In 1998, Disney launched the original DisneyQuest. The five-story, 100,000-square-foot space at Walt Disney World housed an arcade and remote-controlled cars, but it also contained some of Disney’s earliest work in virtual reality.
With Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride, players zoomed down a virtual recreation of Agrabah’s streets. With Ride the Comix, players lived out what it would be like to jump into a superhero comic book. Other attractions — like the cars — weren’t strictly VR, but many dabbled in augmented reality.
These were elaborate experiments, with hardware costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and headsets referred to internally as “gator vision,” due to the front sticking out like an alligator’s head. The headsets were so heavy they had to be suspended from the ceiling, and the high-end Silicon Graphics computers used for the software quickly raised the costs.
“At the time it was very expensive to do virtual reality anything,” says former designer Aaron Pulkka. “Since Disney was willing to apply the resources to buy the very best supercomputers to run [VR] and to build, internally, the very best head-mounted display for comfort [...] it seemed like it was a very unique place to actually explore this space that was otherwise not something you could do at home.”
DisneyQuest was about more than just virtual reality, but for many who worked there, it presented an opportunity to work on these projects that felt ahead of their time.
“We knew the equipment was too expensive to be practical,” says one former employee who asked not to be named because their current employer hasn’t permitted them to do interviews, though they are no longer at Disney. “But the goal was to buy our way into the future, to learn about VR 10-plus years before everyone else.”
What it was
It’s important here to distinguish between “DisneyQuest,” the buildings and initiative, and “DisneyQuest,” the rides and attractions that went inside them. While not technically responsible for DisneyQuest itself, Disney had created a VR studio that ended up designing the majority of these attractions, with outside contractors designing out the rest, and Imagineering ultimately installing them.
Jesse Schell joined Disney the VR studio in 1995 as a show designer after seeing the initial Aladdin ride that was installed at Epcot Center in Disney World. “The VR studio was very focused on creating virtual reality attractions for the parks,” Schell says. “That was very much the vision.”
Another group within the company — headed up by Joe DiNunzio as strategic project lead — had a different idea, however. The pitch was simple: a chain of location-based entertainment centers in every major city. And, according to Schell, they wanted the studio’s VR work to play a significant role.
“They were pitching that, and they were looking at what we were doing with Aladdin as a kind of prototype to prove out the technical effectiveness and the consumer appeal of this sort of thing,” Schell says. “These two things were sort of going on in conjunction.”
Making a mountain out of a molehill
DisneyQuest’s design, described by many speaking for this story as a “theme park in a box,” meant that space was at a premium. These spaces could only ever house so much, relative to Disney World’s 40 square miles. VR meant each ride had less of a footprint than other attractions, so by staying small, VR allowed the DisneyQuest model to imitate the functions of much larger rides.
“Without [VR], it would have been hard to imagine a scenario under which you could create those kind of immersive experiences,” DiNunzio says. Larger attractions at Walt Disney World or Disneyland can handle thousands of people an hour, but the smaller space of something like DisneyQuest just can’t deal with that sort of throughput without using things like VR.
“Disney, in its park division, builds these giant things, but it takes a continent or half a continent to support each one,” says Joe Garlington, interactive creative director for DisneyQuest. “And that means if you’re not above a certain level of affluence, you may not be able to see it, or may not be able to see it very frequently — may have to save up for half a lifetime to go to one of the parks if you live in Boise or Chicago or someplace where you’re not near a park.”
So, the question was, could a smaller version of the Disney experience be created? Was there a way to distill the magic, to capture that lightning, in a building-sized bottle? “Theme parks are about immersions in stories,” Garlington says. Traditionally, that’s accomplished through scale. Given the limitations with space and time, the team decided this immersion would have to come through interactivity instead. Which meant it would need some pretty slick tech.
“The idea at DisneyQuest was to use absolutely cutting-edge technology and hide it as deeply as possible,” says Larry Gertz says, the executive show producer for DisneyQuest. In other words, Gertz’s job was to preserve the magic of Disney by designing around bulky or otherwise unsightly gadgets in such a way that folks wouldn’t even realize it.
Though the vision of the VR studio was initially to create location-based attractions specifically for the parks, the small group — Schell estimates there were between 15 and 25 staff at any given time — quickly fell in line with DisneyQuest’s mandate of regional destinations. “Even though there was still kind of a desire to find ways to do things for the parks, the rallying cry became, ‘Hey, let’s make DisneyQuest succeed,’” Schell says. “So basically the whole VR studio was thrown behind the DisneyQuest effort.”
The idea was that Disney’s Imagineering division, which included the VR studio, would create attractions that would appear in each DisneyQuest location, with rides swapping out every couple years. So DisneyQuest Chicago would look much like DisneyQuest Philadelphia — which was planned but never went anywhere beyond a hole in the ground — and it meant that there’d be no need to create and build brand new physical rides; much of that effort could simply be duplicated via software.
“Theme parks are about mass production of entertainment,” Garlington says. In other words, he says, they are about getting butts in seats.” If DisneyQuest was to be a theme park in a box, one major problem was figuring out how to do “mass” on a smaller scale — which is where the interactivity of the rides came in. But that caused its own share of problems. “Interactivity is code for personalization, and mass personalization sounds like an oxymoron. So how do you make it not be one? That was what we were exploring in DisneyQuest.”
As an example, Garlington points to the virtual Pirates of the Caribbean ride — a Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE) attraction and the one and only major attraction swap to ever occur at DisneyQuest when it replaced a Hercules ride Garlington “hated with a passion.” Sure, Pirates had the usual trappings and theming, like wallpaper and a couple set pieces, but the actual ride itself couldn’t possible mimic the size and scale of a normal attraction. The designers had to do something else.
It used a series of screens and projectors to produce 3D in a manner inverted to what might be considered traditional. Specifically, it gave the appearance of depth rather than having images jump out at the viewer. But Garlington and crew went a couple steps further.
“The real magic of that moment was when you had the 3D glasses on and you stepped on the boat, and it felt like you were on a boat on water because of the pneumatic motion base, and you looked out into what should have been a tiny booth,” Garlington says, “... all of a sudden you were out on a giant ocean, there were ships, you were fighting ships, and the virtual world that we put you physically into was the immersive tool that we used.”
The ride allowed four in the group, but there were six guns. This meant there was always one captain and up to three gunners. The design intentionally had folks move across the deck — which was moving — by getting them to focus on one side before having ships come at the other. All of this conspired to make folks feel like they were really there, according to Garlington.
This sort of trickery would have been relatively easily repeated across installations. But when DisneyQuest Chicago faltered after opening, the plans for the double-digit number of locations were dropped. It wasn’t that Chicago wasn’t making money; it simply wasn’t making enough to be viable.
So long, Chicago
In 1999, Disney launched the second DisneyQuest in downtown Chicago, the first of what it hoped would be 30 “location-based entertainment destinations” outside Disney’s parks. In addition to typical Disney branding from films like Alice in Wonderland, Aladdin and Hercules, the location held a number of virtual reality, or otherwise augmented, rides. That included the likes of Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride, CyberSpace Mountain, Virtual Jungle Cruise, Ride the Comix, Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold and other physical rides. The Aladdin ride and Ride the Comix are the two that fit the strict definition of virtual reality, but the folks at Disney’s VR Studio had their fingerprints all over these experiences even when they didn’t specifically design their concepts.
Just over two years later, the Chicago installation closed in 2001. Reports at the time cited a lack of broad family appeal as well as the theme park-like payment model — too expensive as a one-time fee with no way for à la carte entry — as reasons for the closure. Disney never opened another DisneyQuest.
“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 for this type of business,” Randall Baumberger, senior vice president of Disney Regional Entertainment (the umbrella under which DisneyQuest operated), said at the time of DisneyQuest Chicago’s closure. In other words, Disney thought it’d be a lot more successful than it was.
Sixteen years later, the original DisneyQuest location closed. It ceased operating the night of July 2, 2017, to make way for an NBA-affiliated attraction. The building that once housed DisneyQuest was eventually demolished months later.
This sort of theme park slotting, with old rides or buildings making way for new attractions, isn’t uncommon, but this specific instance marked the death of several early VR rides and experiences — likely permanently. Some may be shelved, sold in parts, or just plain scrapped, but the end result is the same: They’re gone.
Why DisneyQuest failed exactly, why it didn’t make the magic amount of money for there to be a whole chain of them around today, isn’t officially known. Disney declined to answer any questions about the matter. There’s even a burgeoning industry of location-based VR kiosks for malls and movie theaters right now. But some of those interviewed offered their own opinions as to why it didn’t work out.
“The business clearly failed, because it didn’t thrive,” DiNunzio says. “It didn’t expand to 10 and then 25 units. It didn’t deliver profit targets that were part of the plan. So, you know, on any reasonable measurement, it did not meet its objectives.”
But people liked it, he said, and the concept was strong. Even so, enough people just didn’t visit for whatever reason. Because he left before Chicago closed, he isn’t privy to the exact problems or decision-making process.
Several people speaking for this story blame the corporate attitude toward the project. “The whole attitude of the company changed,” Gertz says. The trend of location-based entertainment died down, and the interest in that trend from Disney management died with it.
The Chicago location closed, the rest were nixed before they moved into any sort of production, and the one single remaining DisneyQuest in Florida continued to exist in a limbo of sorts where Disney never added anything innovative or on the same level as its original lineup. Once Disney decided not to move forward, convincing management to continue to make new rides was all but impossible, because it only made sense financially if they were in multiple locations.
What happens when it’s over
Gertz last visited in 2010. “It was sort of sad because it was well-worn, and nothing had been updated — they did replace the carpet,” he says. “It was still operating nicely, people were still having a good time, but the designer always looks at it with pristine eyes.” Now it’s gone too, and exactly what happens to the remains of what was pioneering VR work isn’t clear. Even so, the tech was showing its age by the time the Florida location closed. “You could do more robust imagery today with an Xbox,” Gertz says.
“Some things I think get discarded, some things get put in an archive, and who knows,” Schell said. There’s really no telling where the attractions might end up. For example, he previously bought bits of the remote-controlled cars from DisneyQuest on eBay after it was dismantled.
“When Chicago DisneyQuest got dismantled, for example, I know there were people who made sure to collect and save a lot of the pieces and parts for posterity/decoration,” Schell said when we spoke before the closure of the final location, “and goodness knows what will happen when they close Florida DisneyQuest.”
That doesn’t mean that DisneyQuest’s footprint at Disney is completely gone, however. The perspective and the technology and the approach that was used was applied subsequently to other venues, though none of the rides were duplicated elsewhere.
“The legacy that [DisneyQuest and the team that built it] provided to the Disney theme parks is the beginning of things like Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters and Midway Mania and other interactive attractions that got implemented in the theme parks,” DiNunzio says. “A lot of that came from the team that developed the attractions for DisneyQuest.”
DisneyQuest might be gone, but it certainly isn’t forgotten by the people who made it what it was. They’ve moved on to other jobs and ideas, but both Gertz and Garlington think the world of what they created together with more than 300 other people.
“I was with Disney for 20 years,” Gertz says. “In that 20 years, I never worked on a project that was more exciting, more creative, more innovative, with a better team, with a better attitude, and with an exceptionally wonderful outcome. It was far and away the best project I have ever worked on, in part because of the results of the project, but mostly because of the incredible talent, dedication, and congeniality of the team. We are still friends, and I think that says something.”
It was a big gamble, and it didn’t work. Not all gambles do. Disney continues to experiment, and Garlington specifically points to the new Star Wars attractions as effectively pursuing the spirit of what made DisneyQuest special all those years ago.
“We felt like we were inventing a new world,” Garlington says. “You want to slay dragons; you don’t want to step on cockroaches, right? And it felt like we were out there slaying a dragon.”