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D23 Exposition (Rant Edition)

My recent “brief” blogging absence began, roughly, around the time of this year’s D23 Expo in August. Even before that point, though, I had quite a few things I wanted to discuss about D23 in general and this year’s events in particular. Writing about the “official Disney fan club” is rather complicated for me, as I feel I’ve been a big supporter of the concept overall – perhaps more so than most in my particular branch of persnickety fandom. But as eager as I am for the venture to succeed – after all, if it is eliminated, how long will we have to wait before the company takes another stab at celebrating its history? – its events this year reveal many undercurrents and tensions that bear examination and problems that demand remedy.

The two major events on the D23 docket this year were May’s two-day Destination D event in Orlando, and August’s three-day D23 Expo in Anaheim, California. These were fundamentally different events; while Destination D focused exclusively on the history of Walt Disney World (in observance of its 40th anniversary this year), the Expo was a catch-all promotional event for all divisions of the company and was much more “consumer” oriented.

This year marked the second of these biennial expos; the first was held in 2009 and was widely considered a success. I felt Disney did an excellent job lining up a diverse slate of events for its inaugural Expo, and while there were some major logistical issues at the time they could be chalked up to “first timer” mistakes that would certainly be ironed out for future events. Disney even appeared to be learning at the time; many changes were made during the 2009 event itself to allow larger crowds to see the more popular presentations. There were bumps along the road, but the event was very fun and a great success, garnering lots of online praise and free publicity. Given the short amount of time that they’d had to organize the 2009 Expo, one expected that the sky would be the limit for 2011.

One would think.

This is where we encounter one of the fundamental errors that Disney makes time and again and which is a constant source of frustration for me with current management in general. It’s a metastasization of Hollywood’s absurd “opening weekend” fixation – if something isn’t a blockbuster success, immediately, it’s considered not to be worth further examination. There’s no room for word of mouth (which the 2009 Expo had in spades), or growing momentum. That’s fine when you have to quickly recoup a movie’s budget, but it’s frankly absurd when you’re talking about a fairly expensive event that requires people to travel hundreds or thousands of miles and shell out an equivalent amount of cash.

There were many rumors of corporate hand-wringing back in 2009 about the volume of Expo ticket sales, and speculation of what this would bode for D23’s future. I have no idea how accurate these rumors were, but to anyone with those concerns I would have to grasp them firmly by the shoulders, shake them slightly, and ask, “What did you expect?

The 2009 Expo was the first event of its kind. People really didn’t know what it was going to be, or if it was going to be any good. A lot of the key details weren’t announced until very late, and it’s a lot to ask to expect people to make major travel plans based on minimal information. The Expo isn’t exactly cheap, and for most requires airfare, lodging, food… and this in a “down” economy. Add to that the fact that the Expo itself was announced fairly late into the year, possibly too late for people to make vacation plans, and it’s not hard to see why some folks took a wait-and-see attitude.

But the funny thing is, if you do something great and people hear about it, they’ll want to come too. I reported from the 2009 event, and “tweeted” throughout, and despite the fact that my readership then was much smaller than it is today, I was constantly reading comments about how people were so sad that they hadn’t decided to attend, or that they had no idea how great it would be, or that they were totally jealous and could not wait until the next Expo. The uniform response, even from my small and anecdotal circle, was clear – “We are definitely going next time no matter what.

I clearly remember thinking, “Wow. Next year is going to be huge.” The Expo concept had been proved, people had seen what it was about, and whether they wanted to be in the same room with Johnny Depp or Bob Gurr (or both), they wanted to be there. I figured, hey, D23 has a hit on their hands. Everyone in the world is going to come to the next of these things.

It never occurred to me that this would go over the head of D23 itself.

I don’t know who makes the calls at D23. I don’t know where these higher-level decisions come from, whether they’re mandated by corporate or at which level. We all know that the D23 staff itself is full of actual fans, into the same things we are, but at some point up the ladder that stops. At some point – the level where some of these decisions are made – the shots are called by people who have absolutely no understanding of Disney or its fans. How else to explain that that the 2011 Expo, after all the build-up and hype that came from two years of 2009 attendees talking up their experience, would offer considerably less to do than the previous event?

My uninformed, backseat-driver prognostications proved correct; a ton of newcomers showed up this year. The twitterverse and blogosphere were full of fans making their first trip to Disneyland, all flocking to this event they’d heard so much about. Those of us who had talked it up for two years felt a little sheepish to discover that this much larger crowd was greeted with much less to do, and far less time to do it in.

This baffles me. We knew that the event had been shortened by a day, but I never expected its offerings to be trimmed so drastically, and limited to such small venues. It was possible to miss out on an exceptionally popular session in 2009, but even if you did there were always one or two other fascinating presentations to attend as a backup. In fact, some of the more interesting things we managed to see in 2009 were presentations we walked into on a whim.

Not so this year. Not only were there less events scheduled overall, but very few of them ran parallel. That meant that not only were there loads more people attending, but instead of three or four options of things to see, they might just have one. This resulted in lines. Very, very, very long lines. I think my most onerous wait in 2009 topped out at under an hour, but queues were regularly out past capacity three to four hours in advance this time. I did not get into a single non-arena presentation this year, partially due to a lack of interesting offerings and partially due to an unwillingness to wait three hours to maybe get into some session.

The result was striking. In 2009 I found myself occupied, running from one thing to the next, from first thing in the morning until nine or ten (or later) at night. There were screenings or performances every night; it was a constant stream of stimulus. This time I spent a lot of time standing around on the floor, standing around in the lobby, standing around talking to readers (yay readers!), and generally hanging out waiting for something to happen. At the previous Expo I was filing stories on a daily basis, but I didn’t submit a single one this year. Sure, seeing Scarlett Johannson was cool, but that’s not really news, is it? Certainly not Disney news.

One byproduct of all this waiting around was that I got to be a fly on the wall and observe other guests. I usually assume that if I’m out of sorts, everyone else is probably just enjoying themselves and aren’t noticing the problems. Or that all the new folks didn’t know how 2011 differed from 2009, and wouldn’t mind. I was wrong. During my little breaks I saw many, many unhappy people. And many incredibly angry people. We’re talking, straight-up-yelling, about-to-break-into-fisticuffs people. No joke, no exaggeration. I thought a few times people would literally have to be torn apart due to arguments arising from people waiting in line and the folks trying to do crowd control. One cast member would tell guests to queue in one spot; another would tell others to queue somewhere else. After an hour (or more) of waiting, one of the lines would file into the theater and leave others holding the bag. It did not end well.

It was remarkable. I spoke to people who had been in 2009 who were embarrassed about having talked their friends into coming, and other newcomers who just gave up and went to Disneyland.

The one part of the show that grew this year was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the show floor, where various divisions of the company put up their trade-show displays to advertise upcoming products. With more advance warning this time, the divisions had a chance to come up with their pitches for home goods or baby books or videogames. There might not have been anything for Disney history buffs – not a single sighting of a Jeff Kurtti, or a Tim O’Day, or a Jason Surrell, or a Don Hahn – but there was a stage blaring loud Radio Disney nonsense. And there were lots of opportunities to buy merchandise.

I realize that D23 is a pitch machine for the entire Disney corporation. It’s not just theme parks, and it’s not just animation or film – it’s everything. It’s a way for Disney to market junk directly to their core customers. That’s fine with me. And yes, Destination D was created as an event that focuses directly on historical aspects of the theme parks. But does that mean that Disney history – or heck, the theme parks in general – should be left out of the major official Disney event?

Because I have news for Disney and D23 – not everyone has the time, money, or desire to go to every single event. Not everyone who wants to discuss things that happened before 2010 can make it to Destination D when they assume these are things that would be mentioned at the tentpole D23 event. They were in 2009 – there were several great presentations at the inaugural event that delved into obscure corners of theme park history and the fabled animation vault and managed to turn up no end of surprises. Not so this year.

There is an entire, large segment of fandom that’s going unserved, and I don’t know exactly why. Obviously one would suspect it’s because that the folks running the show aren’t fans, and don’t know or care that certain things even exist to be celebrated. Last year Pollyanna and Toby Tyler both tuned 50, so where’s Hayley Mills? Where’s Moochie? There’s a whole sprawling history to discover, and D23 has the connections to make a lot of things happen and they’re not doing so. This is a shame because if there’s anywhere that obscure Disney celebrities and history would be welcome it’s at the Expo. Sure, if you had some festival at a mall somewhere in middle-of-nowhere America Miley Cyrus would outdraw Bob Gurr by an order of magnitude, but at the Expo he’s a rock star. This is the place to do these things.

Certain notable “in the bag” Disney corporate apologists have tried to excuse away the mistakes of Expo ’11, but that’s ridiculous. Disney is supposed to be the master of moving and managing people and in any case there’s no excuse for 2011 to be so remarkably inferior to 2009. Disney didn’t forget how to run an event in two years time. Any fool could see that more people + less to do = problems. Even with the limited slate of panels and presentations, why not have huge projection screens on the show floor to act as overflow space? Why not stream online, or at least record presentations for later replay?

Apart from the celebrity-heavy Studios keynote and the truly excellent presentation at the Imagineering pavilion, most if not all of the notable elements of the 2009 Expo were cut down or eliminated entirely this time around. It’s a trend that I truly didn’t expect, and while 2009 left me with a great anticipation of what would be next, this time I’m left wondering if the Expo will take a major hit in interest next time around. If empty spectacle cannot be shored up by actual diverse content, and this year’s issues aren’t publicly addressed, I’m concerned.

 

But that ain’t all folks! There are good things that have happened as well! Involving D23, a little resort in Florida, and a truly religious experience involving Richard Sherman and Dreamfinder. I’ll save that philosophizing for tomorrow.

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8 comments to D23 Exposition (Rant Edition)

  • My sentiments exactly! Well except that I was a little harder on the first D23 Expo. At the time, I hadn’t been to Comic Con in years and had no inkling how much longer the lines and waits at D23 Expo could be. I was also miffed that a lot of the really interesting presentations were double-booked so that you had to give up one to see the other. Now that I’ve seen what happens when they don’t do that, I understand the reasoning behind it.

    It’s also interesting that the company that revolutionized the theme park industry hasn’t come up with a cure for the common convention — or even succeeded in replicating existing standards. I am baffled by Disney’s inability to run an expo efficiently, especially considering how well they do entertainment.

    I’ll be interested to read your account of WDW’s Destination D tomorrow — I thought it was WAY better run than D23 Expos I & II and even better than Disneyland’s Destination D.

  • Dave

    My sentiments exactly. I didn’t go two years ago, but was stunned at the amount of news coming out of Expo ’09. And I live in Orlando but through an infuriatingly bizarre scheduling coincidence missed Destination D. I was incredibly excited to go to the Expo, but halfway through the second day I realized that hanging out on the Mark Twain for the rest of the afternoon was a much more productive use of my time. I got into the Voices of the Parks panel, which was fun, but offered me very little red meat as an Orlando guy. One of the highlights was just getting a crack at leftover D:D merch! I’m always game to get an excuse to go to Anaheim, but it’ll be a tough sell when I can just book a trip for an off-peak week instead.

  • Joe

    The weeks leading up to the event I found myslef longing to be there. Wondering if black market kidney sales could get me there on time.

    As it unfolded, and I watched the feeds from afar I found myself more and more grateful I wasnt sitting in a bathtub of ice. I would have been furious to shell out a couple thousand to fly the family out there for the less then stellar event that it was.

    I hope they really do learn from the outcry and the third version makes up for all the mistakes. If not, there won’t be a 4th.

  • I still cant figure what D23 is supposed to be. They say that they are the official club for Disney fans, but the problem is that Disney isn’t one thing; its a lot of things: Films, Parks, Music (Contemporary and Vintage). They can’t cater to all and do a good job

  • Chuck

    I agree! First group the shopping. You’re making me stand in another line to buy?!

    Train the entire staff on how to give info and answer questions. They were really clueless. We never knew if we were in the correct line.

    We purposely waited 2 hrs for Parks presentation. We get the sorcerer and other pkg get priority seating but to be directed to the extreme sides was really poor. And the way we were queued up before getting in was horrendous. People who were many rows behind us were now in front of us. Not cool

    Why not set up remote areas with screens to view your popular, closed presentations or let those who are attending able to stream them on their phones.

    For those D23 members who couldn’t make it for whatever reason allow them to watch live streaming broadcast of it. Charge them to do it but do it

    Get better merchandise. Personally that was the ugliest Noah vinylmation I ever saw.

    And I agree that your information and panels need to be released earlier.

    It’s really sad when Bob Iger isn’t there for Day 1. The excuse that he was on vacation?! Seriously! He knew this was coming for at least a year. How naive do you think people are?!

  • Thank you all for your great comments. Hopefully they will be heard!

    Carrie: I took it easy on ’09 just because it was their first rodeo. And they seemed to be learning during the event itself. There were a LOT of rough spots – especially with crowd control and CM training – but I didn’t want to cloud the issue and I expected them to do a much better job this time.

    I did not expect everything to be much, MUCH worse. Crowd control, cast training, food availability and selection AND price… Everything. A real mess.

    Dave: You’re so right about the lack of real content for WDW folks. It’s a problem when that is their busiest resort!

    Chuck: I’m glad you pointed out the issues with training CMs. I didn’t really go into that but it was a real and noticeable problem. No one seemed to know what was going on, and that contributed heavily to the frustration of guests. At times, it was rather chaotic out there. And they didn’t seem concerned too much with soothing the raw nerves of people who had waited in lines for hours and dealt with hassle after hassle (like standing forever in a line to pick up your cellphone).

    In fact, that reminds me of just how unorganized and awful the electronics check area was. And I went through the line for media and fancy-pass folks and it was STILL a disaster. Some of the most clueless shuffling around I’d ever seen, and it was just people who needed to put cell phones in plastic bags.

    What’s fascinating is that I did not expect ANYONE to care about this piece or these months-old issues, but I have received a TON of response. Moreso on twitter than even here. And the real shocking thing is that as critical as I was it’s nothing compared to some of the real anger I’ve heard from average guests who were there. For once, I really underestimated how peeved people were about this. So I guess, for D23, this goes from a “wouldn’t it be nice if they fixed this?” issue to a “wow, they’re *really* better fix this…” situation.

  • Mark W

    “Writing about the ‘official Disney fan club’ is rather complicated for me, as I feel I’ve been a big supporter of the concept overall – perhaps more so than most in my particular branch of persnickety fandom. But as eager as I am for the venture to succeed – after all, if it is eliminated, how long will we have to wait before the company takes another stab at celebrating its history? – its events this year reveal many undercurrents and tensions that bear examination and problems that demand remedy.”

    This is a very important point. I too have been a fan of D23, for more or less the same reason you describe here – and I don’t think the importance of that reason can be overemphasized.

    In my opinion, there are two patterns that have characterized Bob Iger’s tenure as CEO of The Walt Disney Company – a general unwillingness to take big risks, and a desire to repair broken relationships left by his predecessor. Iger has very much been “the great peacemaker” for Disney. Where Eisner famously alienated George Lucas, Steve Jobs, and Roy E. Disney among others; within a year or so of Iger’s ascension, work was underway on Star Tours 2, Disney was the new owner of Pixar and Jobs had a seat on the board, and Roy E. Disney had been brought back into the fold. In much the same way, I’ve thought of D23 as Iger’s olive branch to the hardcore fans.

    No matter how you feel about Iger’s executive decisions, the company under his leadership has at least consistently acknowledged that we as hardcore fans exist and made an effort at catering to (some of) our desires. When D23 was announced, I instantly viewed it as a positive and a sign that the company wanted to try to build a better relationship with us. Yes, it was not cheap, and this caused an uproar among some in the fan community, but I had to shake my head at those who tried to start alternative communities like “D64″ and vowed to never join D23 due to the cost. Making a personal financial decision is one thing, but campaigning against something like D23 based on cost alone seems somewhat misguided. Regardless of the intentions/desires behind D23, like all aspects of a for-profit company, it has to make a profit or it won’t exist.

    The potentially damaging thing about those raging against D23 is how Disney could interpret that. If D23 is successful, then Disney gets the message that, “It’s profitable to cater to the hardcore fans! We should listen to what they want more.” If D23 isn’t successful, and in fact you have people in the fan community rabidly trying to discredit it, Disney gets the message that, “There’s nothing we can do to please these people. They’re unrealistic, immature children. We should move on.” The fan community, in Disney’s eyes, will have little value and thus little influence – and that is a truly scary thought.

    I think you do an admirable job of soberly pointing out the flaws while commending the successes, and I think we need more of that. A binary “all or nothing” approach that rages against D23 will do nothing but result in the end of D23 and of our credibility as fans.

  • Smaha

    A binary “all or nothing” approach that rages against D23 will do nothing but result in the end of D23 and of our credibility as fans.

    Good call, Mark. Nicely put.

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