December 4, 2022

Yosemite landmark inspired Disneyland’s most serene spot

It takes an hour to descend the winding mountain road of 120 East to get down into Yosemite Valley — more if you stop at the scenic overlooks, or you’re particularly averse to driving on narrow roads with hairpin turns and no guard rails separating you from a sheer drop of thousands of feet. 

Maybe that’s part of the reason Yosemite feels so magical. By the time you get down to the bottom, you really feel like you’ve earned it. Like you deserve to get to be in such a beautiful place, if only for a little while. 

I wanted to visit Yosemite for the sake of seeing one of America’s most iconic national parks. But I also wanted to visit Yosemite because of one particularly special spot. For other people, that might be El Capitan or Half Dome. For me, it was the Ahwahnee Hotel

The Ahwahnee is a once-in-a-lifetime thing if you’re a regular person. If you’re Queen Elizabeth, who visited with Prince Phillip in 1983 and rented out the entire hotel for her personal use, you can go whenever you want. But for me, it was a huge stretch to book a one-night-only splurge on the fanciest, most famous hotel in California’s most famous wilderness. 

The Ahwahnee's quiet walking trails have unbelievable scenery.

The Ahwahnee’s quiet walking trails have unbelievable scenery.

Julie Tremaine

When I finally pulled up to the expansive stone and timber lodge dotted with green awnings all set against the sheer rock faces of the surrounding mountains, I realized I had seen this all before. If the background were different — say, if I could see the Pixar Pal-A-Round and some roller coaster track — I could just as easily be in Disneyland’s California Adventure. 

The similarities are incredible, and not just the building’s appearance from the outside. (While it looks like timber, the hotel is actually constructed of fire-resistant materials.) The Grand Californian — and the Wilderness Lodge at Walt Disney World — are both inspired by this historic hotel, which was first opened in 1927 as a way to drum up support for national parks across the country.

“Stephen T. Mather, an American conservationist and the first director of the National Park Service was trying to find ways to increase support and funding for the young National Park Service,” the hotel’s history reads on its website. “Yosemite was Mather’s favorite park. His vision for Yosemite included upgrading the Park’s concession operations and accommodations. The solution was to build a first-class hotel that would be open year-round to attract individuals of wealth and influence to support the National Parks.”

Walt and Lillian Disney in Yosemite in 1935

Walt and Lillian Disney in Yosemite in 1935

Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection

One of those individuals of wealth and influence: Walt Disney. He and his wife Lillian visited during January 1935, and according to reports, fell in love with winter sports while they were there, especially ice skating.

Disney, according to the National Park Service, “loved Yosemite and loved winter sports” so much that, in 1965, he was awarded a contract for Mineral King, a skiing area in Sequoia National Park. “In his plans he designed a family-friendly ski resort for the area that would accommodate 7,200 guests with two hotels, 10 restaurants, a chapel, pool, and ice skating rink,” the NPS history reads. “His Disney Imagineers, including Marc Davis, designed elaborate entertainment for children in the evenings, like an audio-animatronic show about bears singing in a band.”

The resort was never meant to be — Disney died the next year, and the plans were eventually scrapped — but the attractions lived on, becoming Country Bear Jamboree at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, where it still is today.

Disney’s love of Yosemite lives on at the Grand Californian, too, which was built in 2001 and attaches to Disney California Adventure through Grizzly Peak, a forested section of the park that looks a lot like a Northern California national park. 

Hotel staff warn you to take all food items out of your car. 

Hotel staff warn you to take all food items out of your car. 

Julie Tremaine

The Ahwahnee wasn’t the only inspiration for the Grand Californian — there are definite elements of other majestic hotels in the American West and Canada — but the similarities are striking. Both were built in the signature Arts and Crafts architectural style that was popular in California in the early 20th century. Both have nature-inspired decorative touches throughout. The Ahwahnee Bar looks a lot like the Hearthstone Lounge at the Grand, both of them with soaring stone towers framing the bar space. 

The meadow behind Ahwahnee has clear views of Half Dome.

The meadow behind Ahwahnee has clear views of Half Dome.

Julie Tremaine

But more than anything, the Great Hall that’s the centerpiece of the Grand takes a page — several pages, really — from the Ahwahnee’s Grand Lounge. The original is two stories high, with balconies that overlook the cozy couches and fireplaces below. It’s decorated with stained glass in Native American-inspired patterns, and filled with art and historic objects from local tribes. Though my stay at the hotel was short, I was drawn back to that space over and over: It is so striking in its beauty and so alluring as a place to relax. I feel exactly the same about its counterpart at Disneyland, which is my favorite place to take a break from the parks and cool down from the heat

The Grand Lounge in the Ahwahnee is a destination in itself. 

The Grand Lounge in the Ahwahnee is a destination in itself. 

Julie Tremaine

For its prices and its prestigious reputation, the Ahwahnee is lacking some things I thought it might have: a ladies room on the first floor, for example, or places to refill water bottles, or reliable Wi-Fi. After dinner, as small groups of guests were sitting in the Grand Lounge, a staff member walked around and turned off all the lights around us, indicating that it was time to go to our rooms. It was 10 p.m. 

But you know what? That hour-long drive I took down hairpin turns to get to the valley floor is the exact same journey every single bottle of water and piece of food had to take to get to the hotel, but on a truck. Every person who works in the hotel made the same drive I did, but early in the morning or late at night. It’s a historic hotel kept alive by very hard work and by steep fees paid by people who can afford them. 

The El Dorado Diggins Suite used to be a speakeasy.

The El Dorado Diggins Suite used to be a speakeasy.

Julie Tremaine

There are less expensive rooms in the hotel, which could be more like $600 a night depending on when you book, but the hotel was almost totally booked on the night I needed. The only option left was the El Dorado Diggins Suite, which was $738 for one night. The room had a separate living room, sunken below the bedroom area so that the views of the meadow and Half Dome beyond were uninterrupted from either space. It was exactly as nice as it sounds. But it also has a curious history. 

The suite started as the El Dorado Diggins Dining Room, but when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, was converted into a speakeasy. (My guess is that it was just revealed as a speakeasy once it was legal to do so.) According to the hotel’s history, “The bar was complete with a fake storefront and antiques to help capture the feel of the days of the Gold Rush.”

The dining room has hosted everyone from Queen Elizabeth to Walt Disney.

The dining room has hosted everyone from Queen Elizabeth to Walt Disney.

Julie Tremaine

Next time I visit the park, I would likely opt for a $150 room half a mile down the road at Curry Village, also in Yosemite Valley, and have dinner in the Ahwahnee Dining Room. It serves pricey food, but it’s absolutely worth the cost to sit in the shockingly gorgeous, chandelier-filled room while you eat prime rib and listen to a musician play the grand piano in the center of the space. 

For now, I’ll stick with the Grand. There’s usually a musician at the grand piano there, too — only, of course, that person is playing Disney songs. 

The Ahwahnee Hotel is on the eastern side of Yosemite Valley.

The Ahwahnee Hotel is on the eastern side of Yosemite Valley.

Julie Tremaine

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