About a two and half hour drive from Sarasota, Lake Buena Vista, Florida, just outside of Orlando, is host to one of the most popular tourist destinations on the globe – Walt Disney World. An estimated 52 million people pass through each year, with almost 18 million of them visiting Magic Kingdom alone. At 27,258 acres, the theme park metropolis is the size of San Francisco and twice the size of Manhattan. The area includes, but is not limited to, four theme parks, two water parks, over 30 hotels, four golf courses, and a massive “downtown” themed shopping and entertainment district. This district – formerly known as Downtown Disney – is currently transforming into Walt Disney World’s newest vision “Disney Springs.”
Opened 40 years ago on March 22, 1975, Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village, as it was originally called, has blossomed into a “shoppertainment” center, complete with various retailers, restaurants, Cirque du Soleil’s La Nouba, and popular concert venue House of Blues all surrounding a picturesque lake. In 2013, the Imagineers announced Downtown Disney’s next venture – Disney Springs.
Third-year transfer Tyler Freeman has been a Cast Member at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Lake Buena Vista for almost a year and half. Coming from a Disney family, most of Freeman’s family has worked with Disney.
“Downtown Disney isn’t meant to be a tourist trap, it’s supposed to draw in locals, and locals get bored of the same old thing every time,” Freeman said. “As a Cast Member, local, and Novo Collegian, my favorite part of the transformation is that there is even a transformation to be excited about!”
“The transition from Downtown Disney to Disney Springs is where Disney is trying to get a lot more of the local crowd back,” said The Boathouse Front of House Manager Steve Lintner.
One of the initiatives is to keep the area’s establishments open later to garner more of the “late crowd” that Downtown Disney didn’t really have. “It’s been pretty much shut down 10, 11 o’clock and everyone goes back to their hotels. So, they’re trying to keep everything open a little more, yet still keep the family friendly atmosphere,” Lintner said. “It’s not really a bunch of clubs that are open that are bringing the older crowd, but [the options are] still family friendly.”
At double the size, Disney Springs is slated to be complete in about two years. The complex’s reimagination is modeled off a 1900s town with four “neighborhoods” – Town Center, The Landing, Marketplace, and West Side. The first phase of the renovations was The Landing, which features waterfront dining options. New restaurants include Morimoto Asia, a pan-Asian experience from “Iron Chef” star Masaharu Morimoto, and The Boathouse, a nautical-themed restaurant, shop, and boat ride attraction trio. An “Indiana Jones” bar is also in the works. The Town Center pulls from Spanish style architecture and will host the shopping district while the Marketplace includes an over-the-water causeway to a more integrated family-friendly experience. Lastly, the West Side, mostly unchanged, boasts lively entertainment options like Cirque du Soleil, House of Blues, and the retro-styled bowling alley Splitsville.
“One of the most recent renovations/replacements made to the Downtown Disney area was Splitsville, a bowling alley/restaurant hybrid with some interesting twists, such as alleys being all over the restaurant and the menu including more traditional restaurant offering and plays on traditional bowling food,” Freeman said. “This, from what I’ve gathered through official releases and internal information was the prototype for what Disney Springs is shooting for.”
“Two story, innovative, restaurants and shops that shake it up some. Morimoto Asia is an example that I can share of what’s to come,” Freeman continued.
In terms of accessibility, the Disney Springs renovations will accompany the construction of two new parking garages. With one at four stories and the other at three stories, the structures will be able to hold five thousand plus cars combined. Lintner expressed that these new parking and traffic projects go along with the effort to get the local crowd back at the center. “They’re working on adding additional lanes of traffic. Eventually you’ll be to go straight from route four directly into the parking garage, so you won’t even have to take an exit,” he said. “We’re just trying to make it all that easier for the locals. They really want that crowd in.”
The entire project is set to create over 1,500 construction jobs and another 4,000 jobs once in operation.
“I’m just glad to see some fresh air breathed into the place,” Freeman said.
Last month, Disney Springs replaced Downtown Disney on guide maps, brochures, and road signs. After a few months of phasing in, the final crossover is scheduled for later this fall.
Information for this article was gathered from http://www.orlandosentinel.com, http://www.insidethemagic.net, http://www.themouseforless.com, http://jimhillmedia.com, http://www.uscitytraveler.com, and https://en.wikipedia.org.