UPDATE: On August 16, 2021, Walt Disney World officially announced that the NBA Experience is permanently closed. Our original review of the offering remains below.
Yesterday marked the grand opening of the NBA Experience at Disney Springs. Touted as a powerhouse partnership between the NBA and Disney, the grand opening spared not when it came to star power. From Disney CEO Bob Iger to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to Dwayne Wade, Disney wanted this to be a grand opening, and it was. With the opening of the NBA Experience, the partnership deepens between the National Basketball Association and The Walt Disney Company. As part of our NBA Experience review, we’ll talk about why the NBA was chosen as a partner, our thoughts on the space and demographic, and a tour of the various offerings within the space. While just about every other review that you’ve likely read has been from someone who didn’t pay for their ticket, we paid full price for our NBA Experience tickets. Let’s jump in!
Why the NBA Experience
We’ll start our review with an attempt to answer the why and how of the NBA Experience. As you might know, the NBA Experience replaced DisneyQuest – Disney’s outdated “indoor theme park”. While there were certainly some unique elements to DisneyQuest, there’s no denying that it was showing its age. DisneyQuest opened in 1998 and closed its doors in July 2017, but it was on its last leg for years before it ended up unplugging for good. While we won’t dwell too much on the demise of DisneyQuest we did cover its demolition quite extensively which you can reference in a few posts (here, here, here, and here). One final tour of the space can be seen in our video below.
Ok, with the nostalgic part of the post (mostly) out of the way, let’s take a look at the circumstances that led to the NBA Experience being a part of Disney Springs.
As outlined by Ad Age, the key moment for the creation of the NBA Experience was when the NBA and Disney renewed their broadcast rights back in 2014. “If we didn’t have the media rights deal, we likely wouldn’t have had the conversation to do this,” Sal LaRocca, the NBA’s president of global partnerships said. That TV deal extended the contract that expired at the end of the 2015-16 season all the way to the 2024-25 season. The deal was worth a reported $24 billion dollars for the NBA, split between ABC and Turner Broadcasting. All of this is relevant once we realize that a deal of that magnitude likely put the NBA in a position to foot a good portion of the bill to create the NBA Experience. We’ve talked with several upper level Cast Members at the location who have indicated that the NBA did pay for quite a bit of the project. Of course, we can look back to the fact that the NBA Experience likely wouldn’t have even been birthed as an idea without the TV deal.
Fast forward from the contract announcement in 2014 to an announcement in June 2015 by Disney that they would be bringing the NBA Experience to Disney Springs. If we needed any more convincing that this is more than just a new offering at Disney Springs, we have to look no further than the grand opening today. Disney CEO Bob Iger was joined by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to talk about the partnership a bit and welcome everyone to the new interactive experience.
All of this is to say that while upgrading DisneyQuest would have likely been the better option (we’ll get to that later), this was a corporate sponsorship move that allowed Disney to likely get someone else to write a check to “update” the space to something more relevant to 2019 than 1998.
Welcome to the NBA, Rookie
We’ll start at the beginning by going over some of the logistical items. First up, the cost of the experience is $34 and tickets purchased can be used at any time for the rest of this year. Kids 3-9 years old can get in for $29. When you buy the tickets online, they are linked to your My Disney Experience account and automatically added to your MagicBand or park admission ticket just like a special event ticket such as a Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party ticket. As you can see below, you can also buy tickets at the venue.
There are a couple of touchpoints to enter the NBA Experience, just like any theme park entrance. The entrance is made to look like a typical NBA arena tunnel, complete with a sloping roof that resembles the underside of the terraced seating in an arena.
The MagicBand touchpoints are found throughout the experience and are all themed to basketballs. It’s a nice little touch that probably didn’t take too much effort, but is appreciated nonetheless.
Before we jump into the specific activities, we’ll take a general tour of the space and provide a bit of commentary on what you can expect.
First, the NBA Experience is only two floors. While DisneyQuest had five floors in a similar sized building, we have to keep in mind that NBA Experience has to share some of this building space with the as-of-yet unopened CityWorks restaurant next door.
When you first walk into the main entrance, you’re greeted by an expansive, open space with a feel similar to an NBA arena. As far as first impressions go, the NBA Experience fits the bill as far as what was promised via marketing materials.
As you can see in the image above, you can find the Films, Combine, Players, and (to the right of the staircase), Champions. The only “active” offering on the first floor is the Combine, which means that you’ll have to go upstairs to get to the real activities. From a logistical standpoint, there is an elevator to get to the second floor, but there are no restrooms or even water fountains on the first floor. The idea, we’re told, is that the more athletic activities would require water and facilities and those are on the second floor where you can find the restrooms and a water fountain.
One thing that struck us as odd was the lack of vending options. No water bottles, no vending machine, no snacks, nothing at all. The reasoning is a bit more complex than “we weren’t ready”, although that does play a part in it. Cast Members we spoke with did say that they would be selling water bottles out of coolers for guests who would like to purchase them, but that a sports drink would be a little bit more difficult to come by right now. As it turns out Disney has a partnership with Powerade, and the NBA has a partnership with Gatorade. The solution? Not to sell either.
A couple of other items of note were a lack of lockers. With each station taking between 15 and 85 seconds, it would have been nice for either a cubby to throw your stuff in, or a locker to store some of the bigger items in before you got started. That said, each station did have a cup holder of sorts that you could put a phone and keys in, but nothing bigger than that.
There will be a learning curve just like any Disney offering. Even though Cast Members have been training for months now, there’s nothing quite like getting some on-the-job training with actual guests.
Ok, with some of the pain points out of the way, let’s check out the activities offered. We’ll try to go through the activities in the logical progression that they should probably be done in for the correct NBA experience. Unfortunately, there was no pamphlet or anything that would suggest what order you should complete the activities in. With so much marketing done around the “experience” of going from the combine, being drafted by your favorite team, to lifting the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy over your head, there is no direction whatsoever.
Disney says: Compare wingspan and vertical leap to NBA or WNBA players with this series of tests that replicates NBA Combine drills
This is where your story begins. Just like in the NBA, the combine serves as your job interview process where some of your “measurables” are recorded such as wingspan, vertical leap, and shooting arc. It’s about a 3-5 minute experience per person, with 8 bays.
Because this is the only real “activity” on the first floor of the NBA Experience, it seemed to get the highest amount of initial foot traffic, and was the experience that we waited the longest for.
Disney says: Experience one of the biggest milestones for a basketball player at the NBA Draft with a photo moment that re-creates the electric atmosphere of the Draft stage
Don’t let the marketing lingo fool you, this is a simple photo op with a wax figure. If you don’t pick a team at one of the kiosks earlier in the experience (which we weren’t told to do first when we walked into the venue), you’ll be assigned a random NBA team. Maybe you need to get a better agent. Oddly enough, there are no kiosks nearby to use to select your team of choice. We found some kiosks downstairs and over near the restrooms on the second floor.
We’ll pause here for a moment to talk about the personalization kiosk. The photos below show the kiosks on the second floor and first floor, respectively. As part of your experience, you can tap your MagicBand or card and select the name (or nickname) that you want to use, your skill level (beginner, intermediate, or advanced), and what team you want to play for. Our advice would to be to look for the personalization kiosk right when you walk in to make sure that you’re on the team you want to play for, at the very least.
Back to the Draft experience. See all the hats that are on the racks to the left and right of whatever Adam Silver you choose? They are secured in place. So even if you wanted to put a hat on that represents the team you were just drafted by (like in the real NBA), you can’t. Of course, with a largely unattended “activity”, I’m sure Disney doesn’t want guests walking off with the hats still on their head to go practice their dribbling.
You get two photos off of an unattended kiosk that counts down from five to allow you to try and come up with a fun pose. Automated PhotoPass kiosks, anyone? The photos, just like all photos taken of you at the NBA Experience, are linked to your My Disney Experience account and accessible through the PhotoPass service.
Disney says: Test ball-handling skills with an interactive coach who leads a variety of dribbling routines
This was, perhaps, the least themed space for the whole NBA Experience. It basically amounted to 11 cubicles where guests worked through five different levels of dribbling skills. We call them cubicles because there really isn’t a better description for them. From the layout, to the felt walls, it felt like a day at the office. The space itself is quite loud once more than a few cubicles were occupied. Each cubicle has two speakers for the instructions to come though on. We spoke with some Cast Members who agreed the space was loud and that they were trying to play with the audio levels of each individual cubicle to make it easy enough to hear without bleeding into the audio space of other cubicles.
We would have loved to have taken dribble drills from NBA players. Who doesn’t want to learn how to dribble from legendary point guards such as Steph Curry or Dwyane Wade? This would have definitely enhanced the overall experience than taking lessons from a random coach.
As far as the skills building itself, it progressively gets harder – from a dominant hand single dribble to crossover dribbling, through the legs dribbling, and behind the back dribbling. A sensor aims to score you on this drill by determining your accuracy and scoring you between 0% accurate and 100% accurate.
One thing to note is that you can’t just go through all five levels at once. Because there was a line, we were asked to leave and get back in line after Level 1 to continue moving through the levels. Each level took us about one minute and 15 seconds.
Disney says: Execute the perfect slam just like a superstar, captured by cameras surrounding height-adjustable baskets
While this was far from the most popular experience when we visited, it was probably the most technically impressive. From a touchscreen near the MagicBand reader to two high-speed cameras that attempted to capture you as you were dunking, there was some impressive tech that worked flawlessly when we visited. The touchscreen allowed you to move the hoop (quite smoothly) from 7 feet to a full 10 feet regulation height hoop. Of course, most of the guests had the hoop at a much lower setting to allow for more made dunks.
Just like everything in the NBA Experience, your time here is very limited, only 60 seconds. And just like almost every other experience, we felt that 60 seconds was just too short. Granted, you’re probably only going to wait a few minutes (we waited 5 minutes), but between adjusting the hoop and resetting after each shot, we could only manage to get through 5 dunks.
Disney says: Step onto the court and hear the roar of the crowd while maneuvering through a series of last-second shots before the clock expires
This activity combined the longest wait with the shortest experience time. A mere 15 seconds of “action” met us at the end of our 20 minute wait. This is the biggest and probably most impressive set of the NBA Experience. It is a “full” court that can accomodate two players at a time. There are 5 spots projected on the floor that you try to hit a shot from during the 15 seconds allotted.
During our 20 minute wait, most of the guests we watched weren’t able to get through all 5 buzzer-beater shots in 15 seconds, but some Cast Members would allow guests to take the final shot, while others didn’t. For 15 seconds of actual action after waiting 20 minutes, this is the worst payoff of the activities, even though it “feels” the most realistic. We spoke with Cast Members who said that Imagineering and operations want to get the experience to a full 24 second shot clock, just like in the NBA, but with only two hoops to shoot on, the hourly capacity just isn’t there right now.
Disney says: Use an oversized slingshot to launch balls at hoops of varying heights, making as many baskets as possible before the clock runs out in this thrilling timed challenge
We’ve arrived at the longest activity with the exception of some of the non-athletic offerings. There are 14 spots that play at a time and each game is 85 seconds long as represented on a shot clock, of course. While the line for this activity did get long, we found it to be quite efficient, with 14 players at a time. We waited about 5 minutes for this experience and thought that it was “worth it”.
As far as the logistics are concerned, we found that even the kids playing were able to launch the slingshot far enough to get to the hoop. This was a high paced game that was essentially a “plussed” version of a basketball arcade game that you might find in arcades around the country. There is a bit of a learning curve to perfecting the arc of your slingshot and the flight of the nerf-type balls, but it’s still fun enough to come back and try to do better the next time.
Disney says: Play interactive games, from the fan-favorite Pop-A-Shot to the latest NBA video games
This is exactly what it seems like. There probably isn’t much to be said about this area besides that is was quite popular when we visited around 5pm. Far more popular than the films, trivia, replay, and dribble. Of course, there were plenty of these types of games available at DisneyQuest, so this “addition” is kind of a wash.
Disney says: Take a seat at an interactive, multi-screen module to watch replay clips from NBA games and use tools at the station to make the right calls
Replay lets you take a seat at one of 16 stations and work through four different replay scenarios.
After a practice round, you’re presented with a scenario like “the call on the floor is a three-pointer, is it correct?”. You’re given 30 seconds to choose from four different angles to help determine if the call is correct, or if it should be overturned. With replay such a big part of the game, it is a bit of fun to make your own call, just like you would at home, but with a 30 second time limit. That said, the space isn’t very compelling. We were told that there are about 20 different scenarios, of which, you only do four at a time during the Replay experience. The space isn’t very compelling. It’s quite reminiscent to computer lab days in college with plain walls and designated computer spots with chairs.
Disney says: Be immersed in the rich legacy and history of NBA and WNBA championship teams and take a photo with replicas of the NBA championship and MVP trophies
We see the return of the automated PhotoPass kiosk here with both the MVP and NBA Championship trophies. This signals the culmination of your 2 hour career from Combine to Champion.
You can find the Champions area to the right of the main atrium, next to one of the sets of stairs that will take you to the second floor. In addition to the two trophies, we can look through championship winning team’s stats and history. As you may have noticed above, each of the trophies is on an arm that can go higher or lower depending on what height you want to hold it. We saw everything from 5 or 6 year old kids all the way up to grown adults using the arm for a variety of poses as taken by the automated cameras.
Disney says: Enter the off-court sanctuary of the locker room and explore current team rosters, records and highlights
With the Combine to Champion experience out of the way, we’ll take a look at the final few activities. While they aren’t athletic at all, they are listed as “experiences” nonetheless.
We’ll start in the players locker room, where you can look into lockers with various jerseys, hat, shoes, etc, while scrolling through the large touchscreens to access player stats. It was disappointing that actual game day worn jerseys, shoes, or accessories weren’t used to showcase the space. This would be the perfect place to show autographed memorabilia from famous players throughout the leagues. Hopefully this can be worked on for the future.
Disney says: Watch a heartwarming film about the in-arena game experience and the impact it has on a young woman and her father, or Discover the amazing on and off-court story of an NBA superstar in this inspirational, 180-degree cinematic presentation.
There probably isn’t much to be said about these films. They’re about 5 minutes long each and there was never more than a few people in line at any given time. If the descriptions sound interesting to you, you might enjoy them.
Demonstrate knowledge of the NBA and WNBA – past and present – during a multi-player, real-time contest
Trivia is actually located upstairs, next to the dribble experience. Just like Replay, there are a lot of spaces here so the experience can move through a good amount of guests at a time. The setup, as you can see below, is a line of 25 stations, with each station presenting either a multiple choice or a true/false question. The questions are typically a bit harder than a casual fan might find much success at, but there are eight questions, which keeps you engaged for the next one. There are a few different categories that we saw such as questions about nba legends, team mascots, stats, records, and even a visual aspect where they would play a clip and ask you to say what would happen next (ex. does Larry Bird make this shot in game 5 of the finals).
Who is the NBA Experience Made For?
Before we give our final thoughts, we wanted to talk a bit about who this experience is made for. The clientele, from what we experienced on opening day, was generally in the 13-30 range, and trended towards males. That’s not to say that people outside of that demographic can’t have a fun time, but that’s the audience that Disney is shooting for. It’s a “new” demographic that Disney is trying to capture above and beyond what Disney Springs is already pulling in.
The experiences can be quite athletic at times, such as Dunk, and even Shoot, to a certain extent. Families with young children likely won’t find much to do here outside of the arcade area and Slingshot. If you’re not a fan of the NBA, chances are some experiences such as the player locker room and various other areas where you can dive into stats will probably not be nearly as exciting.
Disney has kind of boxed themselves into a corner here by limiting it to just the NBA, but when you’re spending billions of dollars on a TV deal and you don’t have to reach into your own pocket to “fix” DisneyQuest, it doesn’t really matter what fills the void. Even though Disney boxed themselves into a corner, they are trying to reach out and get to a demographic that was previously untapped for them, or at least underperforming. Personally, we would have loved to have seen something that spaces multiple sports and possibly branded under the ESPN umbrella. That would have appealed to a much bigger base than just the NBA does, if Disney was committed to getting sports into Disney Springs on a big scale.
The NBA Experience isn’t something that you should add to your upcoming trip. Unless you’re a huge NBA fan and everything above sounded like a “must do”, you’re only going to be disappointed by the experience.
As Disney continues to add new things to do in the parks and resorts, one thing that always sticks out to us is the fact that vacation time is finite. You only have so many days left on your trip, and each new thing potentially competes with either another new thing or something that you can’t wait to do again. We spent two hours in the NBA Experience and that was only because of long lines for a few of the experiences. We anticipate that those lines will go down or become non-existent over the coming months, and the average guest will spend an hour or so inside. Even so, carving the time out of your vacation for the NBA Experience could be up to a half-day experience. We just don’t think it’s worth it.