In the large view of “things Disney tried and liked,” a number of obvious repeat elements spring to mind – Pirates of the Caribbean, Main Street USA, and in a larger sense, Disneyland itself. There have been long stretches where no real, lasting repeatable models have emerged — try as they might with Westcot, Disney never got any of their EPCOT Future World classics repeated — and long stretches where no “repeatable models” were introduced. That, for example, The Timekeeper made it to three parks is kind of remarkable, but WDI’s supposed big new “franchise” attraction from that same era – Alien Encounter – sunk under its’ own troubled development.
The Tower of Terror has made it to four of the five Disney resorts to varying degrees of satisfaction, but this, along with the Magic Kingdom’s restrained C ticket level Buzz Lightyear shooter ride have been WDI’s most viable franchise attractions since Splash Mountain’s opening. In fact, Buzz Lightyear is one of very few franchise attractions to originate in Florida. Country Bear Jamboree hasn’t been built in 25 years, the international nature of Disney’s subsequent ventures has precluded the copying of The Hall of Presidents, and the glorious 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea turned out to be Disney’s last foray into true underwater shows. Indeed, for every genuine franchise attraction which began its’ life at the “Vacation Kingdom of the World”… Space Mountain… the Florida property more often seems to be the place where the hopelessly behind the times are condemned to live. WDI is doubtful to repeat low-tech attractions like Tom Sawyer Island or the Swiss Family Treehouse in something close to their original incarnations again, and Walt Disney World is often one of the last places to observe such endangered species in their natural habitats.
But the Florida property has contributed something which has wormed its’ way into every last Disney property save the prematurely born Hong Kong Disneyland, which is surprising and often hard to remember since its’ original and current incarnations are so far removed, which is the Walt Disney World Shopping Village.
Altered WDW Shopping & Dining District
Opened: April 1975
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In Walt Disney’s plans for EPCOT he spoke of an enclosed Downtown area offering “International shopping and dining”, an idea which of course eventually mutated into World Showcase but also, pointedly, the Shopping Village. As part of Disney’s negotiations with the city of Orlando and the state of Florida, Disney successfully strong armed Florida into making the Disney property a discrete town and subject to self-government. Thus was born the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a supposed standalone organization created and financed by Disney, which was permitted to establish fire codes, construction procedures, emergency services and anything else it saw fit to better aid the operation of Walt Disney World. Part of the reason this was allowed to come to be, as documented in Richard Foglesong’s Married to the Mouse, is that Disney promised Florida that Walt Disney’s EPCOT city would one day come to be, that Walt Disney World would one day house citizens in some capacity, and that such self-government must, to paraphrase the James Algar version of the Hall of Presidents, be perpetuated.
Regardless, for a time Disney seemed to be dedicated to upholding their end of the bargain with Florida, and made repeated gestures that they would indeed stick to, if not exactly the letter, than the spirit of the agreement. Around 1975, when much of Walt Disney World’s Phase One was getting firmed up and it seemed less and less likely that Disney’s EPCOT plan was likely to be honored, Walt Disney World started to design and construct a much less ambitious – even humble – project, a little collection of buildings around a much expanded and reworked body of water they called Lake Buena Vista. It was located on what was then called Preview Blvd., a little offshoot of a road off State Road 535 (the major employee artery to the Magic Kingdom) and right near what was the very original Walt Disney World property development – the Preview Center. Disney’s plan for this very first area of development eventually became much different than what they were doing on the north side of property, and indeed what became known as the resort town of Lake Buena Vista was seemingly intended for everyone not bent on visiting the “Vacation Kingdom” in the north – locals, business people, and others.
The original area lake, called Black Lake and which still borders the Preview Center, became the exit area for Walt Disney World’s complex canal system and was renamed Lake Buena Vista in 1969 with incorporation of that town. The canal system was widened into a large lake, called the Village Lagoon, and this is where Disney began their development in 1973. By 1974 the Village Resort and Golf Course was operating.
The name “Lake Buena Vista” was a perhaps not humble choice on the part of Disney – Buena Vista had been the name of Disney’s film distribution network since their break with RKO in 1953 – but their use of it for this area off I-4 and 535 made the name more famous than the distribution of True Life Adventures film ever had. Indeed, besides giving the Walt Disney World property a legitimate name, the Lake Buena Vista “resort area” was intended to be a full legitimate and separate entity from the “Vacation Kingdom of the World”. Towards this goal Disney installed a golf course – the Lake Buena Vista Course, designed by Joe Lee, with its’ own distinct clubhouse – and the Lake Buena Vista Club with hotel accommodations available in four models: Vacation, Fairway, Club Villas and Treehouses. Four high profile high rise hotels were permitted to build on property just off 535 – TraveLodge, Dutch Resort, Howard Johnson’s and Royal Plaza – and even an office plaza and a Convention Center rose to the north and the south of the lake.
The entire Resort complex was designed to be consistent with the Vacation Kingdom in that it was a circular system with a man made lake at its’ center with various points of interest dispersed along the lake’s perimeter. Keeping with the emphasis of popular urban planning in the 1970’s on pedestrian space, the parking areas were intentionally remote, set away from a green area ringing the lake, with walking paths and boats encouraging non-automotive travel on and around the lake. This is a wholesale revival of Walt Disney’s concept of a “green belt” of community buildings ringing the enclosed downtown of his EPCOT city, keeping the potential pollution of the urban area away from the green expanses of the suburban area, with only clean, efficient WEDway Peoplemovers bringing people to these outer areas (“Like twinkies on a conveyor belt”, in the memorable phrase by Glenn Erickson).
The emphasis in all of these developments was uniformly on what could be termed “commercial naturalism” – aged bricks, cedar shingled roofs and siding, gingerbread wood patterns and natural colors. The original shopping village, especially, overflowed with trees, shrubs, and ivy, featuring the sorts of “rustic” iron and stained-glass lanterns Disney would later use in such ventures as the Wilderness Lodge hotel, and imbued with a spirit that few Florida establishments have ever enjoyed. Especially compared with the Walt Disney World Phase One buildings and their “monumental” size and scope, the Shopping Village was small and intimate in the way that Disneyland was small and intimate. This aesthetic of an intimate, relaxed but sophisticated milieu has no related antecedent in Disney, and no real successor either. While Tomorrowland, the Contemporary and even the Ticket & Transportation Center unapologetically are constructed of big bold “modern” slabs of concrete, Lake Buena Vista is set in a reclaimed Florida swamp with a white bird as its mascot – rather than a black mouse.
Ecology was the rule of the day, with the Village Resort’s villas designed to maximize the energy efficient concepts of the time, including the use of skylights and carefully placed windows to maximize daylight and discourage the use of electric lamps; urban planning which clusters buildings in cul-de-sacs and courtyards rather than grids; and of course the careful integration of the Treehouse Villas with a Florida wetland. It is in this sense, along with Disney’s other planning developments of the 1970’s such as the AVAC system, that Disney would be making the claim in1982 that Walt Disney World was Disney’s EPCOT city and that EPCOT Center was, well, the center of EPCOT.
In truth Disney’s plans were much more complex. The Lake Buena Vista Club was to be only the first of a number of themed “communities” stretching up the canal eventually renamed the Sassagoula River and reaching up to the Southwest boundary of Fort Wilderness, where the Tri-Circle-D Ranch was operating. These communities would be themed to tennis, water sports, and other activities, with an Old West themed equestrian center located near the Ranch. Reaching down towards the Village, which would expand to nearly 300% of its’ 1975 size, would be a monorail extension, with a Peoplemover connecting the Village, the commercial hotels, and meeting the monorail at another transportation hub near where the Team Disney building would one day be constructed. Commercial buildings and offices were all part of this master plan, anchoring the Village as the downtown area of the Lake Buena Vista city, home to 9,000 vacation homes and a transient “population” of 30,000. Disney called it the “prototype city of the prototype city”, but anybody outside of the ring of influence could see it as not the first effort, but the thing itself. The complex, especially the multifunctional transit hub, was Walt Disney’s EPCOT embodied.
The original commerce district, tightly hugging Village Lake with a view of rolling fairways and complete with a boat marina and a seafood restaurant “floating” out on the water, was initially called The Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village, but quickly changed to The Walt Disney World Village at Lake Buena Vista in 1977, a wonderfully evocative if ponderous name. The original layout consisted of twelve structures of varying sizes, some interrupted by interior courtyards and others connected by shaded canopy “breezeways”. In contrast to the Walt Disney World development area with its’ emphasis on circles – especially those three circles in that special pattern – the Village was all hexagons, with hexagonal paving pads, hexagonal planters, and even a hexagon shaped building with a tall central spire – the Captain’s Tower – which served as the Village’s icon. This name is a symptom of the Village’s original theme as a “seaside Mediterranean village”, which mostly involved the name of this pavilion and a number of “Mediterranean” statues along the waterfront. The buildings themselves were modeled on the “Swiss Chalet” style, with high timbered ceilings and skylights, containing an eclectic collection of shops and eateries with names like Shoe Time, Country Address, Sachet In, and Lite Bite. The interiors were lushly cluttered and each had a distinctive craftwork sign out front often made of wood or metal adornments.
The original Village featured a number of eclectic offerings, including a barber, post office, art gallery and pharmacy. While many of these spaces became retail in the first few years, the post office vacated in the first few years to the original structure in that area, the Walt Disney World Preview Center, and served as the Walt Disney World Village Reception Center offering check-in services for the Village Resort as well as the postal services. This sense that the Village area was indeed a self-functioning resort community quite separate from the Vacation Kingdom was one of the original defining charms of the area and one of Disney’s few bits of evidence that they were indeed trying to make a resort town and not just another Disney outlet. In addition to the Village’s four original eateries – Lite Bite, Heidelberger’s Deli, The Village Restaurant and Captain Jack’s – guests could take a boat from Cruise Dock West to the Lake Buena Vista Club, where Breakfast, Lunch, Brunch and French cooking at night could be found for a price.
|In 1975 the first “Festival of the Masters” art exhibition was held at the Village, making this the longest running annual event at Walt Disney World and establishing that long before World Showcase was conceived, Disney was interested in building their commerce centers into culture centers as well. Another odd event not much discussed today was a sort of living nativity known as “The Glory and Pagea ntry of Christmas”, supposedly being a recreation of events in a 11th century French village (!). And in 1977, the view from the oyster bar at Captain Jack’s was further enlivened by the Empress Lilly, a full scale riverboat offering no less than four restaurants plus five lounges and assorted banquet rooms:
– The Steerman’s Quarters, a steakhouse, on the main (Boiler) deck nearest the paddle wheel and The Baton Rouge Lounge on the same deck on the front of the boat whose original bar and registration area can be observed to this day.
– The Fisherman’s Deck on the fore of the Hurricane (second) deck and the high-end Empress Room on the aft of the same deck, with its’ own attached Empress Lounge complete with live harpist (a tradition which would be carried on at Victoria & Albert’s at the Grand Floridian).
– There were also The Starboard Lounge and the Promenade Lounge, and on the third deck, the Captain’s Table and the Texas Deck Lounge. Figuring into all this nonsense was Walt Disney World’s very first character breakfast, making this venue doubly important as not only the first of that kind of meal, but the only establishment on property before the opening of the Grand Floridian where real fine dining was offered.
1977 also saw the introduction of the “Village Pavilion”, a multipurpose food structure filling the gap between the Pottery Chalet structure and the Empress Lilly, originally anchored by The Verandah Restaurant, a casual dining room open for lunch and dinner. The two adjoining rooms would be variously used for fast food and confection locations over the years, including an Arribas Bros location in its last few years.
And that was how the Walt Disney World Village remained for many years. Back before the Village was boxed in by Eisnerite development, in Walt Disney World terms the Lake Buena Vista Resort Community was “out in the sticks,” well south of Fort Wilderness and well east of the major tourist entry to the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT: World Drive. Due to its’ remote nature Disney issued tickets in their A – E resort guest ticket books good for complimentary round trip bus transport to and from the Village, and the Village thrived in its’ own quiet way as a quiet alternative to The Magic Kingdom, filling a role also intended for River Country and Discovery Island and meant to pad out a Walt Disney World sojourn a few extra days or to even a week. Additionally, the Village offered a number of services to guests, golfers and conventioneers staying in the Village Resort, including boating rentals and a grocery store (the much missed Gourmet Pantry).
In a 1982 interview Dick Nunis offered another unique version of Disney’s efforts to build a city: that Disney was to build a New Orleans section around the Empress Lilly, supposedly similar in style to Disneyland’s marvelous New Orleans Square, which would house shops on one level and hotel rooms on another. 1982 is also the year that Disney began to purchase equipment which could expand the monorail system into Lake Buena Vista, but perhaps rampant costs related to EPCOT Center and an increasingly troubled future for the company in the wake of several hostile takeover attempts by investors spelled the end of such ambitions. If Disney was still planning on bringing the monorail to the Village as late as 1982 and developing the area into a real downtown, perhaps this also renders Disney’s decision to build a new theme park and brand it as the recognizable EPCOT name more excusable, and let the real citybuilding happen in the Lake Buena Vista area. This also explains Dick Nunis’ longstanding assertion that Disney really did build EPCOT – just not where anybody expected.
These plans were presumably deader than dead by1984 with the entry of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells.
The first real challenge to the quiet aesthetic of the Village was issued in 1989. By then the bulk of the building which once housed Port of Entry (a kind of precursor to World Showcase’s import goods shops), Bath Parlor & Sachet In (bath goods and fragrances), and the Great Southern Craft Company had been taken over by the Character Shop, a kind of version of the Emporium on Main Street. Heidelberg’s Deli had become Minnie Mia’s Italian Eatery, The Verandah Restaurant had become Pluto’s Dog House (a fast food hot dog establishment), and The Village Restaurant, with its’ beautiful handcarved sign of a seagull which gave the Village its’ logo, had become Chef Mickey’s, where children punched out cardboard cutouts of Mickey and waved them around as the mouse himself came bouncing through the restaurant.
Cartoons were played in the Village Restaurant Lounge for five hours a day. A topiary mouse pouring an intriguing fountain of water into cascading clay pots had been added to the space between Village Spirits and what was then Team Mickey’s. In short, what was once designed to be an escape from the rest of what Walt Disney World had to offer had become just another outpost for the Mouse. To say that the Village had by then lost its’ defining charm is wrong – there were still stores offering non-Disney things with names like Personal Message and Eurospain, but the aesthetic of the nearby just-opened Pleasure Island was starting to spill over. Disney’s 1975 plans to build a self-sustaining, individual and unique commerce center not for Walt Disney World, but for southwest Orlando, went out with Ron Miller. Dick Nunis, the chief shepherd of good taste at Walt Disney World, left not so long after this.
By 1989, Disney had developed and sold off their share of the land across SR 535 as the Crossroads Shopping Plaza, an area once slated to become residential houses for the “population” of Lake Buena Vista. The opening of the Disney Vacation Club / Old Key West hotel in 1987 and Dixie Landings and Port Orleans in 1992 filled in the stretch of canal intended for more homes and more communities, although water taxis, true to design, still plow these waters. In 1996, the Disney Institute opened in the shell of the Village Resort. When the Institute died its’ slow death in 2001, all of Disney’s original townhouses, vacation homes and eco-friendly buildings were torn down and replaced with the massive and modern Saratoga Springs hotel.
Shortly after the opening of Pleasure Island the Village complex was due its’ second name change to The Disney Marketplace, which further strengthened the place’s apparent ties to The Magic Kingdom. The glitz and general noise of the Eisnerite Pleasure Island complex clashed with the overall feel of the Marketplace, and the writing was on the wall that the quiet years of an adult, sedate “resort town” were just about over. When the West Side complex opened in 1997, wholesale changes to the essential makeup of the westernmost portion of the Village was deemed necessary and so Disney tore down the Christmas Chalet building, built a big new McDonald’s north of Pluto’s Dog House, gutted Pluto’s Dog House and turned it into a LEGO store, reworked the original Marketplace stage by removing the important greenery which once visually broke up the concrete steppes, and removed the original Village playground to replace it with “The World’s Largest Perikaleidoscope”. At this time the entire complex – Marketplace, Pleasure Island and West Side – was renamed “Downtown Disney” – ironically because it isn’t a real downtown, but once could have been. The West Side’s collection of third party shops and eateries were designed to add some “class” to a place from which Disney had carefully disbanded all the class a few years prior, and worse, was built more like the traditional strip mall which the Village was intentionally designed to refute. The West Side is designed to (and does) look remarkable from the water-side view, an esoteric “skyline” featuring flashing lights and a giant pineapple, but regrettably doesn’t look like much of anything once you’re actually inside it.
The McDonald’s at the Village was not designed by Disney but by the McDonald’s people and their idea of what a whimsical McDonald’s would look like, and anybody who’s been up I-4 to the International Drive “World’s Largest” McDonald’s knows how unfortunate that corporation can be in a whimsical mood. The LEGO store added fun LEGO-brick statues to the Village’s landscape, adding genuine whimsy but introducing a traffic block. And the World of Disney, although adhering to the original aesthetic profile of the Walt Disney World Village, has an unfriendly casino-like design where one must trek through endless displays of merchandise before finding a single exit halfway across the store. In 1996, as part of the Contemporary Resort’s makeover into a strange purple and turquoise playground, the Chef Mickey’s Restaurant was torn out and moved in name only to the Contemporary’s Character Restaurant buffet. The space was rented out to Rainforest Café, who built an enormous fiberglass “mountain” atop what was originally the Village’s classiest restaurant. In 1996 these establishments were rare, but now they can be found in any major mall. Even the Empress Lilly was sold off to Levy Restaurants, Inc, which already operated the nearby Portobello Yacht Club and had recently lost the Pleasure Island eatery The Fireworks Factory. Levy removed the smokestacks and signature red water wheel, possibly trying to pretend that their crab house was merely in a riverboat-shaped building.
|In 2000, Disney removed the Newport Bay Clothiers store and built a huge new Hasbro-branded Toy Store on the spot, filling the space between it and what was once the Gourmet Pantry with a huge, Mickey shaped fountain, possibly to fill the void left by the removal of the original playground. At the same time Disney marketing’s newest crazy plan – pin trading – caused the removal of the Captain’s Tower to make way for Disney’s Pin Traders. At the same time the Marketplace’s original key architectural feature – the tall ornate wooden spire emerging from the top of this building – was dismantled. The whole changeover was done so cheaply that the building wasn’t even properly air-conditioned in the process, turning what was once a pavilion built to house temporary displays and events into an oven of a store. Nearby, a carousel was plopped down near the Gourmet Pantry, removing shade giving trees, and eventually an off-the-shelf train ride joined it on the far side of the newly created store where there was once a sedate reflection pond.
In the balance of things, by far the most unfortunate change to the overall profile of the Village in the last twenty years has been the removal of much of its’ greenery. Where once trees and plants positively overflowed along pathways and the water’s edge, now more and more space has been given over to tourist pathways, merchandise carts and other things. The Dock Stage has been redesigned to be hardly recognizable now, and while the original designers wisely put a patch of green in the middle of it and some trees, sightlines from all areas have won the day inevitably. All of the green grass and rolling lawns around the old Veranda building are gone now, filled in with LEGO and McDonald’s. In the intervening years the Village’s two most distinctive structures have been demolished or stripped of their noteworthy features. And the tenancy of places like Rainforest Café does at least have the reassurances of being impossible to last forever.
All of these changes to traffic flow and merchandise offerings have, for the most part, been in response to tourist demands, and perhaps the Village may be ranked as the most notable casualty of Disney’s original and noble conception that tourists would want to do things at Disney that weren’t related to Disney. The Village / Marketplace has become All Mickey All The Time and the fact that it is now a mob scene at practically all times of the day is more or less testament to the fact that on some level the big strip mall it’s become is more or less what it’s expected to be. Furthermore, even a cursory examination of the Village/Marketplace shows that there has been a surprising consistency with all things offered – specialty soaps, a deli bar, a candy shop, a toy store, a Christmas shop and more all appear around 1980 and are more or less with us still.
Today the trinity of West Side / Pleasure Island / Marketplace does offer something fairly equivalent to the world’s most unbelievably complex and diverse mall, and it is this version which has been exported to every major Disney resort around the world in various forms and names. But we should remember that once there was a carefully planned and designed, environmentally conscious little pocket of Walt Disney World where a white bird flew across a blue circle. Like all pre-Eisner Walt Disney World development, it was planned with great care and executed with surprising consistency and all under the auspices of being surprisingly different, surprisingly not Disney. The original Walt Disney World Village was designed and planned to offer an alternative to the modern strip mall of chrome and concrete and it is one of the great ironies that it was eventually reconfigured to become more like the very thing it was trying hard not to be. It was that original form which was the truly noteworthy effort, not only for being WED’s nearest effort to making good on their original promise to Florida to build a real community meant for real people, but as a whole for being representative of an era of theme design and a mentality of master planning which has more or less vanished from the company.