DisneyQuest opens (and then closes) in Chicago
With the DisneyQuest in Florida appearing to be a rousing success, Disney Regional Entertainment set its sights on proving that the concept could work outside the Disney bubble. And so, to do this, they went about as far away from that bubble as they could: Chicago.
Located in the midwest, far from the comforts of Orlando and Anaheim, Chicago seemed to be the best place to test this site-specific experience. Presumably, Chicagoans had some connection to Disney and would likely be thrilled to have a park to call their own – one which they could visit without traveling the thousands of miles to either coast.
Disney chose a location right in the middle of Downtown Chicago, just steps off its famed Magnificent Mile. Not only would it draw in the locals with its exotic Disney branding, but it would be the perfect spot for tourists to spend an afternoon while visiting the Windy City.
The Chicago DisneyQuest opened in 1999, and featured a near-identical experience to the Florida version – it, too, had the four zones, as well as the marquee attractions like CyberSpace Mountain. Unlike in Florida, the Chicago location used a single pricing structure, charging guests $34 for entry. But, eventually, they lowered that to $26.
Why? Well, because DisneyQuest was failing.
After just two years of operation, Disney announced that it would shutter the Chicago location. Furthermore, they said the DisneyQuest experiment was, essentially, dead – no more locations would be built anywhere else in the U.S. The Florida outpost would remain, but that would be it for DisneyQuest expansion.
The closure actually caught a lot of people off-guard, particularly when Disney refused to claim they actually took a financial loss on the project. Then-Disney spokeswoman Leslie Ferraro made sure to note that the venture was not losing money in her statement about the Chicago closure, and instead pinned the blame on a strategic shift:
"Disney is always looking for opportunities for growth, and we feel proud that we did a very good job at DisneyQuest, and people loved it, but it was a test.” Essentially, Ferraro said, the project was successful, just not successful enough.
However, if you peel the onion back, the real reasons for the closure start to become clearer.
"At Disney, everything is not just the gold standard, it's the platinum standard. We're not willing to do something if it's not the best," Ferraro told the Chicago Tribune in 2001. "The technology there was absolutely cutting edge, with a stream of new attractions, and that doesn't come inexpensively. That's not to say someone who isn't Disney couldn't do it in a different way."
Reading between the lines, it's easy to see what the real problem was: Disney wanted to keep rotating in the new attractions, but in order to do that, they had to charge high prices – higher prices than the Chicago locals were willing to pay. When the tourist market never materialized, the cash flow wasn't enough to justify the installation of new attractions. And, rather than leaving the enterprise to slowly grow stale, Disney opted to shutter the location once and for all.
Yet, despite closing the Chicago location for that seemingly noble reason, Disney opted to leave the Florida DisneyQuest open for another 14 years without adding a notable attraction to it. And, coincidentally, it suffered that fate – slowly growing stale until, eventually, the decision was made to close it too in 2017.
Why DisneyQuest was doomed to fail
But all of this is secondary. Yes, I have a lot of great memories of DisneyQuest, and I'm sure many of you do too. However, the fun was never going to last – DisneyQuest was always going to fail. It was a strategic mistake from the very outset for one very simple reason: It was based on wowing you with technology, and that's just not a sustainable business plan in the modern age.
The thing you have to understand about the 1990s is that computational technology was still very much in its infancy as a point of public consciousness. Many still lived in a decidedly 20th century mindset – essentially, “this new technology is amazing now, and therefore, it will always be amazing.” Unfortunately, that's not the case. Technology is constantly superseded by newer, more amazing inventions. And, in fact, the rate at which that happens increases every year.
Think about it like this: Remember when the first iPhone was announced? Remember how cool it was? Remember how it changed pretty much everything we knew about portable electronics? Well, here's the thing: While it was amazing, nowadays, it's laughably quaint. It couldn't download apps. It couldn't send picture messages. It couldn't even copy and paste. What seemed amazing and futuristic less than 10 years ago now seems as adorable and anachronistic as a cassette tape. And now, we experience that cycle even quicker: Every time you buy a new iPhone, you're amazed at all the new things it can do, but when the newer one comes out one and a half years later, it's hard not to look at the current model and feel a bit disappointed. That trajectory gives experiences which are based solely on technology an incredibly short shelf-life.
Disney's plan to launch regional theme park experiences was, at its heart, intelligent. They attempted to piggy-back on the Six Flags model and capture the local audiences, believing they could dominate not only the destination vacation market, but also the growing “staycation” market. That made sense on paper – however, they hitched that plan to a strategy based largely on cutting-edge technology rather than story, and they did so at precisely the moment that technology picked up its developmental pace dramatically.
The games that seemed so futuristic and thrilling when DisneyQuest first opened quickly felt stale and obsolete. Wearing dorky VR helmets seemed like the most amazing thing in 1998, but in a post-Oculus Rift world, it all feels a bit hokey. But rather than refreshing or replacing these attractions on a quarterly basis, as promised, the marginal success of the properties forced Disney to opt to let them stay. This effect compounded over time – Disney didn't want to invest in a property that didn't excite guests, while guests weren't excited by a property that didn't feel fresh – and DisneyQuest eventually felt like an early '00s throwback rather than an actual innovative theme park.
Slowly, attendance fell off as fewer and fewer people were amazed by the technology present at DisneyQuest. Those who still visited did so because they enjoyed the basic games, or had fond memories of enjoying the attractions when they were younger. That wasn't a particularly sustainable audience: DisneyQuest's operating costs far exceeded those of the regional arcade chains, but their profits didn't.
On the whole, the electricity and joy that permeated every inch of DisneyQuest at its launch had long since dissipated by the early-2010s. In its place was left stale air, dated aesthetics, and the faint voice of the late Robin Williams guiding you through its darkened halls. And yet, despite the clear failure of DisneyQuest as a business strategy, Disney seems poised to repeat its mistakes again.