Today in Disney History, 1997: Downtown Disney West Side Opens

by | Sep 15, 2023 | Disney History, Disney Springs

Today in Disney history 1997 marked the opening of Downtown Disney’s West Side, the first major expansion of the destination.

This date marked a major expansion for Downtown Disney, which would later become the Disney Springs we all know and love today. The addition brought more area to enjoy alongside the pre-existing Downtown Disney Marketplace and Pleasure Island. Today, the area is home to the AMC movie theater, Splitsville Luxury Lanes, and the Drawn to Life Theatre

Why Downtown Disney West Side?

By 1997, Downtown Disney was already an established destination for dining, shopping, entertainment, and nightlife at Walt Disney World, but it was split into two distinct areas: The Disney Village Marketplace and Pleasure Island. Pleasure Island was a nightclub district geared toward creating more offerings at the resort for adults, while the Disney Village Marketplace largely featured shopping and dining and was already in the early phases of becoming the destination we see Disney Springs as today.

With plenty of unique shops and restaurants, including the largest Disney character store with World of Disney, Downtown Disney was already a must-do destination for many guests during Walt Disney World vacations. The complex provided a way for guests of all ages to spend time on Disney property without using a theme park ticket (perfect for travel days), and the opening of West Side only extended these offerings. 

The addition of West Side with more shops, restaurants, and several new entertainment offerings helped make Downtown Disney a destination for locals. And, the 1997 rebranding of the entire area with West Side helped create a more cohesive theme while connecting each of the areas.

West Side Experiences

While Pleasure Island officially closed in 2008, Downtown Disney did not transform into Disney Springs until 2015. Amid all the changes, however, West Side remains the least-changed area of the complex. West Side itself was a 66-acre expansion project that added many of the major entertainment venues to Downtown Disney, some of which are still present in Disney Springs today.

New experiences in the area included the Cirque Du Soleil theater, which originally hosted La Nouba. While La Nouba was a show unique to Walt Disney World, the theme and storyline of the production were not Disney-specific like the current Cirque Du Soleil show at Disney Springs. Today, Drawn to Life takes its inspiration from the magic of Disney animation, making it even more uniquely Disney. 

Further Expansion

The year after West Side officially opened, the resort would add DisneyQuest to its entertainment lineup. This “indoor interactive theme park,” featured immersive video game, virtual reality, and arcade-style rides, making it a popular pick for guests visiting Disney World on rainy days. While the experience closed in 2017, and was arguably very dated toward the end of its days in Disney Springs, many Disney fans have fond memories of this West Side exclusive. 

House of Blues opened on the West Side as well, offering a spot for concerts, nightlife, dining, and even Sunday Gospel brunches. This location remains one of the venues from the early days of West Side that still operates in Disney Springs today. Gloria Estefan’s Bongo’s Cuban Cafe was a staple of West Side for several years, but the restaurant closed in 2019 to make way for a health-focused dining experience with Beatrix. Disney later announced that initial plans had changed, and while no opening date is set, Summer House on the Lake is now in the process of taking over the old Bongos space. 

The Downtown Disney AMC Theatre was a West Side addition as well, a complex that today offers dine-in experiences for the ultimate night out with dinner and a movie. Additionally, Splitsville is one of the most popular recent additions to the West Side bringing together luxury bowling with live music, dining, and arguably (and perhaps surprisingly) some of the best sushi at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Disney Springs

A lot has changed over the years as Downtown Disney was reimagined into Disney Springs, but West Side is now the neighborhood closest to how it was when it originally opened. While some of the shops remain (albeit in different forms) that used to make up the Disney Village Marketplace, the area has been renamed and re-themed. And the nightclubs, live music, and nightly “New Year’s Eve” festivities that once made up Pleasure Island are long gone, with Guests now able to stroll through neighborhoods like Town Center and The Landing instead.

The Ganachery is located in The Landing area of Disney Springs.

The Ganachery is located in The Landing area of Disney Springs. Photo by Dani Mortiz

The smaller shops on West Side have continued to change over the years, and new dining additions (like the rotating food trucks, for instance) have popped up over time, but if you are looking for as close to an “original” Downtown Disney experience as one can have these days, you’ll want to head over to West Side. 

Posts by Brittany DiCologero

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Brittany DiCologero is a freelance writer specializing in Walt Disney World history, along with various travel, and lifestyle topics based in New England. She is the author of “Red, White, and Disney: The Myths and Realities of American History at the Walt Disney World Resort,” and “Brittany Earns Her Ears”. When she is not writing, you can find her exploring local museums and historic sites, and binging documentaries on Disney+.
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Authored by
Brittany DiCologero

Brittany DiCologero is a freelance writer specializing in Walt Disney World history, along with various travel, and lifestyle topics based in New England. She is the author of “Red, White, and Disney: The Myths and Realities of American History at the Walt Disney World Resort,” and “Brittany Earns Her Ears”. When she is not writing, you can find her exploring local museums and historic sites, and binging documentaries on Disney+.
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