As of this writing, it's been over 500 hours since I last set foot inside a theme park. That's the longest I've gone without since moving to Orlando almost 24 years ago. I'm far from the only attraction junkie jonesing for a Fantasyland fix, judging by the recent flood of #HomemadeDisney viral videos, featuring fan-made ride re-creations. As much fun as that low-tech social media trend has been, I recently discovered a high-tech substitute for my attractions visits with the help of an old friend and a new toy, as the worlds of Minecraft and Disney collide in virtual reality.
My Oculus Quest VR headset, which I picked up on a whim when it was released last year, has proved to be my most prescient pre-pandemic purchase. Straight out of the box, the $399 stand-alone devices – which are currently in short supply, but show up sporadically on Best Buy's website – are ideal for enjoying the free VR videos of the theme parks that can be found on YouTube. Start by checking out Attractions Magazine's playlist of 180-degree 3-D clips for some excellent examples, which can also be viewed with cheap cardboard smartphone VR goggles.
- Screengrab from Imaginears Club via Seth Kubersky
Although VR video can provide a visceral experience, it lacks the freedom of movement and interactivity needed to truly immerse yourself in a virtual theme park visit. For that, you'll need to dig into an online world where communities of volunteer crafters are using the popular sandbox-style game Minecraft to rebuild their favorite attractions brick by digital brick. Thanks to their unpaid efforts, I recently became one of the first people ever to saunter up Main Street U.S.A., take a spin on Space Mountain and even swim to Tom Sawyer's Island – all while staying safely socially distant in virtual reality.
While there have been several attempts at building virtual theme parks, the story of Minecraft and the Magic Kingdom really begins and ends with David "Duckie" Wasman. Longtime Live Active Culture readers may remember him as the winner of a rare jug of Rick and Morty-related McNugget Szechuan sauce (that was a thing back in 2017, believe it or not), but he's been building digital Disney doppelgängers since long before then. "I started playing Minecraft when it was a browser-based game," Wasman recalled in a recent email interview, adding that he initially began building his first Magic Kingdom in it "due to a combination of being too poor to go to the real parks and needing a creative outlet."
That early attempt eventually grew into MCMagic, a multi-park reproduction of Walt Disney World which attracted over a million unique visitors, won three consecutive Guinness World Records, and "inspired real-life friendships, jobs and marriages" before being sold in 2016 to Palace Networks, which operates other Minecraft parks. Wasman calls that sale "a heartbreaking decision," and about six months later he quietly started rebuilding Walt Disney World on a private server with even more detail than before. Since then, he's put countless hours into the project, which he's dubbed Imaginears Club. More than 100 people have volunteered as "cast members" since Imaginears went public last year.
One of the things that distinguishes Imaginears Club from similar efforts is its emphasis on user safety. "With so many game servers, there's almost always the threat of trolls or people digging for personal information," says Wasman. "Our suite of tools allows us to monitor chat and clear it when needed, or remove unruly guests without anyone seeing it, thereby keeping guests focused on the enjoyment rather than the drama. We're able to keep chat 100 percent safe for folks of all ages."
Another difference is the accurate attention to detail, with "1 to 1" reproductions of both familiar guest-facing locations and employee-only areas like the Utilidors and Disney University, where new "cast members" go through an in-depth "Traditions" training class. Many of the virtual attractions, including Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Peter Pan's Flight and the PeopleMover, are fully functional, allowing you to pick your seat for a blocky first-person-perspective, complete with synchronized sound via an optional audio server. Restaurants offer cheeseburgers and corn dogs that can be consumed, and more than 100 Hidden Mickeys are secreted around the map.
Amazingly, all of this effort can be enjoyed for free. Wasman says, "We have never thought of what we do as a business" – the server costs are covered by his "menial paycheck or the one-time contributions of a generous group of valued guests and cast members." His eventual goal is to complete the Magic Kingdom, followed by the rest of Walt Disney World Resort property, including all backstage areas. "Walt famously said Disneyland would never be completed and that technology would exist to improve the parks," says Wasman. "As Minecraft continues to evolve, our parks will improve."
A new utility now allows users of Minecraft's "Bedrock" version on smartphones and consoles to stroll around the Imaginears Club map, but the full experience requires the Java edition for Windows PCs. To explore in virtual reality, you need a SteamVR compatible headset (including a Quest with an Oculus Link cable or Virtual Desktop software), the free Vivecraft software from vivecraft.org and a beefy computer; my ninth-generation i7 with RTX graphics struggles to maintain a steady framerate inside the more intricate attractions. Log into the server at iears.us, and visit imaginears.club for more info. I'll see you online at the churro stand!
Corrected to reflect that Palace Networks, which operates other Minecraft parks, does not operate as MCParks.
— This story appears in the April 8, 2020, print edition of Orlando Weekly. Our small but mighty team is working tirelessly to bring you news on how coronavirus is affecting Central Florida. Please consider supporting this free publication with a one-time or monthly donation. Every little bit helps.