A Last Good-bye to Downtown Disney District's Iconic Eateriesby Lisa Stiglic, contributing writer
"Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world." — Walt Disney
Enter Disneyland Resort's grandiose plans to build its newest hotel right on property near the existing Disneyland Hotel. Set to open in 2021, this 700-room centerpiece will create magical lodging, entertainment, and dining experiences for guests. But, to make way for the new, sometimes we must push aside the old and, in this case, three iconic Downtown Disney District eateries — ESPN Zone, Rainforest Cafe, and Earl of Sandwich. Initially scheduled to close at the end of this month, Disney upped the timeline on two of the locations which have now officially shut their doors. Guests however, still have time to savor one last sandwich bite at Earl of Sandwich. But first, a sporting look at ESPN Zone, and a trek to Rainforest Cafe, one last time to bid farewell.
When the Walt Disney Company purchased ABC/Cap Cities in 1996, it acquired ESPN, which eventually morphed into a larger brand, including ESPN Zone restaurant and entertainment venues. The Anaheim location debuted with Downtown Disney District in 2001 and, although there is the ESPN Wide World of Sports and ESPN Club at Walt Disney World, the Disneyland Resort ESPN Zone location was the last of the Disney Regional Entertainment venues (along with the now-closed Club Disney and Disney Quest), wrapping up 17 seasons on June 2, 2018. The idea behind ESPN Zone was sports, sports, and more sports from the exterior's 3D carved motion sports images to the interior's abundance of large screen televisions strategically placed throughout the restaurant — all showcasing various sporting events.
The entertainment half of the ESPN Zone brand also included an upstairs filled with virtual games and play action — an arena of sorts — but, at the time of closing, the Anaheim location's play arena had been downsized to a central bar, some big screen televisions, and typical arcade games such as skee-ball, air hockey, and NASCAR Race Team.
So, the doors are officially closed on ESPN Zone in Anaheim and, as a national chain — game over — or is it? With the opening of the new hotel, the closing Downtown Disney District locations have an option to relocate inside the hotel on the bottom floor, which is reserved for restaurants and retail shops. Following the decline and closures of past ESPN Zones, chances are the Anaheim location has played its last game, but only Disney knows.
Rainforest Cafe was another anchor restaurant that opened with Downtown Disney District. Wildly popular with guests and locals, the jungle-themed eatery was the go-to place for birthday parties, brunch gatherings, and late night adventures at the local watering hole, but the venue ended final safaris to explorers just this past week.
Upon entry, visitors would filter through the bar and retail portion of the venue to the host desk which was underneath a larger-than-life fish tank, sometimes complete with scuba diver. The jungle theme spilled into the eating areas complete with trumpeting elephants, thumping gorillas, and squawking parrots. Every 20 minutes, guests would experience a rain shower overhead (without getting wet).
Although the last trek has concluded at the Anaheim location, Rainforest Cafe fans can visit the next closest location in Ontario, California.
Earl of Sandwich
Earl of Sandwich was a later addition to Downtown Disney taking over the Compass Books and Cafe location in 2012. Replicating the success of the Disney Springs location in Walt Disney World, Disney officials were smart to invite the restaurant chain to branch out to the West Coast. As the name suggests, sandwiches are the main draw at Earl of Sandwich, but guests can also choose from a large selection of wraps, soups, salads, and desserts. It's the bread that makes Earl's such a hit — freshly baked rolls that resemble mini bread loaves — and are available in both wheat and white options.
Everyone has their favorite selection including "The Original 1792" comprised of roast beef, cheddar, and a horseradish condiment, or select the freshness of the "Caprese" — a favorite combination of mozzarella, basil, and tomato. A seasonal highlight is the "Holiday Turkey," which is everything Thanksgiving on the bun including stuffing and cranberry sauce! All sandwiches are toasted and wrapped to keep warm. Earl of Sandwich also boasts a breakfast menu complete with egg sandwiches (perfect if you're hurrying to make it to park opening), and a signature oatmeal. Kids' meals and gluten-free options are also available.
The Anaheim location has been a firm fixture within the Downtown Disney District and will be sorely missed by many fans, both local and visiting. For the locals — some good news — the company is branching out in the Southern California area with a new location in Los Angeles in addition to the existing satellite venue in LAX (Los Angeles International Airport). Downtown Disney District's location is scheduled to close by the end of the month and fingers crossed Earl returns to Anaheim once the new hotel is completed.
"Do what you do so well that they will want to see it again and bring their friends." — Walt Disney
Let's hope we see some of these familiar eateries in the near future. In the meantime, head to Disneyland Resort for your last bite at Earl of Sandwich. I already have "The Full Montagu" (turkey, ham, swiss, cheddar, and more) on speed order myself. Enjoy!