December 9, 2009

Downtown Disney's Retail Therapy

An evening at Downtown Disney is designed to pull money out of your wallet! It is not just a visit to Disneyland or California Adventure that requires a significant cash outlay. Yet this retail expansion of the Disneyland Resort is currently the most successful addition.

An early morning tram ride left me at the entrance to the ticket booths well before opening time. As is my custom, I always buy my tickets the night before, so I had plenty of time to walk around and enjoy the quiet before hoards of guests come in. It is just beautiful here, and the planter and seating (above) is even elegantly designed and executed.

Whether it was the closed World of Disney store or the soon to open La Brea Bakery, I found the area to be quite DisneyWorldesque, an unexpected taste of what it is like to be in Florida while enjoying a vastness of scope and scale not found in Anaheim.

For all the flaws I find in the expansion's design and execution, there is one aspect I absolutely love: everything is together and easily accessible. Two theme parks, three hotels, and a shopping district all within a few minutes walk. In Florida, you have to get on the monorail or the ferry boats, in a car or hop a bus, to go from one spot of the enormous resort to another. Although most times it is easy, just try going from Port Orleans Riverside to Animal Kingdom Lodge for dinner and then go back to the Contemporary Resort for drinks, and you'll see what I mean.

In the evening, as the lights turn on and the sun goes down, Downtown Disney takes on a new flavor and the absence of lakes and deep expanses of lawn just disappear. Since guests are leaving or heading to the parks, the area has a vibrancy that is glaringly missing from the Walt Disney World version of the shopping area. It's a great place to people watch!

The Catal restaurant serves up a decent bowl of pasta for a not-too-much out of the ordinary price. The Uva bar is elegantly lit and very inviting in the warm evenings. It seems the locals have discovered the downtown district as well, and that only makes sense as backyards tend to be smaller and public spaces must carry the burden of also being places to walk and relax as well as provide retail therapy.

A quick journey through the World of Disney, and I was lured by Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen. Last year's lunch more than held its own with anything I've eaten in New Orleans, and the beignets are among my favorite treats ever. Even though I was happily full after a nice meal at Catal, the thoughts of the pastry lingered. I didn't cave in, however.

My wife and I strolled the grounds, stopping into the Grand Californian for a peek. It was a terrific way to end our evening out as for a moment once more, we felt like we were at the Walt Disney World Resort instead of the middle of California. This alone proves the success and failure of the resort expansion. It's not the new theme park that brings a Disney feel to the area (at least for now); it is a elegant and lovingly designed detail of the new hotel and the shopping street that up the ante. Hope the suits at the Walt Disney Company and the amazing Imagineers are listening and learning.
(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

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