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.



Great article! I never got the chance to visit DisneyQuest myself, but I've seen similarities with the problems Innoventions has had in EPCOT. Technology is a moving target - a state-of-the-art attraction only has a year or two before it becomes outdated! I wonder if the DisneyQuest idea might have worked better had it, focused on excellent games based on current technology, instead of trying to wow people with the cutting edge.

Your comparison to MagicBands is quite the stretch, in my opinion. I enjoy the simplicity of the bands - it keeps me focused on having fun in the parks, instead of fumbling with my phone every time I want to ride an attraction or have a meal. A MagicBand is evidence you've done something special, in a way no phone app ever could. Besides, as you emphasized, technology changes awfully quickly! Not everyone has a high-tech phone, you'd have to pour money into developing new apps every time a new operating system or phone/watch style came out. Better to have a simple, special, streamlined experience with Disney's proprietary tech!

Innoventions is definitely an apt comparison, and it's telling that the team that dreamed that up was the same team that put together DisneyQuest. Additionally, many of the attractions that wound up in DisneyQuest were actually based on technology demoed at Innoventions first, most notably the VR helmets.

Well, the thing with the MagicBands is this: I definitely enjoy them, and have found that they've improved my vacation. However, they cost the Disney company well over a billion dollars to design and implement. That's an awful lot of money that could have gone to other projects, such as revamping Epcot. As you say, an app might eventually become outdated as well, but it only costs a few thousand dollars to build an app.

To me, it's about cost and benefit, and I think the enormous cost of the MagicBands doesn't cover up for the fact that the benefit is only minor and might be deemed obsolete in the near future. The fact that Shanghai isn't even using them is a red flag that suggests WDW spent a billion dollars on a gimmick.

The thing is,the purpose of Magic Bands is not so much to improve our vacation, but to increase revenue. The senors provide Disney with an amazing wealth of information. Personally, I think it's brilliant.

In reply to by Arthur Charlton (not verified)

Yeah. MagicBands enable some significant datamining, and also I believe are part of Disney's solution to park efficiency management - so there's a VERY good chance that they are already saving the park significant amounts of money.

More importantly, most of the "magic" behind MagicBands is software. The hardware side of it is actually pretty old/non-exciting (other than, I believe, they had a lot of challenges making a "one size fits all" accessory - but that's more of a human factors challenge that can be reapplied to new hardware). Under the assumption they used one of the standard RFID protocols (likely NFC or something interoperable with it), the hardware is dirt cheap for both the devices AND for the readers.

So they might in fact be betting on trends in the smartphone industry going the way they are such that smartphones replace the MagicBands in the long term - it's just a software upgrade for their systems and if they're using NFC, the infrastructure is already there for Android devices. Android 4.4 and later replaced the embedded secure element for payment with host card emulation - this gave Google the ability to deploy some nifty security tricks for Google Wallet (geographically/time-limited "throwaway" credentials) but it ALSO gave the ability for any developer to write a card emulation app. So the infrastructure exists now for Disney to package up MagicBands in HCE form for Android devices. They likely won't since the iPhone hardware is crippled in this regard (even moreso than pre-HCE Android as you can't even implement reader apps on the iPhone, the NFC hardware is for payment only) but iOS might eventually improve here... Might - after all they STILL don't support Wifi Direct.

Good point - I was unaware of just how much money Disney invested in MagicBands instead of elsewhere! I understand your comparison better now; if MBs are supplanted by mobile devices, it'll be another expensive, tech-heavy project that was fun for a few years but just didn't take off. Still, Disney is very unlikely to write off such a large investment for a total loss. Perhaps Shanghai will be used as an experiment, to see how well mobile devices would work instead? Maybe MBs will be updated to work in tandem with mobile devices? There's a lot to pros and cons on both sides - it'll be interesting to see what happens!

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