Virtual Magic Kingdom

The Disney Park Bench
The Disney Park Bench
Published on October 1, 2023

Exploring the History and Untapped Potential of Disney Parks in Video Games

ℑn addition to being a Disney Parks fanatic, I am also an avid gamer. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had some form of video game controller in my hands. Starting with my family’s ColecoVision in the early-to-mid ’80s, I eventually grew into the Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, and literally every other Nintendo home console and portable. I’ve also expanded my library into the many various game systems from Sega, Sony, and Microsoft, as well as more obscure and specialized hardware from 3DO and Meta/Oculus, and even a little bit of gaming on my (always Mac) personal computers.

With Disney and gaming being among my most prominent interests, there would inevitably be some crossover. However, there have not been nearly as many video games based on the Disney Parks as I would like, and the ones that exist miss the mark for what could be a marriage of mediums made in heaven.

It all started in 1990, with Capcom’s Adventures in the Magic Kingdom for the 8-bit Nintendo. The title and box art of this game is already misleading. Although it’s “Adventures in the Magic Kingdom“, and the cover prominently features a photograph of Cinderella Castle, the in-game map and castle are clearly based on Disneyland in California.

Adventures in the Magic Kingdom for the Nintendo Entertainment System — © Capcom/Disney — image source: Legion of Sand

The game is a mix of several action genres, like platformers and racers, joined by a top-down adventure RPG-style open-world map. The goal is to collect 6 keys, one from each accessible attraction, to open the castle gates in time for the parade (never mind the fact that no parade in any kingdom park has ever traveled through the castle gates).

It wasn’t a good game, but it was novel in the fact that it was not based on a movie or TV show, but a theme park. Over the next few decades, more video games would come out based on the Disney Parks and Resorts, including the Japan-exclusive Super Famicom game Mickey no Tokyo Disneyland Daibōken (translation: “Mickey’s Great Adventure in Tokyo Disneyland”); the 2003 movie tie-in for The Haunted Mansion (which has more in common with the attraction than the film); a bonus stage in 2011’s LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean (which was really just an abbreviated recap of the first four movies set to the Official Album mix of Yo Ho: A Pirate’s Life for Me), and a few references to the Disney Parks in various trivia games and the toys-to-life Disney Infinity series.

In 2000, a kart-racing game was released for the Sony PlayStation, Sega Dreamcast, and Windows PC. Walt Disney World Quest: Magical Racing Tour took a few familiar Disney characters, and several original characters, and put them in a Mario Kart-style game with courses inspired by various locations throughout the Walt Disney World Resort, including The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Magic Kingdom “Mountain Range”, the water parks, and one course from each of the other parks. The soundtrack was a mix of tracks from the Official Album and original compositions.

Once again, the game was okay at best. Frankly, based on the lack of most Disney characters, the music ripped straight from existing albums and other unrelated games, and the overall lack of polish, it wouldn’t surprise me if this was a failed pitch by developer Crystal Dynamics for an original kart-racing game that Disney licensed and had Walt Disney World material shoehorned in as a cheap promotion.

About a year after Toy Story Midway Mania! opened in Disney’s California Adventure, Disney Interactive published Toy Story Mania! for the Nintendo Wii. Utilizing the system’s built-in IR pointer controls, developer Papaya Studio faithfully recreated the frantic, rapid-fire fun of the attraction, with bonus stereoscopic 3D levels to boot. Unfortunately, while this kind of experience works well enough for a five-minute theme park ride, there just isn’t enough content here to sustain a 10-hour-long game on a home console.

Kinect Disneyland Adventures box art
©2011 Disney/Microsoft

A few years after that, Microsoft Studios published Disneyland Adventures, a Kinect-exclusive game for their Xbox 360 that probably came the closest to recreating the virtual park exploration experience since Adventures in the Magic Kingdom. Disneyland Adventures allowed players to roam freely around the original Disneyland park in Anaheim, interacting with characters and cast members, collecting and spending coins, and “riding” about one-third of the park’s attractions.

The attractions here are presented as motion-based mini-games, typically requiring the player to reach left or right with their arms, or duck and jump to avoid obstacles, all using the Xbox’s Kinect camera. As park-based games go, this was one of the best, being the only one to allow players to feel like they’re really there…

Until 2021, at least, when Disney and Microsoft partnered yet again to release the Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom Adventure DLC for the open-world exploration and survival-based game, Minecraft. In addition to walking around the park and meeting characters, several of the attractions are faithfully recreated in the game’s blocky style using original audio, and in some cases, guided ride vehicles. Combining this expansion with the game’s natural day/night cycle allows players to spend entire virtual days in the Magic Kingdom whenever they want!

Promotional image of Minecraft and Disney’s official Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom DLC
©Mojang, Microsoft, Disney

But one of the greatest examples of a video game that simulated and expanded on the Disney Park experience was the short-lived namesake of this article: Virtual Magic Kingdom. VMK launched in 2005 as a browser-based massively multiplayer online game in which the players could explore a digital amalgamation of Disney Castle Parks, interact with one another, play mini-games, earn prizes, and customize their characters.

Virtual Magic Kingdom reached beyond the computer world into the real world, with games and prizes scattered throughout the Disney Parks for players to find, which would unlock exclusive content in the video game. Although it was officially discontinued in 2008, fans have recreated and expanded the game, which can be experienced as of this post’s publish date at

Besides these few, far-between, and mostly lackluster examples, Disney has never given us a true Virtual Disney Park experience, which really seems like a missed opportunity. Imagine being able to explore a real Disney Park from your own living room, “riding” virtual rides, watching shows, and meeting other park fanatics online.

It really sparks the imagination, doesn’t it?

In fact, a virtual Disney Park would be the perfect way to resurrect extinct attractions like Journey into Imagination, as well as Horizons, World of Motion, The Great Movie Ride (okay, admittedly, licensing for that one might be tricky), or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Some ingenious programmers have already managed to create rudimentary recreations of a few of these attractions. With all the source data and reference material in the Disney Archives, a skilled game developer with all that at their disposal could build near-perfect digital reproductions of just about anything the Imagineers have ever dreamt up.

They could even improve upon them. In the physical world, adding something like the Hatbox Ghost to The Haunted Mansion takes months, if not years of R&D, building, testing, installation, and more testing, not to mention millions of dollars. In the virtual world, however, all it takes is a few weeks of designing and coding, and a few minutes of updating, and it’s done! And if there’s a problem, they don’t have to shut the ride down for hours or days. They can just reload an older version of the ride, then patch the new one while the old one’s running! Want to build or refurbish an entire land? No need for construction walls cluttering walkways and sightlines.

Speaking of sightlines, a virtual park doesn’t need to worry about hiding show buildings or special effects. No more backside of Everest or Guardians of the Galaxy warehouse. No more awkwardly planted trees or “go-away green”. Just load guests into a new area with unlimited space. Got a figure that needs to walk or fly? Digital objects don’t need to be anchored to a floor or wall to move around, so no poles to hide from guests.

The Country Bears jamming out in their 1971 animation
image source: Just A Blog About Animatronics

Now, of course, just because you can do anything in a virtual space doesn’t mean you should. Sure, you can recreate the Country Bear Jamboree so that it looks and moves like a Pixar movie, but then it wouldn’t be like the Country Bear Jamboree, would it? Ideally, attractions would be copied from their original designs and animations, along with all of the limitations they had at the time. To use a gaming comparison, Pirates of the Caribbean should move with the fluidity of an N64 game, rather than a PS5 game.

So with all of that in mind, what would a virtual Disney theme park be like?

For starters, there are two things Disney parks and video games typically have in common: a hub. Virtual Disneyland would have a layout not unlike the Magic Kingdoms around the world, with a Main Street entrance leading to a hub in the center where players can choose a direction toward one of the park’s themed lands.

The difference here is that when a player enters a new land, they will literally be transported to another location in the game world. Player avatars will warp to a fully themed area with no views into any other area except for the castle (or other weenies) in its relative location. However, these lands need not be confined to a limited amount of space. If Fantasyland occupies 100 (virtual) acres, and the “Programineers” want to expand the land by another 50 acres, there’s nothing to stop them from just adding onto the land, as each land would be its own environment, kind of like how the space inside Princess Peach’s Castle in Super Mario 64 is much larger than the exterior of the castle.

Peach’s Castle interior 3D model overlayed with the exterior 3D model
image source: What Peach’s Castle REALLY Looks Like!

For example, Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge — a virtual reality first-person shooter that takes place in and around Black Spire Outpost, the setting of the Star Wars lands in Disneyland and Hollywood Studios — encompasses and expands on the actual theme park land in a way Disney’s software developers could emulate.

Just like a real Magic Kingdom, the attractions and activities found within a land would match the theme of the land, so you’d find futuristic attractions in Tomorrowland, exotic attractions in Adventureland, old west themed attractions in Frontierland, et cetera.

What kind of attractions would you put in a virtual theme park?

The following types of attractions would work best:

  • Slow-moving/omnimover attractions like The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Spaceship Earth
  • Stationary/theatrical attractions like Carousel of Progress, The Enchanted Tiki Room, and The American Adventure
  • Extinct attractions like Horizons, Mickey Mouse Revue, and World of Motion
  • Seasonal/temporary attractions like Haunted Mansion Holiday, It’s a Small World Holiday, and the Country Bear Christmas Special
  • Single park exclusive attractions like Mystic Manor, Na’vi River Journey, and Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage
  • Interactive attractions like Buzz Lightyear, Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure, and Disney Quest
  • Unbuilt attractions like Dick Tracy’s Crime-Stoppers, Rhine River Cruise, and Western River Expedition

Although roller coasters and visceral thrill rides may not be ideal for this platform, there are more than enough options.

So now we come to the big question:

If a virtual theme park exists with faithful recreations of Disney attractions, wouldn’t that take guests, and thereby money, away from the real parks?

Not too likely. For starters, the kinds of people who would consider a virtual theme park a suitable substitute for going to a real park are the kinds of people who likely wouldn’t be going to the real park anyway. The most common reasons for people not to go to Disney World are lack of time, lack of money, lack of accessibility, and lack of interest. Most of these problems are not easily solved, so the solution is usually don’t go.

When they do go, they’re typically not the 9-day 8-night, stay-on-property, table service dining, Genie+, Mickey plush, Goofy hat guests. They’re usually the ones staying in a motel on 192, carrying lunch in a backpack, trying to squeeze as much as they can into 4 days or a long weekend. But if these people could turn on a computer or Xbox and experience at least some of what the Disney Parks have to offer from their own home at a fraction of the price, that’s actually software sales (or subscription) revenue Disney could make off of people who wouldn’t be spending money on property (and maybe after seeing what else they’re missing, they may be encouraged to book a trip and check it out in person).

And it’s not like these digital alternatives don’t already exist. In addition to the aforementioned games like Minecraft and Disneyland Adventures, nearly every attraction from every park in every corner of the world is pretty well documented on YouTube, with an increasing number of recordings in 360º or 3D 180º VR. In fact, some developers have designed VR ride-throughs of attractions that existed long before VR or 3D modeling existed, allowing me to experience something like Adventures Thru Inner-Space or Horizons like I was really there.

Just a few of the countless Disney World ride POV videos on YouTube

What you don’t get from these virtual options, and what would keep people coming back to the real parks, are the visceral thrills. Sure, I can watch a digital recreation of “it’s a small world” and get a mostly authentic experience, but watching a video of Space Mountain is nothing like the actual ride. I could sit through a recording of the Carousel of Progress and not miss much, but Tower of Terror loses something when you don’t feel your turkey leg float back up your gut. A Virtual Disney Park may be almost perfect for recreating classic slow- and non-moving attractions. Still, it can never replace the sensation of your body actually dropping down the waterfall in Pirates of the Caribbean.

But then there are the people who don’t like thrill rides but still want to experience an attraction’s story and effects. I’ve often heard it said that rides like Splash Mountain and Tower of Terror are great attractions for their presentation and effects, but turn a lot of potential riders off with their drops and thrills. Having virtual versions would allow even the timidest guests to experience attractions like these without needing to face their fears.

Finally, there should be a good reason to play this game instead of just watching YouTube. Just like Adventures in the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland Adventures, the park is more than just an elaborate menu. There would be shops where players can customize their avatars and resort room, characters to interact with, hidden secrets, games, ways to play and interact with other guests, and achievements to keep things fresh. It could be a whole Animal Crossing style experience, wherein players can ride rides and watch shows together, then retire to their own personal space before shutting down.

Now I’ve been throwing the word “virtual” around quite a lot in this dissertation for a good reason. Although not exclusively, I see this being available in a VR format. Many an evening I have sat on my living room couch or office chair, Oculus Quest strapped to my face, virtually floating through Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan’s Flight, as well as some attractions I’ve never had the opportunity to experience first-hand. A pricey designated VR headset is not necessary, however, as accessories are available that can simulate VR’s immersion with just a smartphone.

Quest 3, the upcoming VR headset from Facebook parent company, Meta — image source:

Another advantage to VR is that it is inherently a stereoscopic, binaural experience. This makes it extremely convenient for recreating 3D movies like Magic Journeys and Captain EO, and simulated surround sound attractions like Sounds Dangerous and ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter.

But not everyone has or can use VR, so of course there would be software for various computer and video game systems. A cloud-based option could also be available for streaming to devices that may not have the hardware capabilities to render the 3D models. Since an experience like this does not rely on split-second reactions, lag wouldn’t be an issue.

Obviously, like most of my thought experiments, this is a “Blue Sky” proposal. I realize game development is expensive and time-consuming, with perpetual online interactive games being particularly resource-intensive. But imagine, if you will, having easy and immediate access to your favorite Disney parks and attractions — past, present, and never-before-seen; faithfully recreated with original sound, designs, and animations — by simply turning on your computer, game system, or VR headset.

It’s enticing enough to make any Disney and gaming fan like myself want to jack in and enter the Grid…

Walt Disney Pictures logo from TRON: Legacy — ©2012 Disney
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