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D23 Thoughts

Hi, all.

I’m a little sheepish that things have been so quiet in these parts since D23 finished, especially since I’d hate to lose all the new folks who are stumbling into these parts for the first time. After the Expo, I took a full day to explore Disneyland, and then limped home the next day to try and recover from all the excitement. Aside from lots of pictures, notes and audio, I also brought home a delightful case of the plague which has prevented me from doing much with the pictures, notes and audio. It’s one thing to collect all these data, and another thing completely to get it all in some sensible order!

But to uphold my covenant with you, dear reader, and to prevent me from having to use insight, research, or Photoshop, I’m going to do what I’ve seen a lot of other sites do in the last couple of days – give some thoughts on the D23 event itself. Thoughts and essays on Disneyland itself are yet to come – don’t worry, Foxx – but I’ll wait until I’m a little more lucid for that.

So, what of D23? It seems like there’s been a range of compliments and criticism across the web for Disney’s inaugural fan event. Was it too much, too little, or the wrong thing entirely? I, for one, think that Disney really did a commendable job for their first time out of the gate and far, far more went right than went wrong.

Too much of the conversation online about the Expo has been about the big reveals; the daily keynote speeches that contained the most shocking news items of the weekend. Sure, these were fun and contained the most “flash” of any of the Expo’s events; I was as shocked as anyone to see Fantasyland announced on a scale comparable to the leaked plans, and it was exciting to get to see a half hour of Princess and the Frog. It was fun to see the Muppets and Johnny Depp hamming it up too. Even the announced events were exciting, though; after all, any Betty White is good Betty White.

But if someone judged the Expo entirely by those big announcements, they totally missed the meat of the entire experience. The keynotes were fun, but for a Disney fan what could be more intriguing than watching unseen color film of Disneyland’s construction with Imagineer Tony Baxter? Seeing rare animated shorts with Don Hahn? Watching Jeff Kurtti talk to esteemed composers like Bruce Broughton or Michael Giacchino? Watching a performance by the Dick Sherman? Or getting your question answered by by-gosh X. Atencio?

The slew of panels and discussions were the real soul of the Expo, not the trade-show flash of the exhibit floor. Best of all, they were focused on subjects near and dear to true Disney fans, and not just on trendy topics that the marketing folks love. There was no Princess or Pixie panel, or group discussion of Disney Vacation Club. Instead we got delightful obscurities like a panel on Don DeFore’s Silver Banjo Barbecue (look it up) and two separate events discussing Walt’s 1941 South American trip and the package films that resulted. These panels weren’t focused on cheesy, faux-insider trivia that you see on television specials (“Did you know that the windows above Main Street are the names of people who worked on Disneyland?!”) but instead were people who loved Disney talking to people they knew to be fans, so they could be as obscure and nerdy as they wanted to be. That was the real revelation of the event.

This trend played out on the exhibit floor, too. The Parks & Resorts pavilion was spectacular, and featured a brilliant conceit. Instead of the hoary buzzwords we’re so sick of hearing from Disney – “magic” this and “wonder” that and “dreams” blah blah blah – the pavilion was based upon themes derived from the old Disneyland television show. New projects were divided up into the cardinal realms of Fantasy, Adventure, Tomorrow, and New Frontiers. It was very retro and yet very appropriate, and best of all it felt fresh. It’s wasn’t the same old sludge we’re using to getting from Disney’s self-promotion (have you seen any of their park promo DVDs lately?!), but it was actually sincere and thoughtful. It gave the same vibe as the panels – that they were as excited as we were about these projects, and not because of profit projections but because they were cool.

This feeling only continued inside the exhibit, as the Imagineers themselves were constantly on hand to speak to guests about the projects on display. I assumed, when I first saw the exhibit, that these were just average Disney employees who were there to answer some basic questions and to keep people from climbing on the models. Then I started seeing some familiar faces, and realized that these weren’t even some temps borrowed from Glendale – they were actual, high-on-the-food-chain Imagineers. I can’t tell you how much it impressed me that these people were willing to get out there and engage the public; from some of the questions, comments and conversations I heard throughout the weekend I can guarantee you that it wasn’t always easy for these guys. Sometimes it seemed like every crackpot from the west coast had showed up to sell their weirdo idea or invention to some poor Imagineer who just wanted to talk about Carsland. The Imagineers roughed it out, though, to their credit, and I only crossed paths with a few who seemed like they really would rather be doing something else than chatting with a nerd like me.

Where was Tom Fitzgerald, though? I saw him walk past briefly one day without a name tag, but he was a no-show for the events or panels. No Rohde, either, but he’s probably in Hawaii.

It’s true there were some logistical hurdles. As much as some people want to claim that attendance was below projections, the fact remains that venues were consistently forced to turn away guests. One of the true blunders of the event was that the theater devoted almost exclusively to Parks & Resorts events, the “Storytellers Theater”, was the smallest of all the venues. Big mistake. Funny thing, these Disney fans – they seem to have a thing for Theme Parks. To their credit, though, the organizers realized this by the last day or so and started switching events around to larger auditoriums. It was great that they adapted, but I hope they remember the lesson next year.

These scheduling issues were the only real problems of the event. Presentations in too-small venues, not enough buffer time between events, and conflicting events of a similar nature were the main issues. This is something they need to keep in mind in the future; it’s one thing to have classic animation scheduled opposite of Wizards of Waverly Place, as there’s little fan overlap. But when you put animation, theme parks or Disney history opposite of each other it causes angst. This is the main reason I’ve been shocked to see some wags suggest shortening the event to two days; there was no way to possibly do it all in four, two would have been absurd. Of course, more than four and I would probably have dropped dead from pure hippocampal overload. So four days seems about right.

I also hear some fretting online that Disney won’t be able to keep up the level of big news reveals each year. I don’t really understand this concern. The studio will have new product coming out every year, and while few announcements will be as major or as exciting to many as Johnny Depp revealing a new Pirates film, there will be big films and new animation every year from here on out. With the parks, it’s also probably true that there will be many single projects as big as the new Fantasyland. But with five resorts, and a sixth on its way soon, there will be plenty of new stuff in the pipeline to excite folks about. As for major projects, we’ve still got Shanghai Disneyland to discover, as well as a new Tomorrowland for Disneyland, phase two of California Adventure’s expansion, future Hong Kong expansion, and third gates in California, Tokyo and Paris. I think there will be lots to talk about.

I do have a few remaining suggestions aside from those above. They need to keep the exhibit floor open longer – 5 p.m. just isn’t late enough to really explore. They also need to keep the food venues in the convention center open until late; it was a terrible pain to have everything close right before dinnertime, and have to leave the convention center, eat, and scurry back in order to make evening presentations or screenings. Signage and directions needed to be clearer, and hopefully the vendor area will grow as the years go on.

Finally, I realize that they’re running a business but the security level for the keynote speeches was absurd. I know it would bring the company to financial ruin if someone leaked the trailer to Prince of Persia onto the internet via their cell phone camera, but forcing guests to have a bag inspection, then check their bags, then go through metal detectors, and then have security people prowling the seating area during the presentation giving everyone the stink-eye was just a bit much. Not only was it irritating and a little obnoxious, but it was a logistical nightmare as thousands of people had to surrender and reclaim any electronic device they owned, whether or not it was a recording device. Also, there seemed to be some issues with Expo staff getting a little overwhelmed and, for lack of a better word, shrill. I thought that if one more person conveyed basic information to me by screaming it into my ear as I walked through a line, I really was going to snap. Yelling is not my favorite method of information transmission, and there was a little too much of it going on at D23. You don’t need to yell at me to quickly enter the theater and find a seat; chances are, if I’ve been waiting in a line for an hour that’s probably been my goal all along.

All things being even, though, it was a swell event. It was informative and diverse, with lots of knowledgable people divulging the secrets of subjects that they love. I would recommend it to any fan, when it hopefully makes a return appearance next year.

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