Downtown Disney used to be an afterthought, the place Disney World tourists picked up souvenirs after their park passes expired. But a major expansion is turning the outdoor mall, near Epcot and Typhoon Lagoon, into a destination unto itself.

By mid- to late 2016, when the expansion is complete, Downtown will have doubled the number of tenants from 75 to 150 and added two parking ramps, one of which is already open. Destinations that have served as anchors for 20 years, including Planet Hollywood and Cirque du Soleil, will share the spotlight with newcomers such as Ridemakerz, where kids can design their own toy cars. At completion, the outdoor place to shop, dine and play will be renamed Disney Springs, a moniker inspired by Florida's waterfront towns.

Many visitors are lured by the relative bargain. Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Animal Kingdom run about $100 per admission per day plus $17 to park, but Downtown offers free parking and no admission fee.

When I visited last month, nearly a quarter of the pedestrians-only mall was an oasis plopped in the middle of a construction zone, but Downtown is worth visiting even now. Painted plywood fencing hides the dirt piles and heavy equipment, and noise and dust weren't a problem, except at the road entrance to the newly completed parking ramp. (Free bus service is available to DD from Disney theme parks and resort hotels or free boat service from select Disney resorts.)

The changes are making Downtown a top Disney spot, said Jonathan Post, 33, a Chicago resident who grew up coming to Disney World. "Now it's finally an attraction on its own," he said of the mall that opened in 1975.

"It's not as crowded, more low-key," said Kari Hicks of East Hartford, Conn., who was visiting with her husband, Michael, and their 6-year-old daughter, Stella. "It's a lot simpler to get souvenirs here than at the parks," she said at the World of Disney shop, which offers the parks' largest selection of Disney merchandise.

Not that the home to Planet Hollywood, Cirque du Soleil and the largest souvenir shop in the kingdom could be considered sleepy — far from it. The place was buzzing when I visited.

A Minnesota vibe

New venues are opening almost weekly. Just in time for the release of "Avengers: Age of Ultron," Marvel's Super Hero Headquarters opened recently with apparel, collectibles and action figures. STK Steakhouse and Morimoto Asia restaurants will debut soon.

The Boathouse, which opened last month, combines all three Downtown Disney themes — eat, shop, play. Created by Golden Valley entrepreneur Steve Schussler and Schussler Creative, it raises the Disney bar for good food in a beautiful waterfront setting. While gazing over a lake, diners can eye several rare boats, including floating cars with propellers called Amphicars, an Italian water taxi and an 1880s steamboat replica. All are available to ride — for a price, from $100 and up. The restaurant's schlock-free gift shop resembles a nautical Polo store and includes some goods with a Minnesota influence, from paddles imprinted with "Lake Minnetonka" to the Rubba Ducks rubber duckies made by the Minneapolis company.

Marketplace Co-op is a new testing space for six retail concepts selling national brands such as Zoe & Pickles for tween girls, D-Tech on Demand for techies, Cherry Tree Lane for women's fashion and accessories, Centerpiece for housewares and kitchen accessories, and the Trophy Room for the sports fan.

Sara Marterella of Plymouth, Mich., was in Marketplace with her teens, Sydney and Giovanni. "My kids are too old for the parks," she said, but son Giovanni liked being able to design his own smartphone cover at D-Tech and daughter Sydney liked the Curl, a surf shop.

Downtown Disney offers plenty of entertainment options along with the shops — though you pay for entertainment a la carte since there is no admission fee. There are no extravagant theme park rides, but it does have Characters in Flight by Aerophile, a tethered helium balloon that rises 400 feet ($12-$18). The ride offers wonderful vistas of Disney's kingdom, I'm told. The balloon was grounded due to high winds during my visit.

Disney Quest, a five-floor indoor theme park, is a respite during foul weather. One blogger described the video arcade games as quaint and museum-like, but most give thumbs up to simulated rides that allow thrill seekers to create their own roller coaster and then ride it (in simulation) and the Animation Academy for budding illustrators. It costs about $45 per person.

Other options include the House of Blues Music Hall, Splitsville bowling and movies at AMC 24 (six screens, including dine-in).

Dining at Disney is rarely inexpensive and Downtown is no exception. It's easy to spend $20 or more per person for lunch and $60 or more at dinner, but for lighter-on-the-wallet fare, check out the food trucks near the balloon or a hearty sandwich for about $6 at Earl of Sandwich.

With many new venues already open this year and many more to come, the afterthought is becoming an Orlando must-see.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633