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Disney Tried to Bring Its Theme Parks Closer to YOU... and Failed. Here's Why DisneyQuest was Doomed.

Image: Disney

Gargantuan... glittering... mysterious...

Looming over Downtown Disney's West Side, the unusual blue cube of DisneyQuest was indeed a wonder. And when it opened on June 19, 1998, what it contained within was just as wondrous and surprising. So to give us an idea of exactly what the experience was like, we're going to step into DisneyQuest as it appeared there in its earliest years.

Inside...

First things first, and we have to get the unpleasantenss out of the way... You might not know exactly what DisneyQuest is, but to find out, you'll need to pay. (Disney would end up tinkering throughout the attraction's life to find out exactly what it was worth to the average vacationer, at times trying pay-per-experience [with reloadable cards] or one-price ticketing, alternatively combining DisneyQuest access with the "Water Park & More" ticketing add-on [with DisneyQuest being the "More"], then including it with Annual Passes as well.)

Image: D. Judson Hindes, The Mouse for Less

Already, the ticketing lobby gives a certain impression of the attraction's style. There's no denying, it's a product of the 1990s... the comical styling, exaggerated proportions, plastic textures, and faux golden busts of modern Disney characters look just right for Downtown Disney's West Side, 1998. In other words, so far so good for you and I as we visit in the opening years.

Now we get to the fun part.

Image: Disney

DisneyQuest is five floors of interactive fun, but just as Magic Kingdom's "hub and spokes" layout pulses all guests to the park's center to radiate out into themed lands, DisneyQuest is comprised of four interactive Zones all connected to the Ventureport. And the only way to this Ventureport? Straight up in one of DisneyQuest's Cybrolators.

These elevators are built to shuttle guests from the outside world into the heart of DisneyQuest, located on the third floor of the building. Once on-board, the electricity shortcircuits as projections turn our elevator into a skyward ride with the Genie from Aladdin (voiced again by Robin Williams). As the elevator slows, LED stars flash inside the cabin and the doors part, opening into Ventureport. 

It's a sight to behold, with the enormous chamber multiple stories tall, ringed with balconies and excited guests journeying through DisneyQuest's areas: Create Zone, Explore Zone, Replay Zone, and Score Zone. Bridges called Gatways branch off of Ventureport leading to each of the four Zones. From there, guests will scale up and down through the levels, exploring each Zone's share of DisneyQuest's 100,000 square feet and 5 stories. 

Replay Zone

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

Standing beneath the cartoon observatory of Ventureport, a Gateway bridge connects to the Replay Zone, with a set of spiral stairs leading down into the realm. While two stories of the Replay Zone are filled with classic, throwback arcade consoles, the Replay Zone's most noteworthy attraction is a "ride" you won't find in any other Disney Park.

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters is an unusual attraction, a bit like a clunky bumper car mixed with a game of dodge ball, with two guests seated in plexiglass-enclosed vehicles that can bump and ricochet across a bumper car course littered with silver balls. Driving over a ball picks it up and arms an on-board Asteroid Blaster so that the passenger can shoot the ball at other vehicles. Hitting targets causes the vehicles to lose control, spinning as their interior lights flash. Perhaps a video is the best way of seeing the ride in action.

Score Zone

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

The Score Zone is ostensibly themed to a superhero city with bright, action-packed decor. Of course, you'll have to remember that Disney doesn't have the rights to any of those big-name super heroes. DC's heroes (like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman) are owned by Time Warner and thus licensed exclusively to their Six Flags parks; Marvel, meanwhile, just signed a huge contract with Disney's competitor, Universal, giving them exclusive rights to the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, and Spider-Man east of the Mississippi River, all to power their new park and its headlining Modern Marvel: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man.

As a result, DisneyQuest's heroes for the Score Zone were all designed in-house, though they're believable enough to make you imagine they could have their own comic book series.

Image: Dave Pape, Flickr (license)

One of the Zone's highlights has to be Ride the Comix, a truly cutting-edge Virtual Reality (VR) experience where we get to put on unimaginable VR headsets to find ourselves suddenly looking into a digital superhero world. Armed with a laser sword, this unthinkable experience is stunning and unbelievable. Who could've ever thought that this technology would exist, much less that you could hold it in your own hands and try it!

Image: WillMcC, Wikimedia Commons (license)

The other headliner might seem an odd fit, but Mighty Ducks Pinball Slam is still fun to watch. In this live-action game, players standing on pucks lean and manipulate their tiltable platform to move a corresponding "pinball" on a digital screen, aiming to earn points and bounce fellow "pinballs" around the board. Admittedly fairly unintelligible, the game is perhaps best understood by seeing a video, here.

On the very top floor of the Score Zone is also where you'll find INVASION!: An ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

Another immersive attraction casts us as defenders, rescuing colonists from the threat of a bloodthirsy alien race. The digital animation that powers this attraction looks a few steps ahead of the graphics we're using to on our PlayStations at home, and that's impressive enough! For Disney fans, though, the real draw to this attraction is its connection to a fan-favorite Lost Legend: The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. In that in-depth feature, we chronicled the full story and experience of Disney's scariest attraction ever. (While INVASION! doesn't quite meet its predecessor, it did outlive it.)

Create Zone

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

While the Score and Replay Zones both have a signature attraction or two, they ultimately amount to nothing more than arcades. But returning to the Ventureport and crossing the Gateway into the Create Zone, you'll begin to find more of the cutting edge, interactive, creativity DisneyQuest would like to be known for.

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

The Create Zone was developed at just the right time to merge creativity and technology, with surprising digital displays that are absolutely astounding. Sure, you can follow along with a Disney animator and sketch your own favorite Disney character over at the Disney-MGM Studios, but only at DisneyQuest's Animation Academy can you do it all on digital screens! The touch-activated screens look and feel like something out of Carousel of Progress' finale, and for just a few dollars more DisneyQuest's Cast Members will print off your digital drawing to take home!

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

The Radio Disney SongMaker similarly allows us to assemble audio tracks by sampling instruments, voices, sounds, special effects, and riffs from thousands of popular songs. Who could ever foresee a day when the ability to easily and intuitively edit audio tracks could be within our reach? And yet, billions of potential combinations await. Naturally, you'll want to purchase an audio CD of your creation to take home.

If you sympathized with Sid in Disney - Pixar's new Toy Story and how he maniacally combined toy parts to create monstrosities, you can try it yourself with Sid's Create-a-Toy, digitally clicking and dragging parts to create your own Franken-figure. Again, a picture of your design is available for an additional fee. The same is true with Living Easels and Magic Mirrors where digital effects can bring your reflection to life.

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

But by far the Create Zone's anchor is the fabled Cyberspace Mountain. This one-of-a-kind attraction is truly a marvel. Set at a design studio computer, we're able to design our own digital roller coaster by combining and simulating digital track pieces on a screen. All the fun of a first-person Roller Coaster Tycoon free-for-all, designing is only half the fun. As perhaps DisneyQuest's signature attraction, we can then bring our digital design along with us to a ride simulator. A real motion-based simulator pod (not unlike a mini version of MGM's Lost Legend: STAR TOURS) really do weave, roll, and twist (even through real inversions!) as they bring your roller coaster to stunning life. You can see an on-ride video here, and what the simulator pod is actually doing here.

Explore Zone

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

Returning to Ventureport and across another Gateway bridge, this time we enter the final of DisneyQuest's four areas: Explore Zone.

Explore Zone features a few of DisneyQuest's more well-known attractions, including Aladdin's Magic Carpet Ride (not to be confused with the very dissimilar Magic Carpets of Aladdin that opened at Magic Kingdom three years later). Seated on individual motorcycle style seats, we can put on another large VR headset to become totally immersed in a magic carpet ride through Agrabah.

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

The Virtual Jungle Cruise was another memorable addition, even if it wasn't one of DisneyQuest's best. Seated in "inflatable rafts" on a motion base, guests would paddle feverishly to escape the reach of digital dinosaurs projected on a screen ahead as the raft bobbed and bucked along the rapids.

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

Still, the effect might not have been totally convincing, and guests armed with oars tended to notice that, paddle or not, the ride continued unchanged. You can get a look at the experience in this video.

The most technologically advanced DisneyQuest attraction (by way of being the only attraction added after opening) is Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold. Guests here would step onto the prow of a ship, with digital wrapped screens recreating the ocean beyond. Then, manning real cannons, we can shoot digital cannonballs at enemy vessels, cheering, singing, and plundering. Sort of a precursor to Toy Story Midway Mania, you can get a glimpse of the game here.

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

The problem

As you can imagine, the wonders of DisneyQuest were truly cutting edge... Virtual reality, high definition video, motion sensors, and true interactivity were still years away from public consumption, and DisneyQuest was like a living, breathing test lab where you were able to prototype the most astounding technologies you had likely ever seen.

We specifically noted that our walkthrough shows us DisneyQuest "as it appeared in its earliest years." The problem is simple: that's also how it appeared in its last years, nearly two decades later. In other words, a visit to DisneyQuest in 2017 offered exactly the same games, technology, and hardware... and if you hadn't noticed, technology today looks... well... a little different than it did in 1998.

But see, DisneyQuest wasn't always doomed. It was Disney's choice to leave the attraction to rot and rust, outright refusing to upgrade its software or hardware for twenty years. Why? That's the interesting part... Read on as we wrap up the story of its disastrous downfall...

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There are 6 comments.

I'm a native Floridian that has been going to this area since it was called the Disney Village. Even though I was in the target demographic for Disney Quest I had really no desire to visit. To me it seemed like a waste of money. Why would I want to spend about 50% of a one day ticket to one of the major parks for a subpar arcade simulation that would really only entertain for less than half a day? So I never went. Fast Forward to Summer of 2017 where I finally decide to go. I have a child of my own now so the appeal was a little greater than before plus I really did want to see what it was like before it closed. Initially I was excited. The lobby even increased that excitement. I loved the whimsy that it conveyed. That was a mistake. This article really hit it on the head. Even though the announcement came in 2015 Disney really decided to close Disney Quest 14 years earlier in 2001. You can tell that they just left it to rot and did not invest any money into it. Not only that but they didn't even maintain anything. Granted I visited within the last few weeks of its lifespan but there were literally more things that didn't work than things that did. Out of four sound booths only one was operational. Only half of the rafts were working. Same with the Pirates of the Carribean, although the line wasn't long at all it took forever because they were only operating two rooms. Many of the arcade cabinets were nonfunctional. I really can't believe that Disney kept Quest open all these years. I think it was a major disservice to patrons. Especially to charge as much as they did. I say shame on Disney for knowing they had a dud and keeping it open anyways. I think the only reason they did is because it was in a giant box so they could hide how dilapidated and outdated it looked on the inside. That and they didn't have to pay rent. They were smart to get rid of Disney Quest in Chicago.

As a side note I really cannot reconcile that first picture of the Disney Village with what it looks like today. They must have done a lot more construction with changing the shape of the lake than I had realized.

I went to Chicago Disneyquest multiple times. Attendance was very suppresed by the high parking fees (not due to Disney, parking downtown in Chicago is just expensive). And driving in to the downtown area is a hassle in any case, adding to the issues. Maybe they should have placed it in the near west suburubs, where Mini-Legoland has found success, it would have done well enough for them to continue to invest.

You completely ignored one of the opening day attractions, treasure of the Inca. Google it. This attraction sold me on DQ the first time we went. Maybe more so than cyberspace mountain. Seems like a huge omission from this article.

I'm not big into games--and not very good at them. And a lot of the games there needed more than one person, and I usually go to Disney solo. I went there two or three times, once with my cousin, so I was able to do some of the games I hadn't before. My favorite was Cyberspace Mountain. That was a real ride and not a game. If DisneyQuest had been more about rides and shows, like you find at the theme parks, I could better imagine it doing well in cities across the continent.

Nice article, though apparently Pirates of the Caribbean actually replaced a Hercules-themed opening day attraction, it would have been nice to have heard a little about that.

The article also doesn't really cover an issue with DisneyQuest which seems to be common ground for most reviews - upkeep was abysmal, far below Disney's normal standards. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if the shoddy maintenance was a result of a lack of provided budget rather than deliberate oversight.

I only got to go to Disney Quest a couple of times near the end but I loved it! I agree it was too pricey, but I wish they could have somehow saved it. I'm not really one to care about graphics so I loved how interactive it was. Especially Pirates of the Caribbean. They had great burgers too. I miss the atmosphere!! I miss Cyberspace Mountain! I miss the classic arcade games! It was worth going to that's for sure. From a business perspective I understand why they closed it. But I wish they didn't.

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