Tuesday, July 4, 2017

DisneyQuest Chicago Opening Coverage (1999): Parkscope YouTube Tuesday #3


DisneyQuest is a failed promise. This past week someone on Twitter told me, no, it wasn't DisneyQust that was the last major gamble by The Walt Disney Company, but it was MyMagic+ and Pandora. Bullshit. Disney's gamble into localized themed entertainment was more risk than anything they could imagine now: specialized experiences designed only for local audiences that would drive destination attendance. But it never worked, and I argue nothing has been the same.

This special is unique in that it's local, no where else is a Disney "parks" opening so ABC and geocentric. Chicago is the midwest as seen by costal eyes: central, liberal, and enough of a major city to send something there. DisneyQuest was chosen as the second market location before Philadelphia, which would be third. First, of course, would be Walt Disney World; more specifically Downtown Disney West Side.

June 16th 1999. That's the date all the advertisements and signs have said. This leads up to the date of DisneyQuest Chicago; a park equal parts indoor theme park and equal park massive risk. Like all Disney openings it involves awkward ABC sitcom cameos (Melissa Joan Heart, Brad Renfro?) but instead of slicking it over with post production, it's all local TV schmaltz. This special drips with it so much I could take a McChicken Nugget and dunk it for some sweet goodness. I can taste it now

After a Green Army men opens the ride to the theme of Fantasmic! we have a quick interview segment with those on the ground before we head inside. Just like at Walt Disney World, there are four zones to access once you reach the main floor. 

Our hosts seem to head towards the worst locations to show off DisneyQuest to anyone with an interest in the park. First: Buzz Lightyear AstroBlasters, the bumper cars plus attraction with a game mechanic that doesn't work in practice (yes we've tried). A vast majority of the special is spent on the build your own roller coaster Virtual Space Mountain. 

Outside of a few segments "EMAILING TO YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS" while having some cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory, not much else is spent around the indoor theme park. We have a shot of some Mighty Ducks pinball, some CreatZone, Virtual Jungle Cruise, and that's about it. Disney spends way too much time on one aspect of the "park" than really hyping up the unique aspects. They make sure to highlight how to recharge your passes for more games rather than Treasure of the Incas, Alien Encounter, or the Hercules ride. 

The ultimate failure of DisneyQuest was two fold:

1) Giving up early. Disney didn't have to fold in 2001 with Chicago, they could have expanded to Disneyland, a location ripe for the picking and where Tony Baxter reportedly wanted to make DCA a pay per attraction park after it's disastrous opening. Cancelling Philly may not have been a bad idea, but clearly going so local ASAP was a bad move.

2) Never expanding. DisneyQuest, besides upgrading Hercules to Pirates of the Caribbean, closing Treasure of the Incas, and adding some Fix it Felix cabinets (from the Disney movie Wreck-it-Ralph) never added anything to the park. It was effectively a dead man walking since the mid 2000s.

DisneyQuest never lived up to its dream of regional theme park because Disney realized the water was cold right when things mattered. An indoor theme park by Disney is not a new idea in 1998 and still is a great idea. Capacity, attendance, ticketing, and attractions need to be always developed and reconsidered. As I mentioned before, The Cheesecake Factory was a major player for the first few years, but now most guests want less calories, gluten, and can find it close to home. Why would guests seek out The Cheesecake Factory post 2000? Now guests just look for something to do at Disney Spring during the rain or tour groups with "water park and more" tickets look to kill time before their reservations at Planet Hollywood.

DisneyQuest isn't actively bad like the 100 Years of Magic hat at DHS, Stitch's Great Escape, the Imagination Pavilion, or Dinorama, but it's always been the last shameful point. Now Disney owns Star Wars and Marvel yet no effort was made feature them inside DisneyQuest. No effort was made to pivot away from the token model towards food and beverage. No alcoholic drinks were offered to my pre-teen recollection. DisneyQuest went from a gamble to a contractual obligation they kept open for hungry teenagers and soaked foreign tourists. 

DisneyQuest worked in 1998 and 1999 but never had the opportunity to expand after 2001.


For as far back as I ever enjoyed the themed entertainment industry, I’ve thought of what the next “big,” “cool” theme park would look like. Like many of you, I’ve dreamed and imagined the next amazing rides at Disney, or Universal, or Cedar Point, or my own theme park. The late 1990s were the absolute best time to be twelve years old and thinking about exactly this. Disney had become a themed entertainment juggernaut by building better and more jaw-dropping rides. Star Tours gave way to Splash Mountain, to Great Movie Ride, to Fantasmic!, to Roger Rabbit, to Tower of Terror, to Indy, to Discovery Mountain. We saw the rise of Pleasure Island, Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach, Wilderness Lodge, Boardwalk, Yacht and Beach, Grand Floridian. Each year followed more and more big news for major expansions. And our heads still swam. What would be next? We dreamed of Fire Mountain. We begged for Mission: Space. And Beastlie Kingdomme. A villains-themed CAVE experience? Why not? We were promised Test Track and Westcot. Universal was desperately trying to catch up. They gave us Terminator, and Spidey, and Men In Black, and an entire Disneyland-esque Florida resort. Not to be outdone, the thrill parks kept adding more and more scream machines, each one bigger and longer and faster, and even weirder (Flight of Fear anyone?). Creativity was at a mind-blowing scale.

And we thought, “what could we mix and match? What would we do as Imagineers?” How many B&Ms could we put in Animal Kingdom? What new mountain would we add to Epcot? How can we theme old rides to new movies? Could Disney do a Harry Potter ride? What would that look like? How about Lord of the Rings? Would Disney do a Matrix ride? What would be in a Jurassic Park land at Universal? What would we put into Myst Island? Or the unnamed fifth park at WDW? The one that was going to be all steel roller coasters and themed to Disney Villains?

Even more exciting were entire theme parks. Rollercoaster Tycoon was released for PC and it was absolute dynamite for our brains. Universal opened Islands of Adventure and it was nirvana for theme park geeks and Rollercoaster Tycoon fanatics. The first theme park themed to “fun” with no baggage and a billion-dollar budget? Yes, please! A Jurassic Park land? More! Three B&Ms and an S&S?! YES! A new twist on an EMV, with superheroes?! I need a new pair of pants! Three mega water rides? Marvel Island? Dueling Dragons? A multilayered interactive adventure themed to a battle of Greek gods? Mythos? STAN LEE?! Unbelievable!

And then it was followed by Disney’s answer: DisneySea. Not waiting to see how Universal’s “all-thrill” fantasy park would perform, Oriental Land had the budget, and the stomach, to pull the trigger on a new, even bigger, Disney fantasy park. The first non-sequel Disney fantasy park since Disneyland opened in 1955. And though Universal hyperbolically hyped up IOA that would be an “all-thrill” park, DisneySea’s unofficial tagline was that it would be an “all E-Ticket park.” Holy Moses. All our favorite E-Tickets would appear in TDS. Indy. Test Track (Journey to the Center of the Earth). Tower of Terror. ALL THREE IN ONE PARK. Plus there was a new simulator. And a new 3-D Movie. And a new AA boat ride. And a huge indoor kids area. And a giant fortress. And a trackless ride. And a new underwater dry-for-wet submarine adventure. What an incredible time to be alive!

Everyone today (and over the last ten years) goes gaga over Shanghai. Please. That’s one theme park. In the 1990s, there was going to be seven new theme parks from Disney alone. Seven? YEAH, SEVEN.

You think I’m exaggerating. But let’s go through them together. Westcot. A new MGM Studios in Paris. Long Beach’s Port Disney/DisneySea (though those should really be counted as two). Animal Kingdom. Disney’s America. The theme-park-on-an-aircraft-carrier (the real Disney cruise). The half theme park/half entertainment district at Disney-MGM Burbank. But oh wait, I’m missing one. What was that? DisneyQuest.

Have you asked anyone what they feel the future of theme parks will be? What do they say? More Harry Potter and Star Wars lands? More queue-less (clue-less) parks? Cabana-land? Roller coaster parks? Simulators and screens? More VR headsets tacked onto rides as an afterthought? What do you think? More digital Fastpass reservations? Fantasyland dark rides that know your name? More opportunities to book expensive ride packages with expensive dinner packages?

I’ve always…ever…had one answer. The past and present of the theme park is Disneyland. The future…is DisneyQuest.

DisneyQuest was a happy accident born before Michael Eisner and Paul Pressler ordered Disney to stop making happy things. Given the time period of its gestation and birth (1998, a full 6 years after the Euro Disney debacle dried up theme park funds), it’s astounding it was ever opened at all, let alone shipped to Chicago of all places (Trivia Time: there were five announced locations for DisneyQuest. Most of you know the first four. Do you know the fifth? Let’s count. First was Orlando in 1998. Then Chicago in 1999. Philadelphia in 2000. Anaheim in 2001. Where would the fifth DQ open in 2002? The answer is…Toronto).

DisneyQuest happened because of two major trends. The first was the result of Disney uber-1990s expansion period. Ever since the mid-1980s, Michael Eisner and then-CFO Gary Wilson announced the infamous “20/20 plan:” they decreed that Disney would grow 20% total revenue and 20% on earnings every year through the year 2000 (for those of you who know anything about business and/or finance, that’s pants-on-head ludicrous, and almost impossible to sustain, especially for a non-software-driven company like Disney, for more than five years). Thus, everything must continue to grow and make more and more money. Problem is, let’s do the math, if you grow by 20% compounding each year, by year 5 you would have grown by 149%. By year 10, 519%. And by year 15, 1,541% (note: this is even steeper than Steve Jobs’s return on Apple over the last 10 years of his career). So when you are a vastly underutilized company like Disney was in 1985, having 5-7 years of 20% growth is just what the doctor ordered. But by the year 2000, as Roy Disney said, you would be “to the bloody moon.” Disney fulfilled its 20% promise by building out WDW with thousands of hotel rooms, a new theme park, a new water park, a new nighttime complex, etc. Okay, that was the first five years. How does it continue? So Disney (and WDW) suddenly was in “expand button” mode. More water parks. Mini-golf. Timeshares. Another theme park. Maybe ANOTHER theme park. Tens of thousands of hotel rooms. TWO new nighttime areas. Two cruise ships. A private island. A Disney Institute. A sports complex. A city!

And themed entertainment (then called the “Attractions” division) outside of WDW would have to expand in kind as well. Disneyland was going to quadruple in size by 1999. Disney’s America would have launched theme parks outside of the two core resorts. And always Eisner and the Imagineers were on the lookout for what could be exported to every city in the world. This impetus first came with the Disney Stores, where each store opened seemed to be more profitable than the last. Disney first planned to do this on a grand scale with the Disney-MGM Studios Burbank concept, which they hoped to export to every major city in America, starting with Dallas (yeah, I know, even more random than Chicago). The half-park/half-district idea died, but the “let’s export everything” idea never did. They tried it with DVC (Vero Beach and Hilton Head). They tried it with the ESPN Stores (remember those???). They did it with the Cruiseline. And Eisner was looking for more industries to exploit. He was always on the lookout for more Busch Gardens to turn into Animal Kingdoms, more SeaWorlds to turn into Living Seas, more Pirate’s Coves to turn into Fantasia Gardens, more Church Street Stations to turn into Pleasure Islands. And so, the Imagineers (now an absolute juggernaut of a department with all the new experiences being planned in the 1990s) identified several, which Eisner whittled down to three. First, the sports bar/themed restaurant (ESPN Zone). Next, the Chuck E. Cheese kids zones (Club Disney). And the arcades, most notably the growing Sega Joyopolis/mega arcades (DisneyQuest). So let it be written. So let it be done.

But DisneyQuest would be no mere arcade, no simple Sega Joyopolis retread. This brings us to the second major trend that birthed DisneyQuest: The Imagineers’ desire for more interactivity with greater and greater technology. Disney attractions under Eisner/Wells seemed to have more and more interactivity built in. Star Tours was a roller coaster on stilts. The Great Movie Ride had actors hijack your car. Roger Rabbit let you control the car’s spinning. There was a Sega zone at Innoventions. Tower of Terror’s drop profile could be changed on a whim. And Indy had over 100,000 variations. Innoventions, in particular, featured an Aladdin’s Magic Carpet virtual reality attraction. And then, the creative equivalent of the DK Hammer was dropped on the technological landscape: the Disney Fellows were unleashed.

The Disney Fellows (as I will explain in a later Wish Upon a Blue Sky article, if it ever gets finished. Sorry) was an all-star team of technological geniuses that joined with Disney’s R&D group once WDI acquired Bran Ferren’s level 20 themed design and tech group, Ferren & Associates. They would bring the future to Disney the way Doc Brown brought the future to Marty McFly. 

And Eisner and Pressler would gleefully spit on that future. But before Pressler was promoted to lead the Attractions Division in 1999, Eisner would still approve of expansion mode (I mean, if Club Disney was a go, I think anything would be). And so the Disney Fellows and their ilk were able to bring their technological wizardry to the most advanced video game experience on the planet.

DisneyQuest opened at the time of the N64. Let that sink in. Sega Dreamcast was still a year away. PlayStation 2 was two years away. Xbox was three years away. DisneyQuest opened at a time when we were still used to blocky square faces and when the most advanced arcade games were rows of Sega Rally and Hydro Thunder and cabinets for Sega flight simulators. DisneyQuest, people forget, was so revolutionary because of its 1998 Michael Eisner-esque tagline: “theme park in a box.” It was just as different as a Disney Cruise, or Pleasure Island. It was something Next-Gen. In an era obsessed with new simulator rides, DisneyQuest practically made a whole park out of a simulator. The idea to put you in a box and take you anywhere your imagination can dream of is still a world of possibilities.

I still have very fond memories of DisneyQuest. I thought it did many things quite brilliantly, and upped the ante in terms of interactive attractions technology for the new millennium. The act to create a “Hub” on the third floor, and take Guests there first (the middle of five floors) was quite canny. To get Guests there, of course 1990s Disney had to have a killer preshow experience, this time in the form of a Cybrolator hosted by Genie. Even the ticket lobby was full of Casting Building-era detail, with bronze heads of classic Disney characters perched around a circular waiting area.

I remember DisneyQuest for being so weird, and so different. The lighting patterns of dark purple and turquoise throughout the building are forever stained in my memory, as are the uber-1990s Disney Channel-esque Cast Member costumes. Though I haven’t been there in 5 years, the stairway in between Explore and Create, like a side stairway in Legends of the Hidden Temple, was covered in gold, green, and purple studio lighting, had a mural of an Aladdin-style desert with the Cave of Wonders as a 3-D element front and center, and the sides near the staircase covered in vines, will forever be burned into my memory.

I’ll always remember the Cheesecake Factory Outlet on the 5th floor and its how-is-this-so-good QuestBurger. I’ll always remember the seating area for the outlet, where you could eat while playing old-school trackball bowling and golf games on the table. Then there was the Wonderland Internet CafĂ© on the 4th floor, with its bizarre Alice in Wonderland-style chairs and couches, when the internet was still called the “world wide web” and it was SO COOL to go on the internet WHEN YOU WERE NOT AT YOUR DESKTOP AT HOME. Holy moley!

The ExtraTERRORestrial Encounter was a sort of sequel to Alien Encounter (even Jeffrey Jones as Chairman Clench made an appearance in the preshow video, can you imagine Disney doing something like that nowadays to something so low scale?) It was a full 360-degree cabinet with four stations (one driver, three gunners). As I remember, it was pretty impossible to get a high score without all four stations occupied.

Buzz Lightyear Astro-Blasters was a concept that I loved, simply because it was a twist on an amusement ride we’ve seen so many times. This was the kind of thing Disney could have used for Paradise Pier.

I have fond memories of the retro-cave area (with Soul Caliber!) feeling like you’re in a literal cave. Seriously, you could lose yourself in there for days.

Ride the Comix had some great supervillain concepts. I remember shamelessly ripping off the supervillains and planting them into my own stories when I was a wee lad. I also remember the VR headset (similar to Aladdin) being heavy as hell and the saber device unwieldy.

Aladdin was classic simply for the preshow video. The experience itself was clunky and the line was always unbearably long. But dear God, that preshow. “Easier than falling off a camel!” “I see you like our NEW HIGH-TECH PILE!” “And remember, when the world begins to unravel, Hakeem’s Carpets are the oooooooooooonly way to travel!”

I remember the old Legends of the Hidden Temple meets Masters of the Maze-style Treasure of the Incas game underneath the floor of Explore. Were you supposed to find something in those mazes? I don’t even remember.

My favorites, of course, were CyberSpace Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Pinball Slam. Creating the most ridiculous roller coaster on CyberSpace Mountain in the era of Rollercoaster Tycoon was always a thrill. Pirates was a fantastic use of the CAVE technology and an excellent forebear to Toy Story Mania. And Pinball Slam was the ultimate video game experience, where two dozen players strap in and duke it out on a giant multi-story screen.

So now let’s circle our way back to the beginning. I believe DisneyQuest is the 1.0 version of the next-gen theme park. Though its ultimate destiny is to stretch its arms and meld with the theme park proper, even with the “theme park in a box” limited version it is absolutely criminal what Disney has let DisneyQuest become.

What DisneyQuest became, by and large, was the equivalent of Disneyland in 1955: not quite ready for prime time. Much like how Walt’s dream began as an operational nightmare (remember, on day one Disneyland attractions didn’t even have maximum capacities!) so too DisneyQuest stumbled out of the gate. There weren’t enough activities for women. There weren’t enough communal activities (like Pinball Slam or Buzz Lightyear). They could never figure out the admission cost, or the format (unlimited or pay-for-play?). Do you put it on a Park Hopper, or not? Too many experiences had low capacity (ALADDIN). And yet, aren’t these similar to the problems of 1955? What if we had a Walt Disney at the helm in 1998, vowing to improve DisneyQuest each year and molding it into something the world has never seen before? Can you imagine what its equivalent of Pirates or Mansion or Magic Skyway or Tiki Room would be? Now do you see why I think DisneyQuest is the future?

As I said before, what Disney has done to DisneyQuest is criminally negligent. Think of its possibilities in today’s world, a world of E-Sports and Escape Rooms and Augmented Reality and Humans Vs. Zombies and Barcades. CRIMINALLY. NEGLIGENT. Even the f***ing Plants Vs. Zombies ride at Carowinds is MORE ADVANCED THAN ANYTHING AT DISNEYQUEST. Cedar Fair has surpassed Disney in its technology. Why is this not in headlines everywhere?

But what if there was an E-Sports Arena? With events, and tournaments every day? Or an Escape Room consisting of an entire floor and themed to…anything? The Cave of Wonders? Marvel? Star Wars? How about an X-Wing simulator with a full Death Star Assault? Or ANYTHING with Augmented Reality? I mean, what are we even doing here?

Remember when I pshawed the fact that people are actually excited about Shanghai today?I have that reaction every time someone giggles about Diagon Alley interactive encounters, or trackless rides, or rides that know your name, or Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom games. I’m not impressed. Disney was doing all of these 20 years ago. The Destination Disney concept, of which the MagicBands/MyMagic+ were based, was announced in 2004. Radiator Springs Racers is based on ride technology from 1997.

As for interactive games, the Disney community remembers that DisneyQuest 1.0 was to give way to DisneyQuest 2.0 a few years later in the form of Myst Island, a 13 acre interactive experience on the property of the former Discovery Island. It was going to be completely interactive, the entire island one big mystery that Guests had to solve. It combined all the Diagon Alley interactions and SOTMK exchanges that everyone just can’t get enough of today. Wow, the future is here huh? Most of us have been waiting for this future since 1998.

I’m sure everyone will enjoy the sponsored retreads to come. Epcot to be turned into another Fantasyland. And the “we paid $1 billion for NBA broadcast rights, so the public will be subjected to this damnit” NBA Experience…I’m sure they’ll come up with plenty of cutting-edge ways for you to “experience NBA action,” whatever that means. Oh wait, I forgot, Universal already tried the concept and dumped it.

Make no mistake, Disney only cares about what you can pay for, not what you can experience. I hope you all joined me in bowing your head with regret on July 2nd, 2017. It was the day Disney stopped putting the future on hold, and decided to cancel it altogether. 

--Jeff (@ParkScopeJeff) and Joe (@parkscopejoe)

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