The History of Shangri-La Golf Club, Resort & Marina
The Legend, the Legacy, the Reality, and the Future
When Tulsa manufacturing legend Eddy Gibbs purchased the dwindling remnants of the Shangri La Country Club and Resort on March 1, 2010, it was not because he thought it was a magnificent investment opportunity. It was because he wanted to preserve and rebuild the long-ignored resort to the legendary beauty and quality that left such magnificent memories over the decades for Gibbs and other long-time visitors and residents of Monkey Island and Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees.
Ironically, it was another highly successful manufacturing magnate who had originally developed the tip of Monkey Island into the sprawling empire that brought fame, fortune, and a never-ending line-up of state, regional, and national leaders to the Grand Lake area in the 1970s and 80s. Wichita manufacturer Charles Davis is appropriately credited with the development of Shangri La Resort into the national destination that hosted hundreds of thousands of guests through two decades of his leadership—and for bringing millions of dollars in real estate investment and tourism to this seven-mile paradise.
Davis’ name is appropriately associated with the storied past of the resort, but he was not the original developer of what was then known as “Shangri La Hotel.” Oklahoma City Contractor Frank Richards put together a group of local investors who opened the original hotel in May 1964. Davis’ interests lay elsewhere, in his thousand-acre “Island Farms” property on Monkey Island, home to a growing herd of Angus cattle, his beloved Quarter Horses, and a growing family.
The original Shangri La Hotel struggled in those early days, changing management multiple times in its first five years before finally falling into disrepair, reduced to little more than a largely uninhabited fishing lodge. When Island neighbor Davis heard a rumor that prostitution might be a serious consideration for saving the hotel, it was more than he could bear. He purchased the property outright in May 1969. From that day, the original dream began to grow in Davis’ mind – a dream of “…a luxury resort and condominium complex offering year-round recreational and social activities…” As it turns out, that original vision was merely the tip of the iceberg.
Davis closed the hotel in November 1969, gutted the old lodge, and renovated it into an eclectic hideaway with unique and cozy dining areas. Seven months later, when he re-opened the facility in time for the 4th of July celebration, he added entertainment to the line-up. Initially, patrons occasionally were entertained by The Forrest Wasson Orchestra. In later years, as the resort and its reputation grew, the music of Wasson’s orchestra became a nightly mainstay for the resort’s upscale clientele.
The vision grew. “Mr. Davis,” as he was still referred to by former staff decades after the resort was sold, purchased an additional 200 acres and built an 18-hole Championship golf course. In 1973, the 125-unit Shangri-La Estates residential project bordering the golf course was completed. In 1974 came the addition of the Polynesian-style “Tahitian Terrace,” featuring indoor swimming, shuffleboard, food service, and cocktails all under one roof. By 1976 work was complete on another unique nightly housing option, Golden Oaks (later renamed Bradford House and is now the Worldmark by Wyndham), with 144 rooms, including 32 suites and two conference halls accommodating 300 each.
Simultaneously, Davis completed the Royal Hawaiian Conference Center in the main lodge, frequently hosting up to 600 conference attendees by day, as well as nightly musical entertainment at the nearby “Golden Eagle Ballroom.” All guests, both business and recreational, enjoyed countless hours of fun playing tennis and bowling in the newly completed Golden Leaf Recreation Center.
In 1977, the resort began to garner well-deserved regional and national attention. Mobil’s coveted Four-Star designation and AAA’s Four Diamond Award were bestowed on Shangri La that year and each year thereafter for more than a decade. Buoyed by the success, Davis expanded his dream further, adding the 4,000-foot runway at the newly developed “Golden Falcon Airpark” (Grand Lake Regional Airport on Monkey Island today), and began construction on the high-end Shangri La Chateaus – 46 privately-owned luxury homes bordering an additional nine-hole golf course. Nine more holes were added to the new course in 1982, giving the resort a total of 36 golf holes.
Davis converted his Angus Show Barn into 34 one-bedroom rental properties called “Country Estates.” The resort’s marina was constantly upgraded and expanded to accommodate vessels growing in both size and number. His investment of an additional $5 million had provided plentiful facilities to host the 1977 Midwestern Governors’ Conference – and Shangri La’s spot in the national spotlight was assured.
In 1980, a future opportunity to host every governor in America, plus a chance at a national media spotlight, led to more resort development. In January 1981, construction began on Vista Towers, an eleven-story resort facility offering 168 bedrooms in 84 two-bedroom suites, plus a private penthouse adjoining an exclusive 120-seat restaurant on the eleventh floor.
By the following spring, work was completed on an expansion of the Golden Leaf Recreation Center with an indoor pool, racquetball, casual dining, and a luxury lounge. Adjacent to the recreation center, a 48,000 square foot conference center sprang from the earth, with a “Grand Hall O’ the Cherokees” main hall that would seat 2,000 conferees in a single room – or transform into a ballroom that would leave a lengthy legacy of balls and dances.
In all, an additional $25 million was spent expanding and improving facilities in preparation for one of the nation’s most sought-after events with virtually unlimited conference accommodations and 470 luxurious guest rooms in addition to available condominiums and homes for rent. Oklahoma Governor George Nigh hosted the 1982 National Governors’ Conference at Grand Lake’s Shangri La Resort, highlighting more than a decade of prestigious convention events. Charles Davis received the Oklahoma Tourism Award for his outstanding contribution to tourism in the state, and Shangri La Resort was named “Oklahoma’s Premiere Resort” by Governor Nigh.
From 1970 to 1983, the eye-popping growth and success of the resort impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of travelers from throughout the nation and abroad, as well as to local businesses and residents benefitting from tourism and real estate investment dollars in the community. A March 1983 appraisal valued the resort at $46,800,000.00. Tragically, a confluence of regional and national economic factors combined to force Shangri La into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1986.
A trustee was quickly named to oversee plans for Shangri La’s future, setting in motion a series of ownership changes and changing business plans that gradually chiseled away at the once great property. Bank IV of Wichita took over in November 1987. A year later, a coalition led by 4th National Bank purchased the property, recouping some of their investment by selling the airport and the marina. In late 1989, they sold the remaining property to the reputable resort operator, Club Corp.
Eight years later, in 1997, the resort was sold to Irving, Texas-based Highgate Hotels, which sold off much of the property, including the “Bradford House” (originally built as the Golden Oaks condominium complex) and the premier waterfront property of the main lodge. Highgate attempted to hold some loyal patrons by maintaining a few rooms and operating “The Waters” restaurant until the autumn of 2004. The following spring, Highgate sold the remaining real estate, main lodge building, recreation center, conference center, and golf courses to Peter S. Boylan III.
Boylan promptly announced an ambitious hotel and condominium development project under a new name, “The Peninsula Resort & Club,” but a plummeting economy, rising construction costs, and the worldwide financial crisis stalled the project. Five years later, only golf and some limited recreational opportunities remained. Deposits on the planned condominium project were returned, the recreation center and convention center were razed, one of the two golf courses was closed, and the remaining Championship course fell into disrepair.
The lodge, once the host of dignitaries from around the world, became a nesting place for wildlife. Then, on March 12, 2010, the property sold once again – and a new era began. Ownership rights transferred to Tulsa manufacturing giant Eddy Gibbs who was, at the time, owner of Tulsa-based Ameristar Fence Products. And although the footprint of the legendary resort had changed, his vision of creating a world-class golf resort had not.
Progress began immediately. The remaining buildings of the original resort, painful to see in their decrepit condition, were demolished. The Championship Blue Golf Course underwent immediate renovation. Tee boxes were rebuilt. Fairways were carefully manicured, and deteriorating sand traps were totally replaced.
Work began on a stunning 13,000-square-foot clubhouse that opened on July 14, 2011, including an 85-seat restaurant, bar, lounge, fitness center, and golf shop. Two new magnificent golf holes were built to make way for the new clubhouse and adjacent practice facilities, including a new driving range. Crews began work on a new nine-hole golf course on the site of the former Gold Course, which closed two years previously due to a lack of demand.
That new course, The Champions Nine, opened for play on November 11, 2011, simultaneous with the reconstruction of the north nine holes on the old Blue Course. Those nine new holes, the Legends Nine, opened for play in May 2012, at which time the remaining nine holes were closed for complete redesign and renovation. With the completion of reconstruction on those nine holes and the subsequent opening of the Heritage Nine in May 2013, Shangri-La’s golf course included 27 all-new Championship holes.
In May 2011, Eddy Gibbs purchased Shangri La Marina, restoring an important piece of the original Shangri La Resort puzzle. Experienced professional boat sales personnel were added and full boat and yacht sales operations and a service department were quickly added to complement the ship store, fuel dock, and pump-out facilities. Improvements and expansion continued, including additional rental slips now totaling 220. On-site outdoor dining, boat and personal watercraft rental, parasailing, and yacht charters are all a part of the total on-the-water recreational offerings at Shangri La Marina. Nichols Marine at Shangri-La now offers sales of a variety of pre-owned vessels in addition to seven lines of new boats: Chaparral, Chris-Craft, Robalo, Bennington, MasterCraft, Ranger, and Triton.
The next phase of development was residential, beginning with “The Gallery,” fifteen patio homes adjacent to #9 Champions Nine. With groundbreaking in December 2014, development of the 15-home gated development was completed in 2016. Construction of a second development, The Ridge at Shangri-La, began in 2017 and includes 38 homes.
Groundbreaking for the new Shangri-La Resort Hotel was held on April 15, 2016. The new 119-room resort hotel with indoor and outdoor pools, a medical spa, indoor and outdoor dining and drinking facilities, and 8,000 square feet of versatile convention space was completed barely more than a year later. Five of Oklahoma’s six living governors were present for the opening weekend of the hotel on June 1, 2017.
In July, 2021, a new $12 million indoor-outdoor activity park was added to the resort amenities. The Anchor, a six-and-a-half acre facility with 11,000 square feet of indoor arcade and sports bar entertainment options, added year-round entertainment options at Shangri-La. In addition to traditional arcade games, the facility offers virtual reality games and simulator bays for shooting and golf, including popular Trackman golf, along with multiple pickleball and tennis courts, a basketball court, and an iconic mini-Fenway WIFFLE®ball park.
Simultaneous with the opening of The Anchor, Shangri-La unveiled a 20,000 lb. replica of one of the anchors from the USS Oklahoma, which was sunk during the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II. The monument includes the names of all 429 Oklahoma sailors and marines who died in that historic attack on the ship.
May 5, 2023, marked the opening day of The Battlefield, one of America’s most legendary Par 3 golf courses. Continuing the resort’s tradition of honoring veterans, each of the 18 holes on The Battlefield is named after an Oklahoma veteran of World War II. The Battlefield features its own clubhouse and cart facility, warm-up range, and putting green, bringing the total available golf to 45 holes, including the 27 holes of Championship Golf and the 18-hole Par 3 course. With well over $100 million in new construction in the Gibbs era, Shangri-La Resort once again serves as the anchor tenant for business growth throughout northeastern Oklahoma.
The “Shangri-La” name was restored to the property immediately after Gibbs’ purchase. The airport, renamed Grand Lake Regional Airport, is now privately owned and fully operational. Shangri-La Estates and Shangri-La Chateaus continue as highly sought-after properties, each unit under individual ownership. Similarly, condominiums at Vista Towers and Country Estates are individually owned, the buildings operated by owners’ associations.
The former Golden Oaks is now a popular time-share property, Worldmark by Wyndham, and former resort waterfront properties have been developed into new luxurious residential areas, Shangri-La Place, The Villas, and Pointe Marin. Throughout the Grand Lake area, the talk is once again all about Shangri-La.
Wichita industrial designer Richard Ten Eyck once designed and crafted a spectacular 1,000-pound eagle to sit atop Charles Davis’ Shangri La Resort as a demonstration of freedom, strength, independence, and unparalleled commitment to dreams of greatness. There is no irony in the fact that Eddy Gibbs refused to sell the highly sought-after sculpture. Instead, he retained it to sit atop a specially constructed pedestal welcoming all who approach the Shangri La Club House to join a new age of greatness – a symbol of the dream shared by two men of two different eras.
Charles Davis left a legacy of excellence and beauty of a day gone by. Eddy Gibbs maintained the same vigilance in the successful pursuit of his dream to restore that unparalleled standard of excellence to the new Shangri-La Golf Club, Resort & Marina for Grand Lake’s future generations.
For long-time Grand Lakers, the rise of Shangri-La from the proverbial ashes is a wonderful déjà vu moment. It was a rare and exciting experience to see the total rebirth of a magnificent facility following the demise of a legendary resort property at the same location and with the same name. Perhaps that is because it is equally rare to see two men of two different generations who share the same vision and destiny — two champions of industry, lake lovers, and visionaries willing to invest their time and hard-earned money into an enterprise that bolsters the hopes and dreams of neighbors and strangers alike. It is a symbol of renewed commitment to excellence for a new era that has arrived with the rebirth of the legendary Shangri-La Golf Club, Resort & Marina.
*Special thanks to Bill and Patty Davis, as well as longtime Shangri-La Country Club & Resort mainstay Suzy Bloom for their outstanding memories, their treasured documents, and their valuable contributions to the development and compilation of this history of Oklahoma’s most legendary resort property.