The Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando is embarking on a plan to recast its successful Downtown Disney retail and entertainment center to Disney Springs.
Situated within the heart of one of the top family destinations in the world, Downtown Disney at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., has spent nearly 40 years as a top performing, high volume retail, dining and entertainment venue with more than 70 themed and immersive experiences, such as the world’s largest Disney store, Cirque du Soleil’s La Nouba, the LEGO Imagination Center, House of Blues and an AMC Movies complex with Fork & Screen Dine-In theatres.
What do you do with a property that is already doing exceptionally well? If you’re Disney and you have a property located in the booming Orlando retail market, you view it as an opportunity to make it even better.
Downtown Disney is currently undergoing the largest expansion in its history — a multi-year transformation that will double the number of shopping, and dining experiences available and feature an eclectic and contemporary mix from Disney and other noteworthy brands. Opening in phases starting in 2015, the area will be renamed Disney Springs. Development will be complete in 2016.
In total, the rebranded area will grow to 1.1 million square feet, including 350,000 square feet of new leaseable space. The development is attracting affordable-luxury tenants and encouraging them to use proximity to “the most magical place on earth” to their advantage by offering a look, experience and merchandise that stands out from other stores that bear their names. It is part of the entire vision of the area, which is the next step in the evolution of retailing at the resort.
“With the Downtown Disney expansion, the primary focus of our growth will be with third-party retailers,” says Keith Bradford, vice president of Downtown Disney. “We are adding up to 65 new retail tenants and talking with leading national and international retailers and brands that will help us provide diverse and high-quality experiences that complement our Disney-branded experiences. The response has been extremely positive.”
Walt Disney Imagineering is the creative force behind Disney Springs, and its legendary team of Imagineers are involved in every step of the design and build process. They’ve collaborated with several talented design groups, including Elkus Manfredi Architects, which worked on The Grove in Los Angeles, to create what will be a dynamic, world-class destination. Mitch Friedel of Newmark Grubb Knight Frank is the leasing agent.
Drawing inspiration from Florida’s waterfront towns and natural beauty, Disney Springs will include five outdoor neighborhoods interconnected by a flowing spring and vibrant lakefront. In addition to a new gateway with a signature water tower and grand entry, the destination will feature:
• A colorful commercial district called The Landing with inspired dining and retail and waterfront views.
• The Town Center, which offers a mix of dining and shopping along with a promenade where guests can relax, refresh and reconnect.
• The family-friendly Marketplace that will continue to engage guests of all ages by combining new experiences, such as an over-the-water pedestrian causeway, along with classic Disney favorites, including an expanded World of Disney store.
• A West Side that provides an atmosphere with lively entertainment, along with a series of new elevated spaces that offer both shade and an overlook to the activity below.
• The Springs, a unique place at the heart of the property for guests to explore their options to shop, dine and be entertained.
The overall concept is about creating a sense of reinvented history, with a high emphasis on lighting, landscaping and the impression that these spaces were a part of a former 20th Century town.
“We’re really going for an adaptive reuse look, so think about San Antonio’s Riverwalk or Faneuil Hall in Boston,” says Theron Skees, executive creative director with Walt Disney Imagineering. “You’ll see some recycled wood and reused bricks. It’s meant to be a snapshot between the original, older classic streetscape and the modern. All these various buildings and spaces that were designed in another time for another purpose are being gentrified. Disney Springs is meant to feel that way.”
Work is well underway on the first phase of Disney Springs, known as The Landing, which will open in early 2015. Set along the waterfront with the feel of a seaport, The Landing will offer inspired dining and small boutique shops. It will elevate the guest dining experience with innovative dining options featuring well-respected restaurateurs from New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, as well as some exciting new concepts. The dining component is expected to be significant. There are currently 17 restaurants at Downtown Disney, but that number will rise to about 30 at Disney Springs, with more than 10,000 seats of dining.
“Along with retail, food and beverage will play a crucial role in the success of Disney Springs,” Bradford says. “We think of it as equally as important as the retail. It’s a huge anchor for us throughout the property, and we’re very excited about some of the offerings we’re bringing here.”
Tenanting deals are in the process of being finalized for The Landing, with more news to come later this year. In the interim, Bradford saysThe Landing’s tenants will be indicative of the high quality experiences the company is bringing to Disney Springs, and guests can expect even more on the retail front with the opening of The Town Center in 2016.
Bradford says Disney Springs was designed with the retail tenant in mind and will be brought to life with the quality and attention to detail for which Disney is known. Retailers will enjoy a captive market, ready to spend. More than 50 million tourists visit Central Florida every year, spending almost $30 billion, according to Daily Finance. Orlando is the most visited destination in the United States and the No. 1 convention spot in the country, according to Visit Orlando.
Asking retailers to set up shop at Disney Springs has not been a hard sell thanks in part to Downtown Disney’s successful history, which takes away a lot of guesswork.
“Disney Springs is an exciting project for prospective tenants because they are getting access to Walt Disney World guests and tapping into an already successful property,” says Phil Bernard, vice president of operating participants with Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, U.S. While Disney does not broadly release its sales figures, Bernard claims Downtown Disney has impressive per-square-foot sales figures for its current retail space with some of the highest revenues in the industry. “We break records for guest satisfaction and intent to return or recommend,” says Bernard.
Viewing its available space as a fresh creative playground, Disney Springs is asking its potential tenants to think big, and outside the box. “We really want some of these stores to be flagships,” says Bernard. “A flagship doesn’t need to be the largest, it just has to portray something that is unique and special.”
“We ask retailers how they can create an immersive experience with their brand,” adds Skees. “For example, there might be something in the store that showcases how a product is made. That type of element creates an experience. And while there is great shopping in Orlando, at Disney Springs, we want to create something you can’t find anywhere else in the country.”
Thinking through the “story” is where the Imagineers come into play, as does the idea of placemaking. Tying the new neighborhoods together will require expanding the infrastructure and increasing accessibility. Much of this work is currently underway.
“We know that access to the property is important,” Bradford says. “As part of the expansion, we are working closely with the Reedy Creek Improvement District to expand Buena Vista Drive, the road leading directly into Disney Springs, to 10 lanes and add a dedicated bus lane, along with two parking garages.”
In addition to a centralized bus route, Disney Springs will include two pedestrian bridges. If not coming by foot, by car or by bus, there are also approximately 6,000 hotel rooms that are situated along the waterways that provide boat transportation around the resort, including to Disney Springs. All the roughly 30,000 hotel rooms are connected to a closed-circuit TV that will market Disney Springs to guests.
“Prospective tenants will have branding opportunities throughout Walt Disney World parks and resorts and the ability to tap into existing guest infrastructure like in-room television, charging privileges direct to room folios and merchandise delivery to their on-site hotel room free of charge,” says Bernard.
While trying to push the experience to the next level, it’s the opinion of those who will shop, eat and spend their hard-earned money to vacation here that Disney listens to most. Guest research is a large part of planning any new venture in these parts, including staying connected with attendance trends, demographics, spending patterns, diversity, income and much more.
“With Disney Springs, we are taking the opportunity to address some of what our guests have been asking for,” Bradford says. “They’ve told us they want additional restaurants, more diversity in shopping. We conducted many focus groups, and they shared a lot of great insights with us about what they love about Downtown Disney and what we should consider doing differently. We talked to people who’ve never been here, convention guests, non-convention guests, families — you name them, we talked to them.”
It’s these guests who always remain top of mind as Downtown Disney evolves into its next chapter as Disney Springs.
“Through the expansion of Downtown Disney, we are committed to providing a great guest experience,” says Bradford. “We have a long-standing track record of being able to make enhancements to our property while maintaining the magic of the Disney experience, and we will continue that tradition with this project.”
— Randall Shearin and Lynn Peisner