Walt Disney World is shutting down the six nightclubs at Pleasure Island to make its party district at Downtown Disney more family friendly.
BET SoundStage Club, Mannequins Dance Palace, 8Trax and three other clubs that have for years catered largely to young, single adults — rather than to Disney’s bread-and-butter family market — will close after Sept. 27.
During the next couple of years, Disney will reopen the Pleasure Island venues with a broader mix of restaurants and shops.
Pleasure Island’s change has been the subject of rumors for a while. Now 19 years old, it may have seemed an odd venture for Disney, but it appeared to thrive — so much so that some in the industry have blamed it for accelerating the decline of the nightlife district in downtown Orlando during the 1990s.
In announcing what they called “a bold new vision” for all of Downtown Disney on Friday, Disney officials framed the Pleasure Island nightclub closures as a response to customers who say they want more broad-based dining and retail opportunities throughout the 120-acre district.
“Right now we believe we’ve got a shortage of dining capacity and shopping capacity, so we’ll be adding to those areas, and we’ll be looking at some specialized entertainment options also,” said Downtown Disney Vice President Kevin Lansberry.
Pleasure Island opened in 1989, designed to look like a revitalized back-alley warehouse district. Today it is the middle section of Disney World’s dining, shopping and entertainment district. Though the two flanking areas, Marketplace and the West Side, also have nightclubs, they operate as parts of restaurants, appealing to broader, family-friendly crowds. Until recently, Pleasure Island has been mostly about music, dancing, drinking and partying — creating an awkward link between Marketplace and West Side.
“The rumor has been there that they would transform Pleasure Island into something else, but us regulars always thought at least Mannequins and 8Trax would stay alive,” said Jorge Vazquez, 41, an accountant who said he goes to Pleasure Island two or three times a month.
Pleasure Island and its counterpart at Universal Orlando, CityWalk, which opened in 1999, both offer coordinated clusters of high-quality, highly themed nightclubs with lots of free parking and security. They offered two carefully conceived alternatives to downtown Orlando’s once-vibrant counterpart, Church Street Station.
Orlando lawyer Mark NeJame, majority investor in the downtown nightclub Tabu as well as an investor in other nightclubs, said he is surprised at Disney’s announcement but that it could be good news for downtown Orlando.
“It’s a real opportunity for downtown to continue its revitalization,” NeJame said. “When Pleasure Island first opened, it devastated a lot of the local entrepreneurs and operators.”
Though the six nightclubs will close, the other businesses on Pleasure Island — a couple of restaurants, a cigar bar and a couple of clothing shops — will remain open. They already offer the broad appeal that Lansberry said Disney’s patrons want. He did not offer specifics about what might replace the clubs but said Disney was looking worldwide for restaurant and shopping concepts.
“Some of the offerings might feel like a nightclub, but they won’t feel like high-energy clubs like we have today in all likelihood,” Lansberry said. “Truthfully, our guests have really gotten out of that in the last couple of years. They want things that are a lot more geared toward family entertainment.”
Disney World also is sprucing up Downtown Disney’s other two areas, adding restaurants, expanding and updating a band shell, refurbishing and updating other businesses, and bringing in a giant tethered-balloon attraction that visitors will be able to ride in, going up more than 300 feet above Village Lake.
Bob Snow, who developed Church Street Station in the 1970s and has re-entered the picture this year by reopening one of that district’s centerpiece nightclubs, the Cheyenne Saloon, said he never blamed Pleasure Island for Church Street’s decline. But he, too, said he hopes Pleasure Island’s nightclub closures would create more opportunities in downtown Orlando.
Snow said he always was amazed that Disney got into the nightclub-district business in the first place.
“It really surprised me that they’re just going to throw in the towel,” he said. Then he added: “They got out of their knitting. They got out of their main line, what they do so well.”