Walt Disney World has a new restaurant vacancy to fill on the BoardWalk after one of its longtime venues went out of business. This lists our top 10 ideas to fill the space and replace the pub, spanning everything from character dining experiences to sports bars to comedy clubs.
In case you missed it, Big River Grille & Brewing Works permanently closed in early 2024. And it was easy to miss, as the time from when the news broke to when the restaurant closed was literally only a few days. It was abrupt, and even the employees who worked there didn’t know until the last minute. Walt Disney World was also seemingly caught off-guard and has since scrambled to fill the void with food trucks.
While we weren’t fans of Big River, it was a Walt Disney World institution of sorts, opening in 1996 along with the rest of Disney’s BoardWalk Inn. (Not all institutions are good ones.) Its departure is also somewhat concerning for the ‘health’ of that end of the promenade, where Jellyrolls and Atlantic Dance Hall seem to be hanging on by a thread.
We were surprised by the response to the news of the Big River closure, which garnered 70+ reader comments. While a handful of you were sad to see Big River end its nearly 3-decade run, most of you want to see Walt Disney World fill the void and reinvigorate the BoardWalk. This area was once positioned as a secondary ‘destination’ entertainment district to Downtown Disney (now Disney Springs) but has been allowed to languish over the years.
We agree that it’d be nice to bring the BoardWalk. The losses of ESPN Club and Ample Hills Creamery on the other end of the promenade were huge blows, and Jellyrolls and Atlantic Dance Hall are shadows of their former selves. It’s time to begin the turnaround of Disney’s BoardWalk, breathing new life into the promenade with brand-new dining concepts and more. Cake Bake Shop will be a huge asset, and so too could this space.
Even with minimal parking, the BoardWalk is within walking or boat distance of both EPCOT’s International Gateway and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It’s also connected to thousands of hotel rooms via the Skyliner gondolas, and there are another few thousand rooms that are walkable in the Crescent Lake Resort Area.
In other words, the just about any restaurant concept could work at the BoardWalk. The issue isn’t one of quantity of guests or traffic–it’s one of quality. If you build it, they will come. No one is going to come for a lackluster brewpub, but they might for some of these 10 dining concepts…
ESPN Club – This one seems like a long shot given that this did exist–and closed–on the other end of the BoardWalk. And it’ll probably never happen as a result, as that would be a colossal waste of money. Almost like bulldozing a bunch of stuff in the center of a park and taking 4 years to rebuild more or less the same thing, minus one fountain and plus trees and planters. Oh wait.
Never underestimate The Bob Iger Factor here, though. Regardless of your opinions on him as CEO, the man loves sports. To a degree that almost clouds his judgment and causes him to pursue business endeavors that may not make complete sense. (Hello, NBA Experience!) Normally, this is the type of thing that would be way below the pay grade of CEO, but I could see a scenario where Iger stays in one of the new rooms at BoardWalk Inn for a executive retreat and is irrationally angered to discover Chapek closed ESPN Club.
Beyond that, a sports bar & grill that’s like a mix between Big River and ESPN Club would be perfect for this spot, and fill a vital role that’s now conspicuously absent from this area. There are a lot of dads and other sports fans who enjoy watching “the big game,” and there’s not a great option for that that’s easily accessible from the parks. As noted above, this is walkable from EPCOT and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and also is within Skyliner distance of a ton of resorts. A family-friendly(ish) sports bar makes a lot of sense here.
It’s unfortunate that this didn’t happen a few years ago. Big River has been on life support for ages, and there’s a part of me that wonders whether Cake Bake Shop would be going in here and ESPN Club would still be operating had Big River gone under back during the closure when Ample Hills did.
Adventurers Club – Speaking of things that are extinct, how about the Adventurers Club?! Honestly, I think if the Adventurers Club managed to hang on for another 5 years, it would be insanely popular right now and incredibly lucrative to the company. Just look at Trader Sam’s and the bucks that makes with the regular releases of Tiki mugs.
The Society of Explorers and Adventurers has become a big thing since Adventurers Club, as has this kind of participatory entertainment. Sure, Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser closed, but that had more to do with astronomical costs than it did quality. Adventurers Club was quirky, unique and addictive–a better and more polished incarnation of an entertainment style that’s very popular right now. A reincarnated Adventurers Club would be a smash success among the ever-growing audience of Disney Adults–a demographic with tons of disposable income.
The potential for Adventurers Club to return is aided by the fact that its original Cast Members still reunite for private events on a regular basis–we’ve attended multiple and they just returned for a Cast Member night at Magic Kingdom in 2024. Repurposing this space to the Adventurers Club–even as a low-dough test–would be a great move that would instantly bring more people to the BoardWalk.
Comedy Warehouse – Sticking with the theme of former Pleasure Island nightclubs that still have fan followings and performers in Central Florida, the next option is Comedy Warehouse. This could be an even lower-dough test to see if the concept would work and draw more crowds to this end of the BoardWalk.
It wouldn’t be the first revival of this sort, either. “The Comedy Warehouse Holiday Special” was a family-friendly improvisational comedy show performed in a flex venue at Disney’s Hollywood Studios for several years after Pleasure Island closed during the height of holiday crowds. It hasn’t been done since construction began on Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, but the point is that a test like this is not difficult and doesn’t require tens of millions of dollars and multiple years to pull off. Throw something together, and see if it resonates with guests.
Between the aforementioned Disney Adults and all of the normie convention-goers who stay in Crescent Lake, I think this end of the promenade being known for nightlife would work. It could also help revive Jellyrolls and Atlantic Dance Hall (the latter probably needs its own new concept).
Explorer’s Club – Both of the above options require equity entertainers, which probably makes them non-starters since Walt Disney World acts like it’s going broke when it comes to paying higher wages. Given that we can’t expect the struggling mom and pop shop to pony up the pennies for performers, we might have to settle for the next best thing: a food court vaguely themed to the Adventurers Club.
Wait, what?! You might be wondering how we got from point A to B. It’s by way of Hong Kong Disneyland, which is home to the Explorer’s Club, which is home to props from the Adventurers Club. As originally conceived, the Explorer’s Club was a counter service restaurant with multiple ordering bays for different types of international cuisine and dining rooms with distinct themes.
Basically, this would be a food court–something conspicuously absent from the Crescent Lake resorts–like those found at the Moderate Resorts serving up something for everyone at the different ordering bays. The dining room could be themed to vintage Coney Island, or various boardwalks even. Plus the Adventurers Club, for the sake of fan service.
Museum of the Weird – If this name sounds familiar, it’s because this was an unbuilt attraction conceived by Imagineer Rolly Crump for Disneyland as a walk-through attraction that would supplement Haunted Mansion decades ago. Museum of the Weird is one of those concepts that continues to float around Imagineering, and has morphed over time. To my recollection, the last time there were rumors about it, the idea was for a twist on Mystic Manor in Paradise Pier as part of the second phase of the DCA overhaul. Obviously, that never happened.
Since the attraction itself is unlikely, I think it’d be cool to see the Museum of the Weird concept come to life as a counterpart to Trader Sam’s. Make it interconnected with S.E.A. and Trader Sam’s, but a standalone thing featuring its own props and gags. (Some of which, again, could come from or be inspired by Adventurers Club.)
The location here makes sense since BoardWalk is accessible and a freakshow kinda thing is fitting for the Coney Island-inspired resort. Since Trader Sam’s is a massive success, it stands to reason that this would be, too. The overflow could benefit Jellyrolls and Atlantic Dance Hall. Relieving some of the pressure on Trader Sam’s, especially as a new tower is added at the Poly, would also be beneficial.
BoardWalk Burgers – Walt Disney World had the right idea with D-Luxe Burger, but it’s long trek to Disney Springs just for burgers and once you’re there, there’s the temptation to get cookies and a full meal at one of the many, more inventive spots. I guess the same could be said for BoardWalk (but swap out cookies for cake), but I also feel like a second outpost of D-Luxe Burger (maybe call it B-Walk Burger…it has a certain understated stupidity to it) would work really well.
There’s a lot of different food that’s easily accessible in Crescent Lake, but not a single spot that specializes in burgers and does them really well–and efficiently. It seems like all of the food in this area is either fast and bad, or really good, pricey and time-consuming. There’s not much in-between, and B-Walk Burger could fill that void with fast food that’s delicious and relatively reasonably priced.
Those of us who routinely walk from Disney’s Hollywood Studios to EPCOT testing park touring strategy would eat here at least a dozen times per year. I’m sure others would, too. The convention crowd and others exiting EPCOT could make this a popular spot even after midnight.
Greek Garden – One idea a reader suggested in response to the Big River closure news was a Greek fast casual spot combined with a beer garden. I love this idea. While the underrated Amare serves fantastic Mediterranean cuisine over at the Swan Reserve, that’s too far away to be on the radar of pretty much anyone who isn’t staying in that tower.
Not only that, but even as a mid-tier restaurant, it’s too nice. BoardWalk should be home to fun handheld indulgences (like pickle-stuffed corn dogs!). Gyros, kebabs, spanakopita, etc–even a few American dishes with Greek twists to make it more crowd-pleasing would work.
Portillo’s – As a native Midwesterner, it’s my civic duty to advocate for the expansion of Portillo’s–that was part of our pledge of allegiance, if I recall correctly.
Even though Portillo’s is Chicago-based and thus might upset some from New Jersey as being inauthentic, the place has serious Coney Island vibes, if you ask me. It’s also delicious and the company has already expanded to Orlando, so another outpost at Walt Disney World isn’t too much of a stretch.
Coney Cheese – No, not a cheese shop. More like a rip-off of Chuck E Cheese, but a Disneyfied version in the style of Coney Island. Think Chuck E Cheese meets Dave & Buster’s meets DisneyQuest meets BoardWalk thematic sensibilities.
This could serve several constituencies (sports fans, families, etc.) while offering something unique that would be distinctly Disney (despite the aforementioned comparisons) and a big draw for BoardWalk. Personally, I think DisneyQuest was ahead of its time in some ways. A concept like it, but simplified/scaled down and aimed at bringing people together in a communal/tactile setting, could be a success.
Luna Park Disney Pals – I was fully expecting 1900 Park Fare to get new characters that are more mainstream, but was hoping for another option featuring Mickey & Friends in unique costumes. There are a few locations at the international parks featuring Mickey, Minnie, Daisy, Donald, Pluto and Goofy in regal and/or Victorian outfits. That would also sort of work at BoardWalk, which is inspired by turn-of-the-century Atlantic City.
You know what else would work for a Mickey & Friends character dining experience? Something weird. Bring back the old Creepy Clown from the Luna Park Pool water slide for the entrance–or better yet, take inspiration from Toy Story Mania at Tokyo DisneySea for a Creepy Clown Mickey Mouse entrance. Make the costumes a motley crew of misfits in a fun and fanciful setting inspired by Coney Island.
Another option here would be leaning into the setting even more, and letting that serve as the backdrop for an actual motley crew of characters that could be more eclectic. Appease fans who are upset about the changes to 1900 Park Fare by bringing those characters here, along with others that have more latitude to play and banter.
I could get behind a marriage of the last two ideas: Disneyfied Chuck E. Cheese, but with characters playing alongside patrons rather than Audio Animatronics on stage. Those of us who saw Five Nights at Freddy’s know that doesn’t always end well. And it’d be fun to try a new character play experience…but it also might be an unmitigated disaster, who knows. But anything is better than food trucks parked on the BoardWalk–so start testing out ideas, Walt Disney World!
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What would you like to see as a temporary, test, or permanent replacement for Big River Grille & Brewing Works? Think that something will take its place on that end of the BoardWalk anytime soon? What is most needed in the Crescent Lake Resort Area? Think something more adult would help revive Jellyrolls and Atlantic Dance Hall, or should Disney focus more on family-friendly options for BoardWalk? Do you agree or disagree with our list? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!