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
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.
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
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.