Update 2014 – Downtown Disney is undergoing a major transformation into Disney Springs. Much of the below may now be inaccurate for example Capn Pete’s is now the boat dock area for the resorts. There is also a multi storey car park (in the former West Side) and Pleasure Beach is now gone. The new Disney Springs looks fantastic and should be ready 2015/16 so I will post about this when I’ve seen it in all its glory!
Downtown Disney is the area in Walt Disney World which is free. Sorry I had to put that in as everything else here costs but this one is free, gratis. Yes it’s free to park, free to get in and free to watch any street entertainment. If you’ve never been to WDW before then free parking is a big benefit as the parks all cost $14 if your not staying on resort and this can soon rack up if your here for a few days. This was such an issue that recently the Disney Buses stopped going straight to the parks from Downtown Disney. This of course will not stop the determined and judging by the amount of cars parked here early in the day, it hasn’t. If you are tempted to do this then you’d catch a bus to a resort and then another to the park. This can be very time consuming though, so is the $ saving really worth it? If you really want to save this way then options are:
1) Magic Kingdom – bus to Contemporary and walk to MK
2) Epcot – bus to Poly, walk to the ticket & transportation centre, then monorail to Epcot
3) Hollywood Studios – bus to Boardwalk / Yacht and walk to Hollywood studios
4) Animal Kingdom – park at Blizzard Beach then catch next bus to Animal Kingdom. Be warned though, on the return trip you’ll have to go to a nearby resort and catch another bus back to Blizzard, and be sure it’s not shut when you do or there won’t be a bus!
Anyway I digress, Downtown Disney (DtD) is split into three areas all themed around a lake. The first area is Marketplace and as the name suggests has lots of shops as well as a few eateries including Rainforest Cafe (the only full service this side). The second area is Pleasure Island which used to have a separate gated entrance but has since been turned into the walkway between Marketplace and West Side. Pleasure Island used to host lots of nightclubs but now just has a few shops and restaurants. West side has the entertainment (as well as some shops) and is good for restaurants / bowling (from 2013)/ going to the movies / Disney Quest or goto Cirque Du Soleil. I’ll delve into each in more detail a bit later.
Travelling to Downtown Disney
Depending on where your travelling from, the easiest way to get here is exit 67 off the I4 or enter from SR536. When you pass under the Mickey welcome sign you’ll need to take the first exit on the right and then turn right at the lights.
Don’t forget if the lights are red you can still turn right here, but you must give way to oncoming traffic. (If you want to see more about driving in America see my previous blog here:
You will now be heading East on Buena Vista Drive and very shortly will encounter the multiple entrances to park. Depending on what you want to do depends on where you need to park, entrance 1/2 is good for Marketplace 3/4 is good for Pleasure Island and 4/5 is good for West Side.
One word of warning it gets very busy, especially at the weekend. Also note at the end of the road when you enter one of the parking lots, it is one way and you cannot enter back into the car park easily, especially at peak times. If it is absolutely packed there is an overflow car park accessed via the exit to car park / entrance 5, behind Cirque du Soleil. If you are staying at another resort and drive in you may choose to park at Saratoga Springs and walk in.
Good luck finding a spot at peak times…
One of the easiest ways to get here, if staying on resort, is of course the free buses. They are very regular and stop at Marketplace and Pleasure Island before returning to resort. (Note when open they also stop at Typhoon Lagoon after the Pleasure Island stop).
One thing I found is that at the Pleasure Island stop they seem to change drivers here regularly. It only takes about 10 to 15 minutes, but can be frustrating if you’re tired and just want to get back. On the plus side you’ll be cool and dry in the bus. One other thing I noticed is the buses do alternate their routes in and out of DtD at peak times to minimise delays.
Another option if staying at a local Disney resort is a boat trip. Well worth it, but only available if your staying at Port Orleans (both parts), Saratoga Springs Resort and Old Key West. When my daughters were younger it was a great end to the evening at DtD to have them snuggle up for the boat ride back to Port Orleans. Highly recommended especially if your at one of these resorts as its a nice gentle way to travel and learn about local wildlife from the captain. If your not staying at one of these resorts either grab a launch anyway and explore the resort or hire a boat from Cap’n Jacks Marina in Marketplace and cruise around.
Entrance to Cap’n Jacks marina.
View from one of the boats when coming into DtD West Side.
It’s probably easier to say what’s not here! There is so much to see and do that you’ll want multiple trips here to either blow off steam, relax or spend some more money. Here is an example of some of the entertainment on offer: Concerts, Movies, Bowling (from 2013), Cirque du Soleil show, Sunday Gospel Choir, Boat rentals, Balloon flight, Indoor interactive theme park, live FREE entertainment and kids rides.
Want to eat? Easy the place is packed with restaurants of every type to suit every taste palette and budget. Particular favourites in our house are Planet Hollywood (book this!)
Check out the movie memorabilia around this restaurant too, including the Jenny from Forrest Gump!
Raglan Road Irish Pub & Restaurant (book this too)
and push the boat out with Fultons Crab house (if you’ll pardon the pun)
For quick snacks then I’d recommend Ghirardelli’s for ice cream / shakes, Earl of Sandwich and Wetzels Pretzels. We haven’t been but I’d also recommend Pollo Campero for healthier snacks. Ghirardelli’s is a particular favourite of ours and is a must do on at least one occasion. One word of warning is that if your using your snack credits from a Disney Dining Plan you can only pick items to $5 in value. That only includes drinks and single scoop ice cream, so I chose a single scoop with chocolate waffle cone, which was more than enough generally.
OK but what’s Free?
The entertainment! As you walk through there always seems it be musicians playing various instruments and entertaining the crowds. My favourite spots are House of Blues bar, by the Balloon ride and just on from that in Pleasure Island. They have some fabulous guitar players.
The majority are in West Side and Pleasure Island areas with the large entertainment area in Marketplace active in the evenings. This largest area is opposite the largest Disney store in the world, in Marketplace. (So you can’t miss it). I have seen local events held here like a battle of the bands, a famous Brazilian pop group perform (judging by the screams & Spanish spoken) and a cast-member conducting a dance competition with select members of the audience as the dancers. The best thing about this for me is it allows some members of your party to shop whilst you relax and watch the entertainment (unless the Brazilian pop groups playing in which case, no seats!).
Then you have lots of photo opportunity moments with pre-set areas for you to get those once in a lifetime snaps. At the entrance to marketplace (when you arrive by bus) is a water fountain to help your little ones cool off.
There’s also Stitch at the entrance to the Disney store who ‘spits’ at unsuspecting passers by!
Kids love this. At this entrance to the Disney store are skeletons rattling their cell and just outside another family photo opportunity!
Some of the pre-staged areas for you to get some family shots are great to either get those once in a lifetime shots, or if your lucky to visit regularly use them as regular spots to see your kids growing up.
The other thing to do is to grab a drink, sit on one of the many benches facing the lake and just watch the boats go by as the sun sets.
OK what’s not free that I’d like?
If you have any budding princesses in your family who may have been miffed when your son got turned into a Pirate at MK then you’ll want to head to Disney Store and get them into the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. They will also turn sons into budding knights too, but this is really about the princesses (like Pirates of the Caribbean is about the pirates!)
If your the father, then do as I do, hand your credit card over, wait outside and enjoy your new princess when she emerges. Don’t ask your wife how much it cost. Trust me. Just take the photo then look at her smile when the credit card bill arrives.
The other area you are likely to spend time (unless its raining) is Disney Quest.
This Disney theme park comes inside with lots of great rides and games which are all free (once you’ve paid the entry fee!) Yes you read that right an indoor theme park and I said unless its raining. I know it sounds ideal BUT when the rains come where do you think the 100,000 theme park guests are going to head for? Best time to go is day time, earlier the better. Avoid bad weather at any time and evenings especially weekends. They do shut when it reaches capacity but the busier it gets the longer you have to wait for each ride – and some can take a while…
Another great evening will be had at Cirque Du Soleil which is easy to spot at the far end of West Side.
Personally I’ve not been here (yet) but know from the reviews it is a fantastic show and well worth it (if your budget stretches). Oh and if you travel with Virgin Atlantic (from UK) you can check in here the morning you fly and drop your bags so you don’t have to carry them around all day.
Wow, I didn’t know there was so much!
Hold on! I’ve not even talked about the main thing here yet….SHOPPING!!!!!
There are loads of shops here and most of them are interactive to some degree. What do I mean interactive? Well how about building a bespoke remote control car and trying it out? Sitting on a Harley, getting a personalised Disney drawing, watch toffee apples being made, making your own bath treats and lots more besides. The point here is even window shopping is fun! If your credit card took too much of a battering that day just do some window shopping and come back once it’s feeling a bit better to buy those treats!
Basin is a great stop for my wife & daughter.
The flagship here is of course the Disney Store quite rightly called “World of Disney” As I said earlier it is the biggest in the world and you can easily get lost inside as each room leads into another, each with more than one exit. Above each entrance is a particular character and well worth photographing in my opinion.
One piece of advice here is don’t split up as your bill will get very high! Also if your staying on resort, get your purchases sent back so you don’t end up carrying it around all evening. Of course if you drove in then expect frequent trips to fill your boot (trunk).
My other favourite stop off and photo opportunity is the Lego store. You’ll easily spot it close to Fultons crab house and has ‘Nessie’ the Loch Ness monster in the lake
in the background is the stage for the evening entertainment mentioned earlier…
Having been quite a few times they are frequently changing the displays and currently have the seven dwarves, toy story and a fire breathing dragon.
Always a popular photo spot, you may need to wait to get the right shot, or come back when it’s quieter.
There are loads of shops and you can buy: sunglasses, cigars, swimwear, branded sports wear, Disney pins, Christmas decorations, homeware, art, teen clothing, sweets, vinylnation figurines, Harley gear, Lego, customised baseball bats, toys, tea & spices and of course practically every Disney themed souvenir you may think of (and most you hadn’t).
OK it sounds brilliant, but what’s the catch?
It is brilliant. Without a doubt I couldn’t conceive of a Disney vacation without coming here as it has a great vibe. It is also a routine on our first night to get the girls slushes from Wetzel Pretzels to turn their tongues blue / red.
It’s not permanent and wears off…eventually.
The only catches I can think of really are these;
1) Downtown Disney is very popular. The crowds can sometimes get oppressive, especially if your hot. The stores are always busy and the worst is the World of Disney with its narrow aisles and pushchairs galore.
2) It is vast and you will end up walking a lot. Be wary of where you are as if you drove it can be a long way back.
3) It’s not cheap so don’t expect a bargain. You want cheap, goto a mall.
4) There are very limited seating opportunities if your not buying food / drink.
5) Getting a walk up dining reservation is nigh on impossible, especially at peak & popular restaurants. Rainforest on a Friday night? Forget it unless you want to eat in three hours…
Some hints and tips I have are:
1) Use Disney transport to get here if possible and make use of the send purchases back to resort scheme they operate. (If you can)
2) Try to avoid peak times, if not possible then try to stick to one of the three areas.
3) Have frequent meet points in case you split up. Definitely do this for World of Disney, you will get lost & split up.
4) Take your time, relax and drink lots. Watch the entertainment, let your kids blow off steam in the water features just chill and you’ll enjoy it a whole lot more.
5) Have a plan B. If the restaurant you want to eat in is booked, where else could you eat ? If Disney Quest is too busy, what else can you do? If DtD is packed and you can’t park what’s another option? Plan B is much easier in advance than getting frustrated at trying to find a parking spot while the kids are complaining. (One option there is to do the reverse of the Disney Bus routes to the parks I mentioned earlier. If you bought parking at one of the theme parks, best park at Magic Kingdom (once you’ve bought parking at any of the four parks you can park free that day in any of the other three) – which is the ticket & transportation centre, walk to Polynesian and take the bus from there.)
6) If the walkways are too busy and your trying to get from one part to another in DtD, use the car park walkways instead of the ones in DtD. This will especially save time if going from West side to marketplace or vice versa.
Finally have fun. You can end up spending a fortune here but we always have a great time and incorporate the spending into our holiday plans. (Including dining as all restaurants here accept the Disney Dining plan.)
I have talked a lot about things I like and I know I will have missed some aspects of DtD but there really is so much to do here. For a full list of what’s on offer and a guide map click here:
Downtown Disney Guidemap
Don’t print this as there are plenty of these available when you get there. And they change frequently.
Special note of thanks to my nephew for taking the time to photograph the car parks for me!