And now, the rest of the story…
As I’ve stated I have no particular insight into the hidden workings of D23, so whatever internal dynamics I imply are mere speculation on my part. That being said, it’s pretty clear that Disneyland has “favored child” status in the organization.
This is no surprise. As has been made clear, Disneyland was or is the “home” park for many of the higher-ups at D23 and the Archives, and it’s perfectly natural to have allegiance to the park you grew up with. I would be the same were I running the show. But this bias has a number of effects, some obvious and some subtle. The obvious come in the form of site selection for events, the lineups of the events themselves, and the selection of stories for the website and twenty-three magazine.
The more nuanced results of a general unfamiliarity with Walt Disney World comes in the content of those presentations – someone who wasn’t there to experience the resort’s history might pick different things to highlight when portraying that history, and if they haven’t obsessed over the details of the historical record like “native” fans they might miss out completely on important or interesting things to discuss. This is especially harmful when it comes to D23 or the Archives, which have access to items and information that fan websites can only dream of; if they don’t know the value of the treasure they have, then they cannot properly utilize it.
Word of mouth in the Disney community this spring was that the more Walt Disney World inclined of the D23 organization had to scrap to secure an event to celebrate the Florida resort’s 40th anniversary this year. No doubt fighting for resources with the much larger and more prominent D23 Expo that would be held only three short months later, Destination D Florida had an aspect of “the little train that could” to it. Perhaps that’s why this particular event had something of a home-brew feel compared to the slick sheen of the California events; thankfully, though, it managed to surpass them in quality of content.
First, I’ll get the caveats out of the way. May’s Destination D Florida was only a two-day event, and that was a shame. It wound up packing a ton of stuff into two short days, and although “sitting in a room” doesn’t sound very taxing, it wound up being a little exhausting. Information overload and lots of sitting – if the event had time to breathe, we would have been able to stretch our legs a bit! (Yes, I’m an old man)
Two days is too short, anyway, to celebrate 40 years of the Florida resort – especially when Walt Disney World had received short shrift in the D23 calendar during the two years prior. WDW fans had waited for a while to feel the love, and while Destination D managed to pack a lot into its short running time, there were many amusing corners of resort history that remained unprobed.
One final issue ties in with something that I mentioned earlier – a lot of the folks at D23 are Disneyland-focused. This led to the occasional incident of misrepresented fact, incorrect fact, or incomplete fact. There were a few things presented as “we don’t know what this is”, when probably quite a few people in the audience could have told them if they asked. Again, I don’t blame anyone for their field of interest – I wouldn’t expect to do a detailed presentation on Disneyland, for instance – but it can be an issue.
Now with that out of the way I can say that most of the content presented at Destination D was great. It had that “by fans for fans” feeling that was pretty much completely absent from the 2011 Expo. The experiential difference is noticeable. As I said I have no problem with recognizing that the Expo is for all branches of the company, but there’s a real difference in being marketed to by PR staff from Disney Interactive or DVC and seeing a presentation put together by a real fan. Disney fans aren’t stupid, and it’s a reasonable assumption that D23 members would be the most informed, aware, and well-read subsection of fandom. It’s more than likely that people so interested in Disney that they’re willing to shell out for the privilege know when they’re being sold a bill of goods and when they’re listening to someone who knows what they’re talking about.
Thankfully, at Destination D there were lots of folks who knew what they were talking about. The highlights have been chronicled (and in a much more timely fashion) elsewhere on the web, but they included a presentation on Walt’s EPCOT, information on abandoned attraction concepts including a spectacular re-creation of the fabled Western River Expedition, and the standup comedy debut of Imagineers Jason Grandt, Jason Surrell and Alex Wright. These were people based in Florida who love Walt Disney World, and the presentations were not only informed by experience but also by personal interest.
Speaking of people who know what they’re talking about, Tim O’Day deserves special mention for his hosting duties as well as some really deft moderation of two panels of Disney “legends” that helped in the creation and operation of the resort. Tim’s really good at this stuff and I was really disappointed not to see him at the Expo this year. He also hosted the presentation of some vintage film, video and television clips from Walt Disney World’s past, which were truly astounding. I can’t even begin to describe this presentation to you; I am absolutely desperate for D23 to make these videos available somehow. I would buy a DVD the second they were offered for sale; at the very least, they could share them on their website.
I think that most attendees would agree that the highlight of the event was the closing session of the last evening, which was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen. Emceed by O’Day, the presentation centered on a performance by legendary songwriter Richard Sherman. I’d seen Sherman once before, at the 2009 Expo, and his concerts are sheer brilliance. He’s personable and funny, and appears to have a terrifying ability to recall from memory the seemingly billion songs he and his brother have written over the years.
If that was not enough, the event was plussed by several performance ensembles from the resort’s past. Seeing a marching band and the Kids of the Kingdom gallivanting through the Contemporary ballroom was unexpected and amazing. The pinnacle, however, came when Sherman closed by performing One Little Spark – the late, lamented theme from the defunct and beloved classic Journey into Imagination. Ron Schneider, the original in-park Dreamfinder, came out in costume (and in character) with his pal Figment at his side.
Now, I’m not prone to sentimental hyperbole. If you’ve read this blog you know I’m suspicious of the way Disney has evolved to prey on sentiment as a marketing tool. I’m constantly getting nasty tweets about how bitter and cynical I am.
This was awesome. The only way I could think of at the time to describe it was the closest one could come to a religious experience at a theme park convention. When “Dreamfinder” came out on stage to sing along with Richard Sherman, the place went insane. Even if you had never seen the ride or knew the character, the reaction of the crowd would have given you chills. People were weeping openly. Seriously. It sounds dumb now, but the energy in that room was amazing. And I’m not the kind of person who says things like “the energy in that room was amazing.” But it was.
And THAT… that is what it’s all about. The whole reason that otherwise sane (no comments) adults like myself pay loads of money to be in a frickin’ “fan club” for a cartoon studio / theme park empire can be summed up, somewhat existentially, in that single moment. I don’t really know what it means, but that singular moment is why we’re there. It’s why we bothered to show up. And it’s what is missing from the more managed and “messaged” events like the 2011 Expo. It’s a connection with fans, and with memories of lost treasures, and a way to revive things that should never have gone away in the first place. That is exactly what D23 should be about.
Destination D Orlando used the resources of the Archives in the way they should be used, and far more effectively than other events. Using artwork to recreate Western River Expedition was an incredible idea, and allowed us for the first time to truly realize what riding that attraction would actually have been like. That’s a huge achievement, and the sort of thing that devout fans are desperate to see. I’ve studied that ride for years, but never had an idea of its actual flow… and now I do.
The selection of insane vintage video, or the presence of really-for-real Dreamfinder – these are things that only D23 has the ability to do, which makes it all that much more tragic when they don’t. Bloggers like myself can try to unearth treasures to share, but no matter how much we scrounge for old issues of Eyes & Ears on eBay there are simply things we don’t have access too. D23 does. When they use them properly, as they did in Orlando, it can be transcendent. When they don’t use them, or even worse, when they don’t even know the treasure they have in their care, it’s a sad waste.
So I guess the gist of all this is that Destination D Florida managed to do more for fans of Disney history than the 2011 Expo, and with a fraction of the budget and time. And I assume the reason for that has to be that Destination D was put together by people who loved the material just as much as the audience for which it was intended. Such a product is always going to be far more sincere and substantial than something pieced together by marketing folks straight out of their MBA program for whom Disney is “just a job.”
I’ll state again that I know the Expo, by its very nature, needs to serve and attract more than just die-hard fans and history buffs. It’s OK if it serves the kids who (for whatever reason) enjoy Disney Channel, or the people who are in it for the merchandise, or for people who want to see celebrities. That’s fine. And I fully realize that there are things beyond the control or management of D23 itself. But if these are going to be events for all fans, shouldn’t they be programmed to service all fans?
Because I have news for Disney corporate – if you held a fan convention for ABC, or ESPN, or Consumer Products, or Disney Interactive, very few people would show up. No one became a huge Disney fan because of Desperate Housewives. The obsessive fans – the bedrock upon which all this empire has been built, and around whom any large gathering must coalesce – are fans because of Walt’s legacy. The parks, the animation, the films. You can’t ignore that, or you’ll lose your base; you might as well just have Miley Cyrus perform at the Mall of America or something. If you want the fans to show up, look at what the fans respond to. I would hope that reaction to Dreamfinder gives you some ideas.
One last thing.
I’m sure a lot of you missed Destination D because you couldn’t make it, weren’t sure if it was going to be worthwhile, or were saving up your money and vacation time to head to the Expo in August. If so, you probably haven’t seen some of the things that I’ve mentioned in this article. And that, in itself, is a problem that D23 needs to address.
When I see all these fantastic presentations, and note that they seem to be videotaping them, I later think – where is this video? Why is it not posted online? Why isn’t it shared on the D23 website? Why wouldn’t they want to toot their own horn, and show how great these events are, and convince even more people to show up next time? Because if I was sitting at home in my pajamas and saw some video online of people going berserk because of Richard Sherman and Dreamfinder, I’d start booking my flight for the next D23 event ASAP.
All these things just seem to go down the memory hole; the fall issue of twenty-three magazine had some great content about Walt Disney World’s 40th anniversary, but no coverage of Destination D. There hasn’t been any real coverage on their site. And, again, no video. Why? Legal reasons? Much like the 2009 Expo, I don’t understand why when they have a real success under their belt they don’t choose to shout it from the rooftops.
It goes back to utilization of assets. Heck, I’d pay $5 to get that insane Grad Nite video on iTunes; if they’re not going to share it for free on their site or sell a DVD at least do that. Just make this stuff available. Why not share the re-creation of Western River Expedition? Or at least put some new artwork out in book form? Nothing frustrates fans more than having nothing to blow their money on.
The good news of all this is that D23 has something we want to spend money on. We just want more. Thankfully we have a template now for how things can be done right, and how they can be done wrong. It’s perfectly possible that lessons will be learned for the next Expo, and return some of the charm that was present in 2009 but missing in 2011. I also strongly hope that D23 returns to Walt Disney World sometime in the future. EPCOT will be thirty next year – does that give you any ideas, guys? There are vast depths of obscure and hilarious Walt Disney World left to plumb. Just cue up the Dreamfinder video and listen to the fans. Then, you know, put it online…