The Story Behind Disney Springs

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Downtown Disney, which was three separate unconnected sections in terms of an overall story, has recently been re-imagined as a rethemed cohesive retail and entertainment venue called Disney Springs, that encompasses approximately 120 acres.

The last remaining Pleasure Island clubs officially closed on September 27, 2008. The Paradiso 37 restaurant opened in 2009 next to the old Adventurer’s Club on Pleasure Island. Harley-Davidson moved its apparel store from Pleasure Island to a larger space on the Downtown Disney West Side in 2011. Splitsville, an entertainment center with bowling, billiards, restaurant, and bar, opened in the old Virgin Megastore on the West Side at the end of 2012.

On November 18, 2010, Disney announced the section of Downtown Disney known as Pleasure Island would receive a massive three-year renovation to include "stylish boutiques, innovative restaurants," and a "lakeside park" and would be called Hyperion Wharf in an attempt to revitalize the area and attract new businesses.

The official press release described the project as:

"A nostalgic-yet-modern take on an early 20th century port city and amusement pier will evolve Pleasure Island into Hyperion Wharf. By day, the bustling port district will draw guests in with its stylish boutiques and innovative restaurants and by night, thousands of lights will transform the area into an electric wonderland.

"Taking its name from Hyperion, the Greek god of light, as well as the street on which Walt Disney built his first major animation studio, the wharf district also will feature a relaxing lakeside park and enhanced pedestrian walkways. Its diverse eateries will expand dining availability at Downtown Disney by more than 25 percent."

The backstory of Disney Springs is less involved than the one for Pleasure Island.

Almost a year into the project, Disney put the plans on hiatus as they discovered that they faced challenges getting prospective new tenants into the area, especially because of its lingering negative reputation in its later years. Disney decided that instead of just spending money to create a "bandage" for the bruised Pleasure Island section that it should expand the proposal to re-design the entire Downtown Disney area into a cohesive story line.

However, rather than create another overly complicated Merriweather Adam Pleasure backstory as was done for Pleasure Island that provided problems when buildings changed use or new areas had to be built, the Imagineers developed a simpler, more organically Florida story that would easily change for any future adjustments.

The area began in 1975 as a small, quaint shopping, dining and entertainment center and, unlike the theme parks, was free to park and visit. It was easily accessible by car, hotel shuttles or Disney buses. The WDW guests fell in love with it, especially as a last minute option to pick up a final souvenir before the trip back home or as just a chance to relax from the chaos and crowding of the parks. Unfortunately, the success resulted in expansion done in a hodge-podge manner that started to lessen its many charms.

As competition in the Orlando area increased, the challenge became keeping guests and their dollars on property. Whether it was the themed restaurants of Church Street Station, colorful dinner theaters, new attractions at other entertainment venues, new development on I-Drive, or even Universal Orlando’s CityWalk that mimicked Downtown Disney, more and more options tempted Disney guests off of Disney property.

It became increasingly vital to revitalize the Downtown Disney area even though it is such a small part of the overall property.

When the new plans were announced on March 14, 2013, Walt Disney World Imagineer Theron Skees, executive creative director of the project said, "Hyperion Wharf was an idea that was announced and we looked at the total need of the property and decided that we really wanted to take some more time and develop and go out with the very best idea, the best solution for Downtown Disney. We believe that's Disney Springs."

"We look at a lot of different types of plans over the years and took our time to really decide on what was the best approach for this area and we landed on Disney Springs," Skees said. "It's kind of a unifying storyline that we felt would really reinvigorate the property and really give it an identity all of its own."

Some of the design elements planned for Hyperion Wharf were incorporated into Disney Springs including a small lakeside park, enhancements at the AMC theaters, and the addition of some upscale new venues

Florida has one of the largest concentrations of freshwater springs on Earth, with more than 900 springs. Springs served as locations for Spanish missions, steamboat landings, gristmills and more including reservoirs for irrigating crops. A few springs gave birth to towns, including Silver Springs in Marion County, Green Cove Spring in Clay County, and De Leon Springs in Volusia County.

Both Wekiwa Springs and Rock Springs are roughly an hour from Walt Disney World property and, for decades, have been natural "water parks" for tourists and local residents.

"It's the heart of our whole story line," Skees said. "After studying all of the natural kind of water ways in Florida, we visited quite a few natural springs and we were really committed to delivering something as authentic as possible. The idea of a Florida spring represents not only the power and beauty of nature, but optimism and possibilities."

Inspired by the small Florida towns that developed in the early 1900s around these bodies of water, the storyline is that Disney Springs also attracted its first settlers "more than a century ago" and, over the decades, the town continued to expand naturally into four distinct districts: Town Center, The Landing, Marketplace and West Side.

As Skees emphasized, "At Walt Disney Imagineering we're really storytellers, so through the years we've always brought these venues to life in our theme parks and hotels and in our cruise lines by telling stories. The story that we developed for Disney Springs is different from our theme parks. It's not like Frontierland or one of the lands in a theme park, but the storyline that we developed gives us a background history for which to create everything on – our landscaping, our architecture and everything."

"The story is really of a small town that grew up around a natural spring," Skees said. "It's a story that's really not unlike lots of small towns in Florida that grew up in the same kind of way. It has sort of a nod to the history of Florida as it developed and grew up over the years."

Kathy Mangum, executive producer at Walt Disney Imagineering, who helped in the creation the fictitious town of Radiator Springs (founded by Model-T Stanley who discovered a bubbling natural spring during his travels) for Disney California Adventure park, stated, "The heart of Disney Springs, of this whole development, is an area that we're calling The Springs. And The Springs is a bubbling water fountain. It's sort of a natural space where we're really taking advantage of the water in general."

The Springs itself had to be created

"What's so critical about this body of water and our ability to deliver something that felt like a natural spring was that it is the heart of our whole storyline. It is this idea of a town that built up around a body of water," Skees said. "We used technology is a way that hadn't been done before so we really kind of pioneered a new way to utilize pool making material."

As Briana Ricci, an Imagineer in charge of character paint and finishing, said, "We started with a base coat, followed by air compressor hoppers that poured out our accent colors which resulted in a color blend you would get in a nice water color painting. We only had a half hour or so before the cement dried completely and became as solid as a rock which made it all a challenge.

"We included colored glass, which was a very critical element because we have a limited palette, so we needed something to enhance and push our colors and depth, something bright and vibrant as well as long lasting with zero maintenance," she said.

Natural elements that already existed in the area like oak trees, cypress trees and plants were saved and incorporated into the design. However, Imagineering also created some other elements like carving tree roots in the water so that the entire area felt integrated.

Skees revealed that the Imagineers even hoped to reference a "Walt" connection to the project: "You start off with smaller buildings and grow up over time to the 1900s and turn-of-the-century into the Flagler era of Florida. Even Walt's parents were married in Central Florida, so we kind of liked that tie-in from a story standpoint to our own company.

"And all the way through when Walt came to Florida and bought the property to begin with, we love the idea that maybe his parents told him about the area and when it was purchased that this idea of Disney Springs was sort of central to it," Skees said.

Disney Springs was inspired in part by Kismet, Florida, now a vanished town that was once located in the Ocala National Forest area. Before the early 1900s, it was a new community built around citrus groves near Alexander Springs. Kismet was where Walt and Roy Disney's parents met and married, although they moved to Chicago not long afterward where Walt and Roy were born.

The four themed areas at Disney Springs, inspired, in part, by Kismet, Florida, are a draw for guests during the day, as well as at night.

The goal of the Imagineers was to capture the warmth and nostalgia of an old-fashioned small town neighboorhood, in much the same spirit as Main Street U.S.A., from a simpler time but with an "upscale vibe" when it came to the stores and restaurants. They didn't want just another shopping and dining location, but for guests to be immersed in an experience.

The architecture of Disney Springs varies by district.

As Skees described it, "It's not unlike many of the urban developments that we find now in many other cities. If you think of Chelsea Market, say in New York, there's this great gentrification of the Nabisco factory."

"You've got this really old building that was designed for something else, but it's now been converted and kind of lovingly restored. We kind of feel like we'd like to do the same type of thing, where we're telling the story of a town that grew up over time, but now it's been lovingly restored. It's kept all of its charm, its history, but it sits very squarely in the modern day of today."

  • Town Center: This predominantly retail area is being built on what used to be a parking lot, with bubbling springs running its length and a water tower at the main gateway as its signature element. It is the only district that has been built entirely "from scratch". Since this is the beginning of the town, it will appear smaller and older than the other districts and will have a strong influence of Spanish architecture as a reference to the earliest explorers to Florida.
  • The Landing: This area is where Pleasure Island was once located. It is filled with old warehouses, brick buildings and re-purposed boat houses as the city evolved with the times. Imagineering was trying to reference a more nostalgic feel for the area as if it had been around for decades. Several waterfront bars and restaurants, Morimoto Asia, Jock Lindsey's Hangar Bar and The Boathouse, have already opened. Longtime Downtown Disney restaurants, including Portobello, Raglan Road and Fulton's Crab House, are now also considered part of The Landing.
  • The West Side: After railroad transportation is no longer the primary means of travel, the town found new ways to reuse the old railway tracks and stations. So the area features a more industrial feel, adding new seating areas atop what appears to be an old elevated train trestle. This entertainment-heavy neighborhood, with Splitsville Luxury Lanes, Cirque du Soleil, House of Blues, the Characters in Flight tethered helium balloon, and a movie theater, will stay largely the same with some new businesses and upgrades. Disney Quest, which houses arcade and interactive games, is to be replaced by an NBA-themed attraction that is still in the design stages.
  • The Marketplace: This neighborhood has new infrastructure and some new businesses. It has a new causeway that connects the area near The Lego Store across the water to Rainforest Café, and four new shops on the causeway; a bridge to Saratoga Springs Resort; a pedestrian bridge across Buena Vista Drive; and a dock for ferry service.

Why the big mess during the construction?

Imagineer Skees commented: "When you're building something of this scale, if we had a green field where we were starting from scratch, that time would obviously be compressed because you wouldn't have to worry about current guest activities or businesses that needed to stay open. But we're working in an area of course where we've got businesses, we've got partnerships; we can't just shut everything down."

"We've got parking and traffic considerations and, of course, we have guests that are enjoying the property now so we have to work in places where it provides the least amount of impact to our guests and to the economy of our tenants," Skees said. "So we are working on a phased approach so we can have the maximum amount of opportunity for building and have the least amount of impact as possible on the convenience of our guests."

The biggest mess was the creation of two new multistory parking garages that add 6,000 spaces.

There's a new flyover ramp from Interstate 4 directly into the new garage. Two new pedestrian bridges cross Buena Vista Drive into Disney Springs. The Reedy Creek Improvement District, the government agency that serves the resort, paid for the $360 million worth of improvements.

Why the necessity for any story line at all?

Tom Staggs, Disney Chief Operating Officer and the former chair of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, stated: "It guides our development and keeps us rooted in a sense of place, but also even if you're not explicitly telling the story, it comes across to our guests. That sense of welcome, that sense of embrace, especially with this great center around The Springs, is going to be instinctive and natural for our guests."

"The whole redesign of Disney Springs makes a lot of sense, it's going to bring in new life for tourists and for locals. … We think it's a real big positive," Staggs said. "We can't wait for it to be done. We get asked … why we spend so much time on the storytelling, even in a place that isn't a theme park. It guides our development and keeps us rooted in a sense of place."

Basically, having a strong foundational (although flexible) story will hopefully aid in making decisions in the future in terms of changes and expansion so there will not be a need for another major revision any time soon.

"The story", said Maribeth Bisienere, senior vice president of Disney Springs, "is that this is a small, welcoming waterfront town of early-1900s Florida, where settlers were attracted by the springs and their natural beauty.

"We want to be open to all individuals … from South Americans to locals. … Disney Springs has something for families, for those in their early twenties and those in their seventies and eighties who will come just to sit and listen to the music."

"I hope [guests] fall in love," Skees said. "Our hope is that creating something that is so authentic, that guests will really get a feel for what natural Florida is like."