Disney reshapes nightlife complex

Once a haven for grown-ups looking to dance the night away, Disney's Pleasure Island is morphing into a place where Mom, Dad and the little ones can feel comfortable — but the wild uncle is still welcome.
The transformation, part of a revamped night-life strategy for Walt Disney World, is not just an image makeover. Bulldozers are involved.

Disney is tearing out bridges, building a bigger, more prominent new bridge, knocking down two outdoor music stages, cutting a building in half, leveling a hill, opening up vistas of the lake and getting away from the back-alley warehouse-district look.

The goal is to merge Pleasure Island more with the other two districts of Downtown Disney — geographically and in appeal.

"We're going away from the traditional, adult-only nightclub environment to an environment where we can appeal to all groups, including adults," said Djuan Rivers, vice president for Downtown Disney.

Disney created the adult entertainment complex in the 1980s when it saw visitors leaving its hotels to club hop in downtown Orlando. Though Pleasure Island has helped keep nightlife-seeking tourists on Disney grounds for 17 years, the area also has presented challenges — partly because of its location and its mix of businesses.

Centrally located in the 120-acre Downtown Disney, it sat like a no-kids land, blocking traffic between the shopping and entertainment area's two all-age districts, Marketplace and the West Side.

And nothing says "not Disney" quite like a place where partyers wander from bar to bar with beers in their hands while loud music blares.

The changes began last year, when Disney opened up Pleasure Island to people younger than 18. The cover charge just to walk there was eliminated, the turnstile gates were ripped out and the hours were expanded. It used to open at 7 p.m. It now opens at 3 p.m. Someday, it will open at 11 a.m.

Already, a difference is showing. Before the turnstiles came down, 22 percent of Downtown Disney visitors came into the island. Today, it's 75 percent, Rivers said.

Disney also is tinkering with the mix of bars, restaurants and shops on the island, starting with the broader appeal of the new Irish-pub-themed tavern, Raglan Road.

The pub sits in stark contrast with many of the more boisterous music, comedy and dance clubs down the way — which some visitors appreciate.

Paul Scully and his friends recently found refuge there from a busy Walt Disney World vacation. The men, visiting from Ireland, were relaxing over cold pints late one night while their families were back in the hotel.

"It's nice, then, when you have somebody minding the kids," he said. "It's nice to get out on your own for a while."

David Marks, president of Marketplace Advisors in Winter Park, said tweaking Pleasure Island's image so that it's not just thought of as a place for club-hoppers is a smart move.

"Disney has done a great job," he said. "They're improving the clubs and continuing to refine what they're doing."

The company is not giving up on adult-oriented nightlife, nor the current clubs, such as the Adventurers Club, the BET SoundStage or Mannequins Dance Palace. Partyers are still welcome. But so are people seeking to relax. Or a father with children, Rivers said.

"He can walk through here, and if he wants to have a drink on the street, he doesn't feel awkward with his children, and you won't feel awkward either," he said.

Such a mix may set Downtown Disney further apart from other area nightspots.

There already are key differences between Pleasure Island and two principal competitors, downtown Orlando and CityWalk at Universal Orlando.

Downtown Orlando is cheaper and centrally located to Orlando's population; it draws a younger and mostly local crowd. It's a favorite of college students. CityWalk, also cheaper and more centrally located, also tends to draw more locals. And Universal's bar district curves around the main part of CityWalk, keeping partyers off the beaten path.

Rivers said both competitors have market segments he would like to grow. Still, Downtown Disney does well with the local market, he insisted. But the main draw is, was and always will be tourists, driven by the caravan of buses moving between the district and Disney's hotels and parks.

Downtown Disney as the family-friendly adult spot makes sense to Mike Castillo, 41, who owns a construction company in Sacramento, Calif., and a time share in Orlando. He was at CityWalk one recent night with his wife, Jackie.

"I think Downtown Disney is a little bit better; I've got daughters, and they like it there. This is, like, more for grown-ups. Today, we dropped them off for a couple of hours and came over here," he said. "But yeah, I like it over there. The atmosphere is way more for families. I think this is more for grown-ups."

Disney's challenge is nurturing that family-friendly atmosphere without scaring off the young, single crowd that has helped make many of its clubs a success. Rivers thinks most youngsters will be in bed by the time the party really gets going on Pleasure Island.

Still, it worries Sabrina Carter, 26, from Orlando, who was out having a hurricane cocktail with a friend last week at CityWalk. She's an occasional Pleasure Island and downtown Orlando visitor.

"You don't want to be drunk in front of a bunch of kids," she said. "You're going to be paranoid. You don't have to worry about that downtown."


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