Back in the 1990s, my parents took me on a much longed-for holiday to Walt Disney World. They weren’t exactly keen on the idea but, in the end, they fell head-over-heels for Mickey & Co (“So brilliantly done! So polished!”). I, meanwhile, had developed a different fixation.
Eleven-year-old me was just as excited about what lay outside Florida’s theme park gates as what was inside. There was an intriguing otherness to the high-energy commercials on the car radio, the porridge-y grits at the breakfast buffet and even the universal beige of our hotel room. The contrast between the saccharine schmaltz of the Magic Kingdom and the humid reality of Kissimmee made Disney more special to me – like switching between a low-budget TV series and a no-expense-spared big screen extravaganza.
When Walt Disney World first opened in 1971, its own hotels provided a contrast to the rides and parades too. Contemporary Resort was a glimpse into an imagined utopia where a monorail ploughed the skies and an incredible Grand Canyon-themed Mary Blair mural dominated the lobby. Meanwhile, Polynesian Village had a Tiki motif, a palm-fringed pool and a surfing lake. There wasn’t a cartoon character in sight.
These days though, things have changed. Licensing took off in the 1980s and has exploded since. It’s almost impossible to buy a kids’ T-shirt without a superhero or cartoon character emblazoned on the front (and you can get toothbrushes, duvet sets and pretty much anything else to match).
To keep up, the Contemporary (doubles from £297) has installed a neon Mickey wall, giant Mickey ears and a couple of Mickey sculptures. In 2021, Moana rooms were introduced at Polynesian Village (doubles from £408). Elsewhere, more complete transformations are underway. After a lengthy renovation, the Disneyland Hotel at Disneyland Paris will offer prince and princess-themed public areas and a Royal Banquet-themed restaurant where you can dine under portraits of monarchs when it reopens in 2024.
Hotel New York at Disneyland Paris has already morphed into Hotel New York – The Art of Marvel (Disney purchased Marvel back in 2009 and the hotel got its makeover in 2021). And in 2024, Paradise Pier at Disneyland in California will reopen as Pixar Place and will “evoke the inspiration and humour that goes into every Pixar film,” according to the brand.
With carefully designed interiors and soothing colour palettes, these aren’t your average themed hotels – and they’re also destinations in their own right, not just a place to stay while visiting a theme park. While some of Disney’s older offerings (such as Florida’s Art of Animation, with its Nemo-focused bedrooms and a giant Ariel by the pool) are cartoonish, cute and clearly designed with children in mind, Hotel New York – Art of Marvel has a different vibe entirely. The brand describes it as “a stylish Manhattan modern art gallery”.
Decor is a moody take on industrial chic and lighting is low. There’s a superhero selfie station where you can pose for social media snaps among Avengers-themed staging and, in the lobby boutique, guests can buy pricey art prints. Meanwhile, at Pixar Place, visitors can expect themed fire pits, a Monsters University-inspired gym and Pixar ball cushions on the beds.
In short, these hotels seem to have been designed for adult-children rather than actual children. And there’s a reason for that. A 2022 Ofcom report found that “kids gravitate to dramatic, short-form videos on social media” – their heroes are more likely to be Mr Beast and Unspeakable than Captain America or Cinderella. My own 11-year-old is baffled by anyone with a Disney fixation. “What kind of adult would wear Lilo and Stitch pyjamas?” she asked, bemused, on a trip to Primark.
An older crowd, however, is holding tight to its childhood dreams of princesses and superheroes. A 2022 report by the market research company NPD Group found that, while sales of toys to European kids were declining, business was booming for ‘kidults’ (those aged 12 or over).
Meanwhile in the cinema, Marvel Cinematic Universe films are the highest earners of all time, grossing almost $30 billion (£24 billion). And, during the recent opening weekend of The Marvels, 30 per cent of the cinema audience was aged 25-34 – old enough to be parents themselves. Younger children can’t even officially watch these films: The Marvels is rated 12A.
With all this in mind, it’s easy to see why Disney might be hoping to attract a more mature crowd to its hotels (in age terms at least), though whether the strategy works remains to be seen. The brand thought it had come up with a winning formula when it created Galactic Star Cruiser, a Star Wars-themed experiential hotel, back in 2021.
Guests embarked on a two-night voyage of discovery, choosing their own adventure on a simulated cruise into space. The interiors were like stepping onto a set, an AI droid acted as a concierge and the consensus was that Galactic Star Cruiser offered an incredible experience. But, with a starting price of $4,800 (£3,845) for a two-night stay for two people, the hotel was beyond the reach of most of the diehard Star Wars fans still nursing 30-year-old Princess Leah crushes.
Less than two years after the resort was launched, it was shuttered. “We will take what we’ve learned to create future experiences that can reach more of our guests and fans,” said a spokesperson at the time.
Less expensive rooms and more subtle theming seems to have been the lesson learned. But things are changing outside the theme parks too. In Florida, Kissimmee’s beige hotels are slowly being turned into chic boutique B&Bs. The Golden Link Motel has become The Vietta, serving up white-on-white rooms, a cute pool and a location near the revitalised Downtown district with its vintage shops, farmers market and restaurant terraces.
Meanwhile in Anaheim, home to Disneyland, a city-wide revitalisation project includes turning old motels into public art spaces. With so much to see outside the gates, I know where I’d rather stay – and perhaps even the most diehard Marvel and Disney fans might be tempted to step into the real world for a while.