Orlando’s Downtown Disney-Shopping, Entertainment Mecca for families
By Judy Daley 

If you are planning a trip to Orlando, an absolute must-see is Downtown Disney, a magical destination everyone will enjoy. Think of Downtown Disney as the commercial district of DisneyWorld. Crafted and architected a la Walt, this enchanting area as much fun as the theme park itself.

It is a major hub of the free transportation system and does not charge for parking. Downtown is a great place for strolling, people watching and enjoying a warm tropical evening. Downtown Disney covers about a half mile which is separated into three distinctly different "neighborhoods"- West Side, Pleasure Island and Marketplace, each of them offering unique experiences.

West Side

One of the anchor attractions on West Side is the highly unusual building which houses the Cirque du Soliel. The current presentation is called La Nuba, a show of great physicality, daring acrobatics and opulent sets. Tickets for this event range in price from $44-$87. As are all the gift shops in West End, their gift shop is open to the public and is stuffed full of interesting things to see ranging from sequined masques to magic tricks.

The second anchor is Disney Quest, a five-story structure offering virtual reality experiences. You can be the captain while blasting phantom pirate ships, raft into prehistoric rivers, or design and ride your own roller coaster. Tickets for this attraction will run you $28-$34; however, if you are purchasing a Park package, you can choose Disney Quest as one of your options.

In addition to a 24-screen movie theatre, there is a Virgin Megastore, and specialty shops offering Disney character merchandise, celebrity memorabilia, hand rolled cigars, magic tricks and guitars. Restaurants include Gloria Esteffan’s Bongos Cuban Café , the House of Blues, Planet Hollywood and Wolfgang Pucks.

Pleasure Island

Pleasure Island is the exception to the no-cost entry rule at Downtown because it is an adult-only attraction. Pleasure Island is comprised of clubs and shopping along with an open air stage where bands perform nightly. Nothing happens at Pleasure Island until 7 p.m. when the gates are opened. Once inside, you can make your choice to visit a dance club or enjoy a comedy performance. The dance clubs range from rock and roll to Hip Hop to contemporary Top 40. We have traditionally passed up the dance clubs but have found the comedy clubs to be entertaining. Because Pleasure Island is on Disney property, the humor is fairly well controlled.

The Adventurer’s Club provides three rooms for interacting with the cast of characters and a musical stage show which gets everyone involved. Our favorite club is the Comedy Warehouse which offers an interactive improv comedy show. Because it is improv you never see the same show twice. Entrance to Pleasure Island will cost you $16.95.

Marketplace

I have saved my favorite neighborhood for last. I feel that the Marketplace is the most family-friendly of the three neighborhoods. The anchor store here is World of Disney . It is billed as the largest character store on the planet holding the most unique collection of Disney merchandise anywhere. The store is almost a half block long and is separated into rooms by category. Want fine jewelry, a Cinderella costume, a golfing shirt or a set of character glasses for your kitchen? You will find it there, and more.

Also located here is the LEGO Imagination Center . What a fun place! Surrounding the building are larger than life, humorous figures built entirely of LEGOs. In addition, there is a play yard where children of all ages can try their hand at constructing whatever their imaginations can conjure. Inside the store is the most complete offering of LEGO sets ever. This store was badly damaged in the hurricanes and is now being refurbished. I can only imagine what new delights they will offer.

Like sports? Take a look into Team Mickey. They have everything for almost every sport. Do you trade pins? Check out Pin Traders, the largest trading location with the largest assortment in Disney World.
The newest store is called Once Upon A Toy. Be sure to look for the giant Genie rising out of the chimney. This shop offers the coolest toys around. You can even design your own Mr. Potato Head. You use a computer to design him (or her), print the plan and then you can purchase the parts to actually construct him! Are the kids a little warm? Take them to the automated water feature outside Once Upon a Toy. It’s sprays are specifically designed for running through to cool down.

Marketplace stores offer Disney clothing, candy, books, art, Christmas decorations and household articles. You can wander along the kiosk dotted marina, rent a boat, peer into the world’s largest kaleidoscope, and take in a free live performance at the waterfront stage.

Are you in the mood for a lazy drift through the bayous admiring southern mansions? Go to the dock behind the Rainforest Café and board a launch for Port Orleans. This is part of the free transportation system that Disney offers to help people travel between resorts. Each of the hotels along the round trip route is unique and worth wandering through. The same dock offers a launch to take you directly from the Marketplace to the West End during the hours Pleasure Island is open.

In addition to all the shops, there is an abundance of places to eat ranging in price from very affordable to upscale. The affordable include a most unique McDonald’s (sound effects and fun), a Ghirardelli Soda Fountain (they often give free samples in the attached chocolate shop) and a variety of walk away fast food spots. The more upscale include Rain Forest Café, Portobello Yacht Club (featuring Italian cuisine) and Wolfgang Puck’s . It is here that you will also find Fulton’s Crab House. Although this is a pricey place, it is a fun place to eat and features extremely fresh seafood. The restaurant is a full sized replica of a turn of the century riverboat which was named for Walt Disney’s wife, Lillian.

I hope you get a change to wander through the neighborhoods of Downtown Disney. It is one of my favorite places to spend a lazy afternoon or evening.

****
WHEN YOU GO, BE SURE TO
:

*Pack for changeable weather. In winter and spring, wear layers.
*Pack for extremely humid tropical heat in summer. Clothing that dries quickly and doesn't hold heat is best. Most natives wear shorts from March through September.
*Be prepared for tropical rain- the winter is the drier season, but it rains year round. Bring a compact rain poncho- a large plastic garbage bag will work in a pinch as it takes up very little space.
*Bring good walking shoes- the pavement gets very hot and you will be walking a lot.
*Don't bring an umbrella (lightning rod!) to America's lightning strike capitol.
*Carry a bottle of water with you for each person. It is easy to become dehydrated in the tropics when the weather turns warm.
*Bring sunglasses and sun block because the sun is much more intense in the tropics.
*Bring a backpack or tote to carry your water, camera and poncho
and other necessaries.
*Bring your camera. Disney has provided multiple "photo ops" on its property.

NOTEWORTHY WEBSITES AND CONTACTS:

http://www.wdwinfo.com/downtown/pi/

Cirque Du Soliel: Call 407-939-1298 

Pleasure Island:
http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/wdw/entertainment/entertainment
http://www.wdwinfo.com/downtown/marketplace
http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/wdw/dining/diningDetail?id=FultonsCrabHouseDiningPage&bhcp=1
http://allearsnet.com/menu/menu

Our Disney correspondent, Judy Daley, lives in Orlando, Florida. This is her third article for BAFT.

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