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Walt Disney World to rebuild Treehouse Villas

Orlando Sentinel

Original Article »

February 19, 2008

Hidden among the trees in an obscure part of Walt Disney World, one of Disney's more unusual and largely forgotten housing options is getting new life.

The giant resort intends to tear down and replace Disney's Treehouse Villas, a community of 60 two-story housing units that have been used at various times as for-rent lodging, Disney Institute guest housing, and international student-worker housing.

The three-bedroom villas -- essentially octagonal town houses on pedestals, looking a little like treehouses -- are scattered throughout a forested back road between a Disney World golf course and a canal, where they have aged, sometimes not well, for 33 years.

While a few of them are in plain view to golfers on the Lake Buena Vista Golf Course and to resort guests who take a ferry-boat ride up the canal, they are well out of sight for the vast portion of the 100,000 or more people who occupy Disney World on any given day.

They're the kind of place, said independent Disney World author and podcaster Lou Mongello, that only "Disney geeks like us" talk about. Mongello, who lives in New Jersey has even stayed in them a couple of times, though he did so decades ago.

"The thing I remember about the villas, I liked so much, is you didn't feel like you were in Florida. You didn't feel like you were in Walt Disney World. It felt like you were remote and distant from Orlando and the theme parks and the hustle and bustle," said Mongello, author of the two-volume The Walt Disney World Trivia Book. "It was lush and so green. Very lush."

And a little bit hush-hush.

Disney officials haven't made much of the villas for years, and even now they aren't willing to discuss their plans in any detail. The company sought and received permission from the South Florida Water Management District recently to tear down the villas and replace them. Disney World spokeswoman Andrea Finger said at least some of the new units would be available for use by resort visitors -- the first time any of the Treehouse Villas have been open to the public in several years.

She would not discuss whether the new Treehouse Villas would be rented as lodging, sold as Disney Vacation Club time shares, or both.

"We are bringing them back as a popular option for our guests," she said. "The unique location has provided a tranquil and more secluded environment that our guests have enjoyed since the mid-'70s."

Disney first opened the villas in 1975. Strung along a cul-de-sac road more than a quarter-mile long off Disney Vacation Club Way, the complex has its own pool and a small clubhouse. The villas were renovated in 1987 and then converted to housing in 1996 for the short-lived Disney Institute; at least some were sometimes made available for regular park visitors until 2002.

By then they were showing their age.

According to Ray Maxwell, district administrator for the Reedy Creek Improvement District, most or all of the Treehouse Villas had been shuttered by the time Hurricane Charley blasted through Central Florida on Aug. 13, 2004, wrecking the villas and the surrounding woods. The damage was such that there was talk that Charley might have spawned a small tornado into the area, he said.

"A lot of trees blew down, and there was a lot of damage to the units," Maxwell said. "They [Disney officials] took them out of service. Before they could do anything, the units needed to be rehabbed."

In 2005, at least some of the units were reopened as housing for international students working at Disney World, and were used as such until just a few weeks ago, Finger said.

The sign out front at the gate warns, "Cast Members Only."

Much of the complex was built in the flood plain, so Disney could not tear down the old villas and replace them with just anything. The new plan reduces the units' ground-level "footprint" from 340 square feet to 84 square feet each by eliminating the first-floor living space. Consequently, the new buildings will be even more treehouse-like, supported by sets of pilings.

The South Florida Water Management District approved the plan Feb. 4.

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