night,” he explains. In fact, there is an incredible menagerie, ranging from giraffes to wildebeests, which can be seen grazing on the hotel's natural savanna.

As a result, Brandston gave the hotel a found-in-the-moonlight quality, using very simple techniques. (“This was no place for a tour de force,” he says.) Thus the exterior of the structure, which is built to resemble a wooden hunting lodge, is covered with just enough light to meet all codes, adding to the illusion that the illumination comes from the moon, the stars, and several outdoor fire-pits.

To create the glow of moonlight in the animals' area, 50W PAR-20 metal-halide fixtures by BK Lighting were surface-mounted to the back of the parapet below architectural roof fences. “It was important to achieve an enhanced moonlight look, with a cool color that's very soft. You are lighting animals and want to give the impression they are walking around in the dark,” says Brandston.

“Each exterior area is different,” adds the LD. “It is an experience of discovery, like in Africa, where it is dark until the light of a fire shimmers in the distance.” To help achieve this quality, themed fixtures by Spero in the animal feeding areas use 25W lamps in 11'6" (3.5m) wooden poles with decorative bases. In addition, fixtures by Illumination Lighting and Exterieur Vert create “firelight” at bridges and pathways that embrace the resort, as well as at the base of circular staircases that lead to exterior balconies. These fixtures, installed below grade with decorative shrouds at grade level, have three 50W Ushio Ultralife lamps on different dimmed circuits to create the flickering fire effect.

Inside the expansive main lobby, with its voluminous beamed ceilings, Brandston went for a simple solution, lighting the roof using adjustable recessed downlights by Cooper Portfolio and Edison Price, all with 100W PAR-38 HIR lamps. Fixed downlights by Liton over the registration desk have 50W MR-16 Ultralife lamps by Ushio. The same lamps are used in decorative pendant fixtures (by Illumination Lighting) that accent the lobby. African masks that peer out from various spots in the lobby are highlighted by stem-mounted fixtures by BK Lighting with 60W PAR-30 HIR lamps.

A series of enormous decorative chandeliers provide important focal points in the lobby decor. These were designed by Peter H. Dominick, principal at Urban Design Group, referred to by Brandston as “the design chieftain” for the project. These large fixtures look like fans fashioned from eight African tribal shields, with designs in earth tones of browns and reds, opening upward toward the ceiling. These shields are lit from several different angles, with 50W 120V PAR-30 floods for backlight, 50W 12V MR-16 narrow floods for downlight, and 35W 12V MR-16 narrow floods providing uplight. To break up the large expanse of the lobby, magnificent examples of African art are brightly lit by 50W MR-16 Ushio Ultralife lamps in recessed downlights by Cooper Portfolio and Kramer. Two newel posts are topped with ostrich eggs, which are lit with 250W fixtures by Skyline Design. “The lamps gently pulse,” explains Brandston, “to give the sense of the beating of the ostrich's heart.”

Leading from the lobby to the outside areas in back of the hotel are massive doors designed with a Tree of Life pattern. These are lit with 100W PAR-38 spots and floods by Edison Price and are hidden in the ceiling, “like a natural source,” says Brandston. “Many of the lights here are hidden away, but really do the job.”

The Lodge's restaurants continue the theme, with custom-designed fixtures inspired by African motifs. In Boma, a buffet venue, there are custom metal cylinders (by Illumination Lighting) with cutout shapes and dried grass fringe at the base, as well as colorful glass globes, or gourds, in bright shades of orange, yellow, and green, from Slick Designs. The pendants in Jiko, an upscale vegetarian restaurant, are abstractions of birds. Small versions of the fixture are attached to the curved wall at the back of the room. The birds become larger in size as they come off the wall, creating a sense of motion towards the entrance of the restaurant. Two MR-11 lamps (one under each wing) uplight the golden fabric of the fixtures by Luminary Tools. Mara, a fast-food spot, also has small Sirmos gourd-shaped pendants around the food service area. Decorative pendants in the Zawadi Marketplace gift shop are by Illumination Lighting.

Control of all lighting for the hotel is via an ETC Unison system that uses DMX to control some of the larger custom fixtures that are dimmed, including the shield chandeliers in the lobby, and MR-16 “fire pots” by Exterieur Vert leading to the main entry. “We wanted maximum control for these fixtures, in order to give them a theatrical look,” says Sabra Zacharias, lead designer for the Brandston Partnership on this project. Most of the control stations are in areas where only staff are allowed, and use ETC's LCD screens.

Mock-ups were done to make sure the lighting provided a safe environment, met code, and still created a safari atmosphere. “We didn't know how some of the spaces would work until we saw the mock-ups,” Zacharias explains. “We were excited when it all worked together, code-wise and aesthetically. The hotel creates a retreat from the parks, and allows you to understand what Africa is all about — especially for those who might not be able to go there,” she notes.

“We wanted to create the sense of being in Africa as a primitive, unspoiled place,” says Brandston, who describes a place where the people are happy and live simply. “There is a sense of joy throughout the hotel, and a sense of cheerfulness,” he adds. “You feel elated when you are there. We took a lot of design latitude to make this a special place.”

California Theming

The Animal Kingdom Lodge is a small slice of Africa located in a quiet preserve on Disney's vast reserve of Florida real estate. In comparison, Disney's Grand Californian Hotel sits between the company's two Anaheim theme parks, Disneyland and California Adventure, by way of the new Downtown Disney retail and restaurant zone. Also designed by Peter Dominick and Urban Design Group, this hotel was inspired by the early-20th-century California Arts and Crafts architectural movement seen in the work of Greene and Greene, and Bernard Maybeck. But the small Craftsman bungalows of these artists pale in comparison to the sheer scale of the hotel, whose interiors combine the styles of Arts and Crafts with those of Frank Lloyd Wright and William Morris.

Large wooden timbers, a soaring six-story lobby, an oversized inglenook with wood-burning stone fireplace, floral and foliage designs, and examples of the state's decorative arts give the hotel a true California feeling. Large trees along the main entryway to the hotel — the first Disney hotel actually located inside one of the company's theme parks — give a sense of California's woodlands, and make the hotel look like a bungalow, albeit a giant one, in the woods.

The exterior lighting was conceived to immerse the guest in the hotel's theme at the moment of entry onto the property. “We paved the way to lead guests into the hotel using stylized bollards along the entry drive to lead you to the porte-cochère,” says Julie Reeves, project designer for Lighting Design Alliance. Under the porte-cochère are higher light levels provided by two large chandeliers made by Eric Industries and designed by Randall Johnson of Urban Design Group. PAR-20 lamps add extra sparkle. There are Lumiere MR-16 bullet lights nestled in the porte-cochère's beams for additional downlight. Exterior, trellis-like balcony rails are also illuminated with Lumiere 203 bullet lamps. These are mounted under the trellises for uplight to accent the architecture.

The main lobby is a magnificent, soaring room with natural light streaming in from high windows during the day. “The goal was to fill the void, so the scale was crucial,” explains Reeves. To highlight the room, there are six grand chandeliers in the Arts and Crafts style. Each is made with four wood-finished arms projecting from a central stainless steel bowl. Each arm holds an acrylic, copper, and iron shape that symbolizes a flower petal. “These are typical Craftsman materials,” says Reeves, referring to the wood, metal, and glass of the chandeliers, which were also designed by Randall Johnson and manufactured by Eric Industries.

There are also four hanging lanterns on each chandelier (one per arm), in the Craftsman style that use A-lamps to give the glass a glow. The chandeliers also house 250W halogen PAR lamps. “These provide the actual light for the lobby,” Reeves adds, pointing out that they were unable to recess any lighting into the massive wooden beams. The center bowls of the chandeliers also have four Philips MasterColor metal-halide lamps tucked inside to give the ceiling an extra glow.

“We wanted to create the idea that the chandeliers and decorative fixtures, including lamps, lanterns, and sconces, actually lit the hotel,” Reeves notes, adding, “but we needed to fill in with ambient light.” To light the lobby's enormous stone fireplace, two framing projectors from Times Square Lighting were hidden behind copper panels in the ceiling. In addition, a fiber-optic system by Special-T Lighting provides pinpoints of light in the seams of the copper panels, with amber glass on a flicker wheel, to enhance the warmth of the fire. The amber glass has black lines on it to create the flicker effect as the wheel turns. “This adds a glowing sparkle to the space,” she says.

The light grazing the stone facade of the fireplace comes from additional Lumiere 203 bullets. (“These were the workhorses on this job,” Reeves adds.) Additional lobby lighting comes from fixtures built into the furnishings designed by Richard Brayton of Brayton Hughes Design Studio in San Francisco. Many of these built-in fixtures are lamps built into sofas and banquettes, featuring glass panels in rectangular wood boxes backlit with high color-rendering fluorescent strips with a warm color temperature. The fluorescent lamps are from the Osram Sylvania 2700K series.

In a small bar off the main lobby, hanging black metal fixtures have Mickey Mouse patterns cut into them. Custom-designed by Brayton Hughes, these fixtures use antique-style A-lamps from Rejuvenation Lighting. Low-voltage striplights from RSA are built into the casework of the room, while Lightolier AR-11 adjustable fixtures accent the carved bear motif on the front of the bar.

The Napa Rose is an elegant restaurant which was designed by Dorf Associates in New York City. “This room is a real testament to the success of the warm color of the 2700K fluorescents behind art glass in the ceiling, behind the bar, and in the columns,” says Reeves, adding that the fluorescent units are dimmable. The decorative fixtures here (and in the hotel's Storyteller Cafe, a family-friendly dining venue), are by Sirmos, with adjustable pinhole MR-16 downlights by Prescolite recessed in the ceiling to accent the tables.

The Boardroom, part of the hotel's conference facilities, has a barrel-vaulted wood ceiling and three large chandeliers that are the focal point of the room. Each is built around a circular wagon wheel with hanging lanterns of rose and purple art glass. “These are successfully backlit with Osram Sylvania fluorescent tubes,” says Reeves, noting that International Ironworks and Troy manufactured many of the fixtures used in the remainder of the public spaces, as well as the chandeliers in the ballroom and meeting rooms.

In the guest rooms, incandescent lighting is dimmable from the bedside. The custom fixtures by Troy echo the Arts-and-Crafts style in stained-wood box-like lanterns supported on wood brackets. The art glass found on all four sides of the fixtures has a rose motif, one of the hotel's signature design themes. “The colors of the glass vary in each fixture, from amber and milk white to red and green,” notes Reeves.

The lighting throughout the hotel is controlled by an ETC Unison system located in a central dimmer closet, with four-scene preset wall stations operated by the hotel staff. There are also remote jacks that allowed the designers to carry around portable consoles for programming.

From a safari-like interpretation of Africa to a tipping of the hat to California's native architecture, Disney has created two site-specific hotels. Each answers to different design challenges and each one has distinctive lighting that accents the architecture and creates warm, inviting environments for Disney's guests.

Contact the author at elgreaux@primediabusiness.com.