What is Disney Springs? A look at the history of Disney's massive shopping district

Disney Springs is a terrific shopping and entertainment district but many not know the unique history the area has.
Disney Employees Stage Walkout Over Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' Bill
Disney Employees Stage Walkout Over Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' Bill / Octavio Jones/GettyImages

Disney Springs is a notable area of Walt Disney World, a fantastic mix of shopping, dining and entertainment. Yet some may not know the unique history of the area, its many transformations over the years, and why it's such a big deal. So take a walk down memory lane to see how what began as a Marketplace turned into a Downtown and then the Springs we know today. 

The Marketplace

When Walt Disney World opened in 1971, guests had to head into downtown Orlando for shopping. Disney changed that in 1975, opening what was then called the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Center. It was renamed the Walt Disney World Village in 1977, packed with several shops and some small dining spots. Over the years, shops came and went, although always one huge Disney merchandise shop that later became World of Mickey's. In 1989, the area was renamed the Disney Village Marketplace as Michael Eisner had bigger ideas for how to expand this section for guests. 

Walt Disney World's "Happiest Celebration On Earth"
Walt Disney World's "Happiest Celebration On Earth" / Gustavo Caballero/GettyImages

Pleasure Island

Part of Disney World's amazing expansion in 1989, Pleasure Island finally gave adults something to do at night after the parks were closed. It was a fantastic area packed with numerous clubs, from dance places like Cage to the Comedy Warehouse's hilarious shows. Notable was the beloved Adventurers Club with its quirky characters and nice vibe. There was also the fun touch of every night being a New Year's Celebration. 

The area was a big success, even if it required a secondary fee to enter. Its success pushed Disney to expand the area further. 

The West Side

Opening in 1998, the West Side area mixed some high-profile dining spots like House of Blues, Rainforest Cafe and the unique indoor theme park/video arcade DisneyQuest. With this branch, the entire area was renamed Downtown Disney, soon a popular spot for Orlando residents as well as WDW guests who loved the bevy of shopping and dining options. 

Visitors to Disney Springs at Walt Disney World are seen in...
Visitors to Disney Springs at Walt Disney World are seen in... / SOPA Images/GettyImages

The transformation into Disney Springs

The late 2000s brought issues to the Downtown Disney area, mostly a rise in crime after Pleasure Island became open to the public rather than a separate fee. In 2008, Pleasure Island was effectively shut down, the clubs ended, and plans for a new area called Hyperion Wharf. That never came about due to the economic downturn of the late 2000s, and the entire area was later demolished.

Without Pleasure Island, a change was underway, and in 2013, it was announced the area was now renamed Disney Springs, which is now expanded to include scores of new shops and doubling the mall space area with walkways to the Saratoga Springs resort. 

So with the history lesson through, here's a quick guide to how Disney Springs today looks:

A Disney Springs Guide

In a throwback to older times, the Imagineers cooked up a fake "history" of this "town." The story is Disney Springs was settled by a cattle rancher in the 1880s who came across the main springs and built the town around it. 

Each area is now designed to remind guests of other Florida towns like St. Augustine and Key West, mirroring a different era in Florida history. Thus, the Marketplace looks like a 1930s town, boasting big stores like Art of Disney, the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, Days of Christmas, and the massive World of Disney store, one of the biggest Disney merchandise stores on the planet. There's also the Rainforest Cafe, among other eating spots. 

The Landing (in what was once Pleasure Island) is designed like a marina with a nautical theme to the shops and restaurants like Jock Indsay's Hangar Bay and the expansive Boathouse. It's a real marina with boat service from the Port Orleans resort and the amphibious boats used for tours of Lake Buena Vista. There's also the Empress Lilly, a huge paddleboat that's been a symbol of the area for decades. While no longer a working boat, it does have its own seafood restaurant. 

Town Center, as befitting the name, is the central hub that also boasts the "springs" of the area (which are artificial). It's more upscale in both shopping and dining, boasting some top retail labels and more expensive but delicious eating fare. 

The West Side has shifted over the years with the departure of DisneyQuest and boasts famous chains like the bowling alley Splitsville, House of Blues, and the 24-screen AMC Theater. The NBA Experience had been open during the pandemic and used by the NBA but has since closed down. 

Transport to the area is available by bus from pretty much all Disney resorts and the theme parks. Also, guests of the Port Orleans, Saratoga Springs, and Old Key West Resorts can take a ferry up a riverway to the area. Parking is free, although there is a valet fee. 

So, as can be seen, Disney Springs has seen a lot of changes over the years into the vast entertainment district fans know today that provides more than enough to kill an afternoon/evening, and there's more Disney fun beyond the parks.