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The story behind Disney Springs: Imagineers bring natural Florida attractions into modern day Walt Disney World

The story behind Disney Springs: Imagineers bring natural Florida attractions into modern day Walt Disney World

Disney takes story seriously, ensuring that every experience has one, whether it’s a ride, show, or shop. When Walt Disney World announced last week that its popular Downtown Disney shopping and dining districts would be receiving a massive makeover transforming into a complex called Disney Springs, it followed in that tradition, telling a new story born of Florida’s past.

In writing a recent article for Fox News about the Disney Springs makeover, I had the opportunity to learn the backstory behind Disney Springs from the Imagineers who invented it. And with Disney Springs, it really is all in the name.


Story of Disney Springs

Disney Springs executive creative director Theron Skees is at the forefront of the project, drawing from 15 years of Walt Disney Imagineering experience that includes the creation of Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland Paris and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Walt Disney Studios Paris.

Skees explained the need for Disney to always create a story, even when redesigning an area meant for retail and restaurants:

“At Walt Disney Imagineering we’re really storytellers, so through the years we’ve always brought these venues to life in our theme parks and hotels, in our cruise lines everywhere, and we always try to back those by telling stories. So the story that we developed for Disney Springs is different from our theme parks. It’s not like Frontierland or one of the lands in a theme park, but the storyline that we developed gives us a background history for which to create everything on – our landscaping, our architecture and everything.”

Kathy Mangum, Executive Producer at Walt Disney Imagineering, fresh off of creating the fictitious town of Radiator Springs for Cars Land at the Disneyland Resort in California, explained the basis for the Disney Springs concept.

“The heart of Disney Springs, of this whole development, is an area that we’re calling The Springs. And The Springs is a bubbling water fountain. It’s sort of a natural space where we’re really taking advantage of the water in general.”

The origin story of Disney Springs is actually quite similar to that of Radiator Springs. Both center around the notion of water being a hotspot for activity – quite literally hot. For Cars Land, Imagineers told a story of Stanley, a Ford Model-T who founded Radiator Springs after discovering a bubbling natural spring during his travels.

Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land

Stanley’s Oasis and the original Radiator Springs spring in Cars Land

Likewise, Disney Springs harkens back to the days when springs were a big draw for Florida. Skees continued to explain the Disney Springs tale:

“The story is really of a small town that grew up around a natural spring. It’s a story that’s really not unlike lots of small towns in Florida that grew up in the same kind of way. It has sort of a nod to the history of Florida as it developed and grew up over the years.”

Hot springs are still popular tourist attractions. Web sites like flsprings.com and swimmingholes.org offer lists of these natural locations where visitors can wade in the waters amidst lush scenery.

Nearest to Walt Disney World, around 45-60 minutes away near the city of Apopka, are Wekiwa Springs and Rock Springs, pictured below.

Rock Springs, FL
(photo by Jordan Rogers)

Rock Springs, FL
(photo by Jordan Rogers)

Locals and tourists looking to float down warm waters frequent these areas throughout the year. These original “water parks” have been around long before Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach were built.

But Disney Springs won’t be a water park by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a setting for shopping and dining that’s wrapped in the story of a town that was built around one of these natural tourist destinations.

Imagineering’s Disney Springs model depicts the area’s many waterways in a vibrant blue color, the center of attention among its many shops and restaurants.

Skees finished the Disney Springs story, tying it all back to Walt Disney’s own personal history:

“You start off with smaller buildings and grow up over time to the 1900s and turn-of-the-century into the Flagler era of Florida. Even Walt’s parents were married in Central Florida so we kind of liked that tie-in from a story standpoint to our own company. And all the way through when Walt came to Florida and bought the property to begin with, we love the idea that maybe his parents told him about the area and when it was purchased that this idea of Disney Springs was sort of central to it.”

The architecture of Disney Springs will vary by area. Waterfront dining locations of The Landing will have an older look drawing on nostalgia, with more rustic buildings that look like they’ve been around for decades. Newly-added retail locations in Town Center will be built with a Spanish style of architecture, drawing from Florida’s rich history of explorers landing here centuries ago.

Waterway between The Landing and Town Center

The existing West Side will feature a more industrial feel, adding new seating areas atop what appears to be elevated train trestle. In its entirety, Disney Springs is being designed to feel like a town that grew up with Florida, long before Walt Disney World’s theme parks moved in.


Video Slideshow: Disney Springs concept art, including The Landing and Town Center waterways


This invented town of Disney Springs is further based in real-life places, drawing inspiration from elsewhere in the country, explained Skees:

“It’s not unlike many of the urban developments that we find now in many other cities. If you think of Chelsea Market, say in New York, there’s this great gentrification of the Nabisco factory. You’ve got this really old building that was designed for something else but it’s now been converted and kind of lovingly restored and we kind of feel like we’d like to do the same type of thing, where we’re telling the story of a town that grew up over time, but now it’s been lovingly restored. It’s kept all of its charm, it’s history, but it sits very squarely in the modern day of today.”

This entire thought process is devoted to redesigning an area to allow Disney’s guests to feel the most comfortable while shopping and dining.

Walt Disney Parks and Resorts chairman Tom Staggs added:

“It guides our development and keeps us rooted in a sense of place, but also even if you’re not explicitly telling the story, it comes across to our guests. That sense of welcome, that sense of embrace, especially with this great center around The Springs, is going to be instinctive and natural for our guests.”


Why Now?

Downtown Disney has been around since 1995, alongside Pleasure Island. Before that it was called the Disney Village Marketplace since 1989. Before that, the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village since the area first opened in 1975.

Theron Skees answered the question of why 2013 is the right time to once again reinvent the area:

“Disney has a long history of listening to our guests. Visitors and local residents alike have really told us a lot about their desires for increased diversity in shopping and new dining selections and that’s the primary reason. Secondarily, we love to always improve our venues. Imagineering has a long history of looking at master plans and understanding what’s relevant for our guests and Downtown Disney is one of those areas that’s been open for 30 years and we look at a lot of different types of plans over the years and took our time to really decide on what was the best approach for this area and we landed on Disney Springs. It’s kind of a unifying storyline that we felt would really reinvigorate the property and really give it an identity all of its own.”

Once again, it comes back to the story. Disney previously announced a project called Hyperion Wharf would replace Pleasure Island, initially scheduled to be completed this year. But work never began on Hyperion Wharf, which borrowed a look and feel from the recent successful multi-year Disney California Adventure makeover.

Now-abandoned Hyperion Wharf concept

Instead, Disney felt they could do better, as Skees explained:

“Hyperion Wharf was an idea that was announced and we looked at the total need of the property and decided that we really wanted to take some more time and develop and go out with the very best idea, the best solution for Downtown Disney. We believe that’s Disney Springs.”


Why 3 Years?

The entirety of Disney Springs won’t be complete until 2016, leaving some to wonder why it’s going to take three years to redevelop an area of shops and restaurants when Disney has previously built an entire theme park in the same amount of time.

Skees had the answer:

“When you’re building something of this scale, if we had a green field where we were starting from scratch, that time would obviously be compressed because you wouldn’t have to worry about current guest activities or businesses that needed to stay open. But we’re working in an area of course where we’ve got businesses, we’ve got partnerships, we can’t just shut everything down. We’ve got parking and traffic considerations and, of course, we have guests that are enjoying the property now so we have to work in places where it provides the least amount of impact to our guests and to the economy of our tenants. So we are working on a phased approach so we can have the maximum amount of opportunity for building and have the least amount of impact as possible on the convenience of our guests.”


Disney Springs will be completed in phases, opening little-by-little over the next three years with construction beginning next month. When complete, two multi-story parking garages will add 6,000 spaces and a new traffic flow will improve the experience of coming and going within the new complex.

But it’s ultimately the experience of being inside that Disney is focusing most on, offering a new array of opportunities for Walt Disney World guests to explore with some big name stores and restaurants rumored to be on the way. Disney hasn’t confirmed which new businesses will be featured on their property, but Imagineers are quick to say that they’re excited about what’s to come for Downtown Disney’s transformation, not only adding new opportunities for guests to shop and dine, but also to rest and relax amidst an environment that’s meant to evoke the feeling of simpler Florida times brought to the modern day, not unlike Disney’s own famous Main Street USA.


Find out which rumored businesses will not be part of Disney Springs in my recent Fox News article and learn more about the entire project from its announcement last week.


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