Will Hyperion Wharf save Pleasure Island or make it more ordinary? The debate is on.

LAKE BUENA VISTA – Walt Disney World calls it “re-imagined”: the theme park giant’s plans for the nightclub area built in 1989 to provide more fun for adults, but that’s gone through some extensive changes in the past two decades.

Last month, Disney announced that work was about to begin on a revamped Pleasure Island and Downtown Disney, in a series of projects expected to create more than 1,200 new jobs over the next three years.

Pleasure Island first opened in 1989, to give adults something to do at night on Disney property.

“We have made great progress since first announcing our vision to bring new shopping, dining and entertainment experiences to Downtown Disney, many of which can’t be found anywhere else and have already become guest favorites,” said Keith Bradford, vice president of Downtown Disney.  “We look forward to providing even more ways for our guests to enjoy Downtown Disney, while at the same time creating new jobs for Central Floridians.”

But the authors of books on Disney and Central Florida’s theme park industry wonder if the changes will end up making Pleasure Island even less distinct.

“It’s disappointing that Disney would bring in third party vendors for shopping and dining options that you could find at your own neighborhood mall,” said Seth Kubersky, the author of “Universal Orlando 2011,” and several upcoming books on the region’s theme park industry.

“It’s not the unique entertainment that you’d drive halfway across the country to see,” he added.

The changes coming to Pleasure Island include the recreation of an early 20th century port city and amusement pier, to be called Hyperion Wharf.  This port district will offer “stylish boutiques and innovative restaurants” open during the day, Disney announced in a news release, while “by night, thousands of lights will transform the area into an electric wonderland.”

This new wharf district is also going to feature a lakeside park, enhanced pedestrian walkways, and more dining options.

Bradford said Hyperion Wharf will “offer guests of all ages a vibrant atmosphere and new experiences that can be enjoyed by day or by night.  Whether looking for a great place to dine with the whole family or a place to relax and enjoy live music, Hyperion Wharf will provide the perfect setting for guests to make new memories with us.”

Others, though, are skeptical. 

Pleasure Island first opened in 1989, and as Kubersky noted, it was designed to be ambitious expansion of the smaller shopping plaza known as the old Disney Village Marketplace.

Seth Kubersky discusses his book "Universal Orlando 2011" at Barnes & Noble in downtown Orlando.

“It was originally called the Lake Buena Vista Marketplace,” Kubersky said. “It had been there since 1971. With Pleasure Island, you can see it as the reverse of what they wanted to do in Las Vegas at the time. Vegas decided they wanted to be more family friendly, and Disney added Pleasure Island to give adults things to do while the kids were in bed at night.”

There was another motive, Kubersky said.  At the time, the region’s top night spot was Church Street in downtown Orlando.  The popular Church Street Station brought in adults looking for nightclubs and alcohol.  Then Pleasure Island offered an alternative.

“The feeling was Disney likes to keep money on Disney property,” said Jim Korkis, a former Disney cast member and recognized Disney and Pleasure Island historian, and author of the book “The Vault of Walt.”

“Since guests found there was nothing to do on Disney property at night, people were leaving and going to Church Street Station, which at the time was the fourth most popular tourist destination in Florida after Disney, SeaWorld, and Busch Gardens,” Korkis said.

“The original intention was to put Church Street Station out of business,” Kubersky said.

It worked.  Wholesome, family-oriented Disney introduced night clubs with disco dancing and plenty of alcohol – risqué for a theme park that primarily emphasized its appeal to children and families, Kubersky noted.

“Compared to everything else on Disney property, it was,” he said.  “It was never R-rated, but sometimes it was a strong PG-13.  Their discos for a while were quite happening, and Pleasure Island was very successful for the first decade.  Within 10 years, Church Street Station was out of business.  It was very effective.”

“A lot of people thought Pleasure Island was meant to represent the theme park in the movie ‘Pinocchio,’ where people go and drink too much and make asses of themselves,” Korkis added.

Kubersky said changes started after that. With the demise of Church Street Station and Downtown Orlando as competitiors, he said Disney appeared to lose interest, while at the same time Universal Studio’s City Walk began drawing away more of the nightlife crowd.

At the same time, Disney did away with Pleasure Island’s admission fee, opening the gates to the general public.

“The real change happened when it went from being a gated attraction to letting anyone through,” Kubersky said.  “Then they just had to pay to get into some of the clubs.  At that point, the demographics started to shift.  Once they got rid of the gates, nothing ever quite worked.  It changed being from a special place where they could control the clientele into a shopping mall. It just became a mall to hang out at.  Disney also got rid of the fireworks show at night.”

“That’s where people to start to track the fall of Pleasure Island,” Korkis added.  “It just became, here’s a bunch of clubs and you can go party.  With the admission price, you sort of controlled who got in.  At the same time, City Walk had the aura of being fresher and cooler and with it.” 

Pleasure Island still has night clubs for the nightlife crowd.

In addition to bringing the new wharf district to Pleasure Island, Disney also announced several other projects underway at Downtown Disney.  They include a renovation at Lego Imagination Center, with a 3,500 square-feet expansion and the addition of some new Lego exterior models that recreate scenes from classic Disney movies.  While Disney is working on this project, Merlin Entertainments is building Legoland Florida – modeled after the popular theme parks in Europe and California – at the site of the former Cypress Gardens theme park in Winter Haven.

Disney also announced plans to enhance the AMC movie theater with new digital technology, a paradigm-shifting Concession Stand of the Future, and Florida’s first Fork & Screen Theater, plus several new or renovated retail shops throughout Downtown Disney — a series of projects expected to create an estimated 600 construction jobs, 500 restaurant, retail and entertainment jobs, and 100 vendor and supplier jobs. 

Kubersky, though, said Disney appears to be inviting outside vendors to come in as the highest bidder.

“It’s all third party vendors,” he said.  “Disney doesn’t seem interested any more in developing their own concepts.”

Korkis agreed, saying “The realization is Disney is a business and it has to be held accountable to its stockholders.  Will Hyperion Wharf be good business? Disney thinks so, because it will not be making any personal investment.  Basically Disney is supplying the location and other people are supplying the money.”

Korkis said he hopes the new wharf shopping district is a success, but he thinks Disney may be making Pleasure Island less unique and more pedestrian – shops and dining options available at plenty of other shopping plazas, lacking the distinct Disney touch.

“It will be interesting to see how that develops,” he said.  “I’m a huge Disney supporter.  I want Disney to be around for the rest of my lifetime and continue to do good things. But the vision they have now is a more narrow vision – ‘Let’s have more restaurants and shops.’  With this new plan, there is nothing that people can’t find elsewhere.”

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What’s to love during an Orlando vacation? The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show has your ticket.

Tony Brent performs The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show at WonderWorks.

 ORLANDO – So what is it that tourists want to do when they flock to Central Florida for the holidays? Decisions, decisions, Rich Miller said.

In addition to the theme parks, a really good dinner show is on the list, said the Philadelphia resident who is spending two weeks in the Orlando area with his girlfriend, Jennifer Schultz.

“I think we wanted to do this last year, but didn’t,” Miller said and he stood in line for The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show at WonderWorks. “There’s just so much to do down here. I think you have to do Disney first – that’s an unwritten law, I think, so we did that last year. We pack a lot in.”

Miller and Schultz have been coming to Orlando for years, and have taken in other dinner shows in this tourism Mecca – Capone’s, Sleuth’s Mystery Dinner Show, Medieval Times, and so on. The Magic Comedy Dinner Show has been on their to-do list as well.

“It’s supposed to be one of the best shows,” Miller said, adding that he’s been a magic lover for decades.

“I always have been – all guy-kids are magic fans,” he said.

“I’m kind of just looking for a good show,” Schultz added. “I hope it will be something different.” 

Rich Miller and Jennifer Schultz left behind Philadelphia to spent two weeks in the Orlando area, and the Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show was on their list of must-see attractions.

On a cold, blustery night, a long line waited to get into the 6 o’clock dinner show, featuring the talents of Tony Brent. The row of tables inside the theater quickly filled up as an international crowd sat down for all-you-can-eat servings of salad, popcorn and pizza. Brent himself noted after the show that Florida residents tend to be vastly outnumbered by people from other parts of the country – and the world – in his audience this time of year.

“We get people from all over the world,” he said.

What brought them all to WonderWorks was a family-friendly show that combines fast magic tricks – how exactly does he take a dirty napkin and turn it into an egg? – with plenty of zippy one liners, including the opening when Brent asked the audience not to videotape any portion of the show, but added, “You’re welcome to draw a picture on your napkin.”

As Brent himself noted in the beginning, it’s a very “interactive show.”  He routinely selects members of the audience to get up on stage and help him do his thing – either a magic trick or some more comedy.  There’s plenty of improvising with each show, such as the moment when a man from the audience got on stage and told Brent he was from Indiana. When Brent asked how the weather up there and the man responded that it was cold, Brent added, “Really? Good thing you came to Florida,” to huge laughs.

The members of the audience selected to participate in the show, as it turned out, including Schultz, who had to yell out “I’ve got it, I’ve got it!” while holding a red sack. By the end of the performance, audience members young and old alike were lining up for Brent’s autograph. The high praise included kind words from Schultz, who told Brent “It was such a great show,” and Miller, who added, “Amazing stuff – amazing.”

It was another reminder of why Central Florida remains one of the top tourist destinations in the world – and why people who have already been to the Orlando area many times just keep coming back.

Shazam! Tony Brent brings Jennifer Schultz on stage as part of the show.

Who is the man who packs them into the WonderWorks show? Brent has been doing the Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show since 2000, and got his start at age 12, when he discovered a passion for both magic tricks and one-liners.

“I had an ad in the local newspaper when I was 12, doing birthday parties,” he said. “I was industrious.”

The native of Holiday, Tenn., relocated to Orlando in 1999, originally to work for Walt Disney World, before gravitating to WonderWorks.

“I’ve been doing it full time for 16 years,”  he said. “And part time before that.”

So how do you effectively combine magic and comedy into one show?

“I just know what works for me,” Brent said. “I try to be similar to the movie ‘Shrek,’ that has something for everybody in it.”

The audience lined up for DVD copies of Tony Brent's show.

That includes double entendres that sometimes fly over the heads of the kids – but the adults laugh out loud.

“The kids don’t always get what I’m doing, but the parents get it,” said Brent, whose show includes skits about hippies, Sonny and Cher and ancient Egypt.

“I try to keep it very fast-paced,” he said. “Most guys drag the tricks out, but here since it’s a dinner show, you’ve got to keep their attention.”

How does he go about selecting people from the audience and figure out who will be an asset on stage?

“I certainly look for people who are smiling and seem to be enjoying the show,” Brent said. “My show is really light-hearted. It’s not a serious magic show. I look at it like a party with magic in it.”

He also makes a point of not trying to embarrass anyone he brings on stage, but to toss them right into the fun.

“I try to do it the way I would want to be treated,” he said.

He also likes to mix it up with the audience, which gives Brent plenty of opportunity to think up new jokes for each performance.

“Every show is different,” he said. “I keep it loose enough so I can improvise.”

The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show is performed nightly at 6 and 8 p.m. For reservations, call 407-351-8800.

What is that upside down building? Wonder Works rides out a tough economy with new exhibits and a popular dinner show.

ORLANDO – If you’ve driven past Pointe Orlando, you’ve probably seen it plenty of times and know it as the “upside down” building. But outside of wondering if the property got ripped into the sky by a hurricane before it crashed back onto International Drive, have you ever stepped inside Wonder Works to check out what’s in there?

If you haven’t but are planning to, said Michelle Davis, you’re in for a treat. 

“We’ve got over 100 different attractions here,’ said Davis, a sales representative for the attraction at 9067 International Drive. 

That’s a lot of exhibits to check out under one roof, although as Davis is quick to note, if you’ve been to Wonder Works before but haven’t returned in a while, consider going back. The Wonder Works team is still adding on new attractions, including a new collision course that allows guests to walk high above the ground, guided only by ropes. 

It’s a challenging – and fun – obstacle course that only Wonder Works could come up with, she said. 

Wonder Works employee Matthew Ventura show how the Laser tag Arena works.

“We have recently opened the ropes challenge course, and it’s been going great,” Davis said. “We’re the only indoor ropes course in Central Florida.” 

Wonder Works has enough exhibits to offer – old and new – that the property impressed the president of the Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association when the trade group recently held its monthly meeting there. 

“A lot of us are going to be amazed at what goes on in this building,” said David Leather, president of CFVRMA, which represents many of the short term vacation rental homes in Central Florida.  

 

David Leather, president of the Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association, says his members should encourage their guests to visit Wonder Works.

“Hopefully, this will be on your list of places to tell your guests about,” Leather added. 

That kind of support could prove enormously beneficial to an attraction like Wonder Works. Vacation homes are one of the fastest growing aspects of the hospitality industry in this region, an appealing alternative for tourists who come here for extended stays with their family. Vacation homes appeal to these families because they offer more space – multiple bedrooms, a fully furnished kitchen, a game room and private pool – than a hotel or motel room does. 

Initially popular with British and other European tourists who came to the local theme parks for stays of a month or longer, the popularity of the vacation home has been growing with American tourists as well. 

And if vacation home managers let their guests know what Wonder Works has to offer, that could mean more business at a time when the sluggish U.S. economy hasn’t spared the tourism industry. A high unemployment rate nationally and in Florida has meant less disposable income for people going on vacation – assuming they can afford a vacation at all. 

Kelcey Nolan, Wonder Works’ sales manager, said the attraction has thrived, despite the recession. 

“We are actually doing very well,” Nolan said. “We have managed to balance out and run even.” 

Why? The diversity of what they offer, combined with competitive pricing, Nolan said. 

“We’re an affordable attraction,” Nolan said.  

You never know what to expect at Wonder Works.

It doesn’t hurt that Wonder Works is close to the popular Pointe Orlando plaza, and the nearby Orange County Convention Center, which attract both tourists and national and international business travelers. 

“We’re within walking distance of the Convention Central and the row of hotels,” Nolan said. 

Wonder Works’ attractions include The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show, which is performed nightly at 6 and 8 p.m. Billed as “Orlando’s funniest dinner show,” it combines comedy, magic, audience participation, and a meal that includes pizza, salad, popcorn, cake, and unlimited glasses of soda.  

Love both comedy and magic? Wonder Works has a dinner show for you.

“We’re extremely proud of our dinner show,” Nolan said.  “It’s kind of like a stand up improv. We can accommodate up to 25 guests at one time.” 

Wonder Works is also home to more than 100 science-based interactive exhibits, and as Nolan pointed out, they appeal to people regardless of their age. 

“It’s fantastic for families,” Nolan said. “It’s geared toward guests of all ages.” 

New to Wonder Works this year is the rope collision course. 

“It’s three stories of obstacles and challenges,” Nolan said, and it’s also right across from another new exhibit, the 4D Theatre. 

“We give you 3D glasses before you go in,” Nolan said. “You go through as if you’re on your own roller coaster.” 

Wonder Works also has a Laser Tag Arena, where games are played for seven and a half minutes, and there are tournament and team plays. 

To learn more about Wonder Works, call 407-351-8800 or log on to www.wonderworksonline.com.

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