At the end of summer 2008, Walt Disney World shut down the nightclubs that once made Pleasure Island an after-dark destination for more than 1 million people a year, saying it wanted to transform the adult-oriented district into a new venue more suitable for families with children.
Three years later, Disney has yet to realize that vision. Five Pleasure Island clubs are still standing, but they're sealed up and dark, little more than elaborately themed, empty storefronts. Two others have been demolished, replaced only by a grass field walled off from pedestrians. Just one restaurant has been added, though Disney says a clothing boutique will open later this summer.
Disney announced this month that the new concept planned for the area — which would have converted Pleasure Island into an early-1900s-themed seaport dubbed "Hyperion Wharf" — has been postponed indefinitely. The concept appears unlikely to be revived.
The slow-moving makeover is the result, at least in part, of what many former Disney officials say has been a long-running debate within the company about how best to position Pleasure Island and whether adult-only entertainment fits with Disney's family-entertainment brand.
Disney acknowledges Pleasure Island's transformation has progressed more slowly than planned. But it notes it has been making many changes elsewhere in Downtown Disney, the broader retail area that includes Pleasure Island, from opening the dinosaur-themed T-Rex Cafe to adding tabletop dining to an existing AMC movie theater. The resort this month announced that Splitsville, a 50,000-square-foot "upscale entertainment center" with bowling, billiards, dancing and drinking, will begin construction in the fall.
Long before it turned out the lights in the nightclubs, Disney knew it had to do something about Pleasure Island. Attendance at the venue, which opened in 1989, had been steadily declining for years. It lost business to Universal Orlando's CityWalk and International Drive's Pointe Orlando, as well as to Disney's own theme parks as they extended their operating hours later into the night.
Already a low-margin business because of costs such as live bands and comedians, some of Pleasure Island's clubs began losing money.
The financial struggles added to what both current and former Disney officials say were long-held concerns among some top Disney executives that dancing- and drinking-fueled nightclubs undermined the company's reputation for wholesome family entertainment. One former Downtown Disney manager recalls being told by a supervisor: "You're always going to have to justify the existence of Pleasure Island."
Analysts say there are risks to leaving Pleasure Island unfinished. Empty buildings are a waste of valuable real estate. And a lack of things to do on Pleasure Island could discourage some visitors from wandering through it to move between Marketplace and West Side — a half-mile walk, twice as long as the distance between anchors in a typical regional mall.
"It's a perception thing. You don't want to walk a couple of city blocks if there's nothing there," said David Marks, a real-estate consultant specializing in commercial development.