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Walt Disney World makes way for a shopping, dining makeover

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Last week Disney revealed plans of a retail revitalization project called Disney Springs, the new complex name that will encompass the entirety of Downtown Disney, the dining and shopping hotspot of Walt Disney World. (Disney)

Last week Disney revealed plans of a retail revitalization project called Disney Springs, a new complex that will encompass the entirety of Downtown Disney, the dining and shopping hotspot of Walt Disney World.

When complete in 2016, Disney Springs will nearly double Downtown Disney's size, featuring uniquely Disney venues coupled with high profile third parties. The replacement of former nightclub home Pleasure Island is at the forefront, becoming areas called The Landing and Town Center, featuring Spanish revival architecture amidst a retail setting with waterfront dining.  

But retail experts say the larger idea behind the revamped complex is about introducing a host of shopping and entertainment venues--not necessarily associated with theme parks--that will keep visitors from ever wanting leaving the Walt Disney World Resort.  Or in other words, imagine shopping for an iPad or picking up the latest Dior lip color in between rides on Space Mountain, without even glancing at the rest of Orlando.

Disney's executive creative director Theron Skees likened the project to New York's Chelsea Market, formerly home to Nabisco bakeries, ultimately transformed into a sprawling venue for retail and restaurants. But he emphasized Disney Springs  will also offer visitors a chance to rest.  "We want to be able to create these great locations where people have an opportunity to relax and get away from the harried hustle and bustle that sometimes people experience on their vacations." he noted.

Construction on the makeover begins next month.  Despite much-hyped speculation about potential retailers, Disney isn't revealing which businesses will be included.  Disney representatives say its not because they're unwilling to say; they simply haven't confirmed the retailers yet, and that negotiations continue. "We're really excited about some of the discussions that we're having," said Skees.

But some hints have emerged. Nearly two weeks before the announcement, reputable anonymous insider "Raven" posted on the WDWMAGIC Disney fan forum logo boards of considered big name partnerships. Companies like Dior, Coca-Cola, and American Girl are included as possibilities.

Not all listed companies replied to a request for comment. Representatives from apparel giants Brooks Brothers, Lululemon, Paul Frank, and Kiehl's denied engaging in Disney Springs discussions, as did Alex and Ani, which currently offers Disney charm bangles. Marbles: The Brain Store also stated they are not working on a Disney Springs store, though optimistically added "nothing's impossible!"  Within rumored restaurants, representatives from Shake Shack and Food Network also denied taking part.

But that doesn't mean there isn't truth to be found within the leaked brand names.  Apple is at the top of the list of potential vendors, having recently worked with Disney in 2009 to help redesign Disney Store locations. Apple representatives were quick to reply they have "nothing to announce at this time."

Michael Powell, founder of Powell's Sweet Shoppe, was more forthcoming, delighted to be included on the list of potential vendors. "We would love to be a part of the new Disney Springs," admitted Powell. "Back in 2009, [Disney] approached us after stumbling upon one of our Southern California locations. They loved the way our stores tell a story and wanted us for the renovation of Pleasure Island." But Powell added that conversation ultimately "just petered out."

Skees called finding the right businesses "one of those ongoing processes" and promised some announcements in the months ahead.  He did confirm Downtown Disney's AMC movie theater will stay and the World of Disney is likely to be expanded, already the biggest Disney store in the world.

Beyond third party retailers, several unique Disney concepts were featured on the leaked list. One rumored area dubbed "Food Truck Row" caught the attention of Mark Baratelli, owner of The Food Truck Bazaar in Orlando.  Based on feedback from his patrons, Baratelli believes food trucks would do well at Walt Disney World. "There was one woman from Jacksonville who is part of the Disney Vacation Club who told me she schedules her time-share visits around the dates of The Food Truck Bazaar," he said.

But Baratelli is concerned "Food Truck Row" would steal visitors from his events, noting Disney's propensity for enticing Orlando visitors to remain only at Walt Disney World.  "They see what tourists are doing in Orlando and say 'Hey, why let them do it off property? Let's have them do it here.'"

Retail expert Steven Kirn, executive director of the David F. Miller Center for Retailing Education and Research at the University of Florida, says that's one of Disney's key business strategies. "It'll be another way for them to keep visitors on property and engaged with Disney rather than sneaking off campus," said Kirn. But he doesn't see Disney Springs impacting local businesses much, as long as Disney stays focused on their target audience: families.

Kirn believes Disney should offer "fast fashion" retail for younger audiences, such as Uniqlo, a trendy Japanese apparel line also listed among the reportedly considered brand names.  For older audiences, he says a brand like Lilly Pulitzer would work well in the Disney Springs setting with its "distinctive floral Floridian kind of feeling."

Disney doesn't hide the fact that they want their guests to remain on Walt Disney World property as much as possible. "We're just trying to make it more convenient for people when they stay here to have the maximum opportunities for every type of activity they could imagine while on vacation," said Skees. 

Adding to the convenience of shopping and eating at Disney Springs will be two new multi-story parking garages, adding more than 6,000 spaces to ease existing parking and traffic woes. Disney has declined to confirm rumors of an I-4 highway ramp being built for them.

Skees made a point to express his personal enthusiasm for Disney Springs.  "In my experience with the company, the last 15 years I've worked in almost every theme park in the world and I think that I'm the most excited about this project," he concluded. "Not only as an employee but also as an individual consumer, it's a location that I know that I'll be spending time."  And Disney is banking on time not being the only thing its millions of annual visitors spend while at Disney Springs.

Ricky Brigante is a theme park expert and fan who edits InsideTheMagic, a blog focusing on Disney and theme park news and entertainment.  He's also host of the award-winning "Inside the Magic" podcast.

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