When the Walt Disney Company recently announced plans for sweeping changes to the Downtown Disney area of the Walt Disney World Resort, most Disney fans breathed a sigh of relief. The Marketplace, Pleasure Island, and the West Side comprised this area of the resort, and had become a poorly planned mess of visual contradictions. The warm charm of the shingled Arts and Crafts style buildings in the Marketplace never quite blended with the garish metal warehouse look of the area formerly home to Pleasure Island.
The West Side is even worse. This hodge-podge of clunky looking odd-shaped buildings and bright lights never could please visually or aesthetically. In addition to being anything but easy on the eyes, there was never much there to encourage us to spend any of our valuable vacation time at this end of Downtown Disney.
Fortunately, all of that is about to change. Plans for Disney Springs include an overhaul that should address the lack of consistency and a definite lack of atmosphere. While we all look forward to the expansion and remodel, let's take a look back at some of the most memorable spots once located at the quaint little area called the Walt Disney World Village at Lake Buena Vista—and eventually, the Disney Village Marketplace.
It's interesting to reflect on the Lake Buena Vista name itself. The Walt Disney Studios, built in Burbank, California with the profits earned from the 1938 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, is located at 500 South Buena Vista Street. When Walt Disney failed to find a distributer for his True Life Adventure series of nature films (a series that, by the way, won numerous Oscars), he created his own distribution company and named it Buena Vista. The inclusion of this name at Walt Disney World in 1971 is no mere coincidence.
The following is by no means an exhaustive look back; rather, it's intended to reminisce about the lost "feeling" of the Village area, a fond recollection of that all-too-elusive ambience of a certain time and place.
Mickey's Character Shop
When the Walt Disney World Village at Lake Buena Vista originally opened, the idea was to create a shopping and dining area free of Disney characters and Disney merchandise. EPCOT Center opened with this same mantra; it is interesting to note that the only original references to Walt Disney characters found at EPCOT Center when it opened were a large Mickey Mouse watch in Communicore West, a clip of Walt Disney introducing The Wonderful World of Color in Spaceship Earth, and a clip from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in the same attraction. But just as EPCOT guests demanded more "Disney" at the newest Disney theme park, so shoppers at the Village requested Disney merchandise.
The Character Shop was born.
This large, open shop—located where Team Mickey and Guest Relations are found today—eventually morphed into Mickey's Character Shop and was a destination in its own right. Large bins of Disney plush characters surrounded the shop's visual and geographic centerpiece: a collection of charming animatronic airborne Disney characters. The shop featured all the usual suspects—costumes, clothing, watches, jewelry, and toys. It also featured a collectible section, sort of a pre-Art of Disney shop if you will. Here, limited edition cels, real movie cels, lithographs, posters, and figurines lined the walls and shelves.
The charm of this shop, despite its size, was the intimacy of the various sections and the attentiveness of truly knowledgeable cast members who went out of their way to help guests locate merchandise property-wide. In much the same way as the original Disney Stores saw themselves as little outposts of Disney culture (to use a phrase created by the late Disney President Frank Wells), the cast at Mickey's Character Shop were among the most helpful to be found anywhere on property.
Alas, with success comes change. The Art of Disney store replaced the art section in Mickey's Character Shop, but with the change came a hard-to-define snobbiest about the "art" stores at Disney parks. The Art of Disney is not an especially inviting place for some reason or another. The World of Disney replaced Mickey's character shop. It retains the large selection of merchandise (minus the art and collectibles), but its mega-store philosophy, its head-set wearing cast members, and its sheer size and noise level fail to capture the almost accidental charm of Mickey's Character Shop.
The Christmas Chalet
Located approximately where the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique is now located, this little charmer more than lived up to its name. It was styled after a chalet and was stocked to the rafters with Christmas ornaments, toys, stockings, figurines, houses, and Disney-inspired collectibles. There was a huge mechanical music box that played traditional Christmas carols before it become politically incorrect to do so in public stores. There was an extensive collection of traditional nativity scenes from Italy and Germany. The ornament collection was not quite as Disney-focused as the collections found at the ubiquitous Disney theme park Christmas shops seem to be now. Come to think of it, there were no other Christmas-themed shops when the Christmas Chalet was in operation.
Outside of the shop was a favorite picture spot. Mickey, Donald, and Goofy were fashioned out of "snow" and gathered to sing carols by a Victorian streetlamp.
The current Disney's Days of Christmas shop is lovely and atmospheric, but something about it seems less sincere than the original Christmas Chalet.
Sir Edward Haberdasher
This unique shop was once located right about where Once Upon a Toy stands today. A men's store, in the very best sense of that phrase, Sir Edward Haberdasher carried a fine collection of sportswear and what we would now call business casual attire for guests and locals alike. I bought my first Izod here in the early 1980s, and my first real Ralph Lauren polo shirts here in the 1990s. I also recall purchasing a lot of Father's Day gifts here—gifts that did not feature a profusion of Disney characters on them like seemingly every other men's article of clothing does today. The cast members here also set this store apart; they were attentive in the way that clerks at long gone stores like Marshall Field's and Lord and Taylor used to be. It was a special treat to splurge once a year at Sir Edward Haberdasher and pick up a really nice shirt, a special treat that is sorely missed today.
Team Mickey's Athletic Club
This precursor to today's Team Mickey carried sports gear for athletically minded guests. Much like Mickey's Character Shop, this store was a victim of its own success. A crowded, overstocked, much-too-small space, Team Mickey's desperately needed an upgrade, and the present Team Mickey is actually an improvement over the original. There were, however, some particularly memorable features at Team Mickey's Athletic Club that have not been replicated at Team Mickey. The first is that feeling of a real athletic store as opposed to a sports-themed store. The second—and this in the one I really miss—was a collection of "Disney University" gear that was sold exclusively at Team Mickey's Athletic Club through the 1990s. The "Disney University" logo, which changed through the years but was always styled in a traditional university font, graced everything from pencils and notebooks to sweatshirts and t-shirts. Lots of fun.
The Empress Lilly
This landmark structure, now known by the very bland name of Fulton's Crabhouse, was once home to some of the most elegant dining in all of the Walt Disney World Resort. The attention to detail, the furnishings, the woodwork, and the re-creation of a wooden steamship made this restaurant one of Walt Disney World's best known. Long before character meals seemed to take over just about every decent sit-down dining location on property, the Empress Lilly offered a lovely character breakfast in a very elegant location. From concept drawings of Disney Springs, it looks as though some of the architectural details once found on the Empress Lilly (named for Walt Disney's wife, by the way) may be returning. Let's hope so.
Welcome, Disney Springs
From all accounts, the fabled Disney Imagineers are focusing their time, energy, and talents on the task of transforming Downtown Disney into Disney Springs, a place with atmosphere, ambience, character, and style. Join me in wishing them all the best as they embark on this exciting project.