The Story Behind Downtown Disney’s Transformation into Disney Springs

by Keith Miller

Though Walt Disney World’s shopping, dining, and entertainment district officially reopened this year as Disney Springs, its roots date back half a century. The location’s history was one of the contributing factors in its creative transformation, as detailed Monday during “Lunch and Learn: Disney Springs from Concept to Completion.”

An audience of several hundred heard Maribeth Bisiener, senior vice president of Disney Springs, ESPN Wide World of Sports, Water Parks, and Mini-Golf; and Jeffrey Abraham, art director at Walt Disney Imagineering, talk about how Disney Spring was conceived and created.

Back in the early 1960s, Walt Disney originally envisioned the property on which Disney Springs now sits as a residential neighborhood with a retail component. It opened as Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village in March 1975, and was later known as Downtown Disney for almost 20 years.

“Downtown Disney’s attendance rivaled that of the nearby theme parks,” said Bisiener, but after a good run, Disney felt the area was in need of a fresh look and feel. So Disney Springs would have to be something special and reflect robust guest interest in not only shopping and entertainment, but varied food and beverage options. It had to be done with strong storytelling undertones because Disney Springs needed to be a novel location that would attract newcomers, but also appeal to locals.

Bisiener said Disney conducted extensive research into historic communities around Florida that would be used to inspire the character of the new development. An active spring once discovered on an area ranch helped kindle the idea of the waterway covering thousands of square feet that now intertwines its way through the Disney Springs stores, restaurants, and walkways.

During construction, much of the existing Downtown Disney was blocked off with fences and walls, and Bisiener said the project team figured this would negatively impact guests. “But they just kept coming,” she said. “We were on a journey of creation, and we realized that guests wanted to go on that journey with us.” So Disney placed observation holes in the construction walls, enabling guests to watch the proceedings.

Imagineer Abraham said Disney’s creative team started with different business and story ideas for the project, but had nothing overarching to pull them all together. That’s where the historical research came into play, inspiring not only the project’s storylines, but the Disney Springs name, as well. “Downtown Disney had three distinct shopping, dining, and entertainment areas,” he said, “and Disney Springs combines them under one concept.” The motif Imagineers settled on is a progressive timeline, where the west side of the property takes its thematic queues from the early 20th century.  The theming becomes more modern as guests move toward the eastern end.

To bring Disney Springs to reality, a great deal of infrastructure work was needed. Abraham said large parking garages were a necessity to better accommodate traffic flow, but Disney’s creative team still wanted to give them some character and looked upon them as an “art project”; they chose to style the structures on old citrus warehouses in Florida. Also, the main thoroughfare by Disney Springs, Lake Buena Vista Drive, was significantly widened, while a new exit ramp now allows cars to enter the garages directly off nearby Intersate 4.

Bisiener said Disney had many more vendors wanting to be a part of the project than slots available: “We spent hours each day talking about getting the right mix and serving the age groups.” She noted that though Disney Springs already has 52 operating food establishments, another five will open soon.

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