Ever since this area of Walt Disney World opened on March 22nd, 1975 and given the moniker “Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village”, it has continued to evolve and be re-imagined perhaps as much if not more than any of Disney’s other four theme parks. It was originally visualized as a shopping mall. In a few short years of opening, it was renamed “Walt Disney World Village” and with then CEO Michael Eisner coming on board in 1984, plans were in the works for new ideas and offerings to ensure that Disney’s guests stayed on property, and not venture beyond the park’s confines.
Fast forward to today, and the newly christened “Disney Springs” is a mega complex of shopping, entertainment and dining venues, hard pressed to be eclipsed anywhere else. Sectioned into four separate neighborhoods, each embodying a different era and architectural period; With Disney storytelling at its apex, every restaurant and building exemplifies its own history. Let’s take a look back and see how this “Fifth” Disney Park came into fruition…
As previously stated, Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village opened on March 22nd, 1975 in the area known as the “Marketplace” Opened just four years after the Magic Kingdom, the future “Disney Springs” eating and shopping mecca grew up with the start of Walt Disney World. So, think that when you enter the Marketplace today, it is the first shopping district in this area. The Shopping Village was described as an ambiance akin to a New England seaside village. Some of the venues were a pharmacy, a pet store, an area for craftsperson’s to sell wares, a wine cellar and tobacco shop.
The name changed in just two years to the “Walt Disney World Village”. CEO Michael Eisner realized to compete with other Orlando area nightlife locations, in particular, “Church Street Station in Downtown Orlando, a gated location that offered a one price admission to multiple clubs, more options were needed to entice Disney’s guests. On July 21st, Disney announced new adult themed area called “Pleasure Island” showcasing 6 nightclubs, one exceedingly popular one, the “Adventures Club”. Guest would pay a cover charge and gain admission to any of the clubs.
(A quick note on the Adventures Club. Walt was a gifted storyteller, one of the many reasons for his success. Almost all of Disney’s attractions, shows, eateries, etc. have a backstory, conceived by the Imagineers. One of the most interesting and detailed of all backstories is that of Pleasure Island and the Adventurers Club. Created by a man named Merriweather Adam Pleasure, any Disney fan worth their salt should research this backstory, it is truly amazing! So detailed and interwoven is this story, World-renowned Disney Historian Jim Korkis wrote a pamphlet on the subject. A very rare work, “The Unofficial Adventurers Club Guide to Adventuring the Mythology and Reality of the Adventures Club” Here is a backstory like no other! Check the internet, it’s well worth the effort)
Construction began in August, and on May 1st, 1989 (Opening day of Disney’s then “MGM Studios”) Pleasure Island bowed. Later that year, the area was re-named “Disney Village Marketplace”. As Walt Disney World continued to grow, there was more promise created for growth. On June 20, 1995, major enhancements and expansions were announced for the area, with the Disney Village Marketplace and Pleasure Island being combined into a newly celebrated district named Downtown Disney. Disney committed a billion dollars in further investment projects, one being the first World of Disney Store, opening in October 2nd, 1996 in the Marketplace.
This new area was re-named Downtown Disney on September 7, 1997. On September 15, Downtown Disney introduced the West Side, a 66 acres expansion, which featured a third shopping, dining, and entertainment area featuring venues as La Nouba, DisneyQuest, (Both now Shuttered) Rainforest Café’, Planet Hollywood and the Virgin Megastore (Now Splitsville) and the House of Blues. The West Side in addition to the aforementioned, is also the home to Bongos Cuban Café (Also closed), the AMC-24 Theater and more. The West Side is the largest of the Disney Springs areas and includes 344,000 square feet of buildings and a 9,500-square-foot area for events and entertainment.
In addition to Pleasure Island, Lego and the Rainforest Café, bigger changes were in the wind. One major problem was profitability. Many of the clubs, in particular the Adventures Club and the Comedy Club, guests would enjoy top professional entertainment, but only order a drink or none at all, sitting all night. After all, Disney is a company and it must be profitable to offer this level of entertainment. Pleasure Island Jazz Company, a club showcasing live jazz musicians which opened on August 27, 1993, was replaced by the Raglan Road Irish Pub and Restaurant, operated by an outside vender, Great Irish Pubs Florida, Inc in October, 2005. Although Disney could now amass rent payments instead of operating an expensive venue, they still had the rest of Pleasure Island to deal with. Disney could not stop the losses, and in June of 2008 made the announcement that the six remaining clubs would close by September 28th, 2008.
Disney needed to re-imagine the area, and on November 10th, 2010, Pleasure Island would be re-named “Hyperion Wharf” The backstory would be a nautical warehouse district in the early 20th century. There was to be a lighthouse and waterfront entertainment area, however no venues were ever announced, no names for restaurants, shops or entertainment outlets. Permits were gleaned and the plans were that buildings which housed the Adventurers Club, Motion and Rock n’ Roll Beach Club and BET soundstage were to be bulldozed. It was decided to keep the Mannequins, Comedy Warehouse and 8TRAX buildings. The demolition began in December 2010 and ended February 2011. A wider pedestrian bridge was also constructed from Downtown Disney Marketplace to Pleasure Island.
But with all the grandiose plans, Disney kept stalling on the project, basically nothing was moving forward. Something else was in the works, and the project was delayed indefinitely as Disney reconsidered plans for the site. Finally, on December 3rd, 2012 the trademark for Hyperion Wharf expired. The plans were canceled because it was judged better to thoroughly overhaul the Downtown Disney area.
To end, on March 14th 2013 plans were announced by Tom Staggs, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts that Downtown Disney would be re-imagined, redesigned and expanded into “Disney Springs”, and on September 29, 2015, the name was officially changed to Disney Springs. The project would comprise of 150 new tenants, doubling of the mall area and two parking garages. The last time the area was refurbished was in 1997.
Disney Springs showcases the art of Storytelling, one of Walt’s greatest strengths. According to Theron Skees, Walt Disney Imagineering Portfolio Creative Executive, Disney incorporated many Floridian architecture and styles, so each neighborhood showcases a different era in time. Every shop and restaurant have its own history, or backstory. The idea was that “It’s meant to be a collection of buildings that were built over a time period and were really designed and built for a different purpose,” stated Skees.
Disney Springs is divided into four areas, or Neighborhoods… Marketplace, The Landing, Town Center, and West Side. The development is bordered by Lake Buena Vista to the north and the parking garages and surface lots to the south. Disney took inspiration for Disney Springs from real coastal towns found throughout Florida, such as St. Augustine and Coral Gables. Massive improvements included three parking garages, Orange, Lime and Grapefruit. In addition, there are two surface lots, Watermelon and Strawberry. The garages are high-tech, with sensors that indicate how many available parking spots in each row and deck, and Digital signs along Buena Vista Dr. indicating what lots and garages are full. A new exit ramp from interstate 4 goes directly to Disney Springs, Buena Vista Drive was widened and a bus terminal with dedicated lanes also built.
The Marketplace… Is home to shops and restaurants indicative of the American Craftsman-style architecture of the 1930s. The first restaurant, the Earl of Sandwich chain is located here. T-Rex Cafe restaurant operated by Landry’s Restaurants, which features animatronic dinosaurs, opened on October 14, 2008, and the Rainforest Café, also by Landry’s is also at this location. A walkway spanning the Village Lake and connecting Rainforest Cafe with the Lego Store, The Marketplace Causeway, was opened in 2015. More than 20 venues inhabit the Marketplace, from the Rainforest Café to the definitive Disney merchandise store, World of Disney.
The Landing… portrays the fictional town’s transportation hub and marina. This was the former site of Pleasure Island. It showcases nautical-themed restaurants and shops, and a Guest favorite, Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar. Jock was the pilot in the opening scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” who flew Indy away from the Hovitos tribe, and we learn of Indy’s fear of snakes, and The Boathouse, which is next to the dock utilized for the amphibious automobiles that offer short excursions of Lake Buena Vista. All of this whilst offering scenic waterfront views.
We cannot continue on without a quick comment on the Paddlefish Restaurant here at the landing. It began as the Empress Lilly, a full-sized reproduction of a paddle steamer, operated by Levy Restaurants. It was named after Walt’s wife, Lillian Disney, and she christened it on May 1st, 1976 opening day. In reality it is a building resembling a steamer on a concrete foundation in the lake. It is 62 feet wide and 220 feet long. It contained four dining and entertainment areas. When Levy’s contract ran out, on April 22nd, 1995 it went through a major renovation. Interiors were demolished, and even the smokestacks and paddlewheel replaced because of rust. Reopening on March 10th, 1996 as Fulton’s Crab House. Again in 2016, the eatery was again renovated into the present Paddlefish. Although the exterior was given a major make-over, the original shape, paddlewheels and smokestacks were the same.
Town Center… Serves as the main entrance to Disney Springs. It is called Disney Springs because of a series of bubbling natural springs that first attracted settlers to the area.” The backstory is a cattle rancher discovered a natural spring in the now Town Center in the 1800’s. Water is essential and many towns and cities were constructed around these sources. Disney Springs is no exception. Town Center is a Spanish Settlement with 1920’s architecture. Today, it is a major shopping district containing many high-end stores and classic comfort food eateries, i.e. Blaze Fast Fire’d Pizza, The Polite Pig, D-luxe Burger and Frontera Cocina, all along a spacious Promenade. Town Center is entered from the Lime or Orange Parking garages and the front bus depot.
West Side… The West Side was constructed in the 1950’s as a town expo. The backstory of this area, even with the House of Blues, Splitsville, Cirque du Soleil and the AMC Movie Theater unchanged since Downtown Disney days, is designed into the current story of Disney Springs. The West Side is the most contemporary neighborhood found in Disney Springs. It is the largest of the neighborhoods, with more than 344,000 square feet of building space and a 9,500 square foot space for entertainment and events. Some new attractions are the NBA Experience which opened on August 12th, 2019 replacing DisneyQuest and the newly themed Planet Hollywood Observatory. There is no separate Disney Resort Bus Stop for the West Side, just the main bus depot at Town Center.
To list every entertainment venue, shop and store is beyond the scope of this publication. Much like any Disney Park, you cannot experience the whole that Disney Springs has to offer in just one, two or even three days! The blending of eateries, shops, entertainment and attractions in many ways more than not, qualify this totally revamped area we now call Disney Springs as Walt Disney World’s “Fifth Park!”