by Dave Mitchell
After inventing the modern theme park with Disneyland, and revolutionizing it with EPCOT, the Disney Imagineers turned instead to Disneyfied replications of existing attractions: Wet n Wild became Blizzard Beach, Busch Gardens begat Animal Kingdom, Universal Studios was reflected by Disney-MGM Studios … why, even the defunct Boardwalk and Baseball inspired Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex AND Disney’s Boardwalk!
Once they ran out of theme parks for inspiration, Disney turned to Downtown Orlando, and produced Downtown Disney. To be fair, only it’s centerpiece, Pleasure Island, really mirrors downtown Otown, particularly the Church Street glot of themed yuppie bars and overpriced specialty shops. Every night is New Year’s Eve there, and the atmosphere is much more liquored up than one would expect from Disney. (I am still amused by their choice of name for this place. Animation fans will recall that, in Pinnocchio, Pleasure Island is where the bad boys go to party and are turned into donkeys as punishment for their gluttony and vice. Hee haw!)
The newest chunk of Downtown Disney is the West Side, a conglomeration of celebrity chain restaurants and shops which has stolen most of Pleasure Island’s live music thunder. There’s a House of Blues there, which has actually booked some pretty good acts (seeing the Cramps perform on Disney property was a special treat). Decor is early Howard Finster, food and beverages what you would expect. One is compelled to get all huffy over the mammoth Virgin Megastore, but they’ve got an amazing collection of comic- and music-related books and collections, and will occasionally host live appearences by bands both national and local. And there’s a guitar shop with little “test-drive” rooms – what fun! Celebrity restaurants abound on the West Side – Wolfgang Puck’s, HoB, Gloria Estefan’s place, the All-Star Cafe, yada yada yada. There’s a multiplex theater, a virtual Disney attraction, and the Cirque de Soliel, which exudes so much Eurowhimsey that I am genuinely physically repelled.
The oldest portion of Downtown is Downtown Disney Marketplace, formerly WDW Marketplace, WDW Village, Lake Buena Vista Village … clearly a place with a bigger identity crisis than Orlando itself. Twentysomething years ago it was a collection of upscale shops: fashions, homewares, toys, books, and an obligatory smattering of Disneyana, all surrounding the Empress Lilly, a riverboat restaurant named after Walt’s widow. Now the Empress is Fulton’s Crab House and all the shops are Disney or corporate themed. The bookstore is crammed with Disney books and a tiny shelf of bestsellers. It’s a real shame; it was a nice out-of-the-way place for gift hunting, especially at Christmastime, when they put on a nightly holiday show that even an old scoffer like me would get sentimental over. The only thing that recommends it now is their Lego shop, which is MADE of Legos and features monumental Lego assemblages including a flying saucer and a sea serpent (complete with waterline dry ice mist).
This is a downtown I cruise on specific occasions (concerts, autograph appearances by sports figures); if your relatives are in town and they’re driving, check it out. Otherwise, this is a chunk of Unknown Florida that may as well stay unknown.