By D. Judson Hindes
I don’t remember the year, whether it was the middle or late 90’s, but I do remember hearing the news: Disney would build a new type of theme park, a “virtual” theme park, contained in an independent single building, and place them in cities throughout the country, starting with one at Walt Disney World, and one in Chicago. The idea was to make the Disney Experience available more widely for those who couldn’t get to Orlando or Los Angeles on a regular basis.
This new entertainment complex would be called DisneyQuest.
Shortly thereafter, I was on the road heading to an event slightly west of Chicago, so quite naturally, I worked out my plans to allow for a day in down town Chicago and a visit to the first of the DisneyQuest’s. I was fortunate enough to be there on a day when the crowds were minimal, so had no lines to wait in, or sessions to wait for, and could simply partake of any and all experiences offered at will. I was thrilled to discover for the first time, a drawing class, and sat through that several times, having the “everything” pass and not limited by the pay as you go pass. Always having loved drawing, this was an exciting opportunity; to be guided threw drawing a character head by a real Disney artist! That, and most everything else I did in Chicago, was exactly the same as is available at the Florida Downtown Disney site (described in the rest of this piece). It was a wonderful day, and a great thrill to be able to experience the Disney spirit in a location outside of Florida or California. I was thrilled with the concept, and looked forward to the prospect of having Disney entertainment represented in every major city, especially my beloved Boston!
Last week, I went to Downtown Disney for a gathering of TheMouseforLess members for lunch, and was happily invited to join list member Stefanie, her husband Steve, and their children Matthew and Rachel, at the DTD DisneyQuest. With only the most minor of details, it was virtually identical to the location I visited years earlier in Chicago. The most noticeable difference was that the ticketing window was outside the building, whereas in Chicago it had been several windows inside the lobby, each elaborately decorated with statuary of Disney characters and other theming- it made for a grand entrance, and beginning to the experience.
This is an appropriate point to mention the price! I bought “walk-up” at the window, with no discount, and it was about 35 bucks plus tax. I am told that tickets can be bought at Ticketmania, and I imagine other ticket outlets in the area, for about 21 dollars. My visit was a last minute surprise, so I had no choice, but in the future, I would definitely be price shopping! At the lower price, this would indeed be a good value for your dollar. This ticket is good for the whole day, and all “rides” and other attractions within the five floors of entertainment. Originally, there was another cheaper ticket available that had limited access to it, so one had to pick and chose among the activities, much as in the old days at WDW when one had a book of tickets, though these were electronic cards that were swiped in readers at each attraction.
Upon moving through the lobby and the entrance queue, one is directed into an elevator, or Cybrolator, which provides its own little entertaining show to again help set the proper mood for the day’s experiences. This empties onto the third floor’s Ventureport, where the first time visitor may be confused to be faced with a post of signage indicating directions for several different named locations that are enticing, but meaningless until one has experienced them, or studied the guide. However, the overall impression is pleasant, a sort of out of this world, futuristic, yet comfortable environment, promising fun.
The “theme park” comprises five floors, each with distinct areas of featured activity. On two of those five floors are several virtual reality attractions, requiring the donning of special headgear that holds a visor in which one sees the world of the gaming experience. Other attractions include several “real” rides, and those that are a mix of the two. And various video games from every generation of development are spread throughout the building and into every nook and cranny. Food service areas are on the 4th and 5th floors.
On the fifth floor are two virtual reality attractions in which you do battle with aliens or comic book villains. You can look around in this virtual world and see your fellows, and your sword or saber in your hand, as the case may be, and the co-ordination between actual and virtual movement is good enough to enjoy the experience, though not as tight and precise and all encompassing as the original prototype I got to test at Epcot many years earlier. The effects of ones swords are limited to a disappointing degree for me- stabbing motions have no effect, only broad sweeping strokes seemed to affect the bad guys.
The 4th floor is filled with more video games, one area specifically sports themed, and another area of classic arcade games such as skeeball, non-virtual, real world!
The 3rd floor has more video games and two rides. The first is the Mighty Ducks pinball slam, in which, ostensibly, one is “being” a ball in a pinball game and controlling it by moving on the tilt-able platform on which one stands. This is quite a workout, and I think it could be fun if I had been able to figure out how in the world to co-ordinate my movements to my ball upon the giant screen in front of the room.
Opposite this is the Buzz Lightyear AstroBlaster, basically a bumper car with the added delight of picking up and firing “asteroids” which, when they hit a certain spot on another’s vehicle, send it into a light-flashing, uncontrolled spin, rendering it uncontrollable to the occupant. The only problem here is that the steering, even when not in spin mode, is so extremely touchy, it is virtually useless, so the idea of driving about the track is impossible. I did the ride several times and experienced the same steering- or lack of- control on each vehicle, so I imagine somehow this is part of the design concept, though I think one that seriously limits the enjoyment of this otherwise potentially fantastic ride.
Also on Three is the series of interconnected sit down and drive video games that allow one to race against friends and others with up to 8 persons in each race. This is a real blast and easily addictive! Added to the excitement of the video game itself is the constant screaming across to a fellow racer threatening or bemoaning some move on the screen. Other video games here too, including all the old classics, Ms. PacMan being the only one I ever played, and I still stink at it!
Floor Two is home to what so amazed me in Chicago, an “animation” school! No, not actual animation, but a drawing class where one is led step by step through the drawing of a character head, here, done on a computer screen, and available for print out purchase after the class. I did buy this in Chicago. The instructor that led the class I did this day was hardly inspiring, but I have probably been spoiled by the so much better experience that existed until recently at Disney MGM studios. Still, it is something, and by far better than nothing.
Also on Two is the Cyberspace Mountain, the one your kids will be talking about. Here, you design your own coaster from a vast menu of track sections including straights, curves, barrel rolls, jumps, twists and whatever else one can imagine to do with sections of virtual track, which is a bit more than one could do with real track- no safety department is actually going to allow a ride vehicle to fly off the track and land on it again at some later point, barring wind differential and weight shifting loads… After the thrill of designing, one moves over to the simulator where one actually rides what one has designed, which can vary from a 1 to 5 on intensity scale. If you want to bypass the design phase, you can simply go to the ride phase and request a ride of the intensity you want. I have done all the preprogrammed 5’s and they certainly beat anything I came up with on my own. On the other hand, on this day, Matthew did design a 5, which we both rode, and it was the best ride I ever had.
There are several other activities, mostly geared to the kids: virtually building a toy on a ‘puter by assembling parts, doing make up, and other such things. Results are always for sale. There is also a musical studio where you can assemble a ridiculous song by selecting various styles, singers, and individual lines, but you cannot put your own voice on it, a disappointing omission (I asked about this specifically and was told no by the CM, but that means so little these days . . .). Rachel made a very funny song, which hung in my head for quite some time, though it is gone now- I should have bought the CD!
On the first floor are the best and worst of the ride attractions. The worst is the Virtual Jungle Cruise, in which one sits in an inflated rubber raft on an inflated rubber floor that mimics the movement and swells of the water as one travels down the river projected on the screen in front of you. What makes this so irritating is that though one, or four, paddle madly, there seems to be absolutely no relation between the theoretically controlling paddles and what happens. I have tried it alone, with another and with a trained co-ordinated group, and as far as I can ascertain, one might as well just sit back and enjoy the ride without the effort and idiocy of madly whacking the useless paddles upon the rubber “river”. As Stefanie so subtly and brilliantly summed it up sotto voce as we left, “I can do without that again.”
However, across the barrier and onto the best of the rides, ah, alas me mateys, it would hafta be, now wood’n it? Pirates of the Caribbean! Oh, this is fun!!!
Your party enters a room, the bow of your ship, and the walls all around are projections of the sea and other ships and towns and you sail through firing your dozen cannons and taking out the other pirate ships and the buildings in the town, collecting treasure chests and finally facing the ultimate enemy! Argggg! Yelling and cheering and blasting away as fast as one can pull the firing cord! Argggg! Ships blowing up all about ye, matey! And we got a fine score, we did! Even the Boss pirate running the place said we done good! Of course, we knew two secrets of making a fine showing upon this adventure: first, do away with havin’ a shipmate on the wheel- the ghosts will steer it well enough without that- put all your men on the guns; and then, just pull that cord as fast as you can, wrist action! Just wham wham wham wham… it will fire as fast as you can pull the cord and you can have an almost continuous trail of cannon balls running from your muzzle to the ship that you are about to be send to Davy Jones Locker, just as the braggarts deserve!
The remainder of the first floor is pretty much just for entrance and exit, except the obligatory merchandizing venue on the way to the outside.
It is easy to spend a day at DisneyQuest, there is enough to do, and it can be quite a workout. A few breaks to the “real world”, as in go outside, is almost obligatory.
Sometimes the quest in DisneyQuest can become one for members of your party: it is very easy to get separated and/or lost in the place. Movement between floors is often confusing, with the entrance to a ride being on one floor with the actual ride being on the floor below- it can be easily forgotten that you have changed floors! And with everything so tightly packed and busy, with attractions crammed into practically every available space, you can easily lose someone who gets momentarily distracted and stops while you go on another three feet and out of sight.
Although Disney didn’t succeed (yet) in introducing DisneyQuests to urban areas around the United States, it’s not because this theme-park-in-a-box isn’t worthwhile. I am amazed that the Chicago location is closed now, and I don’t know if any other DisneyQuests were ever built outside of Downtown Disney in Florida.
DisneyQuest is probably the antithesis of Epcot: the younger you are, the more likable this place is. It is loud, fast, crowded, bright, and lots of movement required. More than any other “Disney,” be prepared before you take on this Quest!
Jud is an Official Photographer for TheMouseForLess, and writes on occasion for Magically Speaking. He has published two books as well as three booklets on his Disney experiences (http://www.lulu.com/JudPub; free downloads for MouseforLess members).