The end of July 2015 has certainly earned a spot on my Best Week Ever list, because just days ago my brand new book, The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando, emerged from the printer on actual dead trees, and will be available for purchase early next month. What better way to celebrate such a milestone than with a wet walk around the worksite known as Disney Springs?
Unlike Derek Burgan, I’ve been avoiding the area formerly known as Downtown Disney like the plague since construction began on its massive re-imagining. This week, I picked a blustery afternoon to make my return to Walt Disney World’s shopping and entertainment complex in the hopes of experiencing some of its newest additions.
The changes began long before I landed at Disney Springs, as electronic traffic signs detoured me away from my usual direct route to the parking lot behind Cirque du Soleil.
…only to end up on the opposite end of Disney Springs from where I wanted to be.
Eventually (and with little aid from the confusing signage) I found myself directed into the massive Orange parking structure, which sits where the AMC movie theater’s parking lot used to be.
Once I arrived, entrance into the garage was pleasantly efficient, and thanks to a sophisticated sensor system I found an empty spot in seconds. This is a huge improvement over the endless circling some guests found themselves trapped in trying to find parking in the old surface lots.
The garage’s graphics are clean and functional, but lack the whimsy I usually associate with Disney.
Emerging from the garage near Planet Hollywood, this is the first image of Disney Springs that guests are currently confronted with.
Not the most glamorous vista, I know. But the concept art on the construction walls paint a much rosier picture of the project’s future.
Here’s the current Disney Springs map, in case you’re curious which venues are actually up an running:
I began with a loop around the West Side, which has changed the least during the latest round of refurbishments. While the construction here hasn’t been as intense as in other areas, there’s still plenty of new stuff to see.
Sadly, stormy skies kept the Characters in Flight balloon grounded during my visit. There were still spectacular views of the waterfront to be had from near its launching platform.
This super-fancy Starbucks has been around for over a year, but I still can’t get over how cool the living artwork over the patio fireplace is, not to mention the grass-covered “green roof.”
Most of the merchandise in the D-Street store isn’t really to my taste, but I must commend them on their collection of cute Chewbacca items!
And check out the witch’s face hanging from the ceiling. Notice how her eyes seem to follow wherever you go? It’s a sculptural trick similar to the “ghost writer” busts seen in the Haunted Mansion!
This was my first encounter with the new Super Hero Headquarters store. The name “Marvel” is conspicuously absent from the exterior, presumably because of the licensing agreement with Universal Orlando, but inside you’ll find plenty of Avengers, Ant-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy goodies.
The store is a bit small but very nicely themed. There’s an Amazing Pictures green screen photo op, where (for a price) you can have your face edited into a comic book image.
Across from the Super Hero shop is the West Side’s food truck park, a patch of pavement that used to be a lush lawn, where a trio of mobile restaurants are parked. As an early booster of Orlando’s now-blossoming food truck scene, I was excited to see some local vendors set up shop, but alas it seems only Disney’s astroturfed trucks — serving variations on dishes originated in the theme parks — are currently servicing the area.
You’ll also notice these segments of elevated train trestles, which in early concepts were supposed to be landscaped pedestrian walkways, much like New York City’s Highline.
Ultimately, they became little more than architectural embellishments that at least provide guests some shelter from the elements.
Working my way along the shoreline behind the West Side’s restaurants…
Surprise, surprise: more construction walls are occupying the plaza between House of Blues and DisneyQuest.
I’d love to take one last trip through DisneyQuest before it closes next year, but even with a 10% annual passholder discount the prices are a bit steep for what’s on offer. (The same money would buy you an all-day wristband at Fun Spot.) Even so, there were people waiting to purchase tickets.
Another elevated trestle is under construction outside Splitsville:
I took a quick peek into Bongos Cuban restaurant, which is advertising a new Broadway show about owners Emilio and Gloria Estefan.
If you want to complete your margarita glass collection, now is the time!
Every time I walk past this store, I think of the David Copperfield Magic Underground shop that was originally advertised to occupy this space. Read this recent Theme Park University article for the fascinating history of this failed attraction.
Moving on, it was time to take my first walk in many months through the war zone that was once Pleasure Island, and is now being made over as The Landing.
The sight of the gutted remains of my beloved Adventurers Club was enough to almost bring a tear to my eye…
…though the new bathrooms near where the entrance to 8-Trax once stood didn’t make me quite as emotional.
If you’ve seen my selfies, you know I’m not one to spend a lot of time or money on shaving. But someone must, because the Art of Shaving seems to be doing brisk business selling disposable razors for several times what CVS charges.
Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar, a new watering hole themed after an obscure Indiana Jones sidekick, seems to be progressing nicely.
It looks like an Imagineer left their props case out in the rain. Note that the boat is named Reggie after Jock’s python, as seen in the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
To support the new Disney Springs theming, faux-vintage touches like these bas relief designs have been popping up all over the complex:
Here’s a pro tip: the walkway along the side of Raglan Road is currently closed, but you can reach the Hole in the Wall bar (and its all-day happy hour) or Cookes of Dublin without going the long way around by cutting through the restaurant.
Behold The Boathouse, the new dining star of Disney Springs. I haven’t saved up enough lunch money to afford a meal here yet, but drooling over the seafood case is still free. And they recently began offering 15% annual passholder and DVC discounts at lunch, 10% off at dinner, which should leave plenty left over for a ride on a private boat or AmphiCar.
Speaking of the AmphiCar, it draws quite a crowd every time one is dispatched into the water:
Make sure to take the time to stroll along the dock behind The Boathouse and admire the watercraft moored there. Even if it isn’t balmy boating weather, these beauties will make you wish you were on the high seas.
Finally, I reached the original Marketplace portion of Disney Springs, which is seeing its biggest makeover since the 1980s, when my family used to always make it our first vacation stop.
T-Rex Cafe isn’t changing, but it doesn’t need to, based on the crazy long line of people waiting in the rain for a table. The food isn’t worth going extinct over, but even I must admit its pretty awesome when all the interior effects go off.
This bridge, which connects the Lego Store area with Rainforest Cafe, may be my single favorite part of the whole Disney Springs project. Not only does it make the trip from one end of the Marketplace to the other much more manageable, but the span’s industrial design is gorgeous.
Much like T-Rex, there’s little love lost between me and the Rainforest Cafe, but I really like a couple elements of its recent refurbishment. The entryway to the Lava Lounge has some nifty make-believe magma…
…and the volcano’s pyrotechnics have been greatly improved. Even if they aren’t quite up to Las Vegas levels, the warmth was much appreciated on this wet day.
The Art of Disney store will be my second stop if I ever win the lotto. I could definitely see these Haunted Mansion and Pirates sculptures on display in my office:
These Britto pieces, not so much…
To my complete (non) surprise, Frozen has completely taken over an annex adjoining the Christmas store since my last visit.
It’s Christmas in July! Have you started your holiday shopping yet?
These carnival rides, which were abandoned on this rainy day, always struck me as better suited to a mall than Disney since they harken back to the Griffith Park kiddie rides that motivated Walt to develop Disneyland in the first place.
Remember that lotto win I mentioned? When it comes through, my first stop will be the Marketplace Co-Op, more specifically the Centerpiece section.
I didn’t notice anything new on the shelves, but there are still plenty of wonderful retro-vintage housewares left for me to buy.
Yes, I’ll take two of each, please!
And four of those!
Finally, I can’t complete a trip to the Disney Springs Marketplace without poking my head into the World of Disney store.
The last time I was here, I had to fight tooth and nail to secure an Elsa doll for my niece. Now there are plenty of Frozen toys for the taking. Does that mean that the film’s fans have finally let it go?…
That wraps up this Best Week Ever! What is your must-see shop or restaurant at Disney Springs? Which new addition are you most excited about? Let us know in the comment below!