Disney Springs' Special Things - Disney Elite
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Disney Springs' Special Things

I first fell in love with this magical place when it was known as "Downtown Disney"

I was fortunate to have visited Walt Disney World (WDW) a number of times before moving to Central Florida in June of 2012, when my husband was accepted to graduate school in the area. My very first visit was at the age of 10, then again at 16, and another time when I was in my late 20s. I grew up watching Disney television shows and movies, playing with Disney toys, and wearing Disney-themed clothes. Now that I am a mom, I share this enthusiasm with my children; we are a family of super-fans for almost anything Disney - from art and music to food and rides. It goes without saying, that when we were preparing to move from our small town in Delaware to our new home near Orlando, that knowing we would be so close to Walt Disney World made leaving just a little bit easier. I couldn't wait to take my kids to the parks for the first time!

Yup, we had dreams of visiting Walt Disney World, for sure. We started planning our top things to do there as soon as we were settled in the area. Until I did something that changed everything. Every. Single. Disney. Dream.

I checked the price of park tickets. Holy Hercules! Can you imagine the cost for a family of 4 or 5 to visit a park for just one day? I will not scare you with the number I saw.

My dreams were immediately dampened. Getting settled into our new home, new jobs, and new schools were priorities, and finances were tight. As much as I wanted to get Florida resident season passes for all of us, or even a one day ticket, that sort of a purchase was too much of an extravagance. So, we all got settled into our routines: my husband in grad school, two of my kids in their own schools, a baby on the way, and myself in a new job (until that baby arrived). I still searched online for ticket deals every so often, but with no luck. I hoped that after the 5th family member arrived, we would be able to go.

I happened to mention my desire to go to Walt Disney World to a coworker, a nice gentleman named Bruce. His eyes lit up as I talked about the parks, and he shared how much he enjoyed visiting them with his wife. Then, he said, "We really love Downtown Disney. Have you been there?" I had no idea what he was talking about. He excitedly described a place that was sprinkled with Disney magic all throughout...from themed decor and fun shops to lively music and unique restaurants. He added that he and his wife actually had a dinner date planned for the weekend at their favorite restaurant, T-Rex, a dinosaur-themed eatery. Then he said one of the most beautiful words a person can ever say to me. "Free!" What? I did a double-take. He went on to tell me that parking and entry were free of charge. I was ecstatic, for sure! Later that evening I told my family about this wondrous place, and we decided to go the next weekend. In the meantime, I started some internet sleuthing to better prepare us.

During my online investigation, I learned that it all started as an area shopping mall in March of 1975, called "The Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village." A couple of years later it was renamed "Walt Disney World Village." In the 1980's, with Michael Eisner at the helm as Chairman and CEO, the complex was reimagined as WDW Village continued to evolve and expand, and began to offer more and more to Disney vacationers to encourage them to stay on property longer, rather than leave the WDW borders. By 1997, WDW Village was rebranded as "Downtown Disney" and included a 66 acre "West Side" area, with more shopping sites like the World of Disney (which is the world's largest Disney character store), additional entertainment venues, and restaurants like Planet Hollywood and Rainforest Cafe. Not long after, sister complexes were built in California, Paris, Tokyo, and Shanghai. I was more than intrigued about visiting this place that seemed somewhat an extension of the parks. For me and my family, I thought it could be a way to experience just a sprinkling of Mickey's magic, until we had enough pennies saved to get us through those enchanted park gates.

And a sprinkling of magic it was, indeed! Bruce gave me a bit of advice about things to do when we visited, but I wasn't prepared for the reality of what we would encounter. Where I grew up, we didn't quite have outdoor shopping areas like this! As we walked through the streets of Downtown Disney during our first visit there (this was 2012), we were happily overwhelmed with the sights and sounds around us. It was early autumn, and even though we didn't see fall leaves on the trees, it felt like the crisp season of fall was all around us, thanks to some of the decor we observed in store windows and elsewhere. Not to mention, we felt very quickly immersed into Disney theming (which was just fine with us, of course)! On every street and corner was something new to see, hear, or taste; most of it with a touch of Mickey or his friends.

Our first stop was the Lego store, which was a super-fun place to spend time. The kids (and kids at heart) could build and race their Lego creations, peruse the Lego sets, and admire life-size Lego sculptures. My son Rowan even helped a Master Builder create the Incredible Hulk. That was waaaaay cool! Rowan was given a certificate for his Lego work with the builder - does that mean he is officially a Master Builder's Apprentice? Hmmm….….

After the Lego store, we visited World of Disney. What a magnificent place to shop! I am actually not a huge shopper, but I really enjoyed looking at the items there; candy, hats, jewelry, toys...all sorts of treasures and trinkets. I also appreciated the scenery in the store (and all the other ones in the complex). From floor to ceiling, we saw Disney characters and scenes from years past to today. To our eyes, the architecture and interior design was impressive. As we left World of Disney, we were hit by a shot of water. Looking up, we saw Stitch had just spit down at us from above the store entryway! So of course, we had to stay there a bit to get sprayed a few more times…

We stopped in a few other stores, but it took us a while, because it seemed that there was something else to watch or do around every corner. Near the Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop, where we were offered a chocolate sample, a group of performers sang acapella. Further on we visited a toy store with a lot - wait - I mean A LOT of Potato Head parts (Darth Vader was my favorite). Around the corner was a train for the little ones (at the time, it was a dollar a ride for each child - not too bad), the lovely Marketplace Carousel was nearby, as well as a really cool Pin Trading shop. There was something for all of us, from the youngest to oldest. My teenager, Morgan, was beyond thrilled to find Lefty's-The Lefthand Store, Disney's Days of Christmas shop, and The Art of Disney store, where she spent time talking with a talented and friendly artist who kindly gave her some career advice on working for Disney as an artist or filmmaker one day.

Throughout the day we ate our packed lunches, but we did buy a snack or two. Us older ones treated ourselves to a Joffrey's coffee (now one of my favorite brands), and the kids shared a very rich chocolate drink from Ghirardelli's. Before it grew dark, we spied a ferryboat, and decided that our last adventure of the afternoon would be a water tour around Downtown Disney and some of the neighboring resorts. The boat ride was absolutely charming, as was the guide - we were lucky to have a friendly and knowledgeable pilot for our first WDW boat experience! Until that boat ride, we'd had no idea about the water transportation or the resorts in that area. We had a lot to learn as new Floridians and budding WDW enthusiasts!

After the boat ride, we made our way back through Downtown Disney toward the parking lot; it was time to return home. As we wound our way through the streets and the day's light waned faster and faster, the atmosphere began to feel even more magical, perhaps because every tree twinkled with strings of fairy lights to brighten the dark streets. We were sad to go, but we knew we would absolutely come back, again and again.

Today, Downtown Disney is now Disney Springs, and is described on Disney's website as a "sprawling promenade built around bubbling springs, inspired by Florida's charming waterfront towns, historic architecture, and natural beauty." It consists of 4 distinct neighborhoods―The Landing, Marketplace, West Side, and Town Center. Personally, I miss the name and familiarity of Downtown Disney, but the newly reimagined Disney Springs offers even more for every visitor of every age to the area. It is absolutely a feast for the senses, with endless eating, entertainment, and shopping choices. Whether you go with family, friends, or just some "me time," you will find something to enjoy while visiting.

A couple of years ago, I was able to save up enough money for season (now Silver) Florida resident park passes; however, my access to the parks doesn't stop me from spending time at Disney Springs. It will always have a special place in my Disney-lovin' heart. Before my mom passed in 2015, Disney Springs was our last fun trip together. I'll never forget how much fun she had watching the grandkids have fun. I also go there every year for my birthday dinner, to my all-time favorite restaurant in the universe: T-Rex (yes, Bruce, I am following in your footsteps)!

Disney Springs can be an added event to a planned vacation or a wonderful day all in itself. If you haven't been there, I recommend you stop by. If you have been there, check it out again - new things to do and see pop up all the time, especially when the seasons and holidays change. Keep an eye out on this blog, too. In future posts, I'll share some tips, tricks, and fun facts about more specific things to see and do at Disney Springs, from passholder perks to first-time visitor information. In the meantime, I hope you have many magical days!

For more about Disney Springs, check out these great sites:

WDW Prep School's A Complete Guide to Disney Springs (Formerly Known as Downtown Disney)

Walt Disney World's Help Center Disney Springs FAQ


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