Friday, June 19, 2009

Vanishing Walt Disney World No. 9

A few weeks ago, the most significant part of my experience of Walt Disney World to recently close, did close - no... not as important as something like El Rio del Tiempo, but so much of my life in Orlando included trips to and from and including Virgin Megastore that I still haven't really come to realize how much less reason I'll have to visit Walt Disney World now that it's gone. Even if I didn't have much reason to want to buy anything, to Virgin I went anyway - to loiter, look and shop. When I initially had moved to Florida and had no way to visit the theme parks I spent nearly every other day at 'Downtown Disney' just to feel close to the place.

Above: Virgin Megastore Orlando's cavernous two-level interior, taken near the vinyl section. The illuminated triangle is the bottom of the "Virgin Radio" booth.
Below: The double escalators bring you to the second floor.

Virgin was my only reason to trek across to the tedious West Side from the Village, and I had been there so often since 2000 that I can actually remember and feel nostalgic for the original incarnation of the store, well before DVDs exploded everywhere, video games were still upstairs and that big hydraulic stage above the door outside was used for concerts. I don't have too much documentation of that version but in any form Virgin was a big part of my life, often the only place around to find new DVDs or records or whatever media it was I was after. It's safe to say, by dint of their location, selection, and hours, that I went there more often than any other component of Walt Disney World in my leisure time.

Although the Virgin retail store brand has not been totally closed, its' removal from the United States market is unfortunate, especially in light of the fact that the Virgin brand began as a record store back in the early 1970's. In the US we have only contact with the Virgin uber-brand in passing, but the two dozen Virgin Megastores littered around the continent did seem like neat experiences if you could live near or just visit them. You could only really find a Virgin Megastore in major markets, and even in the waning years of their selection and layout - after clothes had taken over most of the ground floor and the children's section had been gutted and weirdly relocated - there was still plenty of reason to stop by and see what Virgin had got in stock, although the likelihood of them having what you wanted had greatly diminished. Several years ago I spent a few Monday summer evenings haunting the store until it reached midnight and everyone could queue up to buy the new releases of movies or music; in those days Virgin had a loyalty program as well. When the reward card was canceled and the selection began to stagnate, the writing was arguably on the wall... three years ahead of closing.

But Virgin Orlando was successful, despite internet rumors to the contrary. On the busiest weekends the ground floor could be filled to capacity, and the number of domestic and foreign tourists you would see dropping thousands on audio-visual on a routine basis was pretty staggering. Most Disney guests may have stopped at the CD or DVD to keep the kids sated, but seeing one of the rich Brazilian fathers putting down money on something like twenty Blu-Ray discs wasn't too uncommon either. I once saw somebody in the vinyl section buying something like thirty records at once, including duplicates of several titles. My only guess was that he was a DJ planning on wrecking them all on his turntable.

Above: view towards one of many second level balconies
Below: the enclosed Classical / Jazz section. No, it's not significantly quieter.

Right: The 'Coco Moka Cafe' on the second floor, with balcony seating outside above the main entrance, served "Seattle's Best Coffee"

Now that Virgin has departed from Downtown Disney and management has closed and gutted much of Pleasure Island, I feel that now is the time to come to terms with how much of a wreck Downtown Disney is. Although the rebirth of Pleasure Island was a long and painful time coming, Disney managed to close everything to do in that area just a few weeks before the really serious market panic set in last October. Since there was only one new tenant ready to move in at that time, Pleasure Island's "new direction" is becoming a long, depressing joke. Although successful to be sure, the new T-Rex restaurant is in the most suspect taste imaginable and only further blocks your view of the Empress Lilly. Now that the tenancy of the McDonald's at the Marketplace may be finally ending, Disney is in a real bind as they have too much empty space not filling in at Downtown Disney and it's only going to get worse the longer it sits.

While Pleasure Island is being reworked, Disney also needs to address the depressing slate of stores available in the West Side. The West Side area itself is sort of a mess, a basic expansion of stores along the side of the existing AMC theaters which have failed to inspire much in the way of interest. In the early days of the West Side, sandwiched between the Starabilias store and the Candy Cauldron location was a retail store promoting the "Official All-Star Cafe" in the upcoming Wide World of Sports, which was marketed as being something similar to Planet Hollywood in that it was an eatery owned by sports stars like Wayne Gretzky and Shaquille O'Neal. Shortly after the Wide World of Sports opened in 1998, the "preview" location closed and was replaced with another "Planet Hollywood on Location" store, making it the second Planet Hollywood store within short walking distance of the Big Blue Ball itself, which already sells merchandise inside to begin with. Another MIA tenant was to be a merchandise store for the Orlando Copperfeild Magic Underground, a project which was cancelled in late 1998 and which required Disney to open the depressingly slapdash Mickey's Groove store in its' place. Both of these tenants could and should be easily removed and replaced with more inspiring locations.

Right: the view from the balcony. It could lower to ground level to become a stage.

What Disney really needs to do is make true on their promise of "Downtown Disney" and craft from Pleasure Island and the West Side an inviting open air environment for strolling, shopping and eating. The Village still has this due to the still-remaining wisdom of that layout and design from 1975, and it is the truly busy heart of the Downtown Disney complex because the urban design concepts it was designed to uphold in the mid 70's are still valid and appealing. The skeletal structure of what Disney has in place with Pleasure Island and the West Side isn't so bad, but they need to attend to the needs of guests who have been increasingly stranded on property thanks to the "Destination Disney" concept. Despite the kitchens installed in the revamped Treehouse Villas, guests have no grocery store to buy food at. They have no bookstore to browse. They don't even have an affordable sidewalk cafe or coffee bar to stop by. The solution for the future of Downtown Disney is in the past of the Walt Disney World Village. The key is in diversifying the offerings of one of Disney's cash cows and doing it tastefully. The most ironic thing is that this is the sort of thing that Disney had on property until the mid 1990's, their own unique design, and it's now being done better by everyone except Disney themselves.


Joe Shelby said...

Well, closing the club scene was a case of too many things, not enough patrons. They really should have just consolidated a bit and kept one or two open (including the Adventurers, which I'd have gone to if I knew what it was - promotions on DTD rarely went into detail of what was really there to do except Cirque, which most knew because it's a famous property in its own right).

As for the shopping areas? Well, the whole megastore concept seems to be dying. DTD got hit by the fact that all the big retailers are going except Best Buy (who, like Borders and B&N, has dropped their dvd and cd selection to a tenth of what they used to have 10 years ago), and the hardware stores (which i'm not going to DTD to pick up, thank you). Virgin @ DTD may have been fine (as were the Tower Records stores here in the DC area prior to the collapse), but it doesn't work if the overall store chain doesn't survive elsewhere. The ESPNZone restaurants survive because, well, technically Disney owns them and can keep them alive on their own terms, even if they close the chain outside of the parks.

So how to do it? How do you predict which chain is going to survive the next technological breakthrough that might make them obsolete, in order to get that investment of filling in retail space? Given the number of malls around here with empty lots, especially restaurants (the mall outside my office window has *5* empty restaurant spots available that nobody's in any hurry to fill - full seating places as well as fast food quality), I see DTD being empty for years because the country really has simply started to run out of chains.

DTD really was and is too much for too few. Town Centre style shopping centers survive because of the critical "i have to have this": the grocery store. All the others are superfluous to that. So DTD was always missing that "I have to go here, so as long as i'm here I'll go to ..." factor. Clubbers don't shop, there are too many (damn good) restaurants on other parts of the resort, and the retail prices are just that touch high that if the buyer is a local, they'll just shop in a less expensive store in an Orlando suburb.

hard to win, that...

Joe Shelby said...

Now, if someone could recreate the magic that is Raglan Road (excellent food, excellent entertainment, and that magic touch of being able to create the massive version of what should be a small, intimate setting and still make it work...) in another genre, that would be great...

...but what other genres out there could use that magic, that don't have it elsewhere instead (like the ethnic foods of Italy and China don't need to be there 'cause EPCOT has them, and Jimmy's and the Crab Shack have the seafood scene covered)?

John Rozum said...

I'm not too heartbroken about this, except for the loss of the Adventurer's Club. I never made it inside. I was all set to go on my last trip, but came down with a blinding headache on my way, and turned around and went back to my room and to bed. Had I known it would soon be gone, I would have gone anyway and hoped for the best.

It's a great concept that I hope they revive somewhere. Unlike the other venues surrounding it, this one seemed to really have the Disney feel, from concept, decor, and storytelling.

Joe Shelby said...

Now, here's something they might try, if they have too much trouble getting external retailers (especially restaurant chains) to move in: recreate restaurants from their movies. And I mean *really* recreate them, rather than just throw the name on a brick building and hope the kids don't notice (Pizza Planet @ DHS, anyone?).

They could take one space at DTD and turn it into the REAL Pizza Planet, with the airlock gate, real games, maybe take one or two of the better games from the likely closing someday DisneyQuest (or duplicate one as a pay-per-use, using it as a DQ promotional tool).

Any other Disney movie restaurants out there that ought to be made real? (besides a health-shake and smoothie place themed after BNL? ;-) )

Falstaff said...


FoxxFur said...

I'm not so sad to see the decline of the "uber store" in recent years, and we must remember that Pleasure Island predated the rise of youthful "clubbers" from Orlando that would come and pollute the place (Orlando has a very vibrant club scene on Orange Ave in the city, and both Pleasure Island and City Walk were very poor substitutes for the sort of thing those kids are after). Of course culture changes and Disney, as ever, remains stationary.

I think if Disney wants to get some really cool stuff in Downtown Disney they need to be willing to negotiate on their rent, which I'm sure is as high as ever. As it is they're shutting themselves off to anything but the biggest retail chains which simultaneously limits what they're going to get. Pop Gallery and Hoy Poloy may be neat, but does anyone ever buy anything there? Really? Is Disney letting these places go rent free as a prestige thing?

Not everything they've attracted has been as lame as Magnetron. The Sosa Cigars outlets are the only tobacconists on property and based on the number of cigars you see floating around the West Side are doing fine business. House of Blues draws a constant local crowd and AMC has its' place for locals and tourists alike.

Raglan Road is arguably the best thing Disney's managed to put into that area this millenium... it's inventive, fun, and popular. That it manages to be expensive while being all of those things is a rare trick.

I am surprised, by the way, to find out how many people never went into the Adventurer's Club now that it's closed. I know that WDW tourist markets changed following 1996 and that Pleasure Island was well on its' way to mediocrity by then, and my perspective is likely skewed by being able to remember the place from when I was 8, but this just shows how badly Disney manages their resources; a classic creation closes and a substantial proportion of repeat visitors to the property are like "hey, wait, I should have done that?"