How the Disney Vacation Club Got Its Start
Are you old enough to remember the CEO of The Walt Disney Company before Bob Iger? And no, I don’t mean Bob Chapek. I’m referring to Michael Eisner, whose Disney tenure started brilliantly but then ended in shame.
Somewhere in between, Eisner introduced the Decade of Disney. As part of his initiative, he entered Disney into a lucrative new market, villa rentals, which most people would call timeshares.
Today, we’re starting a new series about the history of the Disney Vacation Club. We’ll begin by discussing the ambitious plans during those first five years and how/why some of them fell apart.
Disney Considers the Timeshare Market
During the 1970s and 1980s, the timeshare industry emerged as a new competitor to the established hospitality industry. Even then, timeshare companies had already gained notoriety as sometimes scam-ish in nature.
Disney faced a challenging decision, as it wanted to tap into a new market: tourists who sought unconventional travel accommodations. However, the negative perception of timeshares struck executives as decidedly un-Disney.
Still, the timeshare industry had grown from $3 million in 1978 to $490 million in the 1980s. Also, Florida had evolved into one of the most popular timeshare markets. Eventually, Disney decided that it couldn’t sit this one out. But Eisner settled on a different approach from the rest of the industry.
Most timeshares operate under the theory that guests book specific weeks each year. The concept of the guaranteed week has driven timeshare businesses for 50 years now.
DVC Works Differently from Timeshares
The Disney Vacation Club took a different approach. Disney officials utilized a substantially less popular form of vacation resort ownership at the time, one with which you’re intimately familiar.
DVC wouldn’t offer the conventional Guaranteed Week, which we now call the Fixed Week, until nearly 20 years after the program’s beginning. That option didn’t arrive until Aulani offered it in 2010! Even now, Disney doesn’t emphasize this option.
Instead, DVC prioritizes its proprietary DVC Points system, wherein you can book at (almost) any resort without restrictions. You simply need to own enough DVC Points and be inside your booking window. While various outsiders consider the program somewhat arcane, it’s a painless, inventive system that allows members to benefit whenever DVC expands.
In adopting this approach (which Disney technically didn’t invent), Eisner and Disney sidestepped the negatives of the timeshare industry because Disney can legitimately say its system works differently. Also, DVC comes with the full weight of the Disney brand, which perennially ranks among the top eight most respected brands in the corporate world.
Memories of the First DVC Resort
Disney announced what would become the Disney Vacation Club in January 1990. The company broke ground by the end of the year and sold its first DVC contracts in January 1991. By the end of the year, the first members were enjoying what was then known as Disney’s Vacation Club Resort.
Those early guests at Disney’s Old Key West Resort delighted in their new accommodations. Disney sold customers on the experience by hosting them at the Commodore House, across from the Hospitality House. An unforgettable yellow bus that was closer to something from a ZZ Top video drove guests to the DVC Sales Center.
At the time, Disney required guests to spend at least $11,730 to join DVC, the equivalent of $25,800 in 2023. For that money, the initial members gained 230 DVC Points.
That’s a cost of $51 per point and also explains why we still track several 230-point Old Key West resale contracts on the open market today. They’re often sold by the earliest members!
Disney also implemented a hard limit of 2,000 DVC Points at the time to ensure that nobody could abuse the system. Nobody was quite sure at the time how guests would respond to the new DVC program. So, officials had to plan for all contingencies, even that one!
Despite Disney’s protests, several early stories referred to DVC as a timeshare program. Of course, Disney leaned into many of those familiar concepts as well. Old Key West Villas are among the largest in the DVC program because that was the trend during the late 1980s/early 1990s timeshare era.
The DVC Properties We Never Got and Some We Did
Due to the size of the rooms, the flexibility of the DVC Points system, and the Disney brand, the Disney Vacation Club program proved instantly popular. So, Disney planned to expand. Amusingly, the results didn’t work as expected, though.
During the early 1990s, DVC plotted a Newport Beach property. It would combine the benefits of a beach vacation with a 20-minute drive to Disneyland. Alas, that idea didn’t work for the locals.
After Disney spent $25 million on 35 acres of Newport Coast real estate, residents protested so much that the company canceled its plans for a 650-unit Mediterranean-style village. That wasn’t the only failed beach project, either.
The Disney’s Hilton Head Island Resort we know and love isn’t the one DVC intended. The company purchased land for 68 oceanfront villas at Hilton Head. Those plans collapsed when wealthy homeowners in the area successfully lobbied against the project.
Disney needed a vote to authorize its beachfront property, but the process never even got that far. It died long before a possible vote. No matter how much a region could benefit from DVC tourism, various residents couldn’t stand the idea of added traffic congestion, particularly during the program’s early days.
Still, the first five years of DVC proved triumphant despite the setbacks. Disney’s Vero Beach Resort opened in 1995 and became the second DVC property. A few months later, the second attempt at a DVC resort debuted at Hilton Head.
These two additions hinted at Disney’s early plans for the program. It sought more non-theme park options for loyal Disney fans. Humorously, as we’ll discuss last time, Disney fans felt differently. We prefer DVC resorts near the parks, which explains why Disney has built almost all the other properties close to Walt Disney World and Disneyland.