There is a nondescript blue block of a building in a corner of the newly-reimagined Disney Springs at Walt Disney World Resort. This unremarkable structure contains five floors of arcade games, virtual reality experiences and interactive exhibits. The place is stocked with free-to-play arcade games, along with Disney nods like the “Wreck It Ralph/Fix-it Felix” and “Tron” machines. Branded an “indoor interactive theme park”, DisneyQuest first opened its doors almost twenty years ago, in 1998, and unlike the main theme parks, has not stood the test of time very well.
I was lucky enough to visit DisneyQuest before it closes for good in about a month, on 3 July 2017, to be replaced by something called the “NBA Experience”, which is described to be a “one-of-a-kind basketball-themed experience featuring hands-on activities that put guests of all ages right in the middle of NBA game action”, including videos, interactions, a restaurant and a retail store1. While this sounds like much of the same of what DisneyQuest was hoping to be, albeit aimed at a much narrower audience, it will certainly mean the end of an era for Disney-designed gaming experiences, and so, let the nostalgia flow.
When I arrived at DisneyQuest in the summer of 2016 (exactly a year ago, on 24 May, coincidentally), I knew I’d be visiting a venue long past its prime, and was cautiously optimistic, but still unprepared for how awesome it actually was. Technology aside, DisneyQuest excels at what Disney is great at – guest experience design. Add this to the proper technology for the time, and you got the extremely successful model of Disneyland. In 1998, however, the world was not quite ready for virtual reality, much less for the DisneyQuest brand of interactive arcades, originally planned for multiple branches across the United States. Ironically, when I try to imagine the arcades of the future, I think of a DisneyQuest-like scene, but with updated technology.
As a game developer, visiting DisneyQuest was extremely nostalgic and eye-opening for me. Stepping into it with Jesse Schell’s anecdotes on indirect control on the Magic Carpet ride, and theming and tutorial design on the Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold multiplayer simulation, certainly did not hurt. As a vacationer like the ones who flock Disney Springs, with no context for these early virtual worlds, the whole thing would probably feel dated.
There’s a lot to be said about the inevitable demise of DisneyQuest, and much of it is obvious.
Problems with DisneyQuest:
- No one knows it exists
- Ask anyone who’s been to Walt Disney World, and chances are they’ve never even heard of DisneyQuest. Disney does not push advertising or marketing for the area either.
- Extra cost on top of a theme park ticket
- An additional $45 per person is a deterrent to anyone who is unsure about whether to go or what DisneyQuest is all about, and my mum decided not to go for that precise reason. This is contrary to Disney’s all-inclusive plan for the parks, which proved extremely successful after they removed specific park tickets for each attraction.
- Gamers are not a core target audience for Disney
- Disney has never focused on gamers, and to some extent this has helped the family-centric experience design it excels at. DisneyQuest was narrowly aimed at families who liked the arcade atmosphere and playing games together, and there, Disney was caught between trying to create an interactive experience for the whole family (which it’s great at) that was focused around gaming (which it’s not so great at).
- Not well-maintained or updated as Disney focused on other areas
- As Disney focused on other areas, the DisneyQuest brand and its sole location in Orlando fell into disrepair. There was no real push to update the virtual reality systems when the location pulled in less audience and revenue than the main parks, and no reason to improve on what was considered a failed experiment and didn’t take up much square footage or operation costs.
- Disney Springs and family entertainment
- Much of the attitude towards Downtown Disney and especially later, when it became Disney Springs, is that it’s a shopping and eating district where parents can chill without paying the hefty park admission prices, as the kids had a blast on Space Mountain without them. The off-site location of DisneyQuest combined with the fact that the allure of a full theme park was just a short bus ride away made it difficult for DisneyQuest to be successful, because who would want to go to a Disney-themed arcade when there are four Disney-themed lands within reach?
And yet, even from my 2016 perspective, DisneyQuest was incredibly fun. My dad and sister both remember it as a highlight from our Disney trip, with the novelties of using virtual reality for the first time, and being in experiences which required teamwork and were more interactive than the rides at the main park, where you were both actor and observer. The fact that there were no lines, compared to the ones at the Magic Kingdom, surely helped, because the attractions at DisneyQuest were often long and low throughput, which means that a busy day there would allow you to do much less.
Highlights from my DisneyQuest visit:
- Buzz Lightyear Astro Blaster
- This is the stuff my childhood dreams were made of, in the sense that getting in a bumper car and being able to load and shoot a cannon at other cars just sounds ridiculous and was ridiculously fun. My sister and I, both at least double the age of the target audience, went on this ride at least three times, switching who would drive and who would load and fire the cannon. Hitting other cars in the correct spot would make them spin in circles for a few seconds.
- Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold
- Out of all the attractions, this was probably the most well-designed game. Being physically on a pirate ship set and using string pulley cannons and steering the ship with a steering wheel made it immersive, and working with my family made it fun. I imagine this was one of the more family-oriented activities as it would be difficult to play it alone or with one other person.
- CyberSpace Mountain
- Another childhood dream realised, getting to design and ride your own roller coaster. This simulation experience was so personalised that I’m sure throughput would be a problem if it was busy, but I’m also fairly certain it would make an excellent addition to any Disney theme park. The staff to guest ratio was also fairly high, too, as there’s a person for each simulation pod, to check over the roller coaster design and ensure guests get in and out safely.
- Animation Academy
- There’s a group of electronic desks arranged in rows in a corner of the Create Zone, where once every couple of hours, you can learn to draw a Disney character. Like the rest of the building, this section was empty, but my dad, sister and I attended a session where we each drew our own Mickey Mouse and had them printed, which was pretty exciting. This sort of activity seems really dated, like something families of the past would have enjoyed more than now, when there are lots of Internet resources and tablet apps that make learning to draw something really sinple to do anywhere. It reminded me of cruise ship activities, and my own childhood, but I guess that’s dated too.
- Radio Disney SongMaker
- There are these booths where you can insert different lines and styles of music to a song, that we played around with for more than I thought we would, because it was fun sampling different parts of songs. You could get a CD of your song creation (again, dated), but in a world of apps and digital music creation at our fingertips, this sort of activity has lost its place in an arcade.
- Virtual Jungle Cruise
- I included this because of the cool physical interface, an actual blow up raft that you sat in with paddles that had sensor wheels on them. Design wise, it’s not as good as the Pirates game, because it’s pretty much open world exploration with a goal and a time limit. We weren’t sure how to control the raft or which way to go, which was lacking in the instructions, but the hydraulic raft movement sure made it quite the experience if nothing else.
- Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride
- I think a nod to the premiere Disney virtual reality experience is in order. In the era of VR being so heavy it needed to be wired to the ceiling, this piece had decent graphics, decent storytelling and decent game design. It’s multiplayer as well, and you get to see your companions as other monkeys with different coloured hats. Among everything, this was the biggest innovation at DisneyQuest, and I was pleased to finally get to play it after hearing and reading so much about it.
- Mighty Ducks Pinball Slam
- This pinball game where you are a ball and you stand on segway-looking things that you move with your body weight to virtually move your ball around in the pinball machine was really confusing for me, as I couldn’t figure out the controls and my ball was stuck in a corner for most of the game. I’m only including this because my dad surprisingly had the best time and won the whole game, which just goes to show, you never know what someone might like.
The closure of what to me is one of the best hidden gems of Walt Disney World is sad, but it’s probably for the best for Disney. No company survives on hidden gems, and Disney can now focus on its big businesses and the successful auxiliary franchises it has since acquired, such as Star Wars and Marvel. Where Disney now innovates is in its theme parks, introducing interaction seamlessly with its stellar guest experience design in rides like Toy Story Mania, or the latest graphics technology with the revamped Star Tours.
I will miss DisneyQuest most of all for what it stood for – innovation. From a game designer’s perspective, it saddens me to think that a company with such influence may never innovate on such a scale any more, only making small, safe tweaks in its already successful businesses. DisneyQuest strikes me as a project that fell to the old adage of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, located outside of the main energy of the theme parks too early for the VR bubble. And now that Disney parks have advanced in technology, and everyone has much more access to game systems that reliably replicate DisneyQuest’s offerings at home, it’s probably too late.
- Thomas Smith. “Making way for The NBA Experience: DisneyQuest at Disney Springs to Close July 3.” Disney Parks Blog. Disney Parks Blog, 30 January 2017. Web. 24 May 2017.
- Amanda Kondolojy. “3 reasons why the closure of DisneyQuest was inevitable.” Theme Park Tourist. Theme Park Tourist, 1 July 2015. Web. 24 May 2017.
- Kevin Yee. “Stagnation at DisneyQuest.” MiceChat. MiceChat, 10 January 2013. Web. 24 May 2017.