The Virtual Arena: The Virtual Theme Park! (Part 1)

In his latest two-part column Kevin Williams reflects on influential facility concepts - beginning with those from the past.

With the destination VR approach gathering momentum, the need to establish a profitable model exercises many developer’s minds. Out-of-home entertainment specialist Kevin Williams in his latest two-part column reflects on the influential facility concepts that are shaping development in the virtual reality (VR) scene – this first part looking at the original innovative concept that set the mould.

While some mourned, many may not have been aware of the closure this month of one of the most pivotal (and longest running) entertainment projects in the establishment of the immersive entertainment sector, called DisneyQuest. Even fewer aware of this VR attractions project, let alone why it was now a victim of the axe. But rather the end of a failed experiment, it’s termination comes at the very time where the concept behind the experiment finds fulfilment.

The concept in question is that of an indoor interactive theme park (also seen as a mini-theme park) using VR technology to bring immersion and high thrill levels to make a smaller regional faculty act as compelling as a theme park. DisneyQuest was part of a franchise concept that would have seen multiple facilities opened across the globe.

The first DisneyQuest was opened to much fanfare in 1998, though only a Chicago sister facility would ever follow and shortly close, (while land would be broken for an abandoned Philadelphia site). The aspiration of this approach to a location-based entertainment (LBE) concept would be abandoned but not forgotten. Though the indomitable Orlando DQ facility would go on to become the longest operational LBE franchise with a permanent VR attraction offering. (Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride the oldest running continuously.)

The concept of indoor interactive theme park was not originated by Disney however – but was derided from previous development that saw the Japanese amusement industry invest millions into the development of ATP – Amusement Theme Parks. Facilities opened in Japan that married the concept of a deluxe amusement venue, with specially developed interactive media attractions (called Hi-Entertainment machines). Most notable of these by the NAMCO Wonder Eggs facility (first opened in 1992) and the SEGA Joypolis (first opened in 1994) – these venues planned as chain stores than would offer a theme park in a box, with the digital interactive medium offering a repeatability revenue stream that traditional theme resorts achieve through and through.

 

Conceptual art of the type of Hi-Entertainment machines [Credit: Arcade Flyer Archive]
These ATP concepts attempted to apply for the first-time innovative new digital technology. Along with interactive game narrative, the display medium was revolutionized. SEGA’s Joypolis, one of the first to deploy an attraction that used VR technology. The ground-breaking  Head-Mounted Display (HMD) became the first of its kind to be used in a VR motion ride attraction; called the VR-1, and launched in 1994, the six-rider space themed attraction, gave a glimpse of the future of this technology.

 

The SEGA Mega Visor [Credit: Compute.info]
The SEGA VR-1 in action

Seeing the birth of this immersive entertainment, the Walt Disney Corporation looked to play its part in development of this sector. Initially under Michael Eisner’s chairmanship, Disney started high-level negotiations with then ATP leader SEGA, working towards a joint project to bring a version of the Joypolis concept to the West. But at the time, corporate differences between Japanese and California management styles ended in abandonment.

With the collapse of the SEGA negotiations, the two parties would split – SEGA would jump into a partnership with Universal and Dreamworks to create the failed GameWorks amusement chain, (that would inevitably be brought-out from bankruptcy by management). While for Walt Disney, the dream of indoor theme park projects continued, with the formation of Disney Regional Entertainment given the responsibility of operating several concepts that included DisneyQuest, with aspirations that over 20 locations would be placed at major conurbations for maximum foot traffic.

Borrowing heavily from the Japanese amusement trades ATP aspirations, Walt Disney Imagineers (the corporation’s world renown research and development operation) created a concept that comprised the latest digital entertainment platforms within a 90,000-sq.,ft., facility – the most advance undertaking of its kind and pointing to an investment in offering both regional and international entertainment experiences.

DisneyQuest, at its heart, embraced the interactive attraction experience narrative and comprise, for the time, ground breaking VR and immersive technology. Many of the ideas touched on by the original Japanese ATP’s refined for a Western audience. Incredibly ambitious and technically challenging, the multi-million Dollar budget was soon swallowed up in achieving the required “Disney” level entertainment.

One aspect of this innovation was the development of the DisneyVision VR platform, an impressive tethered HMD system, that allowed guests to navigate a virtual world. The VR system in DisneyQuest employed in two experiences (Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride and Ride the Comix), running on Silicon Graphics supercomputers. DQ also employed Augmented Reality attractions and immersive projection system – years’ before mainstream adoption.

Launched in 1998 at Downtown Disney Orlando, the imposing building ushered in a new age of immersive entertainment, and received critical success, but was a facility that proved a monster to kept fed and define. The temperamental technology cost much more than expected, and the need for a dedicated staff operation saw a poor return on the grandiose revenue expectations. Likewise, the new Disney Regional Entertainment found it difficult to understand what they had with DQ, or how best to promote it.

 

Exterior of the first DisneyQuest [Credit: Attractions Magazine]
Interior of the first DisneyQuest [Credit: Inside The Magic]
By the time of the planned second facility opening in Chicago, the writing was on the wall for this project, and Disney’s regional chain store aspirations were shelved. DisneyQuest Orlando however defined all the critiques and continued to generate revenue while offering a useful family entertainment in the area. Many times’ staving off closure as it offered a unique interactive entertainment medium in a location bereft of such amenities. However, nothing lasts forever, and at the beginning of July 2017, the venue was finally closed, most of its attractions (and the building itself) far beyond their intended operational life.

Just as DisneyQuest shutters its doors for the last time, (and the amusement machines are auctioned off) there are others that have learned from this failed experiment to develop what could be the successor to the original indoor theme park approach. With the launch of brand new projects from SEGA Joypolis and BANDAI NAMCO. The very manufacturers that fuelled the interest in this approach though their ATP development now driving the next phase of innovation.

The second part of this column lifts the lid on the brand-new developments that hope to raise the crown, and become the new successors to the VR infused indoor theme park throne.

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