Walt Disney World has confirmed that another restaurant at Disney’s BoardWalk Resort will be going out of business in 2024, the third such permanent closure during the phased reopening. This post shares dates & details, along with the interim replacement planned for the ‘Showplace of the Shore’ along Crescent Lake.
Let’s start with the meat of the story, which is that Big River Grille & Brewing Works will have its final day of operations on January 21, 2024. The restaurant will end its nearly three-decade run and be permanently closed as of January 22, 2024. To the best of my knowledge, Big River is an opening day BoardWalk original, and first opened in 1996. (I’d be surprised if it’s changed much since then.)
For those who were unfamiliar with it, which I’m guessing is a lot of you as it was never particularly busy, Big River Grille & Brewing Works was the only working brewpub at Walt Disney World. The third party table service restaurant served American bar fare, such as barbecued ribs and burgers. Big River had a rather large indoor dining room along with a waterfront outdoor patio.
Most notably, Big River Grille & Brewing Works had a large menu of award-winning, handcrafted ales and lagers brewed on the premises. Favorites included the Big River I.P.A and the seasonal Sweet Magnolia American Brown Ale. An extensive selection of wines, margaritas and specialty cocktails are also available. Guests could also watch the onsite brewmaster craft 5 specialty beers through floor-to-ceiling glass windows.
Big River Grille & Brewing Works was one of the slower to return restaurants at Walt Disney World during the phased reopening, opening its doors again in February 2021 after a nearly year-long closure. While slow by the standards of WDW as a whole, it arguably outperformed the average at BoardWalk, which lost ESPN Club and Ample Hills Creamery on the other end of the promenade.
On this end, Jellyrolls and Atlantic Dance Hall seem to be hanging on by a thread, which was the case even prior to the events of March 2020. Meanwhile, Trattoria al Forno is doing just fine on the other side, but its beloved Bon Voyage Character Breakfast has yet to return.
For the last year-plus, Walt Disney World has been undertaking a quasi-reimagining or refresh to the BoardWalk, which has already included the additions of BoardWalk Ice Cream (replacement for Ample Hills) and BoardWalk Deli (replacement for BoardWalk Bakery). Other stuff has happened inside the lobby and guest rooms, all of which is beyond the scope of this post.
Next up is Blue Ribbon Corn Dogs, which is a small but beloved quick service spot. Then comes the big one–The Cake Bake Shop, which will maybe/hopefully open sometime in 2024 as the permanent replacement for ESPN Club. All of this is relevant as context to the commentary below, which discusses the viability of businesses on the BoardWalk.
Word first emerged on social media that Big River Grille & Brewing Works is going out of business, via a notice sent by the third party restauranteur to its employees. Between that, notifying them that the restaurant would be closing in only a few days’ time, and Walt Disney World seemingly being caught flat-footed by the news, it’s quite clear that this was not preplanned and coordinated. It was, however, a long time coming. We’re honestly surprised Big River lasted as long as it did.
Obviously, there’s no word yet on any plans for a permanent replacement for Big River Grille & Brewing Works. Frankly, we wouldn’t expect to hear anything from Walt Disney World for months. It wouldn’t surprise me the least if there’s no announcement until 2025.
In the meantime, Walt Disney World has indicated that a rotating selection of food trucks will offer lunch options at Disney’s BoardWalk Inn starting February 22, 2024. I’m a bit surprised even by this, so perhaps I’m being too pessimistic with my prediction of no news on a Big River replacement this year.
It’ll be interesting to see what replaces Big River Grille & Brewing Works in the long term. If we’re thinking about this logically, what makes the most sense is another brewery. A sports bar & grille that’s like a mix between Big River and ESPN Club would be perfect, and fill a vital role that’s now conspicuously absent from this area.
There are a lot of dads and other sports fans who enjoy watching “the big game,” and there’s not a great option for that that’s easily accessible from the parks. Big River Grille & Brewing Works is walkable from EPCOT and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and also is within Skyliner distance of a ton of resorts. A family-friendly(ish) sports bar makes a lot of sense here.
It’s kind of unfortunate that this didn’t happen a few years ago. Big River seems like it’s been on life support for ages, and there’s a part of me that wonders whether Cake Bake Shop would be going in here and ESPN Club would still be operating had Big River gone under back during the closure when Ample Hills did.
Honestly, I’m more wondering if anything will replace Big River Grille & Brewing Works, rather than what. While it’s fun to speculate about the possibilities, it’s probably also worth examining the reality that Disney’s BoardWalk isn’t the counterprogramming to Downtown Disney (now Disney Springs) that it was envisioned back in the 1990s.
There are still times when BoardWalk is absolutely hoppin’, but it certainly isn’t a huge hangout for locals. (Walt Disney World’s restrictive resort parking rules have seen to that!) Not only has this area not lived up to its full potential and doesn’t see the foot traffic needed to sustain a restaurant row, but there already are a lot of dining options. BoardWalk, Yacht & Beach Club all have a lot of options, and that’s not to even mention Swan & Dolphin, Swan Reserve, all of the Skyliner resorts, or World Showcase.
While I think the circumstances were unique that led to the closures of Ample Hills and ESPN Club, I can’t help but wonder if Walt Disney World is going to have a difficult time luring another third party into this space. I guess it’s possible that Disney will open its own restaurant in this location, but that’s difficult to see given everything else they’ve done (or not done) on the dining front in the last several years.
If you’re a third party with the option of going into Disney Springs, World Showcase, or here…which would you choose? The Big River spot–on the ‘dead’ end of BoardWalk–would be a really tough sell for me. It would almost have to be a unique and popular concept that knows it can rise above the location, fill tables regardless, and would prefer the lower rent. (Like the Cake Bake Shop!) But I’ve never been in charge of any tier of restaurant above a Subway sandwich shop, so what do I know.
On a personal note, most of my memories of Big River Grille & Brewing Works are fuzzy but fond ones from the mid to late 1990s and early aughts. This was the type of restaurant that was right up my family’s alley when I was growing up. Coming from a small town that got its first “big” restaurant (Applebee’s) the year I left for college, we absolutely loved stuff like this. Big River, Planet Hollywood, All Star Cafe–those were our go-tos. They were novel and fun, serving up huge plates of approachable food.
While I don’t purport to be an expert on this sort of thing, I’d say that Big River Grille & Brewing Works was ahead of its time, for a time. Since then, time has passed it by. Stated differently, Big River was a forward-thinking concept in the mid-90s before the craft brewpub really became “a thing” you could find in virtually any city. The idea was an interesting one, but Big River failed to evolve and stay fresh. Which is precisely why, I assume, a lot of you reading this–even Walt Disney World fans–will have never even heard of Big River, much less dined here.
While “researching” this article, I was going through the DTB archives trying to figure out when the heck was that we last dined at Big River Grille & Brewing Works. I seemed to recall being there a couple of times within the last decade, but my photo archive did not corroborate that. Then I found this tidbit in a trip report about, as it turns out, our final experience at Big River:
After being seated [at Big River], I realized this is not what I remembered. At all. Now I know how Brian Williams feels, because I remembered the environment being totally different. There’s no way that’s a result of the interior being redone in the interim–that interior was easily 10 years old.
Anyway, we were one of 4 parties in the entire restaurant, which would normally be nice, except we were seated between two tables of families, both of which had crying children. Families with crying children do not bother me, particularly at Walt Disney World, where that comes with the territory.
However, I think I speak for literally the entire universe when I say that I do not find children’s cries to be a harmonious melody. I assume parents must agree with this, or else they would encourage their children to cry more, instead of less.
The point being: if 85% of the tables in your restaurant are open, why on earth are you going to seat a couple without kids right next to two tables of crying kids? I don’t care how the restaurant is divided up for servers, that’s just poor service.
We figured we’d just ask to be re-seated when our server came, but after that took an inordinate amount of time, we started to re-evaluate what, exactly, had led us to Big River Grille. Clearly, my memory of the place was suspect. Almost no one else was here. The decor would’ve been tired and dated by the standards of a real-world strip mall in Pennsylvania. At this point, we just decided to bail.
Big River Grille & Brewing Works, you will be missed. Not by me, but probably by someone. Like Ace Ventura Pet Detective (an all-time classic), I’m perfectly happy with my fuzzy and fond–but probably very rose colored–memories. There are some things better left in the past, and for me, Big River is one of those.
What do you think of Big River Grille & Brewing Works permanently closing? Will you miss it or are you excited for whatever’s next? Think that something will take its place on that end of the BoardWalk anytime soon? What would be your ideal replacement for Big River? Expect other concepts on this end of the BoardWalk to go out of business at some point in the not-too-distant future? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!