Beacon Joe has returned from his shanty on the Rivers of America to continue a series started in OCTOBER 2008! Though much has changed since this article was written, you should read the first part of this series before continuing further….
Yes, I know. My blog posting frequency or (lack thereof) is absurd. Yet I feel that this series about nightlife at Walt Disney World is just as valid as it was when WDW execs decided to shutter Pleasure Island in late 2008.
Much has changed on the Island since last we spoke, most notably the additions of Ragalin Road (very popular) and right next door the monstrous T Rex (completing the bookend volcano look for Marketplace that goes so well with craftsmen architecture).
Good news is, no awful plan has come into place for Pleasure Island yet – we’ve got a giant balloon which seems rather unoffensive, and West Side is changing various third party forces – yet Pleasure Island seems more or less untouched at the moment.
So great! Let’s continue where we left off, shall we? In the first article I explained my opinion that the blandness of the Pleasure Island experience most likely lead to its downfall, but it provides an interesting template and supplies a necessary need for the Walt Disney World experience – nightlife! Walt Disney World seems to die off fairly early in the evening, and it’s fairly hard to find something to do into the wee hours of the evening, and I’d love to see that change. I’d love to see the unique Disney experience extend to adults who want to stay up and maybe enjoy a cocktail or two.
So instead of a sweeping armchair quarterback idea of a new themed nighttime district, I came up with a few essentials to what I think would work (and has already worked) to address this problem.
Back In Walt’s Day…. there was Disneyland
DISNEYLAND! Disneyland? Oh yes, there are Date Night at Disneyland and Disneyland After Dark specials I love, which show a hoppin theme park, with Louis Armstrong on the Mark Twain, and…. this….
Okay, so Bobby Rydell might not be the answer anymore, but perhaps keeping the parks open till a decent time might help. E Ticket nights were popular, as are the current extra magical hours. But even more intriguing about these specials is….
THE IMPORTANCE OF LIVE ENTERTAINMENT
Live entertainment works at Disneyland, and it hasn’t been working too great, or just as much, at Walt Disney World. Michael and I were shocked to see how many viable musical ensembles exist in Disneyland, most likely due to the difference in crowd perhaps (more local Annual Passholder folk). Even so, live entertainment – good, unique live entertainment, has been a Disney staple leading back to its formative days in Anaheim, where some of the first contractors were the Marching Band.
Frankie and the West End Boys covered Smashmouth, I’m more interested in these guys –
… and here’s a shiny example to show you I’m not all grumps. YeHaa Bob at the River Roost Lounge at Dixie Landings, or umm Riverside – is a glimpse into what I’m talking about. A more unique experience than listening to poor covers of Barenaked Ladies. There’s nothing too unique about that. To boot, at Disneyland, local or otherwise unknown bands often played and made waves on the national scene – including The Osmonds and No Doubt. Could there be a venue other than House of Blues for up and comers to play at Walt Disney World?
Story continues below the fold…
AN IMMERSIVE, TRANSPORTATIVE, HIGHLY THEMED EXPERIENCE
The drawing boards at Walt Disney Imagineering have been scattered through the years of wonderful themed ideas that have fallen by the wayside, and the nightlife sector is no exception. One good area to look at is the immersive restaurant concept, dating back to Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. The entire Tiki Room concept came from the audio animatronic technology Walt was developing for a restaurant featuring birds, but it originally started as a Chinese Restaurant in a ne’er built section called Chinatown off Main Street featuring Confucius, or should I say “Grandfather Chung”.
A few years later, we see this concept come to life with the vultures at Club 33, which were intended to eavesdrop through microphones embedded in chandeliers and drop into conversations suddenly.
The Blue Bayou at Disneyland, the Phase 1 Magic Kingdom Restaurants (Liberty Tree, Cinderella’s Royal Table) and years later the restaurants at World Showcase provide unique dining experiences that remain incredibly popular with little change to this day. The Biergarten is a wonderful example of this, entering in to a controlled “nighttime environment,” an outdoor Octoberfest complete with nifty fake moon projection (look for it) and crazed live entertainment. We also see the faux nighttime effect at the Blue Bayou and San Angel Inn at EPCOT. These restaurants are always filled to the brim, and it’s because the experience is so different than going to a regular restaurant.
One doesn’t have to look far even today at Walt Disney World to see this working at night. Fort Wilderness’ Hoop Dee Doo Revue has been continually sold out on the same show since 1974, and the Polynesian Luau also continues to wow visitors, as it has for decades.
The Empress Lilly was once a unique experience like the ones mentioned before, until it was leased to Levy Restaurants to become Fulton’s Crab House. At one time it held several restaurants and lounges and was considered the crown jewel of Disney dining.
To supplement this pre-Michael Eisner’s arrival, Dick Nunis and Co. announced a New Orleans Street expansion where the Pleasure Island plot currently resides, with a New Orleans themed hotel (to later become Port Orleans) and a nighttime district extension of the Walt Disney World Village. I picture this being a smaller, more manageable area compared to the Pleasure Island/West Side sprawl – perhaps less clubby, and more of an extension of what’s now known as Marketplace, but with a little more adult/nighttime flair. Exquisetly themed, with a hotel option that would have no doubt been as popular if not moreso than the large resort it became. One can only imagine what might have been…
ENOUGH WITH THIRD PARTIES AND KEEPING EYES ON JONESES
The “unique/immersive” point leads me to one of my biggest gripes of the Eisner/Post-Eisner Era – cut it out with third party vendors! Okay, I’m not saying ALL third-party vendors – what would Walt Disney World be without the Arribas Brothers, and if Don DeFore’s Silver Banjo Barbeque ever came back to Disneyland, I’d be first in line. However, we’ve somehow gone from seemless blending of these third party folk to having them become the show, as was seen at Downtown Disney’s West Side development, and at the Boardwalk with such bland and non-Disney experiences as the Big River Grille, where you can find food and a micro brew experience just like you can in every town experiencing urban renewal.
Eisner’s looking around and keeping up with the Joneses mentality – to keep it hip, etc., led to hasty kneejerk planning such as Pleasure Island to combat Church Street Station, West Side to combat Universal’s City Walk, and the Disney-MGM Studios to combat the Universal Studios. Now we could waste our time debating the unique merits of each (in fact I may argue on all points that Disney’s answer is superior), but the point remains that all were reactionary decisions, and all are analogues to another entertainment option across town. Couldn’t Disney instead continue to provide the Disney Difference, not riffing with other folks’ plans and instead continuing to deliberately seek their own agenda?
WHAT ABOUT A DIVE?
Give the folks a comfortable place where they can drink and mingle I say. These days Walt Disney World bars have become homogenized and sterile – a sort of airport bar experience which I do not relish, including a menu of fixed drinks around property. Not too long ago, you could go to the Contemporary and order a “Monorail Pink”, “Monorail Yellow”, and “Monorail Red,” drinks specifically designed for the resort where the monorails came directly to the concourse. Now all the menus look the same, and there’s none of the intimacy, detail, and specific theming Disney is known for.
One of the most appealing concepts of Pleasure Island’s original plan never saw it off the drawing board. It was a bar called Madison’s Dive, which Jim Hill describes in an article you can read here as:
The nightclub that was originally announced for Disney’s World’s Pleasure Island but ultimately never built. The one that was supposed to have been loaded with all these salty old sailors who would win spin out these amazing yarns. The club that was to have had a sunken bar that featured a window that looked directly out into the depths of Lake Buena Vista. Where — every so often — a real live mermaid would have swum by the window.
Yes, Madison’s Dive would have been filled with some amazing effects, some of which ended up in the Adventurer’s Club. Alas, it too never saw the light of day, but I could imagine enjoying a place like that quite a bit. Smaller more intimate night experiences sound like a good idea to me.
SHOULD YOU SPREAD THE LOVE OR KEEP A SPECIFIC NIGHTTIME DISTRICT?
When Walt Disney World opened, nighttime entertainment was spread across property. It provided for more unique experiences, as you can still see with the Luau, Hoop Dee Doo, electrical water pageant, et al. Back in the 70s, you could also see Vegas-style entertainment with big names such as Rosemary Clooney and Mel Torme at the Contemporary’s Top of The World. It seemed Disney used all that was in its arsenal to provide a unique experience to visitors. As during the day, Disney planners at the time took advantage of the difference in the Florida counterpart to Disneyland, expanding entertainment to the resorts, on the water, and organized throughout property.
As the property expanded under the Eisner regime, it seemed the push to get Pleasure Island off the ground compromised other experiences. Even with the opening of the Boardwalk in 1996, the big brother status of Pleasure Island seemed to bully Boardwalk into never reaching its potential. Instead of expanding options around property and continuing to innovate, these execs seemed to feel the need to funnel people to one specific place to make it profitable. After the more-or-less shuttering of the Transportation and Ticket Center as a viable transportation hub in the mid-nineties, most nighttime busses crawled slowly through Downtown Disney in an effort to force folks to a corner of property they might not normally go to.
Instead of bus bamboozling, how about developing a product people will know about and want to go out of their way to see? I don’t really have an answer or fully developed opinion to this point, I don’t know if a giant nightclub district could ever be successful enough to compete fiscally with other products Disney offers – I do however believe that the Pleasure Island product itself could have been stronger, more unique, showcasing more Adventurer’s Club-like experiences instead of a pure street party appeal. Also I know that there should be nighttime experiences spread further across property – in the parks, at most resorts, and other places such as Boardwalk.
FOLKS NEED TO DANCE SOMEWHERE
Finally, the importance of cutting a rug must be addressed. Though not as imperative to social functions as it once was, according to my tally the only place you can dance around WDW now is in the little kid splash fountains in the theme parks and Atlantic Dance. This is unacceptable. Again looking back at Disneyland, the Plaza Pavilion once thrived as a dance venue, and working many a Grad Nite I can attest to the somewhat disturbing need for dance folks feel. I will say this – it may behoove Disney to aim small, miss small on this point. The Blessing of Size once again has come in to make WDW planners build giant sheds for folks to dance in – and though I love Atlantic Dance in theory – it’s just too big and most likely scares folks away with its largesse. All the clubs in Pleasure Island were huge (save 8 Trax and the Jazz Co,) and just might have been too big to be profitable.
I would love to see Pioneer Hall’s leger. The place is fairly tiny, the show has been the same for almost 40 years, yet they continue to charge so much money and keep up the popularity. Why? It’s intimate, it’s different, it’s themed, it’s worth all the money to see Disney working right. Where would you rather spend an evening – in the Wild West, or at a seedy dance club called Motion that feels a lot like a warehouse-turned-western saloon-turned-sketchy nightclub?
I know what I’d pick, and I believe I know what’s the smarter investment for decades to come…