Monday, October 5, 2015

A History of: Disney Springs

By Brittany Bell

It’s official: Downtown Disney is now Disney Springs. Over the course of the massive expansion, Downtown Disney went from the hub of night-life and adult fun at Disney to a family friendly shopping and dining area inspired by turn-of-the-century lakeside towns in Florida. The Disney Springs revamp doubled the restaurants and shops that were at Downtown Disney and now features over 150 venues, in addition to new pedestrian bridges, a connection to the highway and two five-story parking garages. In honor of Disney Springs becoming official, let’s take a peek at the history of Walt Disney’s World’s downtown…

Before it was Disney Springs, and even before it was Downtown Disney, the entertainment district at Walt Disney World was known as Lake Buena Vista Village. It opened on March 22, 1975 as the first official shopping area in Walt Disney World. It’s original purpose was to serve the planned residence who were to live within the Walt Disney World property, but when those plans fell through it’s target audience, and name, changed. Now looking to attract visitors to Disney World, Lake Buena Vista Village was renamed to Walt Disney World Village in 1977. Renaming the entertainment hub came with the idea to “keep guests on property” and therefore provided the nightlife, shopping and restaurants that the parks did not.

The Walt Disney World Village logo

In the late 80s, various clubs began popping up in downtown Orlando. In order to compete with the adult-oriented life in the nearby city, Disney announced plans for Pleasure Island in 1986. Michael Eisner, the then CEO of the Disney Company, thought  that if someone else in the area is doing it, Disney would do it to, except better. According to the 1990 edition of Birnbaum's Guide to WDW, Pleasure Island had a fairly interesting backstory:

"Imagineers tell us that right beside the Empress Lilly and the Disney Village Marketplace, an island was recently unearthed where an enterprising, larger than life 19th century ship merchant, one Merriweather Adam Pleasure held court.  Though the merchant sailing trade was in a decline at the time of his residence, the upsurge of leisure yachting assured the success of Pleasure's Canvas&Sailmaking, Inc.  The booming business spawned Pleasure Island, a community developed to abet Mr. Pleasure's pursuit of adventure and excitement...According to local legend Pleasure turned his entire operation over to his sons while he circumnavigated the globe, but he was lost at sea in 1939.  Pleasure Island soon fell into disrepair due to the neglect of his lazy offspring.  Enter Disney Imagineers…”

Pleasure Island logo when it first opened

Pleasure Island opened on May 1, 1989, the same day as MGM-Studios. Every night, the area would have “celebrations” beginning at midnight themed to Mardi Gras, a Congo Line Party and finally a New Year’s Eve party. Later that same year, Walt Disney World Village got yet another name change and became The Disney Village Marketplace.

But, history once again repeated itself, and the entire Pleasure Island-Disney Village Marketplace area got ready for yet another rebranding in 1995. The two were set to be combined into the one Downtown Disney district. This change brought some more familiar attractions to the area, including the West Side, Cirque du Soleil La Nouba, Disney Quest and Virgin Megastore. Disney also expanded Pleasure Island and the World of Disney during the rebranding. The most successful rebranding of the entertainment district to date, 1997-2004 was arguably the “golden age” for Downtown Disney, with both the Marketplace and Pleasure Island humming.

In 2004, the decline of Pleasure Island began. With two comedy clubs and four dance clubs, admission was charged to enter into the area. However, in 2004, Pleasure Island became free to enter, with guests only having to pay admission to get into one of the clubs. The new change in policy attracted large groups of local teenagers to the area, which deterred adult Walt Disney World visitors looking to escape the grind of kids and the theme parks. A four year decline in Pleasure Island attendance led to its final New Year’s celebration in 2008. Once again, Disney got to work on retheming and rebranding the area.

Downtown Disney map circa 2008/2009

On November 18, 2010, Disney announced their plans to replace the former Pleasure Island area with the Hyperion Wharf, an early-twentieth century waterside themed town with new shops and restaurants. However, these plans ended up being delayed and revamped into what became the idea for Disney Springs. This would not only renovate the Pleasure Island area, but also the entire Downtown Disney District. This new “Disney Springs” was to be divided into four areas: The Landing, The West Side, The Marketplace and the Town Center.

Concept art for Disney Springs

The Disney Springs rebranding and construction doubled the Downtown Disney area and added two much-needed parking garages with a total capacity of around 6,000 cars. Some big named new restaurants have recently opened in the Landing neighborhood of Disney Springs, including The Boathouse, Morimoto Asia and Jock Lindsay’s Hanger Bar. On the West Side, DisneyQuest is being replaced with the brand-new NBA Experience. Also on the West Side is the bowling alley, Splitsville, and the Marvel Superhero Headquarters. The final stages of the Disney Springs revamp are wrapping up now, with all construction set to be finished this coming summer of 2016.

With all the new attractions, shops and restaurants at Disney Springs, the rebranding is looking to be a successful one. From sea-baring motor cars to Indiana Jones themed bars, the entertainment district of Walt Disney World is sure to excite and delight visitors. And if this isn't enough to draw you into the new Disney Springs area, Keith Bradford, the vice president of Disney Springs promises that "there's plenty more to come."


Brittany Bell grew up in Lewiston, Maine, about 45 minutes away from Portland. She is currently studying Public Relations and Journalism at Boston University, and hopes to one day work for the Mouse himself. She grew up in a Disney-loving home, and would watch Sleeping Beauty on repeat as a little girl. Her first trip to Walt Disney World was in the summer of 2000, at four years old. Ever since then, Brittany and her family take annual trips to the World, and have no intention of vacationing anywhere else. Her favorite places in Walt Disney World are the Animal Kingdom Lodge, the Grand Floridian, and the Magic Kingdom. She can’t go without seeing Fantasmic! at least once each vacation, even though she chokes up a little at the final scene. Brittany is fascinated by how one man’s dream became an empire—one that makes dreams come true every day.

Before she became obsessed with Frozen and Queen Elsa, her favorite Disney characters were Princess Aurora and Mulan. She loves everything and anything Disney, from the parks, to the movies, to the Broadway musicals. In the near future she hopes to participate in the Disney College Program and work as a “friend of a princess”.

You can find all of Brittany's articles here

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