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D23 Exposition (Rave Edition)

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.

However.

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…

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10 comments to D23 Exposition (Rave Edition)

  • I’ve never been a big fan or proponent of D23, but I quite agree with this. More is needed, at less of a premium price. Make it a real historical society.

  • First off, I completely agree with Michael.

    I mainly went to Destination D as an excuse to go to Walt Disney World and see my Disney Internet friends (remember, nerd here), so really If Destination D ended up being good, that was going to be a bonus. And boy was it good. The one word which Michael failed to use was “orgasmic” which is exactly what it was.
    I have one small issue, which is that as great as it was, it got off to a rough start. I luckily showed up late to the first session and missed the “Commercials for other D23 events”. If we’re here, we probably know. (This is something much less true at the D23 Expo which attracts a much larger variety of fans.) The only major issue I had with Destination D was that because the information and resources were so great, it was abundantly clear when the presenter didn’t have a knowledge or affection for Walt Disney World history. The only presentation where this was a problem was “Weird Walt Disney World” where there was amazing stuff glossed over because the presenters didn’t understand what it was. My one other small complaint is that while many of the clips of old Walt Disney World on television were amazing and worthwhile, the presenters seemed to be completely unaware of the fact that youtube exists. They kept using phrases like “AND NOT SEEN SINCE 1971″ and at one point telling the fans that they “couldn’t” know something (the River Country song). While it was still wonderful to see these things in high resolution, acting as if they were amazing hidden gems is something different entirely. Amazingly that’s all the bad things I have to say.
    Everything else was astonishingly well run well put together. In fact those complains are generally so small they reflect well on every other presentation. Every other presenter knew exactly what they were talking about, how it related to the rest of the history of Walt Disney World. It is shocking how great this event was. There were so many fantastic moments but the Western River Expedition presentation was fantastic. Due to outside circumstances I had to leave early and missed the final event which Michael beautifully describes above, but I plan to be one of those people who lies about having been there, because it seemed so amazing and I refuse to believe I missed it (and I saw the youtube videos).

    Credit should be given to Steve Vagnini for doing such a spectacular job. If every D23 even was like this I would gladly forkover more. I completely concur with Crawford’s points above about distribution. I would gladly pay more than $5 for that GradNite video. It was AMAZING! I mean it featured THE SALT WATER EXPRESS! I cannot express what a spectacular event this was.

  • Smaha

    I worry about future Destination D events, because the room was fairly close to capacity and word will get out for next time. Not sure where else on property such an event could be held, but the OC Convention Center is down the road and I can imagine a full Expo living there one day. Then again, I can also imagine a scaling back of major expo events in favor of several smaller events. As WDW park crowds immediately before (Scavenger Hunt) and after (Star Wars opening) revealed, there were TONS of D23 fans who made the special trip and what company wouldn’t want that to happen many times throughout the slower weeks of the season and not just for something like the 40th?

    Not to undercut the amazing moments and solid topics at the event (and there were many), but Destination D had a couple big-picture elements going for it that stuck out for me:

    First and most obvious was the focus on WDW exclusively, which meant the topics would naturally be of more interest to the fans in the room compared with an Expo that has so many different company facets to explore.

    Secondly, participants could focus entirely on enjoying their time, knowing there was no fear of being blocked out of any session. Everyone made it in, and it was liberating as an attendee knowing this ahead of time.

    Third, a fair majority of fans went into the workshops with a ton of goodwill due to the Scavenger Hunt the previous 2 days. For those who missed it, the hunt was a stellar experience that spoke to the very core of Disney fandom. Two days of geekdom bliss…so sitting down to the first session at the Contemporary came with a feeling that we were already well on our way to receiving our money’s worth for the trip.

    I, too, was sad about missing the 2011 Expo. One of the friends I attended Destination D with had a chance to go to both, and I was very close to making a last-minute decision to head West. I’m glad I didn’t, because the content payoff for all the hassle just doesn’t seem worth it. Give me more workshops…and leave the trade show element for some other setting, like an actual preview center / exhibit at the Main Street Cinema.

    Thank you for taking the time to write about it, even if it’s several months later. What makes these events even more special is the ability to meet other authors, fans, critics, etc and talk shop for a few days. It’s nice to be among people with shared interest and shared levels of discourse, and it helps bring into focus the Disney-related items we’re all working on back home. I’m sure there are many “reunions” that are planned over the interwebs surrounding these events, but I look forward to the next Orlando event and hope some of the D23 members themselves step up to the plan and organize side events. It is one big community, after all, and a good way to recharge the creative batteries. Heck, if D23 doesn’t do something around EPCOT’s 30th, the rest of us will.

  • I echo your sentiments and thank you for articulating them in such a well-written piece. Hopefully at least a few people at D23 will read what you’ve written. Given that they’re Disney fans who likely reads sites such as yours, I’m sure some will read it. Unfortunately, I fear their hands may be tied to some degree.

    Your description of the Sherman-Dreamfinder appearance are absolutely accurate. I expressed similar sentiment after we returned, and I wholly agree that there was “magic” in the air. See: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tombricker/5731462303/ for my remarks.

    The only point with which I really take issue is the assertion (and this seems to be a common misconception in the online community) that D23 rarely holds events at Walt Disney World. This is simply not the case. Magic & Merriment, Sip & Stroll, Destination D, among other events are all held at Walt Disney World. To be fair, substantially more events, especially of the historical variety, are held in California, but I suspect that’s partly out of necessity.

    People often complain about the pricing of these events, and for good reason as they are often quite expensive. I’ve been told by multiple D23 cast members that the events are priced at a level that makes them self-sufficient, not profitable. I imagine the “self-sufficient” pricing includes pro-rated salaries for cast members present at the events and any necessary transportation (both for attendees and cast members). With most of the archives and D23 based in California, this could make costs balloon significantly for smaller events. With 1,200 or so attendees at the four days of Destination D, these costs can be spread better among more attendees, but for a more intimate event (like the Sip & Stroll or Magic & Merriment), these costs add significantly to the overall cost of the event. Assuming that D23 is including these costs in the price of tickets to said events. I would definitely like to see more concerning Walt Disney World done by D23, but I suppose what I’m saying is that I understand why it may not be pragmatic.

    There were two cameras recording all of the seminars. Hopefully someday some of the footage is made available. I know I’d pay a sizable amount to have it.

    Again, great work with this (and the previous day’s) post. I really hope the folks at D23 are taking notes.

    I also really hope Destination D becomes a yearly event. The Disneyland Destination D was for Disneyland’s 55th anniversary and Walt Disney World’s was, obviously, for its 40th anniversary. Hopefully anniversaries ending in 5 or 0 aren’t necessary for D23 to hold this wonderful event. Although, next year is Epcot’s 30th…

  • Thanks for the comments one and all; I feel like the more feedback we can offer, the better.

    Matt: Thanks for the shout-out to Steve V. You’re absolutely right in saying that he did a fantastic job lining up a lot of really great WDW-specific content.

    Also thanks (?) for reminding me of the weird and awkward pitch session that started the first day. That was such an awful way to kick things off and absolutely killed the event’s momentum at the very start. There were much better ways to finesse such a thing.

    Yes. Salt Water Express.

    Smaha: I just hope there are events of this nature *at all* in the future. You’re right that the facility limitations at WDW are a problem; unlike others, I don’t get mad at D23 for having the Expo exclusively in California. Aside from many other considerations, they simply don’t have the space until they go to the OC Convention Center, and that’s a ways away.

    As far as downsizing to multiple smaller events, that’s a risk as it sacrifices these “tentpole” events for things that are really only practical for the same group of locals. I typically live much closer to WDW than Disneyland, but I’ve been to only one D23 event in Florida and three in Orlando. It’s just not worth the trip for a evening-long food or merchandise event. There’s room for those, of course, but only a “major” event like Destination D can provide the critical mass of resources for the really awesome presentations.

    You’re absolutely right that a more “focused” event allows for them to go more in-depth, because obviously people wouldn’t be there if they weren’t interested. It’s also good to know you won’t get shut out!

    Tom: You’re right that this hasn’t been the only WDW event, I was just thinking in terms of these larger events that go beyond a merch or food event. An event that would be worth a trip in from out of state, and especially a history-oriented event. Considering how much WDW history gets left out of “catch-all” events like the Expo, that makes DD40 even more rare.

    And everyone who pointed out that EPCOT is 30 next year is right on… It would behoove Disney to remember that EPCOT is probably the most cult-followed park behind Disneyland itself, and that people will be watching and waiting… and wanting to spend money.

  • wokcreative

    They should be offering all sessions to be seen by those who can’t go or get into because of crowds. Most would probably be willing to pay for these. This is a standard thing done a many conferences – for sale on site for those that want to go golf instead, and on a web site for those that want them for many different reasons, such as archival, or not being able to attend…
    Disney fans would gladly pay for this stuff. There are always people with their own phones/video recorders. There should be professional copies made by the Disney company or working with those that do it for their own fan sites. Are they afraid that this would keep people from attending? It doesn’t seem that this would be the case – fans still want to be there, and have something to take home with them.
    Also, they should include a professionally video-taped walk-through of the props, wardrobe… from the archives – where no one is allowed to take pictures.

  • Mark W

    I have nothing to add here, but if anyone from Disney is reading this, I just wanted to add my voice as one more that believes that this:

    “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.”

    and this:

    “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.”

    are absolutely, 100% correct.

  • Erica M.

    After reading this wonderful recollection of Destination D, I have only a few comments to add based on personal experience at the event.

    I attended both days of Destination D, and even now in November, I can still attest that this has been the number one highlight of my 2011 so far. I was accompanied by my mom, who happens to be a longtime WDW visitor since the 1970s, and three of my closest friends who are also WDW geeks such as myself. After the concert on Sunday evening, my friends and I were asked by D23 staff to participate in a video interview (which I have yet to get a hold of or see). The D23 staff member asked us what we thought of the event and what made the event special to us.

    We used one word: “magic”. And we are not talking about the “magic” that WDW Marketing uses in ad campaigns and commercials. It is not even the “magic” that we see in Disney films, such as Genie’s magic in Aladdin. It was pure, simple, real magic that can only happen when people who have one, common bond, most who have never even met before, can assemble in one place and feel absolute bliss and synergy with one another. I never felt more understood or connected to a group of people in my entire life. This may sound dramatic, but there are no other words to describe my feelings. I pretty much grew up in Walt Disney World, and before Destination D, I had never been in one place with so many people that share my same love for the Vacation Kingdom of the World.

    I grew closer to my friends and I made new friends because of Destination D. We became friends because our admiration for Western River Expedition or our fond memories of Journey Into Imagination. In my case, I fell in love with that crazy Grad Nite video! (And my friends and I proceeded to act it out while monorail hopping to MK resorts at 12 am!). My best friend Erin and I figured out that we each had an obsession with the food trays at the Sunshine Season Food Fair in the Land… who knew! Thanks to Imagineer Jason Grandt, we now have something geeky to discuss when we delve deep into the WDW rabbit hole in our research adventures.

    Many kudos and congratulations to Steven Vagnini, who did a helluva lot of work to get this event off the ground. Also, I have a new appreciation for the Imagineers and Disney Legends that participated in the panels. Thank you for sharing your own history, wisdom, and geekdom with the rest of us.

    Michael, thanks for an awesome review. You are right on target with your reviews on both Destination D and the D23 Expo 2011. I hope to see you at the next event, whenever that may be!

  • Thanks again for the great comments, folks. And agreed. This event was *real* magic, not marketing magic.

  • [...] been generally supportive of D23 since its inception, we all know that they’ve had their hits and their misses. All I can say in favor of this event is that it is “from the minds that [...]

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