Disney habitually says of its attractions, “It’s all about the story.” The company won’t build a ride, won’t design a setting for a character meet-and-greet, won’t even mold a character topiary for Epcot’s garden festival until that feature has a story. So when the resort discarded its plan for a redesign of Downtown Disney a few years ago, it brought in its Imagineers to develop a new story and an expansive makeover for the dining, shopping and entertainment district.
Now, the feel of the district — newly renamed Disney Springs — is finally emerging as new shops and restaurants open. The final piece — a “neighborhood” called Town Center, built around manmade springs that will tie it all together — will be completed late this year.
It’s the latest incarnation of a small commercial development that Disney opened 40 years ago primarily for local residents. That little shopping center has grown to a free tourist destination that will have more than 150 businesses — more than doubling the number of restaurants, shops and entertainment venues — strung along a mile-long walkway with a new emphasis on the waterfront.
It’s another way for Disney World, the largest theme park resort in the world, to draw more visitors and to induce its 50-plus million guests and their dollars to stay on its property. And it comes at a critical time, as theme parks and major attractions throughout the country are seeing jumps in attendance and spending, and are turning that revenue into new and expanded attractions, intensifying competition.
Smaller regional parks usually don’t have large shopping/dining/entertainment centers. But the big operators, primarily Disney and Universal, see them as an integral part of their resorts, which also have theme parks, hotels and sometimes water parks. Disney Springs is the biggest such center of them all.
“There is so much growth right now. Both Disney and Universal are under way with major attractions, and International Drive is doing the same thing. Everyone is expanding their opportunities,” said Steve Birket of Birket Engineering and president of the Themed Entertainment Association, which includes theme parks, museums and other attractions.
“The big destination parks want to keep people on their property,” said Birket, who lives in Orlando. With the expansion of Disney Springs — or the substantially smaller CityWalk, where Universal revamped its restaurant lineup in 2014 — “a lot of folks will say, ‘I’m just going to stay on property,’ ” he said.
Disney Springs is part of the 25,000-acre Disney World, where it sits near the southeastern edge of its property, closest to Epcot, accessible by car or the buses that run among the parks and on-property hotels. There is no admission fee. It’s a very small part of Disney World — 120 acres — and a minuscule part of the Walt Disney Co. In the company’s 124-page 2014 annual report, the makeover of Disney Springs warranted two lines. But for Disney World, it’s a very big deal.
When Disney began its latest re-imagining of Downtown Disney, the company wanted it to have the warmth and nostalgia of an old-fashioned small town. That vision is represented in Town Center, the centerpiece and the only piece of the district that would be built from scratch. Overall, Disney Springs will have four neighborhoods and more than double the number of businesses that Downtown Disney had when it is completed. The other three neighborhoods would retain their contemporary ambiance.
The story, said Maribeth Bisienere, senior vice president of Disney Springs, is that this is a small, welcoming waterfront town of early-1900s Florida, where settlers were attracted by the springs and their natural beauty. It was inspired in part by Kismet, Florida, now a ghost town in the Ocala National Forest. But at the end of the 19th century, it was a new community built around citrus groves near Alexander Springs. Kismet is where Walt and Roy Disney’s parents met and married, although they moved to Chicago not long afterward, years before their sons were born.
The neighborhoods are:
▪ Town Center: This predominantly retail area is being built on what used to be a parking lot, with bubbling springs running its length and a water tower at the main gateway as its signature element.
Peek over a construction wall now, and it’s hard to visualize what it will look like, but Disney says the shops will be smaller and look a little older than the rest of the district, representing the beginnings of this small town a century ago. The architecture will be Mediterranean. Most of it is expected to open in late May or early June, Bisienere said, with the rest to be finished before the end of 2016.
▪ The Landing: This area used to be the adult-oriented Pleasure Island, a cluster of nightclubs that closed in 2008, located between Downtown Disney’s Marketplace and West Side sections. Some clubs were torn down, others remodeled for new tenants. Several waterfront bars and restaurants — Morimoto Asia, Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar and The Boathouse — opened last year and more are to come. Longtime Downtown Disney restaurants, including Portobello, Raglan Road and Fulton’s Crab House, are also part of The Landing.
▪ The West Side: This entertainment-heavy neighborhood, with Splitsville Luxury Lanes, Cirque du Soleil, House of Blues, the Characters in Flight tethered helium balloon, and a movie theater, will stay largely the same with some new businesses and upgrades. Disney Quest, which houses arcade and interactive games, is to be replaced by an NBA-themed attraction that is still in the design stages; dates have not been set.
▪ The Marketplace: This neighborhood has new infrastructure and some new businesses, including the Dockside Margaritas bar. It has a new causeway that connects the area near The Lego Store across the water to Rainforest Café, and four new shops on the causeway; a bridge to Saratoga Springs Resort; a pedestrian bridge across Buena Vista Drive; and a dock for ferry service.
The tenants are a mix of Disney-owned businesses and national franchises, most of them small.
With many of the construction walls gone and new businesses open, Robb Alvey, owner of the ThemeParkReview.com website, sees a transformation.
“Downtown Disney felt just horribly disjointed. It felt like three areas just glued together. Now it’s a cohesive area,” said Alvey, who says he typically visits the area once a week. “It has more of an upscale vibe — not upscale to the point where it’s out of reach, but high end. … It’s a nice place, but it’s a fun place. I love it.”
The plan also addresses traffic and parking issues. One parking garage has opened and a second is to open in late spring. There’s a new flyover ramp from Interstate 4 directly into the new garage. Two new pedestrian bridges cross Buena Vista Drive into Disney Springs. The Reedy Creek Improvement District, the government agency that serves the resort and whose board members are chosen by Disney, paid for the $360 million worth of improvements.
Duncan Dickson, a former Disney executive and an associate professor at the Rosen College of Hospitality at the University of Central Florida, said the congested traffic and lack of parking discouraged local residents. Now he expects many will return.
Bisienere said the redesign is drawing a great response from local residents. “We are hearing so much more from the locals now, they’ll come, even for just an hour, to sit outside and listen to the music,” she said. “We want to be open to all individuals … from South Americans to locals. … Disney Springs has something for families, for those in their early 20s and those in their 70s and 80s.”
Disney won’t say how much the revamping cost, only that it would create 1,200 construction jobs and 4,000 permanent jobs.
The forerunners of Disney Springs date to the mid-1970s, when the area was intended to give local residents a taste of Disney, said Dickson, who worked there in 1975 when it was called the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village. The village went through several names and incarnations, growing and gradually evolving into a tourist destination that became Downtown Disney in 1997.
THE NIGHTCLUB ERA
Pleasure Island and its nightclubs opened in 1989. Although some said the clubs were a rare misstep by Disney, they lasted almost 20 years. Disney closed them in 2008 and produced a plan to replace the clubs with shops and restaurants, but little of that plan got beyond the design stage. Buildings sat empty, their entrances disguised by masses of potted plants, while musicians and other street performers distracted passersby.
“After they decided Pleasure Island wasn’t going to work, it kind of languished,” Dickson said. “It kind of lost focus for a while. They had to do something with it.”
Businesses closed, but there were bright spots, too. The Paradiso 37 restaurant opened in 2009 next to the old Adventurer’s Club on Pleasure Island. Harley-Davidson moved its apparel store from Pleasure Island to a larger space on the West Side in 2011. Splitsville, an entertainment center with bowling, billiards, restaurant and bar, opened in the old Virgin Megastore at the end of 2012. Some say that was when the transformation really began.
Disney was closemouthed about Downtown Disney at that point. But out of the public eye, a creative team was being assembled. “We thought a lot about it — what is the feeling that we want our guests to have? How do we develop a Florida story line?” Bisienere said. It would not be just a shopping center with restaurants. Guests “want to be immersed in an experience, not just to shop and dine,” she said.
FOCUS ON WATERWAYS
In May 2013, the plans for Disney Springs were unveiled with the emphasis on the lake and the springs, more fine-dining establishments, and a mix of shops that trend upscale. The meandering walkways would have musicians and other performers strategically placed for casual entertainment. Parking garages would be added, and they would be free.
As construction proceeded, new businesses moved in. One was Chapel Hats, which opened its 16th store and its first in Florida at The Landing a year ago, expecting that the opportunity to play dress-up would appeal to people on vacation.
“We’re kind of an affordable-luxury product; our prices are impulse oriented,” said John McKernan, owner of the company, which sells most of its hats in the $20-$80 range, although some cost as much as several hundred dollars. “People have a lot of fun, they’re taking pictures, they’re trying on a top hat, they’re trying on a fedora. It’s dress-up time. We knew we would fit in well.
“It has worked out fantastic. We knew it would be busy but it’s been busier than we expected. I can’t say enough good things about how well Disney runs it. They have done a great job from the restaurants to the retail to the musical experiences. And if you just watch the people, they’re really in a great mood.”
Alvey had been dubious about whether Chapel Hats would thrive, but its success told him Disney Springs would also do well.
“When Chapel Hats opened, I thought ‘Who’s going to come here and buy?’ But I was wrong. It kind of resonates with the people that come here. I really thought it was a place that wouldn’t work out. But it’s totally packed and they’re not just trying on hats,” he said — they’re buying the hats.
Harley-Davidson — which sells branded apparel, gifts and collectibles but no motorcycles at its Disney Springs store — has also done well there.
“It’s one of our more successful locations. People love it,” said Cheryl Zelenak, director of marketing for Orlando Harley-Davidson. “People are in that tourist state of mind, they’re looking to connect with the brands they love. Disney is one, Harley-Davidson is another. They are Americana. And kids love motorcycles.”
HEAVY ON RESTAURANTS
In the 1970s, Dickson said, “the major emphasis was on retail. Now the major emphasis is on dining, and retail is there to support it. … It’s going to be very restaurant heavy. That’s not a bad thing — that’s what’s drawing people in.”
The most recent restaurant opening was Morimoto Asia, by the restaurateur and Iron Chef competitor Masaharu Morimoto, featuring his first pan-Asian menu. It includes Indonesian duck fried rice, pad Thai, laksa noodle from Singapore, Vietnamese pho and more familiar Chinese and Japanese dishes.
From the outside, clubbers might recognize the building that once housed Mannequins Dance Palace, but the inside has been totally redone. Shimmering 20-foot chandeliers of beaded glass add a note of glamor; a rack of hanging Peking ducks in the exhibition kitchen is evidence of the range of the menu. There’s a sake menu, including a sake flight, four varietals of Morimoto’s signature sake for $35. Upstairs is the late-night Forbidden Lounge with an abbreviated menu and signature cocktails.
“This is my first-ever pan-Asian restaurant — I’ve wanted to create a menu of my favorite Asian flavors for some time,” Morimoto said in a statement. “I thought this would be a perfect fit here because the people who come to Disney represent so many different cultures and nationalities and have an adventurous spirit.”
Morimoto will add a waterfront terrace, joining The Boathouse and Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar, both of which opened earlier in 2015 and have lakeside seating, as well as indoor seating.
“That water has been there for decades,” Alvey said. “With Downtown Disney, it’s almost as if they didn’t realize the value of that real estate. There was almost no seating with a view of the lake.”
The Boathouse has nautically themed décor and an upscale menu of steak, chops, seafood and a raw bar. And it offers a bonus: rides in “Amphicars” — classic cars from the ’60s that are amphibious and cruise Lake Buena Vista. The 20-minute ride costs $125 for up to three passengers.
Next door, Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar, named for a character in the Indiana Jones movies, has several seating areas, a lengthy drink menu and a short menu of nontraditional bar food including falafel tacos, spicy meatball sliders with yogurt sauce, and fried calamari with harissa aioli.
More restaurants are under way, including STK, an upscale steakhouse with rooftop dining and a lounge with a DJ that is expected to open by early spring; and Frontera Fresco, a casual table service restaurant by Chef Rick Bayless, known for his authentic Mexican food, which is planned to open in the summer.
Some tenants are Disney owned, including Disney Quest, a huge World of Disney Store and a new store selling exclusively Star Wars merchandise, but most are not. Most won’t be found in malls across America. Some of the new tenants are one-of-a-kind like Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar. The family-run Vivoli Gelateria is only its second store — the other is the original in Italy. This STK will be one of 15 STKs that are open (including one in Miami) or are soon to open.
On a pleasant night in mid-December, before the holiday crowds arrived, the walkways were busy. Couples and families stopped to watch a violin player performing outside Portobello or a singer by Jock Lindsey’s, or to eat a gelato from Vivoli Gelateria. They bought Star Wars paraphernalia, checked for waterfront seats at the new restaurants, took each other’s photos on a bike at the Harley-Davidson store.
“It’s the perfect setting,” said Harley-Davidson’s Zelenak. “The whole redesign of Disney Springs makes a lot of sense, it’s going to bring in new life for tourists and for locals. … We think it’s a real big positive. We can’t wait for it to be done.”
These shops and restaurants are scheduled to open at Disney Springs during 2016.
STK: A modern steakhouse with rooftop dining; lounge with a DJ and music nightly; will be next restaurant to open, early spring in The Landing.
Frontera Fresco: Gourmet Mexican cuisine by Rick Bayless, a six-time James Beard Foundation award winner.
Homecoming: Farm-to-fork cuisine that showcases ingredients from Florida and the specialties of Florida and the South, by Chef Art Smith; glass-walled show kitchen and the Southern Shinebar.
The Edison: A lavish “Industrial Gothic”-style restaurant and bar with classic America cuisine and live entertainment (contortionists, palm readers, DJs and more).
Sprinkles: Cupcake bakery, ice cream and homemade cookies with 24-hour “Cupcake ATM.”
Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza: Fast-casual restaurant with custom pizzas “fast-fired” in a blazing hot oven, ready to eat in three minutes.
Planet Hollywood: Existing restaurant will be made over as a star-themed Planet Hollywood Observatory with a new outdoor terrace and bar called Stargazers with live entertainment.
Zara: Men’s, women’s and children’s clothing and accessories.
Tommy Bahama: Island-inspired sportswear, denim, and swimwear for men and women.
Lilly Pulitzer: Palm Beach-inspired women’s resort and beachwear.
UNIQLO: Japanese casualwear for men, women, children.
PANDORA: Jewelry, including exclusive Disney-themed pieces.
UGG: Men’s, women’s and kid’s footwear plus clothing and accessories.
L’Occitane en Provence: Skincare and beauty line
Edward Beiner: Fashion eyewear.
Source: Walt Disney World Resort
These businesses opened recently at Disney Springs:
Morimoto Asia: The first pan-Asian restaurant from the Japanese master chef Masaharu Morimoto, with exhibition kitchens, street-food stalls, Peking duck carving, dim sum, a sake flight, and the Forbidden Lounge.
Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar: An aviation-themed lounge named for a character in the “Indiana Jones” movies, with small plates.
The Boathouse: Nautical themed restaurant with steaks, chops, seafood and a raw bar; three bars; guided tours aboard a 40-foot Italian Water Taxi and Amphicar rides.
Paradiso 37: Newly renovated, with double the seating; building an outdoor performance stage.
Vivoli Gelateria: Gelato plus Italian panini, biscotti, espresso and tarts; take-out.
Apex by Sunglass Hut: Sport performance and lifestyle eyewear with environmental simulators so shoppers can test how specific lens will perform under a variety of light conditions.
The Art of Shaving: Barber Spa plus high-end shaving supplies and related grooming products.
Chapel Hats: Stylish hats for customers of all ages.
Dockside Margaritas: Waterfront bar, reminiscent of a 1960s Florida roadside fruit stand.
Erin McKenna Bakery NYC: Cupcakes and other desserts, savory offerings, all-vegan and gluten-free menu.
Erwin Pearl: Specializing in fashion jewelry and accessories.
The Ganachery: Chocolate shop.
Havaianas: A Brazil-based shoe store that offers fashionable as well as customized flip flops.
Sanuk: Casual and outdoor footwear.
Sound Lion: Personal and home sound products such as headphones and Bluetooth speakers that can be tried out at the Listening Bar.
Tea Traders Café by Joffrey’s: Loose-leaf teas, customs blends, accessories and packaged teas.
Source: Walt Disney World Resort
Revenue: In 2014, the company’s revenue was $48.8 billion; the parks and resorts division (parks in the U.S., Europe and Asia; Disney Cruise Line; the Aulani Resort in Hawaii; the Disney Vacation Club; and the tour company Adventures by Disney) accounted for $15.1 billion of that. Disney won’t publicly break down the numbers beyond that.
Attendance: Like most parks, Disney does not make its gate figures public. However, the Themed Entertainment Association estimated the total number of guests at Disney World’s four parks at 51.5 million in 2014. Magic Kingdom has more guests than any other park in the world, at 19.3 million; all four rank in the Top 10 in the world. Florida’s four Disney parks and California’s two are the top six parks in the U.S. for number of visitors.
Growth: Companywide revenues were up 8 percent in 2014; that’s after a 7 percent increase in 2013. For the parks and resorts division, revenues were up 7 percent; the year before, revenue increased 9 percent. Attendance was up 4 percent at Magic Kingdom and 2 percent at the other three Disney World parks. The company says more guests are coming to Disney World and its hotels and they are spending more.