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

Expansion and retreat

Disney Regional Entertainment must’ve been pleased with the reaction to – and revenue from – Orlando’s DisneyQuest, because their world domination action plan proceeded outward from there.

DisneyQuest Chicago opened on June 16, 1999. A virtual clone of the 90,000 square foot Orlando facility, Chicago’s outpost was a natural next step in that it secured Disney a footprint in the third most populous city in the United States (behind New York and Los Angeles), a Midwest hub, and (coincidentally) Walt Disney’s birthplace. Located on Rush and Ohio Streets (just beyond the city’s Magnificent Mile), the Illinois DisneyQuest brilliantly adapted the now-iconic “box” façade for an urban landscape and seemed positioned on the most prime real estate imaginable.

Image: Disney

It also primed Disney for similar installations in other leading cities. A DisneyQuest Philadelphia was announced with initial ground broken, and Toronto was eyed as a fourth facility. Inevitably, a DisneyQuest would eventually become an anchor to the new Downtown Disney District being squeezed into the newly-rebranded, two-park Disneyland Resort in California. It seemed that DisneyQuest would indeed bring the magic of a Disney vacation “home,” establishing Disney as a regional player in family entertainment.

But on September 4, 2001 – after a run of about two years – Chicago’s DisneyQuest closed its doors.

"We have concluded that the expected returns on the investment required to achieve DisneyQuest's cutting-edge technology standard in a stand-alone environment will not meet the company's financial requirements," said Randall Baumberger, senior vice president of Disney Regional Entertainment.

Look to Disney’s early Tomorrowlands or Epcot’s Future World to see what he meant… any sincere determination to actually predict or showcase cutting edge technologies requires enormous (not to mention continuous) investment. There is no “until…” To keep DisneyQuest cutting edge would require extensive financial backing forever. And as the New Millennium came and went, it was already clear that the technologies on display in DisneyQuest – both in Orlando and Chicago – were becoming less astounding by the day… and thus, less worthy of guests’ admission or (more importantly) their return visit.

Image: Disney

Put another way, visitors came to DisneyQuest… the problem is, they didn’t come back. And long term, it was clear that DisneyQuest couldn’t keep up with the ever-increasing demands of technology… all while tinkering with the price that Midwest families would be willing to pay.

There’s a suggestion there that, although Disney’s spokesperson assured the media that DisneyQuest Chicago was successful, the company would altruistically shutter it rather than let it limp along without investment. It’s almost noble to imagine that Disney would rather have no regional entertainment than sub-par regional entertainment… Until you catch up on what happened in Orlando…

Abandoned

Anaheim? Axed.

Toronto? Dream on.

Philadelphia? Cancelled.

Chicago? Closed.

Only the original DisneyQuest in Walt Disney World’s Downtown Disney remained. Disney Regional Entertainment (which continued to exist until 2010 thanks to the ESPN Zone line of restaurants) handed operation of the attraction over to the Walt Disney World Resort and Team Disney Orlando, internally integrating it into theme park operations.

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

It must’ve been presumed that it, too, would quickly close its doors. Instead, the almost-unthinkable happened: it stayed open.

But from that moment on, DisneyQuest was supplied with literally zero non-essential investment. From 2001 onward, Disney’s “cutting edge” “indoor, interactive theme park” didn’t receive a single new addition. Not one.

And, in line with our previous point, that made DisneyQuest woefully dated by the early 2000s, and outright pitiful by 2010. That means that, for a vast, overwhelming majority of its life, DisneyQuest was an unintentional retro-throwback… a laughable “showcase” of technologies from a decade ago. (And think about it – today, the most cutting edge technological marvels of even a decade ago might as well be relics, stored in museum archives.)

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

The “VR” that once seemed to bring the future to life became a clunky, rudimentary technology that was downright laughable to interact with. The "high definition" digital video might've looked a step ahead of the PlayStation, but it was a step behind the PlayStation 2 that would come out just two years into DisneyQuest's life. The “interactivity” promised by DisneyQuest’s games felt about as lively and forward thinking as the equally aged Innoventions. The “indoor theme park” looked, felt, and was a relic of a bygone era, dripping in ‘90s design and ‘90s tech...

That’s not to say a generation didn’t still connect to DisneyQuest. Up through the 2000s and 2010s, it remained an odd aside; a roadside tourist attraction worthy of seeing if only to say you did; if only to peel back the mystery of the big blue box and witness something sincerely one-of-a-kind. DisneyQuest might’ve made its share of personal connections, but as a business venture, an arcade, and an “indoor theme park,” it was sunk…

Change springs forth

Beginning in the mid-2000s, executives began to take another look at Downtown Disney and its three districts – the Marketplace, Pleasure Island, and the West Side – and consider how the area could grow to be more profitable. In a particularly disastrous attempt to rent Downtown Disney property to big bucks lessees willing to pay massive rent, Disney closed Pleasure Island’s clubs (including the famed focus of an upcoming Lost Legends entry: the Adventurers Club). When no one seemed interested in renting the newly vacant space, Disney announced an ambitious remodel of Pleasure Island called Hyperion Wharf meant to draw in outside operators. It still didn’t work.

Ultimately, executives must’ve agreed that the only way to push Downtown Disney forward was to reinvigorate the entire property. In early 2013, Disney announced a radical redesign that would transform Downtown Disney into the new high-end Disney Springs.

In the spirit of Disney California Adventure’s Buena Vista Street, a full-fledged story was developed by Imagineers: “Drawing inspiration from Florida’s waterfront towns and natural beauty, Disney Springs will include four outdoor neighborhoods interconnected by a flowing spring and vibrant lakefront.”

Image: Disney

And indeed, the transformation did recast the Downtown Disney districts into more storied, historical, and high-end shopping neighborhoods thematically backed by details that make it appear that Disney Springs developed over generations around a natural spring-fed lagoon.

Disney Springs opened in phases through 2016, revitalizing the area with new shops, restaurants, boutiques, and cafes split among four "neighborhoods": the West Side (blue), The Landing (formerly Pleasure Island, red), Town Center (newly constructed, orange), and the Marketplace (green). 

Image: Disney

In the spirit of full disclosure, we have to admit that many of Disney’s most ardent fans detest the change, arguing that Disney Springs is nothing more than a high-end outdoor shopping mall (increasingly common in large cities), just with inflated Disney prices… and indeed, the area (purposefully) dropped the more fun, family-friendly, ‘90s entertainment vibe in favor of a more high-class, high-priced adult getaway.

One thing that did not change? DisneyQuest.

Game over?

DisneyQuest survived decades of development. Even as Downtown Disney became Disney Springs around it, DisneyQuest kept going without so much as a software update. Year after year after year, rumors swirled that DisneyQuest's time was short. It felt inevitable. And yet, year after year after year, the doors stayed open.

On June 30, 2015, the call finally came down: for DisneyQuest, it would be "game over" in 2016. Nearly two-decades out of date, the “indoor, interactive theme park” throwback to ‘90s family entertainment centers would finally close its doors. Its replacement would be a restaurant themed to another ‘90s mainstay: the NBA, who’d just closed their restaurant at Universal CityWalk down the road.

However, 2016 came and went, and DisneyQuest still stayed open. Insiders suggested that Disney’s agreement with the NBA was fizzling, and without a definitive future for DisneyQuest's property, executives wouldn't commit to closing it. And – from a business point-of-view – if DisneyQuest’s revenue made up for its (relatively few) operating expenses and added to Walt Disney Parks and Resorts' end-of-the-year income, why close it? However, even fans of the concept must’ve agreed that it was time to “pull the plug."

Despite Disney's promise of a 2016 closing, DisneyQuest limped through 2016 – a painful goodbye for an attraction whose days had been numbered for years. In November, Disney fessed up that DisneyQuest was going to close, they just didn’t know when yet.

Image: Disney

Ultimately, DisneyQuest’s final day of operation was July 2, 2017… A nineteen-year life is a very, very long time for an attraction based on technology. Imagine if you had the same computer today you did in 1998… and then consider that DisneyQuest did

Guests visiting on that last day received a commemorative lithograph and an arcade style token.

Beginning that weekend, many of the arcade games from within were auctioned off to Cast Members.

Concept crash

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

Here’s the thing: DisneyQuest was not a bad concept… Essentially combining a family entertainment center (think Chuck E. Cheese or Dave & Buster’s) with Disney branding, scale, and reach, it might have legitimately become a mainstay of American cities and a local connection to Disney Parks… Intriguing advertising, the must-see draw of the mysterious "box" architecture, the zippy promise of an "indoor, interactive theme park..." It seemed golden.

Except for one messy consideration: technology. The exponential growth of technology even in the last two decades has been so astounding, any attempt to sincerely and authentically feature “cutting edge” hardware or software would require monthly updates at least. Continuous and expensive modifications would be the name of the game and the only way to keep DisneyQuest viable – much less “re-ridable.”

At the end of the day, Disney admitted defeat with the Disney Regional Entertainment concept, essentially saying that they couldn’t price DisneyQuest in such a way that locals (or even tourists) would visit regularly while still underwriting the enormous investment it was clear DisneyQuest would need.

Image: Disney

What’s most unusual, though, is that DisneyQuest would’ve been a mere blip on the radar – an interesting if irrelevant failed concept – if the Orlando location didn’t stay alive for two decades, sincerely frozen in a state of eternal ‘90s glamour. Along the way, it earned its share of fans for what it was, even if by all logical accounts, it was just a little embarrassing that Disney kept it open at all, much less charged top dollar for access.

At the end of the day, maybe Disney could’ve still salvaged Orlando’s location and shifted the concept to match the new look and feel of the 21st century, but somewhere down the line DisneyQuest had just fallen too far behind to catch back up.

Though the story of DisneyQuest may be a doozy, it's just one of the detailed Disaster Files in our In-Depth Collections Library, so make the jump there to set course for another story. Then, we want to hear from you. Do you think the DisneyQuest concept stood a chance? Would you have visited a DisneyQuest in your city... or, better yet, would you have kept visiting?

Even once the “regional entertainment” aspirations melted away, could Disney have at least kept up with Orlando’s DisneyQuest as a standalone 21st century technology and entertainment center? Was Disney wrong to keep the location open, charging big bucks to see the tired technology hidden inside, or was it an intentional and benevolent throwback to fans? What memories do you have of this “indoor, interactive theme park”?

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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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