Rumor SPOTLIGHT for December 27, 2013: The legacy of Downtown Disney and the future of Disney Springs
Universal CityWalk and the Orlando Eye have been much in the news the past month, thanks to newly-announced expansions and, even, name changes. And at the beginning of the year, Disney Springs made headlines, as Disney announced the new complex would replace – and greatly expand upon – Downtown Disney. All three venues represent the bid of their respective companies for a bigger, more diverse, and more inclusive dining/shopping/entertainment district, a play for the next decade and the next generation of Orlando vacationer – and all three represent major risks for their investors, for their geographic locations, and, perhaps most importantly of all, for visitors of all stars and strips.
As it turns out, though, a successful, forward-thinking shopping/dining-combo venue has proven to be an elusive goal for the past 40 years.
Back to the beginning
When Walt Disney World first opened its doors in 1971, it was meant to be a multi-park, multi-hotel, multi-venue destination – some day. At the time, however, the 13,000-acre lot was occupied solely by Magic Kingdom and its raft of hotels and golf courses. The resort’s next major attractions, Discovery Island (the predecessor to the Animal Kingdom theme park in the middle of Bay Lake) and River Country (the world’s first themed water park), didn’t arrive until ’74 and ’76, respectively (and have since both been closed, incidentally).
With construction slowly creeping across Disney World, the need quickly became apparent for a common ground for all the visitors, locals, and, even, the residents that were expected to be living on-property, in the form of such dwellings as Celebration, Florida (which has long since been spun off into its own municipality). Taking its cue from the modern shopping malls that were, at the time, only 50-years-old, Disney crafted the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village in 1975. It was quaint, laid-back, and not destined to last long at all.
By ’77, Disney executives realized that grand hotels were the way of the future, not more-or-less permanent residences – even Epcot would be retooled from the living, working “city of the future” model that Walt himself envisioned in the ‘60s to a standard theme park in ’82. (And the idea of either a moderate or value hotel wouldn’t manifest itself until the late ‘80s/early ‘90s.) Since vacationers are primarily interested in souvenirs as opposed to amenities, the area was renamed the Walt Disney World Village and played up the merchandise angle heavily.
That rebranding lasted longer, but Disney soon became taken with an obsession that has lasted to this day (and has been the total rationale behind the company’s recent NextGen initiative): preventing guests from leaving the resort for any reason whatsoever. It became increasingly obvious that patrons were doing just that starting in the late ‘70s and progressing all throughout the ‘80s, absconding to Orlando’s Church Street Station to visit the area’s vast collection of nightclubs and bars. Disney needed an “adult playground” of its own, and in 1989, it got just that: Pleasure Island, an addition to the Village where 18-and-overs could celebrate New Year’s Eve every single night of the year.
To commemorate the occasion, the area was once again rechristened, this time to Disney Village Marketplace.
While it worked – Pleasure Island ended up becoming the de facto hangout for tourists and locals alike – it didn’t last for long, either. In 1993, Universal debuted its new CityWalk expansion over at Universal Studios Hollywood, taking elements from both Church Street and the Disney Village Marketplace and infusing them with a hipper, more modern ethos. It was so successful, the company announced that it would also be opening up a CityWalk chapter at its Universal Studios Florida location in ‘99 as part of its overall Universal Orlando Resort expansion. Disney World guests would once again be tempted to leave Eden.
There was also the hugely growing influx of guests for Disney to consider. By the mid-‘90s, Walt Disney World had finally started to come into its own, consisting of three theme and three water parks, with their attendant hotels nearby and a seventh planned park (Animal Kingdom, which opened in ‘98) down the road. The new external threat and the building internal pressure required a new outlet, and Disney obliged: it merged the Village Marketplace and Pleasure Island sectors together, greatly expanded the number of stores and restaurants on-hand, and rebranded it all as Downtown Disney in ‘97.
This time, it didn’t succeed. CityWalk became the after-hours destination for all Orlando denizens almost overnight – a mantle which it has maintained to this day, 15 years later. With demand dwindling away to nothing, Disney finally threw in the towel, shutting down Pleasure Island’s several comedy and nightclubs in 2008. (Though, for the record, the company refused to acknowledge that low attendance was to blame; instead, it stated that guests simply asked for more family-friendly venues, and it was, of course, happy to oblige.)
In keeping with post-Walt practice, the buildings weren’t demolished or (immediately) renovated – they were simply boarded up and abandoned, not unlike the aforementioned Discovery Island and River Country.
Springin’ to Disney Springs
With a main section of its Downtown Disney complex dead in the water and a goodly number of its customers jumping ship for their nighttime excursions, Disney has made several attempts to revitalize or otherwise revamp the area over the past six years. Only a number of these have been made public, but each, of course, was announced with much fanfare, whether it be Flamingo Crossings (which was actually intended to be a second Downtown Disney located across at the other side of the property) or Hyperion Wharf. All died very quiet, behind-closed-doors deaths.
Until March 14, 2013, when a back-to-the-drawing-board expansion called Disney Springs was announced. The multi-year, opening-in-phases project, which is already under construction, will not only replace the discarded Pleasure Island, it’ll double the number of overall tenants (to 150 – blowing CityWalk’s lineup out of the water) and establish a new, “waterfront town” theme intended to grab all demographics, as opposed to just the nightlife crowd.
The company has been promising a mix of Disney and third-party outlets, including a balance of original creations and national chains, that will be connected via “open-air promenades, meandering springs, and waterfront charm.” Obviously, the adults-only crowd is now just one of a multitude, including the ever-more-important Disney Princess subset.
So far, though much of the Disney Springs project remains unofficial, it seems that Disney is keeping its word, with the latest rumor holding that none other than Apple will be making its presence felt at the new district, and in a major way – it’ll open the world’s biggest Apple Store (yes, even bigger than the one in Amsterdam). With an Observatory purportedly in the works along with food trucks (hello, Bumblebee Man’s Taco Truck!) – not to mention, of course, all the concept art floating around – Disney Springs does, indeed, hold a lot of promise for all future Disney World visitors.
The question remains, though: how will it stack up to CityWalk, which is also getting its own (mini) expansion, one that should be fully complete at the same time that Springs opens its final phase? And the corollary: how will the black swan of the flock, the Orlando Eye, impact either of the grappling titans?
That’s where the story gets really interesting.
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