Wouldn’t it be nice to take a break from the ordinary and escape to Disneyland or Walt Disney World? To sail with pirates, face extraTERRORestrial alien creatures, and blast baddies with Buzz Lightyear? The fun, the energy, and the enthusiasm around Disney Parks are priceless. But the flight… the rental car… the tickets… let’s just say, they’re anything but priceless.
That’s why, in the mid-1990s, Disney executives began to toy with a radical idea… what if every major city in the United States – no, the world! – could host its own Disney theme park? But forget castles, or dark rides, or roller coasters… This 21st century theme park would be all about you as never before… an indoor, interactive adventure showcasing the newest technologies and Disney’s flashiest storytelling in a compelling, ever-changing family entertainment center.
Here at Theme Park Tourist, our Disaster Files series has the unfortunate job of recording the in-depth histories of Disney’s (rare and often radical) failures. We’ve told the full, detailed, can’t-miss tales behind such epic flubs as Superstar Limo, the Rocket Rods, Walt Disney Studios Park, Journey into YOUR Imagination, the despised Stitch’s Great Escape, and so many more.
And today, we turn to a disastrous Disney experience that’s unlike all the others in its scope and scale. DisneyQuest wasn’t just an oversized Disney arcade abandoned and left to rot; it was also a 21st century experiment in mass-producing theme park experiences gone horribly wrong. Today, we’ll check in on this unusual concept from design to destruction and relive the memories – good and bad – produced by this exceptionally odd project.
1970s – Shopper’s paradise
The story begins in the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village, which opened on March 22, 1975 – just a few years after Walt Disney World itself. While the name might not sound too awfully familiar, the concept should. Lake Buena Vista was a one-stop shop for souvenirs, gifts, and toys during your Walt Disney World visit – a charming lakeside village with shops like the Pottery Chalet, Toys Fantastique, and The Flower Garden.
The concept of the Shopping Village was really intended to act as the main local commerce area for residents of the planned Lake Buena Vista residential area.
What’s more, Peoplemovers would’ve connected the nearby neighborhood to its commercial Shopping Village, where residents might then board a Monorail and sail off to other Walt Disney World destinations.
While the shopping district opened in 1975, the accompanying residential area (and the mass transit systems that would’ve connected them) were delayed by the announcement of EPCOT Center. Even after the park’s opening, Disney’s finances were exhausted, leaving the Lake Buena Vista residential area undeveloped. Now, Disney had a full-fledged shopping district more or less disconnected from the resort proper.
The Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village was renamed the Walt Disney World Village in 1977.
1980s and ‘90s – A new vision
Fast-forward to the 1980s and new-CEO Michael Eisner, who brought with him a very new vision for Disney and its theme parks. Eisner believed that Disney Parks should be current, modern, hip places where every member of the family – teens included – found something worthwhile. Ambitious, young, and trendy concepts like Lost Legends: Captain EO and Star Tours revitalized Disney’s parks, but Eisner and company saw the tired Walt Disney World Village as a growth opportunity.
In 1986, the old shopping village was renamed Disney Village Marketplace and gained a neighbor: a trendy new concept meant to rival Church Street Station and other “young adult” clubs gaining traction in Orlando. Pleasure Island opened May 1, 1989 (the same day as the Disney-MGM Studios), featuring clubs, bars, and other more adult-oriented after-dark entertainment options impeccably themed with Disney details and storytelling.
Ah, but here’s where things will start to sound familiar… In 1995, the Village Marketplace and Pleasure Island were “combined” to create the newly branded Downtown Disney. The move was a smart one, offering a simplified message, marketing, and connection to the resort… even if a physical connection still wasn’t provided via Monorail or Peoplemover.
As you can imagine, the shifting histories of Walt Disney World’s shopping village could be the subject of a doctoral dissertation, but for our purposes, the story kicks into high gear now…
While the presses were still hot printing Downtown Disney advertisements, Disney announced another investment in the area: a third “district” to join the Marketplace and Pleasure Island: Downtown Disney’s West Side would open in 1997. That's where Disney would host its most conceptually ambitious idea since EPCOT Center...
Maybe in some ways, Downtown Disney was the perfect embodiment of Walt Disney World as a whole – dissimilar parts built in different decades, each reflecting the architecture, values, and impressions of its respective era. Think about it...
- The Marketplace – largely left from the 1970s – was still at its core a quaint village of shops and restaurants that looked and felt much like the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village two decades before...
- Pleasure Island – rooted in the same '80s ideology that built the Disney-MGM Studios – was a brave and cinematic expansion of deeply-themed clubs that only Disney could've concocted.
- And now, the '90s-born West Side would be a glowing icon of '90s entertainment...
The radical new entertainment playground would feature mainstays of the era, like a grungy, rusted warehouse-style House of Blues, a custom-built modern white big top for Cirque du Soleil's La Nouba, a must-visit Virgin Megastore (to purchase a compact disc or cassette for the flight home, no doubt), and a Planet Hollywood restaurant, packed with celebrity memorobilia. Kitschy, comic, and cool, the West Side felt like the perfect '90s interpretation of what a "Downtown" Disney World would feel like – a master-planned expansion that looked, felt, and sounded like the era.
It's also where Disney would test out its most radical concept in a decade.
Housed inside of a towering and mysterious, asymmetrical blue building was DisneyQuest, a brand new kind of themed entertainment experience.
Entirely overseen and operated by a new division of the Walt Disney Company called Disney Regional Entertainment, DisneyQuest was billed as an "indoor, interactive theme park." Perhaps you'd agree that that's a vague and unusual way to describe an experience, and that – it would seem – was the point. After all, a generation of '80s and '90s kids grew up wondering what could be inside that most unusual building... What was DisneyQuest?
Well, that was the question. And that's what we're going to explore. On the next page, we'll step into the most unusual project Disney ever designed, and see exactly why such an innovative, exceptional concept might be listed among our Disaster Files... Read on...