More Tales of Disney Springs

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Inspired by real Florida coastal towns like Coral Gables and St. Augustine, the Disney Springs shopping and dining development provided the opportunity for Imagineers to create a more pleasing upscale and cohesive design for the hodgepodge of additions made to the Downtown Disney location over the decades.

Dave Hoffman, a creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering, explained that the Disney-made "natural" springs are the heart of the town. Lights flickering in the trees at night represent fireflies.

"Each neighborhood reflects its function and its [fictitious] time period when it was developed," Hoffman noted. Those areas are the Town Center, The Landing, The Marketplace and The West Side.

For most of us, visiting Disney Springs means eating, shopping and maybe catching a movie, but the Imagineers created an elaborate back story for the area, and the space itself has a long real history going back decades. Often, we don't pay close enough attention to the details in plain sight.


T-Rex: a Prehistoric Family Adventure is a themed restaurant developed by Schussler Creative, Inc. and operated by Landry's Restaurants that opened on October 14, 2008 in an area that later became Disney Springs.

T-Rex Cafe is one of a number of Landry-run restaurants at Walt Disney World.

Steve Schussler, who at the time was also responsible for creating the Rainforest Café and Yak and Yeti at Disney's Animal Kingdom, stated, "It will be a great place to eat, shop, explore and discover. It's exciting that something has been built that has all the creativity and ingenuity of an interactive, educational experience that hasn't been done before.

"That's what really excites me and my team. People will come first for the 'wow' factor but they will come back for quality food and service."

Outside the restaurant is a full-sized replica of an Argentinosaurus at 125 feet long and 28 feet tall and is reputably one of the largest dinosaurs to ever exist. Nearby, a parasaurolophus sits in a pond fed by a waterfall with some prehistoric looking plants by it. Inside is a 45-foot-long Tyrannosaurus Rex, which is the largest of the many audio animatronics dinosaurs inside the restaurant.

The interior is based on a water, fire and ice concept, decorated with fossils and large chunks of amethyst.

"It's a pretty amazing collection of artifacts," said Keith Bradford, who at the time was vice president of Walt Disney World Operating Participants. "Historically and archeologically, it is all correct so it is a true museum in that sense. It is a true educational experience."

Each room is unique. The Ice Cave has a life-sized fossil replica of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, an aqua bar with a 5,000 gallon shark tank and a 37 foot octopus with movable tentacles overhead and hanging jellyfish light fixtures. The area also resurrects the woolly mammoth.

The Geothermal region houses the Kitchen of Fire with an open kitchen featuring a giant rotisserie that allows visitors to see meals being prepared. The Fern Forest and Sequoia rooms are the most serene with canopies of flowers overhead and a docile Triceratops with its infants.

The entire 30,000 square foot restaurant provides seating for over 600. The tables feature designs resembling imprint fossils of fish and other small prehistoric relics. Even the restrooms (She-Rex and He-Rex) are decorated with ancient artifacts.

A two minute long meteor shower comes through each room every twenty minutes amidst waterfalls, bubbling geysers and a fossil dig site, signaling impeding doom for the dinosaurs. The lighting changes, prehistoric animals cry out in alarm and there is a sense of chaos. Even the ice cave seems to start melting.

The PaleoZone offers young guests the opportunity to dig for fossils and treasures and check out interactive displays to learn about the creatures in the restaurant, play games, watch toon clips, split a geode open and more. For the menu offerings, creative names in keeping with the prehistoric theme of the restaurant describe tempting food options.

Among the other figures in the restaurant are Apatosaurus, Albertosaure, Stegosaurus, Arthropleura, pterosaurs (including Pteranodon and Rhamphorhynchus), large insects and more.

Attached to the restaurant is a gift shop where guests can build their own dinosaur in partnership with the Build-A-Bear Workshop. The first T-Rex restaurant opened in Kansas City followed by the one at Disney Springs.

The LEGO Store

The LEGO Group is a Danish multi-national company well known for toys, video games and theme parks among other things. The word "Lego" comes from the Danish words "leg godt," which means "play well."

Brickley, the LEGO sea serpent, swims under the lake across from the LEGO Store.

LEGO has produced toy lines based on Disney intellectual properties since 1999 and opened its first retail store on Disney property in October 1997 at what was then known as Downtown Disney at Walt Disney World.

The official grand opening celebration was held November 7-9 with Master LEGO model builders appearing as well as displaying a twelve foot tall LEGO model of Cinderella Castle. Two decades later a LEGO figure of Cinderella would appear outside the store.

LEGO has built eight amusement parks around the world (with Legoland Florida opening in Winter Haven, Florida in October 2011) so is technically a competitor with the Walt Disney Company.

Its first LEGO Store was in the Mall of America in Minnesota in 1992 with displays of LEGO sculptures, a play area and a large selection of LEGO sets for sale. Its second "Imagination Center" was opened at Walt Disney World next to the World of Disney Store. Today, there are roughly ninety LEGO stores operating.

The LEGO Imagination Center at Disney Springs is over 4,400 square feet and became a popular showplace for detailed Lego models and merchandise including a Pick and Build Wall and a Mini-figure Factory. Outside the store is a 3,000 square foot play area filled with hundreds of thousands of LEGO blocks that guests can use to build their own creations.

Also, outside the store are larger-than-life sculptures built from LEGOs. Director of retail and special projects Bill Higgins has stated that all the models were created by overlapping LEGO blocks. No glue was used and no LEGO blocks were cut to fit the model.

One of the most iconic LEGO sculptures is Brickley, the twenty-foot tall, fifty-foot long sea serpent in the water outside of the store, who made his debut in 1997.

Brickley has appeared at many LEGO Stores around the world as an unofficial mascot. His eyes glow and smoke comes from his nostrils as well as from underneath his body.

In some cases (like at Disneyland) he works his way in and out of rooms; other times, such as at Walt Disney World, he actually plies the waterways overlooking the store. He is comprised of over 170,000 blocks.

The character with two humps and a tail was so popular that, in 2011, LEGO released two sets dedicated to Brickley. One had 59 pieces and the other larger set had 197 pieces.

Starting with simple sculptures for photo opportunities like a snoring grandfather in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts sitting on a bench, over the decades the outside art has changed to include Prince Philip battling a towering Maleficient dragon, Woody and Buzz Lightyear using an RC Racer (and a firecracker) to soar to catch Andy's moving van and the Seven Dwarfs and their diamond mine, as well as Snow White giving Dopey a kiss.

In 2022, a Frozen display was added with Anna, Elsa and Olaf in their outfits from the movie Frozen II, and from Star Wars, Chewbacca and Rey on one side and Kylo Ren, Captain Phasma and a red Stormtrooper on the other side.

The New World of Disney Store Back Story

When the World of Disney store opened October 2, 1996 at Downtown Disney, its first guests were given a colorful character map to help orient themselves to the massive 51,000 square feet of retail space referred to as "The Largest Disney Character Shop in the World."

The new back story of the World of Disney store holds that the location had once been an animation annex for Disney artists.

As Walt Disney World publicity described the World of Disney Store at that time: "It's paradise for everyone, from the newest Mickey fan to the avid Disneyana enthusiast. Disney merchandise is arranged so artfully that this remarkable store is an attraction itself."

It was so popular that one was built at Disneyland's downtown area. However, time and operational needs change and so the World of Disney Store both at Disneyland and Walt Disney World were recently transformed after more than a year of design and development. The Walt Disney World version opened October 27, 2018.

The official Disney press release stated that the "re-imagined World of Disney stores are being transformed into contemporary, distinctly Disney retail environments."

"We saw World of Disney as an opportunity to re-imagine what Disney retail is today," said Alysia Kelley, vice president of visual merchandising and location strategy for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. "The new store design highlights the best of what is current and new, while also celebrating classic Disney heritage based in storytelling."

The transformation begins with the store's exterior which features new marquees and magical window displays. All of the large-scale character sculptures were removed from both interior and exterior of the store, and the Disney-patterned wallpaper and carpeting was scrapped in favor of a more utilitarian style where displays could easily be changed. Both stores feature a "loft-style" atmosphere with greater visibility to see all the displays and merchandise.

Imagineering show writer Kevin Lively shared, "This space used to be a bus depot for the 'Grand California Tours,' which partnered with the Grand Californian hotel in Northern California to take people on local tours. The bus depot eventually shut down and in the 1940's Walt was trying to find a new place to inspire his animators.

"He found a space in Disney Springs in Florida and one in California. He leased out the space for his animators to get away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles and Burbank and start working on what would be some of Disney's most classic films. The animators worked in these warehouses for about 60 years, when in 1989 they decided to close them because they opened Disney-MGM Studios and had a dedicated animation annex space there.

"So the warehouses sat empty for years until they re-opened as the World of Disney with the addition of Downtown Disney. When it came time to fix up the stores this year for their rehab, they started taking down the drywall and these beautiful remnants of the past animation studio were revealed to the construction workers.

"Brick walls were revealed with forgotten signage for the bus depot. A wall of paint jars with some leftover magic had been previously drywalled over. And many sketches were unveiled. They used the animator desks as part of the checkout space and the space is decorated with artwork, animation cels and hand drawn details from Disney's body of work through 1989."

The space is still filled with nods to both the bus terminal and the animation studio with some faded signage over one of the exit doors to indicate it was an animation annex. The World of Disney remains an anchor location at Disney Springs and still supposedly offers the largest collection of Disney-themed merchandise in the world.

Disney Springs: The Power Plant and the Air Terminal

The newest restaurants at Disney Springs tie in to the overall storyline of a restored Florida waterfront town. The Edison was once the power plant for the town. Its design is meant to evoke the steam powered age of innovation.

The restaurant is promoted as a "lavish industrial Gothic-style destination for fine food, handcrafted cocktails and exciting nightlife." The impressive, detailed decor includes actual antique pieces and a large industrial-style mechanical clock at the main entrance.

Different dining areas have their own themes including: The Boiler Bar, The Ember Parlor, Telegraph Lounge, The Patent Office, The Tesla Lounge, The Radio Room, Waterfront Patio, and The Lab. Antique boilers are a focal point for guests who enter The Edison from the Enzo's Hideaway tunnels and any guests that make their way downstairs.

Adjacent to The Edison, The Patina Restaurant Group operates three new restaurant venues. The group already runs Morimoto Asia at Disney Springs and Via Napoli and Tutto Italia at Epcot, as well as six restaurants at Disneyland. Patina also manages the new space-themed restaurant in Future World East at Epcot.

The other three restaurants exist in what was once supposedly Disney Springs' Air Terminal. The story goes that the Italian immigrant couple Maria and Enzo ran a bakery in the airport lobby, but travelers diminished over the years brought about by larger airports and other forms of transportation, so the location closed.

In addition to the bakery, they tried to sustain themselves by opening a small pizza by-the-slice restaurant (Pizza Ponte, whose logo references the nearby bridge).

The success of this venue allowed Maria and Enzo to fulfill their ultimate dream to restore and transform the long-forgotten terminal to its former glory, giving it new life as a grand restaurant showcasing the flavors of Southern Italy. They named the restaurant Maria & Enzo's Ristorante.

Surrounding the main dining room, an impressive period-style mural depicts the destinations once served by seaplanes that departed the terminal as well as a period-style metal globe chandelier. Some of those destinations include New York, Daytona Beach, New Orleans and Cuba. It has an Art Deco structure reminiscent of those of the early 1930s and features fifty foot tall ceilings and expansive views of Lake Buena Vista.

The restaurant interiors showcase artifacts that reference air travel of the early 20th century, with maps and historic flight paths. Signage in the main dining room recalls its prior use as the departure lounge for the terminal. Diners may also be selected for seating in the smaller "First Class Lounge" or request it when they make a reservation. The host and hostess staff dress like flight attendants and even the table settings match the 1930s era.

As the story of the complex continues, after the couple purchased the terminal, Enzo accidentally discovered a former "bootlegger's hideout" in the tunnels beneath the terminal that connected it to the power plant next door. Now called Enzo's Hideaway, the former speakeasy has a wall of graffiti that tells the tales of its storied past.

Enzo's Hideaway speakeasy was inspired by Roman aperitivo bars as well as Florida's true history of rum running, and was supposedly a social center for Disney Springs during the dry years of Prohibition. The Hideaway attaches to The Edison next door through a secret passageway. Actually, some of the tunnels previously included backstage Pleasure Island cast member areas and green rooms for performers.

Characters in Flight

Characters in Flight is one of the world's largest tethered helium balloons and is operated by the Parisian company Aerophile. Aerophile also operates a number of similar attractions around the world, including one at Disneyland Paris called PanoraMagique in Disney Village since April 2005.

The Characters in Flight balloon floats over Disney Springs at night.

The balloon at Disney Springs soars up to 400 feet high and carries up to 29 guests and one pilot. A pulley releases and retracts the tether. It has a circular gondola basket 19 feet in diameter with a waist high wall and then netting above that barrier. The balloon itself is 72 feet in diameter with a circumference of 240 feet.

It is filled with 210,000 cubic feet of helium, so it is quieter than a hot air balloon that must be kept in the air with continued noisy bursts of heated air.

It illuminates at night, and with clear skies can be seen from over ten miles away. When it is aloft, it can be seen from the China pavilion at World Showcase.

The flight lasts approximately ten minutes and if the winds exceed 22 miles per hour or there is a storm, it does not lift off at all.

When secured properly to the ground, the balloon would be able to withstand a Category One hurricane. If a stronger level was anticipated, the balloon would be deflated.

It is virtually impossible for the tether to break but – if it ever did – the balloon is equipped with a safety value that kicks in at one thousand feet to release helium until the balloon is in what is called a "floating" state. The operator could then start a controlled descent while in communication with the ground.

Characters in Flight first started operation in April 2009 as a huge orange and yellow-colored balloon with large solid black silhouettes of flying Disney characters like Peter Pan and the Darling family soaring around the top yellow half along with Mary Poppins, Dumbo and Aladdin riding his carpet.

It is a standard practice of aerial tethered balloons to replace the balloon every few years to prevent problems that come with age and repeated use.

The next version debuted in October 2012 and resembled the one at Disneyland Paris except for the addition of more characters. It was more ornately designed with actual images of the characters including Peter Pan, Aladdin with Princess Jasmine on a magic carpet, Dumbo, and Buzz Lightyear around the bottom half of the balloon. On the striped top half, Tinker Bell uses her wand to sprinkle pixie dust so everyone can fly thinking happy thoughts.

The third version opened in January 2017 and was now re-themed to better align with the story of the new Disney Springs. The balloon has shades of blue with the bottom half featuring an abstract image of the swirling waters of the legendary spring. It no longer features Disney characters.

Matthieu Gobbi, General Manager for Aerophile, stated for the new launch that "the new balloon envelope was inspired by the springs and the element of water – it's very coherent, as the balloon floats in the air, then lands on the water of Lake Buena Vista."

In terms of the new storyline, it was supposedly introduced as a ride at the fictional 1950 Golden Centennial Expo that took place at Disney Springs.

The balloon rides were briefly suspended in July 2012 for several months after an incident at Ocean Park in Hong Kong. Aerophile decided to temporarily suspend operations of the similar balloons at Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris to conduct extensive inspections. The balloon rides resumed in October of that year.