I’ve just returned from one of my trips to Walt Disney World, a place I’ve returned to more often than I care to admit when I’m looking for a break from reality. I’m often asked what I find so interesting in a place that is marketed to kids and very slow to change–even the many sections of the park that offer a view of the future seem to be trapped in a 1960s vision of a world of curved walls and plastic furniture. This year I went back to a part of the park I rarely visit: DisneyQuest, an “indoor interactive theme park” that opened in 1998 and was supposed to be the first in a line of Disney virtual gaming centers. The project failed, and the giant turquoise building in Downtown Disney next to the defunct remains of a Virgin Megastore stands as the only reminder of a future that wasn’t. Yet its value is almost that of a museum, reminding visitors of the possibilities of entertainment to come, and it holds glimpses of the experience design that draws me back to Disney again and again.
There are lots of circumstances to lay the blame for the failure of DisneyQuest on: it started with a dual problem of being far too expensive for an arcade and with far too low a capacity to be a theme park substitute, with most attractions only fitting 20 or so players at once with long wait times in between. Originally, the arcade spaces in the building bore an additional fee, though with the dwindling audience that’s now been abandoned. The indoor park itself is now included in the “Water Parks Fun & More” Disney ticket option–as part of the “and more”, an attraction with so small an audience that it doesn’t even bear mentioning. Placing the space alongside the water parks offers an even worse comparison: the Disney Quest building is windowless, and most people don’t come to Orlando looking to be indoors. Once inside, I’ve always felt like I could be anywhere, in an admittedly superior version of a local Dave & Busters. As a destination, virtual entertainment isn’t quite where it’s at.
Yet in concept, Disney Quest truly holds many elements of the park of the future, with increased interactivity in every sense and a focus on casual active gameplay that vastly predated modern console options like the Kinect. Many, like Jungle Cruise, a ride where you paddle a raft down dinosaur infested rivers, are updates of classic Disney attractions that were originally entirely passive experiences:
Certainly, the inflatable “water” offers players a white water rafting experience that home console players of Kinect Adventures can only envy–though with the help of an absurd inflatable raft Kinect accessory, some might get closer and have a more responsive interface to boot. Yet it lacks the humor of the original ride, which, according to Disney myth, was originally something Walt Disney wanted to make even more realistic–he originally envisioned animals in place of the animatronics that populate the current Magic Kingdom ride but found them uncooperative. (That vision wouldn’t be realized until many years later, when the safari ride came to Animal Kingdom). Even the animatronics, relics of the classic era, feel more alive than the dinosaurs that attack in this jungle cruise.
The trend continues with updates of rides like Pirates of the Caribbean, where players shoot at other pirates with cannons into a 3D world projected on screens surrounding the prow of their “ship”:
Much of this was familiar to me from my visits years ago, though it is impressive to recall how Disney anticipated much of the attention to 3D that’s just beginning to take off in gaming, with the newly launched Nintendo 3DS perhaps leading the way. The mimetic interfaces for many of the attraction based rides also predicted future trends. Yet there should be much more in the way of new ideas to see–the space was designed to change, and all the ride installations have the oppressive feeling of temporary settings that have become all too permanent. The greatest appeal of the virtual is the ease of transformation: while a physical dark room ride like Peter Pan or Snow White is expensive to overhaul, changing over a 3D based game can be a simpler proposition. With the recent failure of Epic Mickey, it’s hard to imagine Disney committing to games again on the level that those sorts of continual updates would demand.
The incredible crowds at any other Disney park speak to the allure of the physical over the virtual–given the choice between Space Mountain and DisneyQuest’s Cyber Space Mountain, there’s really no question:
I saw video games all around Disney World, far outside the confines of the DisneyQuest building. But most of them were in the hands of kids playing their Nintendo DS or iPhone games while standing in line or riding buses around the resort. Only occasionally are these devices harnessed by Disney: there’s an iPhone app for checking park waits and closings, for instance, and several reward badges integrated into Gowalla for multiple Disney park check-ins. Other dedicated devices offer video games as part of the park experience, like the Kim Possible augmented reality mission in Epcot or the Toy Story ride at Hollywood Studios, which remains one of the most popular rides in the place. It takes many lessons learned in DisneyQuest and applies them in a movement-based ride, offering a model that could easily be used again and again.
DisneyQuest was not a grand success, and many of Disney’s Future World visions haven’t come true–the People Mover in Epcot and the famous Monorail are ever-present reminders. Yet the integration of virtual and physical experiences and the potential for truly playful and interactive destination-based learning and entertainment is still coming along nicely at Disney, and as we look towards the future of gaming the fate of DisneyQuest reminds us of a few lessons for the future of interactive design. Place is still important, and our current virtual reality can’t replace even the “fake” environments of a well crafted physical ride. But the seamless integration of the virtual into the physical is a path to responsive and immersive spaces, and Disney offers some glimpses at what that may look like as these technologies become cheaper, more portable, and continually present in our lives.