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.