The Mysteries of the
Bonnet Creek Resort

March 26, 2009
Bonnet Creek Resort
Chelonia Parkway is the entrance to the Bonnet Creek Resort.

You’re driving down Buena Vista Drive through Walt Disney World. Soon after you pass Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort on your way to Downtown Disney, you come upon the entrance to the Bonnet Creek Resort.

Disney’s Bonnet Creek Resort? No. Not Disney. Just Bonnet Creek Resort.

What’s the Bonnet Creek Resort? And what’s it doing inside the arches of Walt Disney World?

If you turn at the entrance, Chelonia Parkway takes you off Disney property to a 482-acre master-planned resort complex, surrounded on three sides by Disney property and on the fourth side by Interstate 4.

Bonnet Creek Resort
As guests return to Disney property, they’re greeted by a Disney Vacation Club billboard.

Let’s go back to 1962. A mystery investor purchased approximately 500 acres of land in the middle of nowhere. Well, not quite in the middle of nowhere. The property was 17 miles southwest of the downtown area of Orlando, a Central Florida city with a population of just 394,899 in the 1960 census. The major industry in the area was agriculture, but this parcel was still wild. The investor must have thought the land might be worth something some day.

Bonnet Creek Resort
Architect Guy Butler developed a master plan for the 482-acre property.

Who was the mystery investor? Rumors suggested it was Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek. Orlando Sentinel reporter Tim Barker did some digging in 2000. On July 18, Barker wrote that the ownership was “a little unclear,” citing public information:

According to Orange County [Florida] property appraiser’s records, the land is owned by World Union-Cayman Limited, a company whose mailing address is a bank in the Grand Cayman Islands. But in the early ’80s, according to Circuit Court records, the owner’s name was World Union Industrial Corp., a company based in Hong Kong.

A month later, Tim Barker published the name of the mystery investor. He was a Taiwanese man, Ling Kai Kung, who had died in 1992. For his Orlando Sentinel article on August 17, 2000, Barker spoke with Houston attorney Alan Ytterberg, who deals with complicated estate and probate matters:

But it appears that Chiang Kai-shek’s only connection to the property was through his marriage into a wealthy Chinese family in 1927. Ling was his nephew by marriage.
“All the mystery behind it really isn’t all that mysterious,” said Alan Ytterberg, the attorney who represented Ling’s estate.
Ytterberg insists that Ling purchased the land on his own as an investment, without any involvement from his uncle, a pivotal figure in the development of modern China and Taiwan.

Barker wrote that Ling thought the site might be useful for warehouses, shipping, and space industries.

Bonnet Creek Resort
The Wyndham Bonnet Creek Resort was the first project at the Bonnet Creek Resort.

Two years after the mystery buyer bought the land, other buyers began acquiring far more land in the same area—over 27 thousand acres. Those buyers, who turned out to be working on behalf of Walt Disney, managed to buy the land to the north, west, and south of the mystery property, but they couldn’t buy the mystery property itself. Perhaps Walt Disney’s agents couldn’t find the owner. Or perhaps the owner wanted too much money or just didn’t want to sell.

Bonnet Creek Resort
You can see the Caribbean Beach Resort from the Wyndham, but there’s no direct access.

In 1971, Walt Disney World opened, with most development several miles northwest of the mystery property—which remained untouched. Beyond Disney’s property, hotels sprouted to serve Disney guests. After the opening of EPCOT Center near the mystery property in 1982, roads and resorts came to this part of Disney’s property. Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort opened in 1989, immediately adjacent to the mystery property—which still remained untouched.

Bonnet Creek Resort
The Wyndham Resort provides buses to the Disney parks from its Tuscan-style entrance.

Things began to change in 1993, the year after Ling Kai Kung died. The Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID)—the Disney-controlled entity that serves as the local government for Disney’s Florida property—and representatives from World Union Industrial Corporation worked out design criteria for the mystery property, which was now being called the Bonnet Creek Resort Area. Although the Bonnet Creek Resort Area was not within RCID jurisdiction, the parties came together to work out issues such as road access, compatible development on adjacent lands, and storm water management. According to publicly available online documents at the websites of Orange County and RCID, the parties entered into official “Interlocal and Development Agreements” in 1993 and 1995, with numerous subsequent amendments.

Why is access to the Bonnet Creek Resort from Buena Vista Drive? On the west was Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort and a future resort site (which became Disney’s Pop Century Resort). Osceola Parkway, on the south, is blocked by access ramps from Interstate 4. To the east, Interstate 4 is a formidable barrier. Buena Vista Drive, to the north, was the best choice; it’s an arterial road with direct access to Epcot Center Drive, which connects to Interstate 4 and World Center Drive (S.R. 536).

Bonnet Creek Resort
The Wyndham Bonnet Creek Resort has an upscale lobby.

In 2000, Orlando-based Brooksville Development Corp. became the developer for Bonnet Creek Resort. Orlando-based architect Guy Butler created a master plan with a timeshare resort, four or five high-end hotels, and an 18-hole golf course.

The first hospitality company to join the project was timeshare developer Fairfield Resorts Inc. In 2002, Fairfield bought 46 acres, with an option for 12 additional acres. The Fairfield Orlando at Bonnet Creek Resort opened in June 2004. It’s now called the Wyndham Bonnet Creek Resort after Fairfield’s parent company bought the rights to the upscale Wyndham brand. When completed, the resort will have 1,594 timeshare suites—far more than the largest Disney Vacation Club resort, Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa (828 units in the main section plus 60 Treehouse Villas).

Bonnet Creek Resort
The pool at the Wyndham Bonnet Creek is undoubtedly much busier on warm, sunny days.

For years, no other hospitality company joined the project. Finally, in May 2006, Hilton Hotels Corporation announced plans for a 1,000-room Hilton hotel and a 497-room Waldorf Astoria luxury hotel. New York’s famed Waldorf Astoria has been owned by Hilton since 1949. In early 2006, Hilton used the legendary name to launch the Waldorf Astoria Collection, competing against other luxury brands such as Marriott’s Ritz-Carlton. The Waldorf Astoria Orlando would be the first newly built Waldorf Astoria since the New York original in 1931.

Bonnet Creek Resort
A sign at the construction site provides a preview of the Hilton and Waldorf Astoria.

Hilton’s press release explained, “Bonnet Creek Venture, Ltd., a joint venture between Brooksville Development Corporation and the estate of the original owner of the property, will oversee construction and ensure delivery of the project.” Yep. The press release actually said, “the estate of the original owner of the property,” without revealing the name Ling Kai Kung or who now controls his estate. So there’s still an effort to shroud the ownership in mystery.

Bonnet Creek Resort
The Hilton and Waldorf Astoria will share a 115,000 square-foot conference center.

In June 2006, right on the heels of the Hilton announcement, Wyndham Worldwide revealed plans for the 400-room “Wyndham Lake Buena Vista Hotel and Spa at Bonnet Creek Resort,” to be built adjacent to the Wyndham timeshare resort. (What a long hotel name!) The plans include conference facilities and a two-level, 14,000-square-foot spa.

With the Wyndham hotel announcement, all lodging sites on the west side of the Bonnet Creek Resort have been claimed. That leaves two remaining sites on the east side of the property: a 12.6-acre site currently designated for a timeshare resort and an 11-acre hotel site. Both are directly up against the interchange of Epcot Center Drive and Interstate 4.

Bonnet Creek Resort
The Hilton, under construction in February 2009.

A protected nature preserve and Bonnet Creek itself (the waterway) separate the eastern and western development areas of the Bonnet Creek Resort. A 2008 press release from Waldorf Astoria described how the private nature preserve will also be an attraction for guests:

The 75-acre Bonnet Creek Nature Preserve is a diverse ecosystem, which includes state-protected wetlands and a native forest of conifers and deciduous trees that 100+ migratory birds call home.
Resort guests will have the opportunity to explore the nature preserve on a walking path designed to minimize its impact on the environment. On escorted walks naturalists will engage participants’ curiosity in the Central Florida region by sharing tips on birding, identifying flora and fauna and the ecological history of the area. The Bonnet Creek Nature Preserve will also be a teaching tool in the property’s Young Explorers children’s program.
“In the midst of Orlando’s many sites and attractions, the Bonnet Creek Nature Preserve offers a tranquil escape,” states Tom Parke, the resorts’ director of marketing.

Why doesn’t Disney do something similar for its guests somewhere in its vast nature preserves?

Bonnet Creek Resort
The Waldorf Astoria, under construction in February 2009.

The Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek and the Waldorf Astoria Orlando are both scheduled to open October 1, 2009. The Wyndham Lake Buena Vista Hotel and Spa at Bonnet Creek is expected to be completed by the first quarter of 2010.

Bonnet Creek Resort
Rendering of the Hilton (left) and Waldorf Astoria (right)

Bonnet Creek Resort
Rendering of the Wyndham Lake Buena Vista Hotel and Spa at Bonnet Creek Resort

There are two more mysteries...

With so many new upscale and deluxe hotel rooms opening in the Walt Disney World area in 2009 and 2010—including not only the new rooms at the Bonnet Creek Resort, but also the new Four Seasons Hotel in the northeast part of Walt Disney World—are there enough guests with deep pockets to fill those rooms, even after the economy improves?

Consider the number of new rooms described in this article. Then add the two new Disney Vacation Club resorts, new off-site Hilton and Marriott timeshare resorts, 4,000 to 5,000 lower-end rooms planned for Flamingo Crossings on the western edge of Disney’s property, and other hotel projects in Orlando (especially the thousands of new rooms going in near the Orlando Convention Center). Now let’s assume—and hope—that the economy improves and those rooms will be full. Where will the occupants of those rooms go to have fun, at least when they’re not attending a meeting? The theme parks of Walt Disney World aren’t doing anything to add substantial capacity.

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© 2009-2010 Werner Weiss — Disclaimers, Copyright, and Trademarks

Updated March 5, 2010.

Photographs at Bonnet Creek Resort: 2009 by Werner Weiss.
Publicity artwork is copyrighted by the respective owners.