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Disney's First Failed Theme Park is Closing for Good. This is Why.

DisneyQuest

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.

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There are 29 comments.

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.

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!

I was also going to comment on the stretch with MagicBands. We didn't go to WDW because the card tickets were so cool, so I don't think Disney is thinking of the magic bands as a "draw." They are very convenient for the fastpass system. I don't use them to pay for anything as it is- I always have my Disney Dollars from my Disney Visa- and so only use them to get into the hotel, the park, and the rides. But they are very convenient and the RFID tech allows Disney to do a lot of behind the scenes efficiency improvements that they couldn't before. The tech at Disney Quest WAS the sell; with My Magic + it's all backstage, under the surface. I'm sure it WILL be outdated in ten years, but it is improving the experience now, and that is all that really matters.

How is being in operation for 18 long years failed? It was fun for kids on a rainy day. Just a big arcade is really what it was. It did not fail, it is just time to move on. Disney has been undergoing many changes and upgrades, this is just one of them. :)

I think down the line the magicband may be replaced (or interchangeable) with other options, such as a smart watch linked to your Disney account. It makes sense down the line when these items are more common place that this is implemented. I don't see Disney just allowing their own 'tech' to be the only option available to use, but at present it's understandable as MyMagic+ is still very much in its infancy, and as we have already seen it is adaptable to evolve over time.

I agree with the previous comment about MagicBands. It's quite a stretch and not only that, but a smartphone is NOT the only way to make reservations for dining and FP+. You can also call the disney reservation number or go online using with your computer to make them well in advance before even arriving at Disney World. Even then when you're at Disney World you can access a FP+ kiosk at any park to make your reservations. Thus not requiring a smartphone.

Also, your comparison to Apple Watch and MagicBands is entirely inaccurate and not factual at all. You can't take your Apple Watch to the water park and get it wet, but you can with the MagicBand because that's how there designed. Do you expect every parent to buy their kid a $349 Apple Watch? The MagicBand is simple, cheap and cost effective for everyone.

Lastly, I did enjoy reading the article on DisneyQuest up until the last page.

I wouldn't say this is Disney's "first failed theme park." I don't know if Discovery Island counts as a "theme park," but River Country definitely does, and both of those closed long before Disney Quest.

The NBA is so stupid.. Why replace something so great with something as stupid as basketball.

For me, a little bit of Disney Quest had already died when they stopped using the special Genie Tower of Terror sequence in the elevator.

As others have pointed out, you were doing fine until the last page. MagicBands are a (perhaps temporary) solution to a larger problem, and, in the meantime, provide a dizzying amount of data that they couldn't otherwise obtain. They had to find an excuse to get you to wear the bands, so they tied it to a bunch of value-add services. But the location pattern data and habit data is worth every penny of the $1billion.

Stick to history, you do an amazing job with it.

Your comment states the clear reality of the matter.

My family and I just returned from Disney World. We choose the fun and more specifically to go to Disney Quest. I knew it would be closed before we could return and I wanted to go at least once. I have a 9yo who had an absolute blast. I loved the classic video games back and sharing those with my oldest. I can see why it is closing. It feels outdated in some areas to me and that is what the article speaks to the most for me. It is an awesome space but it's time has passed, at least on this kind of scale.

NBA Experience? Not so sure...

Maybe if their goal was to expand and put it in peoples back yard who couldn't go to Disney, they probably shouldn't have put the first one on Disney property. Sure it's not IN the park but lets face it, DTD is basically a drawn out less exciting version of main street shopping.

If you're not a local and you're at DTD chances are you're going to WDW too thus getting a virtual reality version of the real counterparts seem redundant as you have the opportunity to go to the real park. If you are a local at DTD chances are someone suckered you in or you scored good tickets for Cirque Du Soleil because why else would you deal with that traffic.

A Disney Quest in New York City or Tennessee tourist trap area someplace where Florida or California is not nearby so it's easier for tourist to get a bit of Disney without actually going to Disney. I see it doing quite well in NYC. But they never got that far.

Actually this comparison to Magic Bands and My Magic + is probably true. People are already upset that when the first 3 fast passes run out they can not use their smartphones to access MDE and add a 4th FP. Instead we must go with our Magic Bands and wait in line at a kiosk(a kiosk in the park you want the FP for) to do this. this causes a problem for park hoppers. In this case the Magic Band is already behind as we should be able to do this on our smartphone.

I am fine with the magic bands, particularly for water rides like Splash Mountain or Kali River Rapids or to either of the water parks. Equipping my kids with apple watches isn't ideal.

If anything, the use of technology implanted into their mugs in order to regulate the flow of fountain drinks at the resorts is a bit much.

Page 4 of this article couldn't be more accurate!! My family and I just returned from a week in Disney World. The day we spent at EPCOT was boring, horrible, and so sad!! Disney's attractions of the "future" feel archaic! The structures in the front of the park that represent the "future" represent a trip to Logan's Run (a futuristic film from the 70s). Disney Studios is a GREAT example of the prediction of this article. Slowly, Disney is closing it down, piece by piece. (Word is to make way for a Star Wars themed park...but too much? too late?) The amount of money we spent for our week vacation there was a LOT for us to enter a world representing technology of the 60s and 70s. Wise up, Disney...before it's too late !!

Really good article. Certainly a lot of valid points and insight to the decline of Disneyquest. To me this is also a great article to point people to regarding EPCOT. EPCOT was build on the same technological showcase idea and now so many of the things there feel dated. Innoventions is probably the biggest offender in this regard, given it's basically a modified DisneyQuest. So either EPCOT is going to have to constantly update as technology does or start to feel kitch, and while I love the park I kind of feel that way now. That many of the things in Innoventions are cool or cute but there's already stuff on the technology market you can buy that's as cool if not more so. I give Disney credit though, they tried to create things like Horizons that felt so far in the future they wouldn't have to worry about this problem. Unfortunately they had no way to know just how fast technology would advance. So I think soon EPCOT is going to undergo some big changes as well.

It would not be hard to convert the MagicBand infrastructure to iOS and android. However, this is truly my favorite park and my entire family will effectively in mourning. Does anyone know the date? We are planning one more visit during the spring. I think the downfall was not updating the attractions like the "real" parks. Epcot future world is a prime example.

Also, what are they doing with now two parks worth of stuff? How about Burbank?

NBA? Really? So you are replacing a ride I did once and may go back to with one I would never waste my money on. Sounds like another bad call on Disneys part. I don't get what they are doing down there. Cutting the live acts and music and putting in crap like the lumberjacks. . . I hope they can turn this around. I go every year or two and have to say I was not thrilled with the changes I found last month. Magic Bands are OK, but took three days to get working right - not a win in my book. I think Disney has lost it's way again and hope the find a new Mike Elsner to turn them around. . .

While I enjoyed the first three pages about the rise and fall of Disney Quest, I found the fourth page to be quite a stretch. I do agree with your sentiment that attractions that rely solely on how innovative their technology is are doomed to eventually fail as technology advances. However, MyMagic+ and MagicBands are not an attraction that uses technology for show. It's a system that uses technology to streamline many aspects of the Disney vacation.

One of the best things about the system is that the end-user experience is largely based on the very simple and growing RFID technology. The majority of those billions of dollars were spent making the system work as a whole and installing the RFID readers, not on the MagicBands themselves. So yes, cell phones and smart watches may some day be able to do the same things as a MagicBand if someone chooses. They’ll still be using that same system, just using their own device with an RFID chip to access it.

Yes, the system isn’t perfect, but since it is largely software based, they’ll be able to upgrade it as needed. I’m sure that MagicBands will change over time as well, getting smaller and more comfortable. But, again, they’ll still be based on the RFID technology that has been successfully employed in electronic toll collection systems such as E-Z Pass in the northeast for well over a decade now.

The system’s intergration with the app, while very convenient, is not necessary. You can easily set up all of your reservations and FastPasses prior to your vacation online and never have pull out your phone the vacation. There are also kiosks around the park where you can make changes as necessary.

All in all, I think that the system actually promotes positive personal interaction. It is removing the need for tasks such as the dash to get FastPass tickets and checking into a hotel room. This gives you more time to make memories with your family and friends or ask a cast member about your favorite attraction.

Back in the day I couldn't get my 12 year old son out of Quest he loved it. I was so glad when they made it "one price" instead of pay for each game.
But it truly did become stale, wen you market something like that same as future world at Epcot you have to realize your going to have to keep updating and make it current.
I agree with a lot of the comments about asking who is in charge at Disney and what are they thinking ?
In the article you say the reason we keep coming back to the parks are To relive memories we shared with loved ones, and the awesome cast members who make us feel at home and special, favorite food items and experiences that take us back in time. (Which is partly why there is such a big reaction when they take away a fan favorite like Off Kilter and when they tried to mess with the original citrus swirl) goodbye Quest we shall miss you. NBA sounds boring unless your really really into basketball a check it out once and go on.

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?

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 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.

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.

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

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