Entertainment superpower Disney extends its reach into cyberspace with DisneyQuest, a five-story, high-tech arcade that opened this summer at Downtown Disney in Orlando, FL. The 100,000-sq.-ft. facility is the first beachhead established by California-based newcomer Disney Regional Entertainment, which plans to open a Chicago DisneyQuest in the summer of 1999 and up to 30 more Quest sites domestically and internationally during the next few years

More than two years in development, Quest is the brainchild of Walt Disney Imagineering. Its creative design was spearheaded by Joe DiNunzio, VP of new ventures for WDI. Other design principals for WDI and Quest include executive director and senior show producer Larry Gertz, senior show producer Joe Garlington, and lighting designer Paula Dinkel.

According to DiNunzio, the biggest architectural challenge on the Orlando site was "applying the classic central hub-and-spokes navigational motif used on a 100-acre, horizontal theme park, to a 100,000-sq.-ft., five-story entertainment center." Once that was solved, DiNunzio says he and his team were faced with the challenge of "creating, in a small space, six distinct environments of sound, light, and show, and being able to keep those environments contained within their geographic boundaries. In a theme park, we do that with distance and large architectural or landscaped berms. In DisneyQuest, we had to use engineering, technology, and some design tricks we learned along the way."

The exterior of DisneyQuest in Orlando is a monolithic green-blue expanse whose severity is relieved by the sleek post-modern curve of its roof. The front of Quest is dominated by the scribbled golden swirls of "Hurricane Mickey," a kinetic new logo that marries Disney's omnipresent mouse ears with the letter "Q." The building's windowless facade is dotted with rhinestones, which are slated to be replaced with more dramatic fiber-optic lights at the Chicago facility.

Guests enter Quest by riding one of two "Cybrolators," each of which features a widescreen animated video starring the ever-morphing Genie from Aladdin. Its use of two projection surfaces effectively creates a 3D perspective, with the genie cavorting in the foreground as background footage depicts a rocketship ride to the DisneyQuest universe.

The two elevators discharge guests at VenturePort, the dramatic cathedral-ceilinged atrium that leads to Quest's four multi-story themed domains: Score Zone, Replay Zone, Create Zone, and Explore Zone. Score Zone and Replay Zone offer a spectrum of retro, cutting-edge, and themed arcade and redemption games, from Pac-Man and Donkey Kong to race-car simulators and the Buzz Lightyear AstroBlaster bumper car ride.

Create Zone houses a half-dozen PC-based attractions, each with multiple touchscreen consoles, where guests can electronically draw, paint, collage, animate--and even cobble together their own versions of the Frankenstein playthings from Toy Story. The appeal of edutainment, Disney-style, is especially visible in the classroom setting of Create Zone's Animation Academy. As late as 11:30 at night (Quest's hours are 10am to midnight daily), a pseudo-schoolhouse of enthusiastic kids eagerly wield pressure-sensitive pens as they learn to render the likes of Mickey and Goofy. The workstations in Create Zone are networked to a service center stocked with Sony and Tektronix color printers, allowing guests' artistic creations to be output and purchased.

Though virtually every aspect of the facility is run by a vast network of PCs, servers, and supercomputers, there's barely a computer in sight anywhere at Quest. Processors are stashed away in streamlined kiosks and housings that can be dramatic, futuristic, or understated to the point of invisibility. The booths in the Wonderland Cafe conceal Compaq PCs, which allow newbies to surf the Net from tabletop monitors while noshing on sweets and beverages from The Cheesecake Factory. Silicon Artists Inc., a Compaq venture, designed the GUI (graphical user interface) for the cafe's Wonderland Web Adventures program, whose grinning Cheshire Cat encourages guests to visit wacky websites and send 'Wish you were here' email to folks back home.

The biggest draws at Quest are the half-dozen virtual reality rides scattered throughout the facility. Like most computer games, the majority of Quest's VR attractions take players on some kind of journey through a simulated world, where they collect treasures while fending off villains.

Designed with Silicon Graphics IRIS Performer and Alias/Wavefront software, the animated rides run on SGI's Onyx2 InfiniteReality supercomputers. The multi-seat data-processing capabilities of Quest's two dozen Onyx2 systems allow several players to simultaneously experience and interact with each other in a variety of computer-generated universes. The multi-player support, superior image resolution, and massive scale of Quest's immersive environments are a breakthrough in interactive game design.

"In the past, family entertainment centers used low-end, PC graphics systems [with] the look and feel of video arcade or home games," says Afshad Mistri, interactive entertainment marketing manager for SGI. "DisneyQuest has raised these standards to a new level."

Each VR attraction features a different animation style, projection system, and user interface, disguising the essential sameness of the gaming format. As guests stand in the ubiquitous Disney lines for each ride, they can learn about the attractions from videos playing overhead on Sony monitors with JBL Control 1 speakers.

A group of up to eight players dons VR helmets and brandishes Star Wars-style laser wands to rout the stylized 2D villains of Ride The Comix. As Comix players fend off the frontal assaults of their CGI enemies, a turn of the head to the left or right allows them to see virtual depictions of the other players decked out in futuristic uniforms and helmets.

Four-person teams clamber into virtual vehicles and assume roles as gunners or pilots to wend their way through Hercules in the Underworld and Invasion! An ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. By combining a semicircle of stereoscopic projection screens with 3D glasses, Hercules provides a vividly animated journey to Mount Olympus. Invasion players seat themselves in the XS-Tech All-Terrain Attack and Rescue Unit, which offers wraparound video screens and a 360-degree view of a colonized planet under alien attack. The pilot can move the virtual ship in any direction as the other three players gun down marauding extraterrestrials and search for endangered colonists.

Popular Disney characters and theme park rides provide the inspiration for most of Quest's VR attractions, including Hercules, Invasion!, and Aladdin's Magic Carpet Ride. The most dizzying experience at Quest, the Magic Carpet Ride flies four players wearing VR helmets through a 360-degree virtualworld. Though players are physically stationary during the ride, Aladdin is the only Quest attraction that warns away guests who are prone to motion sickness. Its racing rugs move players at truly giddy speeds through the animated city of Agrabah, as players search for magic jewels and outwit the wily Jafar.

The Magic Kingdom's Jungle Cruise meets Honey, I Shrunk The Kids and Jurassic Park in Virtual Jungle Cruise, where players travel back in time and navigate a prehistoric river with zany Doctor Wayne Szalinski. Players are seated in life-sized inflated rafts facing huge video screens that depict an animated river filled with dinosaurs, lava flows, and other Paleolithic hazards. Players steer a course through the waters by "rowing" with sensor-fitted paddles that provide data to Onyx2 computers.

One of Quest's most striking design achievements is CyberSpace Mountain, the VR descendant of Disney's classic roller coaster, Space Mountain. "CSM" allows guests to design fantasy roller coasters via computer, then ride their creations in flight simulators that twist, bank, and flip in tandem with the twists and turns of the animated coaster rides.

CSM combines an intricate array of technologies with an elegantly simple user interface that young children and computerphobic oldsters can navigate with equal ease. Coasters are built using the touchscreens and oversized pushbuttons on a dozen streamlined kiosks housing SGI's O2 desktop graphics computers. At each kiosk, a multimedia presentation hosted by TV's Bill Nye the Science Guy walks guests through the process of assembling hills, curves, and loop-the-loops. Guests select the desired coaster speed, then plot their journeys through the fantasy worlds of fiery Moltonia, icy Brrope, or intergalactic Grumba 12. Animated ride data from the O2 systems is then sent via network to one of four Onyx2 computers. Each Onyx2 coordinates the movements of a flight simulator with the animated footage for the 90-second coaster rides.

Like all great illusionists, Disney creates its "magic" and protects its trade secrets by being tight-lipped about behind-the-scenes details of its attractions. Notoriously reticent Walt Disney Imagineering co-developed four of its VR attractions with interactive design partners. An Internet search for Quest-related information revealed that Imagineering receives sole credit for Hercules and Aladdin. Virtual Jungle Cruise was co-captained by Angel Studios. KATrix/Millennium Rush was a driving force behind Ride the Comix. Zombie Studios played a role in scaling CyberSpace Mountain, and VirtualWorld Entertainment co-led Invasion! A Quest staffer stated that Disney Imagineers developed the concepts, designs, and user interfaces of the attractions, which were then realized by its development partners.

Overall, DiNunzio says CyberSpace Mountain has been the most popular of the attractions. "We expected CyberSpace Mountain to be popular," he notes, "but demand has far exceeded even our most optimistic projections--it runs essentially 100% utilized from the moment we open to after we close."

Ironically, the other popular area is the Wonderland Web, the Internet browsing area linked to the Cheesecake Factory's dessert and coffee bar. "With the proliferation of the Internet in homes, we did not expect there to be excessive demand for our hosted browser at DisneyQuest," says DiNunzio. "However, demand has been so high we had to add stations since we opened."

The design team expects DisneyQuest to be an ever-changing entity; there is already work underway to enhance many of the attractions and show elements of the Orlando site. The Chicago site will have largely the same lineup as Orlando, although Chicago will contain the most up-to-date versions of the attractions, complete with upgraded software and hardware. "The layout of the Chicago facility is consistent with Orlando," says DiNunzio, "but based on what we learned in opening our first site, we have made revisions to all the entertainment zones and the Ventureport as well. I am confident we have taken the best of what we built in Orlando and added some special twists, all of which will deliver a DisneyQuest that is uniquely Chicago."

And, of course, totally Disney.