What if you could take Walt Disney World – with all its magic, thrills, and adventure – and pack it up into a box? What if you could take that box anywhere? What if you could experience those unique attractions in Chicago? Or Philadelphia? Or Atlanta? Or Seattle?

What if you could visit Walt Disney World without actually having to visit Walt Disney World?

That was the dream of DisneyQuest.

DisneyQuest was unlike anything that had been built before. It housed dozens of virtual reality games, a restaurant, retro arcade games and more – all under one roof. In many ways, it represented the future of the theme park – localized and individualized. Over time, however, that futuristic vision grew obsolete.

And now, 18 years after the indoor theme park first opened in Orlando, it's shutting its doors for good. With it, one of the last vestiges of the famed Disney Decade will disappear from Walt Disney World property.

So, let's take a moment and look back at the beginning: How did it come to be in the first place? What was it like? Where did it go wrong?

Buckle up, because the story of DisneyQuest, really, is the story of the 21st century.

The beginning of an idea

Image: WillMcC, Wikimedia (license)

Despite all the pomp and circumstance, DisneyQuest really draws its roots from the video arcades of the 1980s. The so-called golden age of video games lasted from roughly the late-1970s to the mid-1980s, and saw countless arcades open in every city across the country. Gamers flocked to these arcades in droves, enjoying the newest video games while competing with friends and socializing after school. It was the time before the internet and before the popularization of the personal computer, and so this type of entertainment took a strong hold among young people of the era.

With the advent of home gaming consoles in the late-1980s, the appeal of the arcade began to diminish. Smaller mom-and-pop arcades were forced to shutter their doors as gamers increasingly stayed home to enjoy their own Nintendos and Segas, while the ones that stayed in business coalesced into larger conglomerates. By the late-1990s, only a few traditional arcades remained, and the market was mostly dominated by large-scale, redemption game-heavy chains such as Dave and Busters, Jillian's, and Gameworks. But, despite the industry wide decline, these businesses carved out a niche for themselves and were doing very well.

Image: Disney

At some point, Disney noticed this, and a bell went off in the mind of one of its executives: This is how we spread our footprint beyond Orlando and Anaheim.

And so, the idea was hatched. Disney would form a company called “Disney Regional Entertainment” whose job was simple: Take our theme park experiences and morph them into an arcade-style attraction that could exist permanently in cities around the globe. These were the days before the internet, and so rather than expecting guests would automatically come to you, Disney realized they needed to try to go to the guests wherever they were.

Art Levitt, then the president of Disney Regional Entertainment, described the plan thusly: "This is a way to get Disney into your back yard.”

Drawing inspiration from the chain arcades of the mid '90s, Disney sought to create a more simplistic theme park experience. Rather than featuring full-blown theme park attractions, these regional mini-parks would focus on smaller-scale games and virtual reality experiences. And, instead of asking guests to pay a sizable general admission fee, the regional locations would charge per-ride or per-game.

The goal was to mimic the theme park experience, but to do so using the conventions of an arcade. Guests were expected to stay only a few hours instead of all day. The attractions would rotate in and out far more regularly than at the theme parks, with several being added each quarter. The lines and crowds would be dramatically less than at the parks, because the focus was on smaller, more personal activities. Essentially, Disney wanted to have it both ways: They wanted the exploratory fun of the theme parks combined with the short-term simplicity of an arcade. Eventually, all of these ideas coalesced into something called DisneyQuest.

DisneyQuest is born

Image: Dave Pape, Wikimedia (license)

Looking to give the project every chance of success, Disney Regional Entertainment selected Downtown Disney as the first location, hoping the brand loyalty Disney enjoyed in Central Florida would help prop it up in its early years. That, plus a captive audience of resort guests at Walt Disney World would, presumably, make it a popular destination.

In June of 1998, the Disney Company opened the first DisneyQuest at the newly christened Downtown Disney. This was a very, very big deal – not just for the company, but for Disney fans as well. If DisneyQuest were to succeed, it would mean that every city in America might get its own mini-Disney park. And, if that happened, it would mean that those of us who love the mouse would never be too far from our favorite things.

After being promised a technologically advanced theme park experience, Disney fans were eagerly awaiting the unveiling of Walt Disney Imagineering's newest work. And so, with great anticipation, DisneyQuest opened and guests finally got to see what exactly was waiting inside.

It's hard to imagine now, but when DisneyQuest first opened, it felt impossible. The attractions and games available ranged from the simple-but-fun to the amazingly-immersive-and-mind-blowing. Some of the things you could do simply didn't seem possible – and, considering it was the late-1990s, they had really only recently become possible.

Here's how Bruce Pecho described his first visit while covering an early press preview for the Chicago Tribune:

“You've furiously paddled a four-person raft down raging rapids, dodging ravenous dinosaurs. You've navigated the erratic flight of Aladdin's magic carpet to save the Genie from Jafar. You've zapped bloodthirsty aliens in an attempt to rescue stranded U.S. space colonists. And it's not even lunchtime yet. You've found major excitement. You're on a quest. A DisneyQuest.”

That sense of wonder was what Disney captured with its interactive theme park. We had not yet become jaded about technology – complaining about the slow speeds of our magical internet-connected portable telephones – and instead, were awed by the experiences created for us. Guests didn't complain about graphics and processing so much as they cooed about immersion and the gentle learning curve. As far as Florida was concerned, DisneyQuest was a rousing success – a perfect way to spend a night during a vacation at Walt Disney World. It was the theme park experience, updated for the 21st century, and formed into an easily digestible chunk.



Is it actually closed now and if not when will it closed?

I disagree to the comparison between MagicBands & DisneyQuest. Disney is already improving the guests experience with MagicBands. This very summer your band will unlock a magical & personalized experience that is about you. I think this will be a lot of fun especially for repeat visitors.
Also, you seem to be assuming that everyone wants or will want an Applep Watch. I have an iPhone. I don't need nor want one strapped to my wrist managing my every movement. I have a watch that is beautiful and timeless. I would never replace it with a cheap piece of technology that will be useless in 18 months. I gladly wear my decorated MagicBand while at the parks, happy in the knowledge that I have a grown up watch on my other wrist that will never quit working much less become irrelevant.

I opened DQ Orlando as a cast member and was a opening team Manager for DQ Chicago. Ultimately as an insider I feel the biggest Challenge is they opened Orlando first and used it as the prototype for what would work in Chicago. Almost every attraction had a difficulty level that was controllable.
In Chicago where repeat business was necessary they opted to make each attraction easy enough for the Guest to "win" on the 1st visit. The other big challenge was the cost of parking before you entered the door.
Oh and to the writer when you exited the Cybrolator you were in the Venture port. Despite its challenges the Cast in Chicago did a fantastic job in creating a true Disney experience for all who came.

Ive been an AP holder at WDW since before the magic bands were implemented. They were cool for the first few months because they were the new thing on the block and everyone had to have them. Personally, I don't like wearing them in the parks because of how i have to turn my wrist to get it to work. I just prefer to keep my AP in my wallet and hold my wallet up to the MM+ kiosks.

I have been going down to WDW since it opened, been DVC members since their beginning and have taken others with me whenever I could. Unfortunately, I will never forgive Disney for abandoning Disneyquest and leaving it there to literally rot before our eyes. Nothing replaced; heck, nothing even repaired. I would love to talk to one of the Imagineers and learn of some of the plans that weren't followed through with on DisneyQuest. I loved it there. There is more to this story.
The best part of EPCOT to me has always been Innovatives. My favorite part of my favorite park and I felt that there was always something new to demonstrate in some fun way. What did ruin Epcot was when Disney closed the wonderful Horizons and World of Motion to put in half-hearted rides like Space and Speed or whatever that one with cars is called. I think that they were trying to build thrill rides but they just don't fit in here. I hate that they closed the body Pavillion when it was just great - no reason at all - and I will always miss the original Imagination. The other pavilions they did just fine updating; tweaking enough to be fresh but not too much to change the character.

I, too, am of the opinion that the Magic bands are for the benefit of data collecting for Disney's sake, not the guest experience. They would be convenient if they worked; we lost more than a day trying to make ours operable. We were finally issued key cards to use as our tickets, etc. We lost two days in the parks - I had come down to say goodbye to Disneyquest (never forgive) and the lights at the studios. We lost so much time that when we went to see the lights on the last night of our trip, we didn't get to see them because Disney decided to have a trial of the Star Wars fireworks instead. I missed the lights! I only got a few hours at Disneyquest! Now they will be gone and I will never see them again. How do you work through that knowing that it wouldn't have to be?

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