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Disney Tried to Bring Its Theme Parks Closer to YOU... and Failed. Here's Why DisneyQuest was Doomed.

Wouldn’t it be nice to take a break from the ordinary and escape to Disneyland or Walt Disney World? To sail with pirates, face extraTERRORestrial alien creatures, and blast baddies with Buzz Lightyear? The fun, the energy, and the enthusiasm around Disney Parks are priceless. But the flight… the rental car… the tickets… let’s just say, they’re anything but priceless.

That’s why, in the mid-1990s, Disney executives began to toy with a radical idea… what if every major city in the United States – no, the world! – could host its own Disney theme park? But forget castles, or dark rides, or roller coasters… This 21st century theme park would be all about you as never before… an indoor, interactive adventure showcasing the newest technologies and Disney’s flashiest storytelling in a compelling, ever-changing family entertainment center.

Here at Theme Park Tourist, our Disaster Files series has the unfortunate job of recording the in-depth histories of Disney’s (rare and often radical) failures. We’ve told the full, detailed, can’t-miss tales behind such epic flubs as Superstar Limo, the Rocket Rods, Walt Disney Studios Park, Journey into YOUR Imagination, and the despised Stitch’s Great Escape.

Image: Disney

And today, we turn to a disastrous Disney experience that’s unlike all the others in its scope and scale. DisneyQuest wasn’t just an oversized Disney arcade abandoned and left to rot; it was also a 21st century experiment in mass-producing theme park experiences gone horribly wrong. Today, we’ll check in on this unusual concept from design to destruction and relive the memories – good and bad – produced by this exceptionally odd project.

1970s – Shopper’s paradise

Image: Disney

The story begins in the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village, which opened on March 22, 1975 – just a few years after Walt Disney World itself. While the name might not sound too awfully familiar, the concept should. Lake Buena Vista was a one-stop shop for souvenirs, gifts, and toys during your Walt Disney World visit – a charming lakeside village with shops like the Pottery Chalet, Toys Fantastique, and The Flower Garden.

The concept of the Shopping Village was really intended to act as the main local commerce area for residents of the planned Lake Buena Vista residential area.

Image: Disney

What’s more, Peoplemovers would’ve connected the nearby neighborhood to its commercial Shopping Village, where residents might then board a Monorail and sail off to other Walt Disney World destinations.

While the shopping district opened in 1975, the accompanying residential area (and the mass transit systems that would’ve connected them) were delayed by the announcement of EPCOT Center. Even after the park’s opening, Disney’s finances were exhausted, leaving the Lake Buena Vista residential area undeveloped. Now, Disney had a full-fledged shopping district more or less disconnected from the resort proper.

Image: Disney

The Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village was renamed the Walt Disney World Village in 1977.

1980s and ‘90s – A new vision

Fast-forward to the 1980s and new-CEO Michael Eisner, who brought with him a very new vision for Disney and its theme parks. Eisner believed that Disney Parks should be current, modern, hip places where every member of the family – teens included – found something worthwhile. Ambitious, young, and trendy concepts like Lost Legends: Captain EO and Star Tours revitalized Disney’s parks, but Eisner and company saw the tired Walt Disney World Village as a growth opportunity.

Image: Disney

In 1986, the old shopping village was renamed Disney Village Marketplace and gained a neighbor: a trendy new concept meant to rival Church Street Station and other “young adult” clubs gaining traction in Orlando. Pleasure Island opened May 1, 1989 (the same day as the Disney-MGM Studios), featuring clubs, bars, and other more adult-oriented after-dark entertainment options impeccably themed with Disney details and storytelling.

Image: Disney

Ah, but here’s where things will start to sound familiar… In 1995, the Village Marketplace and Pleasure Island were “combined” to create the newly branded Downtown Disney. The move was a smart one, offering a simplified message, marketing, and connection to the resort… even if a physical connection still wasn’t provided via Monorail or Peoplemover.

As you can imagine, the shifting histories of Walt Disney World’s shopping village could be the subject of a doctoral dissertation, but for our purposes, the story kicks into high gear now…

Click and expand for a larger view. Image: Disney

While the presses were still hot printing Downtown Disney advertisements, Disney announced another investment in the area: a third “district” to join the Marketplace and Pleasure Island: Downtown Disney’s West Side would open in 1997. That's where Disney would host its most conceptually ambitious idea since EPCOT Center... 

Behind-the-box

Maybe in some ways, Downtown Disney was the perfect embodiment of Walt Disney World as a whole – dissimilar parts built in different decades, each reflecting the architecture, values, and impressions of its respective era. Think about it...

  • The Marketplace – largely left from the 1970s – was still at its core a quaint village of shops and restaurants that looked and felt much like the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village two decades before...
  • Pleasure Island – rooted in the same '80s ideology that built the Disney-MGM Studios – was a brave and cinematic expansion of deeply-themed clubs that only Disney could've concocted.
  • And now, the '90s-born West Side would be a glowing icon of '90s entertainment...

Image: Disney

The radical new entertainment playground would feature mainstays of the era, like a grungy, rusted warehouse-style House of Blues, a custom-built modern white big top for Cirque du Soleil's La Nouba, a must-visit Virgin Megastore (to purchase a compact disc or cassette for the flight home, no doubt), and a Planet Hollywood restaurant, packed with celebrity memorobilia. Kitschy, comic, and cool, the West Side felt like the perfect '90s interpretation of what a "Downtown" Disney World would feel like – a master-planned expansion that looked, felt, and sounded like the era.

It's also where Disney would test out its most radical concept in a decade. 

Housed inside of a towering and mysterious, asymmetrical blue building was DisneyQuest, a brand new kind of themed entertainment experience. 

Entirely overseen and operated by a new division of the Walt Disney Company called Disney Regional Entertainment, DisneyQuest was billed as an "indoor, interactive theme park." Perhaps you'd agree that that's a vague and unusual way to describe an experience, and that – it would seem – was the point. After all, a generation of '80s and '90s kids grew up wondering what could be inside that most unusual building... What was DisneyQuest?

Image: Disney

Well, that was the question. And that's what we're going to explore. On the next page, we'll step into the most unusual project Disney ever designed, and see exactly why such an innovative, exceptional concept might be listed among our Disaster Files... Read on...

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There are 5 comments.

I'm a native Floridian that has been going to this area since it was called the Disney Village. Even though I was in the target demographic for Disney Quest I had really no desire to visit. To me it seemed like a waste of money. Why would I want to spend about 50% of a one day ticket to one of the major parks for a subpar arcade simulation that would really only entertain for less than half a day? So I never went. Fast Forward to Summer of 2017 where I finally decide to go. I have a child of my own now so the appeal was a little greater than before plus I really did want to see what it was like before it closed. Initially I was excited. The lobby even increased that excitement. I loved the whimsy that it conveyed. That was a mistake. This article really hit it on the head. Even though the announcement came in 2015 Disney really decided to close Disney Quest 14 years earlier in 2001. You can tell that they just left it to rot and did not invest any money into it. Not only that but they didn't even maintain anything. Granted I visited within the last few weeks of its lifespan but there were literally more things that didn't work than things that did. Out of four sound booths only one was operational. Only half of the rafts were working. Same with the Pirates of the Carribean, although the line wasn't long at all it took forever because they were only operating two rooms. Many of the arcade cabinets were nonfunctional. I really can't believe that Disney kept Quest open all these years. I think it was a major disservice to patrons. Especially to charge as much as they did. I say shame on Disney for knowing they had a dud and keeping it open anyways. I think the only reason they did is because it was in a giant box so they could hide how dilapidated and outdated it looked on the inside. That and they didn't have to pay rent. They were smart to get rid of Disney Quest in Chicago.

As a side note I really cannot reconcile that first picture of the Disney Village with what it looks like today. They must have done a lot more construction with changing the shape of the lake than I had realized.

I went to Chicago Disneyquest multiple times. Attendance was very suppresed by the high parking fees (not due to Disney, parking downtown in Chicago is just expensive). And driving in to the downtown area is a hassle in any case, adding to the issues. Maybe they should have placed it in the near west suburubs, where Mini-Legoland has found success, it would have done well enough for them to continue to invest.

You completely ignored one of the opening day attractions, treasure of the Inca. Google it. This attraction sold me on DQ the first time we went. Maybe more so than cyberspace mountain. Seems like a huge omission from this article.

I'm not big into games--and not very good at them. And a lot of the games there needed more than one person, and I usually go to Disney solo. I went there two or three times, once with my cousin, so I was able to do some of the games I hadn't before. My favorite was Cyberspace Mountain. That was a real ride and not a game. If DisneyQuest had been more about rides and shows, like you find at the theme parks, I could better imagine it doing well in cities across the continent.

Nice article, though apparently Pirates of the Caribbean actually replaced a Hercules-themed opening day attraction, it would have been nice to have heard a little about that.

The article also doesn't really cover an issue with DisneyQuest which seems to be common ground for most reviews - upkeep was abysmal, far below Disney's normal standards. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if the shoddy maintenance was a result of a lack of provided budget rather than deliberate oversight.

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