There was a time when Trinidad South, one of the six themed "villages" that make up Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort at Walt Disney World, was the least popular part of the hotel. The rooms were farthest from the sprawling resort's central food court and main swimming pool, and guests who wound up in them frequently asked to be moved.
So Disney decided to turn the rooms over to pirates.
In an eight-month overhaul completed just under a year ago, construction crews removed the rooms' conventional furniture and replaced it with bed frames shaped like pirate ships and dressers made to look like stacks of crates and treasure chests. They ripped out carpet and installed fabric designed to look like a wooden deck. They hung paintings of Captain Jack Sparrow, the fictional pirate famously portrayed by actor Johnny Depp in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
Today, Disney says, the 384 rooms in Trinidad South have supplanted those in the villages immediately adjacent to the dining hall as the most-requested rooms at Caribbean Beach. They are in such demand that Disney recently raised their price to $30 above the resort's standard nightly rate — up from the $25-a-night premium it had been charging.
The pirate-themed rooms are the first example at Disney World of a concept the company has dubbed "storybook" hotel rooms, which feature more elaborate themes than the resort's conventional rooms and are linked to specific stories and characters.
Disney says it has been so pleased with the performance of the pirate rooms that it intends to expand the storybook concept to more hotels, both in Orlando and at its resorts around the world.
The approach reflects Walt Disney Co.'s corporate strategy of focusing on key franchises — from pirates and princesses to Toy Story and Cars — that can be leveraged across its film, television, theme park and merchandising divisions.
"We're trying to take what we are so great at — storytelling — and take it right to the room," said Mark Rucker, vice president of lodging for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.
Rucker said Disney's Imagineering attraction-design unit is currently studying "at least" three new storybook proposals and that the company has identified the next Disney World hotel to get the storybook treatment, though he declined to identify either the hotel or the concepts under consideration.
The plans come amid a trying period for Disney's hotels. Occupancy at Disney World's 24 company-owned hotels and time shares fell to 81 percent during the final three months of 2009, down from 85 percent a year earlier. While that was significantly better than other Orlando hotels — region-wide occupancy, excluding Disney hotels, bounced between 50 percent and 60 percent during a similar time period — it was the lowest level Disney World has reported since early 2004.
Disney began toying with the storybook concept several years ago, with a pirate-themed suite that opened at Disneyland in 2006. But when it decided to test the concept on a wider scale, it turned to Disney World, where it has approximately 25,000 rooms.
The 2,112-room Caribbean Beach hotel proved an ideal fit. The property was scheduled for routine renovations, so rooms were already going to be temporarily unavailable for rent.
Further, the resort's tropical theme meshed seamlessly with one of Disney's most profitable franchises: Pirates of the Caribbean. Disney's three Pirates films — a fourth will be released next year — have grossed approximately $2.7 billion worldwide, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, and fueled sales of everything from video games and action figures to pirate makeovers in the Magic Kingdom.
As part of the project, Disney had its Imagineers custom-design pirate-themed furnishings. Most striking: beds with headboards shaped like a ship's bow — including extensive rigging and reading lights that look like lanterns hanging from a mast — and footboards resembling the stern.
They added smaller touches. The main portion of the room can be separated from the bathroom area by a curtain with a skull and crossbones; when the lights are turned off in the main room but left on behind the curtain, the pirate logo appears to glow.
Disney declined to say how much it spent renovating the rooms, but Rick Allen, general manager of both Caribbean Beach and Disney's Pop Century Resort next door, said it was "significantly more" than it would have spent as part of a typical renovation. "They're not off-the-shelf ships," he said.
Since the rooms opened last March, Disney says feedback from surveys and focus groups has been uniformly positive. The findings helped soothe early concerns that the rooms, while they were certain to appeal to boys, might repel girls.
"The boys love it primarily because it's pirates. The girls connect it to the movie," Allen said.
Disney's storybook concept resembles the approach used at Nickelodeon Suites Resort, a 777-room hotel just beyond Disney World property that incorporates popular characters from cartoons such as SpongeBob SquarePants and Rugrats. Universal Orlando and Loews Hotels have also tried the concept, with a handful of Jurassic Park-themed suites in Royal Pacific Resort and a Dr. Seuss suite in Portofino Bay Hotel.
While Disney plans to add more storybook rooms in the near future, the timing depends in part on aligning the work with existing hotel-rehab schedules. Disney's hotels typically undergo "soft" renovations, in which bedding, curtains and other fabrics are replaced every six years, and more-extensive "hard" renovations, including new furniture, every 12 years.
There is some risk. A hotel that is inextricably linked to a specific character or story — rather than relying on a broader theme — could become vulnerable if the popularity of those characters wanes following, for example, a weak movie.
"If you pick something that you think is going to be a hit and then you invest all this money into these themes and it just doesn't come through for you, then not only are you not going to get a return on investment, but you are also trying to promote a weak product," said Scott Smith, a lodging professor at the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management.
Rucker, Disney's vice president of lodging, said the company takes steps to minimize such risk. Disney has already plotted out a research schedule to test the appeal of the concepts under consideration for the next wave of storybook rooms.
"We're making sure that it's going to be a home run," Rucker said.