As Disney Springs is now in the home stretch of its construction as of Summer 2016, with the largest portions of the new development completed, we thought it a good time to step back and take a look at the work done thus far, and also a look forward at what’s still on the agenda as the construction wraps before the start of 2017.
I’ll start with some high-level observations based on spending a half-day at Disney Springs on our recent trip, which included meals at Frontera Cocina and Homecoming: Florida Kitchen and Southern Shine, and some shopping. Then, I’ll conclude with some photos of what’s still being worked on at Disney Springs.
One thing was clear as I started walking through the new Town Center shopping development: Disney Springs largely takes a function over form approach. While some areas feel Imagineered, others look ripped straight out of a Southern California outdoor shopping complex. Given Walt Disney Imagineering’s headquarters in Glendale, I would be shocked if research trips were not taken to some of these malls, particularly The Americana (in Glendale) and The Grove (in Los Angeles). When you compare high-level designs, the only feature missing from Disney Springs is a trolley.
I’m not sure to what extent this complaint is really fair, or even actually is a complaint. These high-end outdoor malls in SoCal are incredibly pleasant spaces–far better than any version of Downtown Disney (anywhere). Still, it’s disappointing that Disney would be aiming to emulate real-world malls instead of aspiring for something original and innovative. In fairness, have Disney’s entertainment/shopping centers ever been anything special in terms of design?
Since I can remember, the Lake Buena Vista Village/Disney Village/Downtown Disney/Disney Springs area has been fairly generic (my memory only dates back to the Disney Village incarnation, which was changed in the mid-1990s to Downtown Disney). It’s always been a shopping center with Disney touches, rather than a fully Imagineered or themed environment. It’s quite possible that third party tenants don’t want want a themed spectacle distracting from the shopping experience.
If anything, the Disney Springs incarnation is the best version of this area, thanks mainly to organization. From a functional perspective, this was something desperately needed. As this complex grew from its humble beginnings as the Village(s) into Downtown Disney, expanding to include nightclubs and a larger West Side, it became a hodgepodge with an almost linear layout that made it painful to navigate. Traffic flow was a nightmare, and I don’t think anyone will object to how Disney made lemonade out of lemons with the revised layout of Disney Springs.
In some ways, the layout is familiar, particularly the Marketplace and West Side, but the former site of Pleasure Island (now The Landing) is almost unrecognizable (to me, at least) and the addition of the Town Center makes the whole complex feel less like a never-ending corridor. Other structural changes to parking, pick-up/drop-off, bridges, etc., have facilitated better flow. The Disney Springs experience from arrival to departure is considerably more pleasant than what existed a decade ago, and that’s thanks almost entirely due to layout changes.
Disney Springs is still a hodgepodge in some ways, most notably in storytelling and architectural styles. The turquoise springs in the center of Disney Springs are visually striking and the repurposed ranches make this area feel inviting (even if overrun with a surplus of dull hipster logos). As you move away from the springs into the rest of Town Center, the Spanish Revival architecture feels more generically ‘mall-ish’, but with competing styles literally everywhere else, perhaps this bit of stability isn’t such a bad thing.
As you wander around, you’ll begin to pick up on the story that loosely explains the developments around these springs. I’m not going to delve into that contrived story, which is basically a long lesson in the ebb and flow of urban planning and (failed) master-planning. I suppose this elaborate backstory is fitting, given Merriweather Adam Pleasure’s cockamamy business endeavors on the former Pleasure Island that came before it.
Trying to peel back the layers on that story is an exercise in futility: it’s more sensible just to ignore the explicit story and enjoy the morsels you can glean from walking through the districts. In so doing, what even the most astute guests gather is going to concern urban development, the rise/fall of communities, and repurposed structures–really exciting stuff!
All of this is reflected in the mismatched architecture of Disney Springs, and I think the decision to go with repurposed structures made sense. This is both practical given that many of these buildings are repurposed, and also trendy given that repurposing old commercial buildings is en vogue right now. One of the best examples of this is a few miles from Disneyland, where an early 1900s citrus packing plant was repurposed into the Anaheim Packing District (to great results). Even though it’s trendy, the throwback/classic styles that dominant Disney Springs mean it won’t end up feeling dated in a decade. For the most part, it works, even if it isn’t always all that ambitious.
For than that, it works substantively. The Boathouse, Morimoto Asia, Raglan Road, and Homecoming are all elite Disney restaurants, in my opinion, and 3 of those are new. Other recent additions, including Frontera Cocina (review coming soon), STK, D-Luxe Burger, Sprinkles, Big Bad Wolf Sausage Co., the Daily Poutine, etc. also bring a lot to the table. Then there are the restaurants still to come, including the highly-anticipated Paddlefish and The Edison. Then there’s the shopping. Suffice to say, there are now a lot of excellent options at Disney Springs, and enough non-restaurant stuff to do to fill the time in between 2 meals. (Because you’re going to want to eat at least 2 meals here.)
With that in mind, let’s take a quick tour of recently completed construction and what work is still ongoing in Disney Springs…
UNIQLO opened the day after we left, and has been very busy since, per reports. No surprise there, as UNIQLO is an incredibly popular, emerging chain offering sharp clothing at reasonable prices. (I’m a huge fan of the store.) Most visitors to Walt Disney World probably don’t have a UNIQLO near them, so I see this remaining popular for a long time. I’d highly recommend checking it out when you visit Disney Springs.
Disney’s overall strategy with the shopping at Disney Springs seems fairly savvy. There are a number of mid-range stores like UNIQLO and some aspirational brands (e.g. Tommy Bahama & Lacoste), but no luxury labels (at least none that I noticed). There are also a few iconic American brands like Levi, likely to appeal to international tourists. The end result is a mix of stores that seems appealing to locals, plus domestic & foreign travelers. There was speculation that Disney would punt on the local market by aiming solely for stores popular with the international crowd, but it does not seem that occurred. As international tourism dips and the dollar strengthens, this strategy has already been vindicated.
World of Coke is a recently-opened, iconic American brand, but I doubt this was targeting international guests looking to stock up on soda. This location is massive, and has appeal as an entertaining diversion–think Club Cool on steroids.
One of the major aspects of construction that’s ongoing is to convert the old Empress Lilly (Fulton’s Crab House) into Paddlefish, reflecting a modern era of luxury yachting. Rumor has it that the paddle wheel will again turn, which would be a nice touch of kinetic energy.
Inside, the restaurant is pretty much gutted. The last time I dined at Fulton’s was in the mid-1990s; my parents wanted to have a fancy meal, and this was it. Lobster wasn’t something I had regularly (or maybe ever?), and I ended up dunking mine in way too much butter, becoming incredibly sick. It’s one of my most vivid negative memories from Walt Disney World, and I could never bring myself to go back to Fulton’s after that.
Knowing how important this “research” is, I’ll try to put on my brave face and dine at Paddlefish. No promises, though. 😉
Also along the water, work remains ongoing at The Edison, another concept imported from Los Angeles. This dining complex, themed to a 1920’s electric company power plant, is now set to open in Spring 2017, and should be one of the last (or the very last) elements of Disney Springs to be completed.
Planet Hollywood is likewise behind construction walls, with work ongoing to convert it to “Planet Hollywood Observatory,” a high-tech planetarium. There’s no way it’s going to make that “Summer 2016” reopening date on the sign, but work should be done by fall/winter. Updating this will make a significant difference, I think.
Continuing story-time with Tom, I remember always wanting to eat here after it opened. A restaurant owned by Terminator, Mr. Die Hard, and the Cliffhanger (hadn’t seen Rocky at that point)?! Sign me up. I had a Planet Hollywood shirt, hat, the whole nine yards. Sarah and I revisited Planet Hollywood on our first trip as adults due to a coupon we had and it was…not what I remembered. Hopefully this refresh returns the luster to what had become a sad remnant of the 1990s.
Planet Hollywood best exemplifies the refreshes being made at Disney Springs right now. For the last several years, the area was not only disjointed and unnavigable, but felt really dated. The additions are nice, but the updates to existing facilities have also gone a long way in giving Disney Springs a needed shot in the arm.
In terms of layout, shopping, dining, I view Disney Springs as a success. Whether Disney Springs works for you thematically will be a matter of personal opinion. For me, it’s a mixed bag thematically with the jury partially still out. It works in places, fails in others, and seems unambitious, overall. That’s nothing new, and it’s also something that is likely to improve as work on the final pieces to the puzzle is finished, and the whole area has some time to congeal. All things considered, I’ve never wanted to spend time in this area as much as I do now, which is probably the most indicative measure of its success (for me).
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