ESPN Zone, Chicago
Werner Weiss, June 15, 2010
ESPN Zone, Chicago
ESPN Zone, Chicago, Illinois

There is no joy in Burbank—mighty Disney Regional Entertainment has struck out.

Let’s look at the instant replay of Disney Regional Entertainment’s game...

Strike one! The first Club Disney children’s play center opened in February 1997. The chain grew to five locations—Thousand Oaks, California; West Covina, California; Chandler, Arizona; Glendale, Arizona; and Lone Tree, Colorado. The clubs closed forever on November 1, 1999. They were not moneymakers.

Strike two! DisneyQuest, an indoor theme park, opened at Walt Disney World in March 1998. A Chicago location opened in July 1999. Construction began on another in Philadelphia. Able to operate in any weather, DisneyQuest would be able to expand to cities around the world. Plans called for Disney to develop amazing new simulations, along the lines of Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold, spreading the development costs across the entire DisneyQuest chain. The Chicago location lasted a little more than two years. Philadelphia never opened. The expansion of DisneyQuest never got off the ground.

Strike three! Disney Regional Entertainment’s third concept, ESPN Zone, was essentially a sports bar, grill, and video arcade on steroids. With a strong brand identity from another part of The Walt Disney Company, it didn’t need the Disney brand. The first ESPN Zone opened at the Inner Harbor of Baltimore in July 1998. Other ESPN Zones followed in New York, Washington, Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas, and two California locations—Anaheim and Los Angeles. The Denver and Atlanta branches closed in 2009. Except for the California locations, the rest have their final day of business today, June 15, 2010.

Disney Regional Entertainment is out!

The Disney Parks and Resorts business sector launched Disney Regional Entertainment as a way to make money from customers who weren’t visiting one of the company’s major destinations. Ironically, the remnants of this initiative are DisneyQuest at Walt Disney World and ESPN Zone at the Disneyland Resort.

The other remaining ESPN Zone doesn’t really count because it’s not operated by Disney. Anschutz Entertainment Group, the developer of L.A. Live, operates the ESPN Zone there under a licensing agreement.

And the ESPN Club at Disney’s BoardWalk Resort definitely doesn’t count because this hotel restaurant was never part of the ESPN Zone chain. It’s been open since July 1996.

The Walt Disney Company wound up with 80% of ESPN as a result of acquiring Capital Cities/ABC for $19 billion in February 1996. Since then, ESPN, “The Worldwide Leader In Sports,” has thrived. Disney CEO Robert Iger summed it up this way at the Annual Meeting of Shareholders on March 10, 2010:

ESPN is extremely important to our bottom line, an incredibly valuable brand and is the number one destination for sports fans in the United States. Last year, ESPN had its highest ratings ever and is continuing to pioneer the use of technology to serve and reach fans in new ways.

ESPN is a major asset for Disney—as a cable network, not as a restaurant chain.

On Sunday, June 13, 2010, I took my camera to the ESPN Zone at 43 East Ohio Street in Chicago—knowing that it would close forever two days later. ESPN Zone is on the same block that was once home to the Chicago branch of DisneyQuest. (The former DisneyQuest location is now a Room & Board furniture store.)

I was surprised how few people were inside. I’m sure it would have been much busier—probably packed—if I had been there during games of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers this month.

It wasn’t mealtime. Still, it was a gray, drizzly Sunday afternoon, a good day to be inside. Where were the sports fans who wanted to spend time with friends at ESPN Zone one last time? I doubt 10% of the tables were occupied. My photos show people at tables upstairs, but the large Studio Grill on the first floor was empty.

The 10,000-square-foot arcade had a half dozen people in it—with half of them playing at the Super Shot basketball machines.

When I left ESPN Zone, I walked over to Trader Joe’s Market a block north. The place was packed. I guess people in Chicago spend Sunday afternoon buying groceries, not drinking beer surrounded by 150 video screens.

ESPN Zone, Chicago
The great American sport is drinking.
ESPN Zone, Chicago
Watch a game in the screening room.
ESPN Zone, Chicago
Pick one of a dozen different video feeds...
ESPN Zone, Chicago
...and watch that video feed at your table.
ESPN Zone, Chicago
Don’t plan on staying without spending money.
ESPN Zone, Chicago
The Bristol Suite has murals with greats from the Chicago sports world.
ESPN Zone, Chicago
Front row, left to right:
Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, Harry Carey, Bonnie Blair, Michael Jordan
ESPN Zone, Chicago
It’s not just a video arcade; it’s the Sports Arena.
ESPN Zone, Chicago
The busiest games involved throwing real balls into real hoops.
ESPN Zone, Chicago
Of course, there’s a gift shop—the ESPN SportsCenter Studio Store.
ESPN Zone, Chicago
Artifacts from when the Chicago Bulls were winning.
ESPN Zone, Chicago
My favorite thing at the ESPN Zone:
Wrigley Field made entirely of Wrigley chewing gum wrappers

Two Aérophile Balloons
Newport Buffalo Ranch

© 2010-2020 Werner Weiss — Disclaimers, Copyright, and Trademarks

Updated January 5, 2020.

Photographs of ESPN Zone, Chicago, Illinois: 2010 by Werner Weiss.