Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Can Artists be Champions?

usopen logoI spent the last couple of weeks watching the great tennis being played at the US Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows (Also the site of the 1964 World’s Fair that Disney headlined). I love sports in general. But there’s something about the competitions that are head to head. There’s no one out there to count on but yourself. Tennis doubles down on the mano a mano-contest by forbidding coaching during the matches other than supportive yelling and clapping. If one of the players finds him or herself on the short end of the score, it’s up to him or her to come up with a new game plan or get themselves out of a negative mental funk. The champions, like Nadal, Federer, both Williams and a select handful of others can  do both, which is just one of the qualities that separates them from the pack.

goofy tennis

Certainly, practicing plays a part in a person’s success at any endeavor. But, success, is different from being recognized as the “best” at something. In sports, being the best is measured by wins and or statistics – most home runs, lowest E.R.A., most touchdowns thrown, etc. Being the best is more complicated to qualify in the arts. Beauty, as well as entertainment value, humor, scariness, dramatic quality, are found in the senses of the beholder. One person’s favorite painting is at the bottom of someone else’s list. I’ve heard people refer to Walt Disney as the best producer of animated features or the best theme park designer. There can be no argument that Walt was successful beyond the expectations of most people. But, was he the best?

ub iwerksWalt was quite comfortable admitting that he was never the best at drawing or animating. In fact, by the time he had come up with idea for Mickey Mouse and instilled him with the characteristics that would make a drawing one of the most recognizable icons in the world, it was Ub Iwerks and others who ultimately brought him to life. I’ve not heard any recollections of him doing any drawing that ended up on the screen once he had hired others to do the work. And, yet, it is his animated products for which he is most remembered.

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to see if I can we draw any parallels between the qualities that help athletes succeed on the tennis courts and the kind of success Walt achieved.

330px-Michelangelo_-_Creation_of_AdamCreativity – Tennis players are more like improvisational actors, creating as they go and responding to their opponent’s work. Great tennis players use creativity to surprise the other player. Since creativity is the essence of any artist’s work. In many cases, art is creating something out of nothing. It might be carving David out of a block of stone, mixing pigment with oil to create the Sistine Chapel, sitting at a lifeless piano and writing “Feed the Birds” or using language to write “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Walt’s creative fortes were developing ideas, sometimes through improvisational thinking in response to work by others in his creative field. From his earliest successes like the Alice Comedies to Disneyland, Disney found ways to improve

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Multplane Camera

on the success of others. The multi-plane camera brought depth to his animated work. Snow White pushed the limits of an audience’s attention span for animated shorts. And, of course, Disneyland went well beyond the amusement parks that had been around for more than a century and improved on even the most successful ones of their time like Luna Park in Coney Island.

Adaptability – Tennis players, like most athletes, never know just which of their skills and abilities will respond on any given day. So, not only do they need to adapt their game plan to take advantage of a good backhand one day while the forehand can’t find the inside of the court. But, at the same time, great tennis players quickly adjust their game to the strengths or weaknesses of their opponent. Players who can’t adapt have little chance of winning if their serve isn’t working and they have no other options. Walt’s success was dependent upon his ability to adapt to changing audience’s tastes and interests for entertainment. We all like to talk about the times when he was right. There were, however, times when he missed the mark, like the much criticized film Victory Through Air Power and the Pack Mules at Disneyland. But, he was right about feature length animated films, family focused, live action features, audioanimatronics, and theme parks.

1180w-600h_020116_oswald-hungry-hobos-short-q-and-aMental toughness – The difference between winning a losing for tennis players of roughly equal skill is whether they can capitalize on any advantage their opponent presents or whether, when presented with a losing situation, they can continue to fight rather than giving up. Walt demonstrated this ability many times during his life and his career. Early on he had several failed attempts at starting his own business. Once he managed to succeed and build his studio, he had to maintain his positive mindset when confronted many times with money problems, intellectual property control problems with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, an animators strike, and having his studio commandeered by the US military during WWII.

Striving for excellence – The same mental toughness pushes professional tennis players Walt Disney, Filmproduzent, USAto improve their game. During daily, focused practice sessions the best players maintain the better parts of their games and try to improve upon their weaknesses. That kind of dedication is only possible if the player wants nothing more than to be the best he or she can. It also means giving up some parts of what many of us would consider a normal life. It might mean doing without personal relationships, education, strict diets, and other things most of us consider fun or important. Walt never seemed to want anything other than producing the best products he could. The only way he could know if he was achieving excellence was his own judgement, until someone would pay him for the work and/or an audience would respond positively. As a result, it seems that he developed a very for excellence. The more he succeeded, the higher his standards became. This was evident in how hard he pushed the people who worked for him and, perhaps, how stingy he was with compliments. He also spent many nights and weekends sleeping in his office and giving up time with his family.

Practice – Tennis players spent countless hours every day on the court and working on their fitness. The difference between winning and losing can be stamina and the ability to execute simple and difficult shots when arms and legs are weary. Practice also instills muscle memory, so the player to be confident executing shots and allowing him or her to focus on mental toughness rather than the physical act of hitting the ball. Disney used the Silly Symphonies shorts to help his animators and others to learn and practice the skills that he knew would be needed to finish Snow White. During Disney’s lifetime, would-be animators worked under through an apprenticeship doing clean-up cleanupwork (cleaning up the extraneous lines animators left behind), then moving on to in-betweening (animators did the key poses then the in-betweeners would fill in the drawings needed to smooth out the movements), then they might get an opportunity to draw lesser characters before moving on to lead animator. All of this work was not only necessary to complete the thousands of drawings needed to complete an animated feature, but provided practice needed to insure they had the skills to move on to more complex work.

It might be possible to compare artists to tennis players in this way. And, in a way, the comparison shows that Walt was a champion. But, Walt’s most important qualities lay in his ability: to dream big like he did with Snow White and finally Disneyland; choose the right people for the right jobs, even if they may not have exhibited all the skills required to complete the job, like he did with X Atencio when he asked him to write the lyrics for “Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life”. But, I believe the most important part he played in his own and other’s success was his ability to inspire and lead people. He had an uncanny ability to get others to see and believe in his dreams. As a result, they probably excelled more than if someone else had asked.

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When you search your memory banks, there are events that immediately come to mind. Certain birthdays, weddings, special anniversaries, even deaths are big markers on the Macys-Paradetimeline of our lives. They all involve a change in life – a year older, permanently adding or losing someone in your life. There are other lesser life changing events that happen many times throughout our lives that don’t register as quickly or at all. Until now, it hadn’t registered to me, that parades have been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. You may ask (and you’d be justified) “With all of the important things going on in your life, hurricanes, nuclear threats, daily breaking political news, and missed dentist appointments, why have you fixed your keen eye on parades?”

elephants in nycMaybe, like Walt, I yearn for simpler times. I’ve watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade either on TV or in person for so long, that it could almost be a guest at the holiday table. The Rose Parade has been the kickoff to many a New Year’s day of college football. The town I live in has parades for everything from St. Patrick’s Day to Gary Pride Day and almost every other holiday of the year. My kids marched in those parades as part of school bands. I watched them march in those same bands for the NYC Columbus Day parade. I’ve been fortunate enough to actually watch the now defunct Ringling Brothers circus parade into NYC, complete with elephants.

st ferminI recently was on hand for the annual Festival of St. Fermin parade in Pamplona, Spain the week before the running of the bulls. There have been Halloween parades, Christmas parades, Mermaid parades (an annual Coney Island event), Easter parades and even Renaissance Faire parades. I’m fairly certain, with the possible exception of the Mermaids, that most of you could come up with a similar list. Yours might even be longer.

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Broadway and Films have featured parades as part of their overall message of happiness, rebirth and possibilities:

Barnum’s “Come Follow the Band

Hello Dolly’s “Before the Parade Passes By

The Music Man’s “Seventy-Six Trombones

Easter Parade” in the film of the same name

Disney’s Aladdin’s “Prince Ali

And nothing makes you want to march more than a Sousa military march

the-american-circus-parade_oxq6paWalt grew up in an era where travelling circuses where a common form of entertainment. He would have seen and possibly followed the circus parade into town designed to drum up interest before setting up tents just outside of town. And in keeping with his “let’s go back to a happier time” theme and knowing everyone loves a parade, Walt had a parade on opening day at Disneyland in 1955.

The parade was replete with several military marching bands, antique cars, knights, frontier and Native American horsemen, costumed and face characters, children, horse drawn carriages, covered wagons and streetcars, Autopia cars, and floats. Just like the circuses of old who used the parade to highlight what visitors would see, much of the Disneyland opening day parade was designed as a preview to highlight the four lands that guests would see during their Disneyland visit.

Most of us like surprises, even during out Disney Theme Park visit. But our days usually include a struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy or equilibrium. Our lives are often full of chaos these days. So, there’s something comforting about knowing that every day at 3 and then later that evening there is a Disney theme park parade. The parades entice us to slow down, grab an ice cream cone, cotton candy or a hot dog, listen for the announcements and wait for the music to start or the lights to dim along the parade route. I find that even if the parade temporarily blocks my path to get somewhere in the park, once the music, floats and characters is passing, I’m not that unhappy or frustrated. I settle in and enjoy the show. I have enjoyed some Disney parades more than others. But they all include a catchy tune, like

Remember the Magic

Spectromagic

Paint the Night

The Main St. Electrical Parade

Festival of Fantasy

Aside from the inevitable march of the parade forward, the floats, characters, dancers all create vignettes that tell a story in the minute or so it takes for them to pass by us and our attention is drawn to the next. It feels a little like the picture books I read to my kids. The page turns and we take in the new picture and get ready for the next part of the story. You can feel the legacy of Walt as he reminded his directors and Imagineers that without a good story, a parade is nothing more than moving noise.

It’s nice to know that when we escape to a Disney Theme park here in the U.S. we can count on a parade, twice a day, like clockwork. The floats are magical, the dancers create beautiful pictures and our we get to see some of our favorite Disney characters in a new or familiar setting. And unlike the parades in your hometown, you don’t need to get up early then spend the better part of the morning waiting. And you don’t have to worry about traffic being snarled for the who day while you try to get home. The Disney people have the parade thing down to a science. The parade ropes go up and come down almost by magic.

I’m not sure there’s any other show, with the exception of evening fireworks (which by the way are sandwiched between the two even parade showings. Coincidence? I think not) which draws as many people to watch There are some people who will forgo attractions and other events in the day, just to get a good spot on Main St. Live shows have come and gone, but the parades march on.

With all the chaos and tension in our world’s today, I have a suggestion. Go find a parade. Follow it or be in it. If you can’t find one, start one of your own. I’m certain you’ll get people to join in. Either way I think it will, at least, temporarily, transport you to a time when the only concern you had on your mind was whether the next pack of baseball cards would get you the last player on your favorite team or maybe what color t-shirt you should wear with your favorite jeans. It is possible, that without any of us being aware of it, Disney parades, or maybe any parades keep our world in balance.

shutterstock_194759198Frequent visitors to The Disney Connection may have noticed I missed my usual Sunday night post last week. Setting aside some personal and professional craziness that has caused disruptions in the Land of Brad, I’ve had a hard time finishing a post over the last couple of weeks. I can tell you I made several starts which all seemed very promising, including one about the passing of Marty Sklar, improvements needed for the next D23 Expo, my thoughts on The Great Movie Ride and something about Imagineering. I would be kidding myself and all of you if I “wrote” off my creative block as a failure to find anything that clicked and would meet my own personal standards of quality and applicability to the Disney Connection’s mission. The truth is, I couldn’t get my creativity on track. I was blocked, even though I set out to write about something I love.

shutterstock_325327667One part of me wanted to post something. The other part of me was unable to come up with something I felt I could be satisfied to share with you. I’ve published 30 posts on this blog, at a pace of nearly one per week since January of this year. I’d like to thank the hundreds of visitors who regularly read my thoughts, opinions and ramblings about how Walt Disney, who has been gone 51 years this December, still impacts the Disney Company, people like me and maybe you. Many weeks I’ve been completely stunned by the traffic, many likes, comments and number of people who are now following the Disney Connection blog. Thank you all for supporting my work and giving me the satisfaction of knowing that I’m not talking only to myself. So, since I consider you all fellow Disney lovers, I hope you’ll keep reading if I take a tangential trip into CreativityLand, slightly afield from my usual posts.

Over the years, I have tried my hand at various writing projects. I participated in NANOWRIMO , National Novel Writing Month, (an amazing not-for-profit thatnano_12_winner_detail encourages people of all ages to write, including kids) and completed 50,000 word drafts of three novels. I’ve written several full length plays and dozens of shorter theater pieces and had privilege of hearing my work performed by professional actors at public staged readings here in NYC. I’ve written technical white papers and many reports for the customers who I have worked with in my day job over the last 20 years. Those of you who write regularly, particularly for work as I do, may have found that it’s often easier to write when someone else is setting the deadline and determining the topics.

I have always enjoyed writing. But for some time, I had only written professionally. So, I started writing this Blog as a kind of test to see if writing was going to continue to be part of my life. I’m happy to say that writing for the Disney Connection has offered an opportunity for me to rediscover the joy of writing. I take pride in publishing posts that I believe are interesting, amusing, timely and, perhaps, thought provoking. I have no advertisers who are expecting eyeballs on pages, so the only motivation to put hands on the keyboard is that I have a topic which appeals me. I write this Blog because I want to, not because I must.

Anyone who has put pen or brush to paper, hands to clay, a hammer to stone or raised their voice in song can attest that the creative spark is a harsh mistress who can both satisfy and punish any artist. I was just at the D23 Expo and sat very close to Imagineers like the late Marty Sklar, Tony Baxter, Rolly Crump, and musicians Richard Sherman and Alan Menken and others who have somehow managed to be consistently successful in using their skills, imagination and vision to not just be creative, but prolifically creative under financial, deadline, and global fan pressures. They have carried on the work of a man who German philosopher Schopenhauer would have described as both an artist, someone who can hit a target no one else can hit, and a genius as someone who can hit a target no one else can see.

I try to keep my goals for the Disney Connection modest. I do think I occasionally reach some level of artistry in my work on this Blog. Inspiration can be found everywhere. So, it is frustrating to wake up and find one’s muse has taken an unexpected leave of absence. Walt Disney is one of those rare people who was an artist and a genius in everything from animated and live action films to theme parks and education. I remain in awe of his accomplishments and will continue to be inspired by him as an example of what can be achieved. Everyone’s time is valuable and there are plenty of places on the internet, TV, movies and the world that you can all spend it. The more I’ve worked on the Disney Connection the more I have felt a commitment to those of you who have carved out enough time in your busy lives to read my writing. I want all my readers to finish a post feeling that their time has been well spent. If I keep up my end of the bargain, I hope you will too. Thanks for your support.

In the meantime, I’ve put up up a page of pictures from my time at D23 Expo 2017.

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1977 – No on-line ticketing or midnight openings LACY ATKINS/AP

As a someone who loves science fiction in all its permutations, Star Wars: A New Hope, (or just plain old Star Wars as I knew it as a kid), was a perfect movie. It had a little of everything I went to the movies for: Adventure, action, sword fights, humor, plausible science, space travel, easy to identify good guys and bad guys (although, George, why are Storm Troopers dressed in white?), a damsel in distress, an unlikely, underdog hero, a wise cracking leading man, a sweeping and pulse quickening score, and spoiler alert (I do know someone on this planet that has not seen a single Star Wars movie) an explosive, exciting, happy ending.

So, I am thrilled to think of walking into that movie world when Star Wars Land opens in 2019 at Disney Studios. I was sitting in the packed auditorium at the D23 Expo in 2015, when Bob Iger announced the plans for the park additions. The place went crazy and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. As the plans have gone from concept paintings to more detailed information, my excitement has not waned.

Our appetites have now been further whetted by the amazing model displayed at this year’s D23 Expo. (See my post D23 Expo 2017 Magical Afterglow for more on the Expo). The Theme Park’s pavilion rolled out the new land name, “Star Wars, Galaxy’s Edge”. The model reveals, not only, the scope and scale of Disney’s largest theme park addition ever. (I confirmed that both US theme parks will get exactly the same addition) But, gives us a view of the park most of us will never get once we’ve entered. Galaxy’s Edge continues Disney’s continued emphasis, started with Pandora, of providing a totally immersive experience.

sw model.jpg

Reports describe much more than the current Studios Streetmosphere to add to the theming and mood.  We will find First Order troops and Rebels roaming the streets. Success or failure on the Millennium Falcon attraction may have an effect on Park’s inhabitants responses to you later in the day. The model also showed the location of the other headliner attraction, a battle inside a Star Destroyer. This might include a new kind of light saber.

This is all very exciting. But, it leads me to a sobering, but inevitable, thought. I will miss the old Disney/MGM Studios and all it represented. Before you start yelling at the screen, I am not one of those, “Don’t ever change my Disney theme park” people. Walt knew technology, and our ideas about entertainment would change or, as he often did, he could change them. The Parks, unlike Disney movies, were built so he could continue to tinker. I believe Walt always thought that while he did the best he could creating his films, he always believed, he could’ve done better if he had: (pick one or more: more time; more money; better technology). Other director’s from George Lucas to Ridley Scott have voiced similar regrets. Once a film is produced, it’s frozen in time. Yes, I know there are director’s cuts of films like Blade Runner. And if you’re George Lucas, you change them and make us all buy new versions. But, the Parks were a chance for Walt to always make things better. He’s famously quoted as saying, “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” Walt’s approach to theme parks wasn’t that different from films. He used storytelling to enhance the attraction experiences. The theme park was a way for Walt to always try to “get it right”  – even if it took him more than one try to do it.

Let’s remember what Michael Eisner was after when he built, what is now called, Disney Hollywood Studios. It was a working film and television studio that would, not only, give us a chance to see “how it’s done” in television, film and animation, but would take us back to the golden age of Hollywood. A time when the studios controlled everything that had to do with making a film and the movie theaters were palaces with uniformed ushers. (See Grauman’s Chinese or Radio City Music Hall). Hollywood was truly tinsel town. MGM boasted it had “More Stars than there are in the Sky”. I love movies that take place at that time in and around L.A. during that period, like Singin’ in the Rain, Chinatown, L.A. Confidential and Barton Fink. Walking through the Park, always felt like being on a movie set in that period. The atmosphere was reinforced with: The Streets of America recreating a studio backlot; iconic buildings like Grauman’s Chinese; and the store fronts and building architecture (yesterland.com has a great overview of architectural inspirations for the Park). And to top it off, there was actual hand drawn animation going on within the nondescript walls of the working studio itself, including work on Brother Bear and Lilo and Stitch (See my post The Art of Animation for my thoughts on animation).

I still get a special feeling when I enter the Park and become enveloped in the eclectic architectural styles reminiscent of Hollywood and the surrounding areas from the 20s-50s. More than Epcot or Animal Kingdom, I think, Studios comes closest to Walt’s use of Main St. USA as a way to calm and prepare us to enter a world of fantasy, as well as begin to tell the story of the Park itself. We walk down a Main St USA that’s from a different time. Did you ever notice that the pathway under the Railroads in Disneyland and Disney World are red? You’re walking the red carpet into a theater! Ever notice how directors often fill the opening moments of a movie with sights and sounds to set the time and place the film. Car styles, store fronts, license plates, welcome signs, music serve the same purpose on Main St. USA and Hollywood Boulevard. Upon entering the Studios we see a period style gas station, lots of LA style architecture and Sid Cahuenga’s. We now know when and where we are. Then the entrance music, filled with great and recognizable movie themes like Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia and Ben Hur, tell us that this is a place for and about the movies.

So, I will miss old Hollywood as Galaxy’s Edge takes storytelling to new levels. I’m hoping it does feel like we’ve entered into the movie throughout the Land, instead of limiting theming to an attraction as has been the historical Imagineering approach. The Studio’s park is in transition from giving us a chance to see how movies were and are made to putting us on the set. I think the original concept was great and I will miss that peek behind the cameras. But, I believe that the direction that Pandora and now Galaxy’s Edge takes is completely in line with the kind of “plussing” that Walt would surely have taken advantage of, had he been able. Hang on. We’re making the jump to light speed!

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D23-Expo-Balloons-1I’ve spent the last week trying to absorb my D23 Expo experience and write a narrative for the three days I attended. There’s quite a lot to cover. And, it’s possible, that by now, you’ve started to hear many positive and negative reviews of the Expo. I’ll continue to work  on a blow by blow account, which may be useful for future Expo goers. But, when I’ve sat and thought about the Event, what comes to mind, more than anything else is the people I encountered. So, for now, I’d like to focus on some positives related to guests, cast members and presenters, who I think made my time at the Expo gratifying and pleasurable.

d23 2017 crowd

In my last post, D23 Expo 2017 Pre-Event Excitement, I talked about the Expo as an opportunity to be amongst all kinds of Disney fans. Some are there to buy limited edition or just released items. Some want to get autographs, selfies or see famous people. Others want to be “first” to know about movie, TV or theme park news. Unfortunately, many things I’ve read about the Expo, pre or post events, often start with the lines. I would say, if there’s one thing we Disney people know how to do, it’s wait on lines and follow instructions. On a Park queue, everyone is focused on their group – where they’ve been and where they are going. They have little interest in their line buddies. At the Expo, I usually waited 3+ hours seated or standing the whole time with the same people, waiting for morning entry into the Convention Center. The difference is, we all knew why we’re there, so the ice was already broken.  It was easy to strike up a conversation, usually started with “Where are you from?” or “Is this your first Expo?”. From there things either went to “What panels are you trying to see?” or “What are you here to buy that you can’t get anywhere else?” or “Whose autograph/picture are you hoping to score?” From all around, people would just jump into the conversation with their thoughts or questions. Even though we are all uncomfortable sitting on the hot concrete or rubbery legged from standing, everyone was upbeat, excited and just plain thrilled to be so close to getting inside (There are others who are much further back in an endless, snaking line. But I’m focused on the group that was unbothered to wake up around 5am to even get close to the front of the line). Then, even after waiting that long, the Disney crowd was still able to follow instructions that allowed us to all get inside, efficiently and without pushing, shoving or other chaos. Each time a group moved forward toward the Center doors a cheer would go up, followed by a groan as we were held at the next line checkpoint. It was truly a group happening, like a concert in Central Park.

Disney has gotten very good at Park crowd control. And the queues for panels or store entry were handled in the same organized manner. But the Expo morning entry is a different kind of animal. So, I’d like to say Thank You to the brave, hard working Cast Members who, not only,  maintained a cheery disposition in the face of repetitive questions (Is this the line to get in? Is there a VIP line just for me? What if I don’t have a ticket already? Is the (fill in the blank) panel already filled? Where’s the end of the line?, etc.) They repeated their pleas to “stay in line”, “have your bag open for inspection”, “keep the line moving” (when it did) “please don’t cut the line corners as you snake around” and “You’re almost there”. No one should underestimate the effect that positive energy can have on a large, tired, uncomfortable crowd of people to keep things from getting out of hand. Then, once things got moving, instructions were simple and consequences for rule breaking were made clear. It may just be me, but all these intangibles make me feel good about doing my part to make things run smoothly and efficiently so I can get to the fun.

end of queue sign blowup

Signs like this could be seen everywhere

On the whole, I found all Cast Members to be polite, upbeat and helpful. No, they didn’t always have the best or most accurate information. Yes, I did, get different answers from different Cast Members a few times. But, I don’t think that the individuals were always to blame. It’s not as if they were all wearing walkie talkies getting the most up to date news flashes. During my time waiting on various lines, I took an informal poll of the line monitors, whose job it was to hold up signs reading “Start of Queue”, “End of Queue” and “Queue Break”. Since I was sure that the postings were not full time jobs, I started asking what they usually do for the Disney Company. Most worked at Disneyland. I met tram drivers, tram announcers, gate ticket takers and even food preparers. So, in defense of the Cast Members, it’s not as if they are used to doing that job, or for that matter, any of the jobs at the Expo all the time. The Expo is only held every two years. So, it’s possible that training is not as thorough as it might be ordinarily. And, there appeared to be changes happening all the time. Most of the time, if someone didn’t have an answer, they were honest and said so. Most of the Cast Members I spoke to admitted that they would have been happier doing their regular job, instead of holding a sign for hours at a time. I watched another queue monitor very actively and enthusiastically, protect a line from potential queue jumpers. Even the daily, small parade the snaked through the show floor was full of the same Cast enthusiasm and professionalism as any I’ve seen in the Parks.

 

 

I was not successful in getting into any of the big announcement sessions like Movies and Theme Parks. But, I was prepared for that possibility and still managed to attend 8 panel discussions over the 3 days of the Expo. Without exception, all the speakers and panel members, not all of whom are professional presenters, were entertaining and engaging. Many that stood out for me were presented by the Disney Archives group, including:

d23 expo archives logo

Bill Cotter, TV Historian and author, gave us a behind the scenes look at the Zorro TV series, including behind the scenes pictures, casting accounts, and stories about the program’s promotions in Disneyland. He also emphasized, that unlike other TV shows of the day, Walt insisted on spending extra money and effort, to insure that the stories, sets and costumes were historically accurate. After Bill’s presentation, I now think the series doesn’t get its due as part of the Disney cannon.

Steve Merritt and Legendary Imagineeer Tony Baxter took us through history of the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough from its Walt inspired idea to promote the soon to be released movie, all the way to the current re-incarnation of the original attraction. There were with blueprints, photographs and amazing stories of the design, engineering, execution, abandonment and recreation of the attraction.

Hans Perk, Animation Historian, took us for a virtual tour of the Disney Hyperion studios, allowing us to see where many iconic photos of Walt and Co. were taken during some of the studio’s most important and creative period from 1926 to 1940. I’ve read a lot about the studio. “Seeing” it as the odd configuration of buildings, put together to meet the growing demands of Walt’s imagination, allowed me to get a sense of the tremendous that he fueled with his energy and enthusiasm.

Fun, laughter and excitement was all around the Expo panel rooms and show floor. I saw people showing off their newly acquired treasures, sharing stories of surprises, even some disappointments. I and others shared our food with those who didn’t plan as well, graciously saved spaces in line for bathroom runs and even offered to sell. without markup, an extra limited edition item to someone who was less fortunate.

Some Expo surprises:

A daily parade on the show floor, complete with celebrities like Mark Hamil and Stan Lee.

Free cold brewed ice coffee with nifty Disney designs

A picture in the D23 lounge area which included my wife and I, taken during the NYC ,Gold Member, Behind the Scenes Event. We’re in the middle of the back row.

A free Gold Member gift

gold member gift

The Lion King 360° VR Experience let me virtually experience the Broadway musical from onstage. I could all around, in the wings, out in to the audience and into the flies as the opening scene at Pride Rock unfolded.

And, finally, admidst the thousands of people on the show floor, I ran into two people that I know from my NYC Disney fan group. And I got the chance to meet some Facebook friends for the first time.

There’s so much more to tell about my Expo experience. After something like the Expo, I usually find that I’ve taken photos of all the wrong things and missed other opportunities to capture the moments. I’ll post some of my photos here, anyway. Yes, there are things that I thought could have been done that might have made the Expo even better. But for now, I think I’m satisfied to share the things that made the Event so much fun for me. I’m sure I’ll be able to feed off the memories for some time. Hopefully the magical glow will last until the next time.

me at expo

 

expo_Banner_2017According to the LA Times, there will be about 60,000 people attending the D23 Expo this year. It’s anybody’s guess how many tickets were sold for this years event at the Anaheim Convention Center. I’m happy to say, for the second time, I will be one of the thousands. You may have heard or read about waiting on lines, the crowds and that it’s impossible to get all the sessions you’d like to attend. I can’t speak for the other 59,999 Disney addicted souls, but I would rather accentuate the positive.

For me, the Expo represents an amazing gathering of people who can’t get enough Disney. Strange as it may seem, with all of the thousands of Disney fans who might live in or around where I live, I have found it difficult to connect with fellow Disneyites. I recently found a group of people who love all things Disney as much as I do. But for years, the only time I could surround myself with Disney fans, without making a spectacle of myself, was to go to a Disney movie. (See my post What’s with you and the Disney Thing? for some thoughts on my connection to Disney) The D23 Expo offers people like me an amazing opportunity to let the Disney Company do something for me as a fan, make me feel important and be surrounded by like minded people.

disney-twenty-three_SP09_Cover

2009 Premiere Magazine Issue

Over the years, Disney has done small things to acknowledge their fans, who, by the way, give them the funds to keep creating. Magazines, the old Magic Kingdom Club and probably some other things I’ve forgotten or didn’t know about. I don’t live near either of the 2 U.S. theme parks or the Disney Studios, so attending special events like premiere’s, screenings or tours is very difficult. I was always looking for something more. Maybe even a thank you for the money I have spent and the time I have loyally and happily invested in Disney related movies, trips and merchandise over the years. So, when Bob Iger announced the D23 fan club in 2009 I signed up. If nothing else, at least I’d get a magazine for my membership money. As I expected, early on, the events were mostly in and around Anaheim. But, the quarterly magazine has consistently exceeded my expectations. The articles are interesting and varied, the pictures are excellent the overall feel of the publication is very classy. And they always include a little keepsake surprise with the issues. So, I kept renewing. I’m glad I did.

Fast forward to 2012 when the Disney Archives announced the “FANniversary”  celebration, with NYC as one of the cities they would visit. I grabbed my tickets, hoped for something more than marketing for the fanniversary 2012latest Disney films and tried to manage my expectations. The event exceeded those expectations. Not only was the event well organized, but there were keepsakes for everyone and the presentations by the Disney Archivists were interesting, full of surprises and included pictures and video that I had not seen before, covering movies, television, theme parks and more, all related to Disney Celebrations. I left the theater feeling more than satisfied with my annual membership.

The FANniversary was followed by an anniversary screening of Peter Pan on the big screen in NYC. Then in 2014 there was a second FANniversary tour. This time it celebrated many Disney anniversaries, including:

  • The 1964-65 Worlds Fair – 50 years
  • Donald Duck – 80 years
  • Disney’s MGM Studios (yes they referred to it that way for the celebration!) – 25 years
  • Mary Poppins – 50 years
  • The Muppet Movie, Muppets Take Manhattan, and Muppet Babies – 35, 30 and 30 years
  • Marvel – 75 years
  • Sleeping Beauty – 55 years
  • The Little Mermaid – 25 years
  • The Incredibles – 10 years
  • Toy Story 2 – 15 years
  • The Lion King – 20 years
  • The “E” Ticket – 55 years
  • The Haunted Mansion – 45 years
  • The Tower of Terror – 20 years
  • The Adventurer’s Club – 25 years
  • Splash Mountain – 25 years
  • Big Thunder Mountain – 35 years

This time the event was held in a much larger theater, which speaks to the popularity of the event, and included a photo opportunity to see and stand near two pieces of Disney History. I can’t find my photos, but they were Mary Poppins’ hat and a Duckster statuette.

Once again, a lot of care was taken in organizing the afternoon and a good time was had by all who attended.  Now we’ve moved onto 2015 and I’m really starting to feel the love from Disney. So, I put some nickels, dimes and hundred dollar bills together (remember I live near NYC) and bought a ticket to my first D23 Expo.  As I get on the plane to LAX, I’m alternately excited and terrified. I had been reading some stories about camping out, long lines, and some attendees turned away from sessions that had filled up. This was a picture of the convention center the day before the Expo began.

d12 convention center 2015

The size of the signs correctly foreshadowed the size and scope of the convention. But, that day it looked peaceful.

I’m having difficulty remembering, but I think I arrived at the convention center the next morning at around 7am. My first impression was that things were a little disorganized as far as where to go, and the lines to check in were ridiculously long. After several hours in the heat, I was inside and found my way to another line to wait for the Legends presentation.

expo 2015 pano

This isn’t going to be a review of the 2015 Expo, so, I’d like to say that overall, I left after the 3 days, feeling:

  • That I had more than gotten my money’s worth . Between the sessions and the show floor, it was a first class event. So much to see and so many things to do.
  • Like an insider. Many of the sessions included new announcements for movies, theme parks and more. Sessions for movies and parks required everyone to seal their phones in a bag while monitors watched the crowd. Very secret.

coming soon expo 2015

  • Totally appreciated by the Disney Company. They pulled out all the stops. There were so many surprises, including top movie and theme park “Stars”, including Harrison Ford, Sir Ben Kingsley, Johnny Depp (once as Captain Jack Sparrow), Chris Evans, Richard Sherman, Marty Sklar and Rolly Crump, to name just a few. And the three days included many unique experiences, including: Showings of the Silly Symphonies with live orchestral  accompaniment and commentary by Leonard Maltin. A live concert of Disney Broadway songs featuring James Monroe Iglehart (original Broadway Genie).  Imagineering trivia and secrets.And  I took advantage of the Charter Members lounge, which was like a quiet oasis amidst the general noise of the conventions.

Silly symph concert

  • Overwhelmed by the exhibits on the show floor, including the Pandora sneak peak, Disney Archives display of original Disneyland artifacts, Star Wars costumes, Shanghai Disney preview and even John Lasseters Hawaiian shirts, plus vendors and shopping.

lasseter hawaiin

  • Thoroughly exhausted, since I spent all day at the Expo and then went to Disneyland for a few hours each night. Whew. And I was looking forward to the next Expo.

Yes, I waited on some lines, but I never felt like it wasn’t worth it in the end. No, I did not get to every session I wanted to, but I’ve never been to any conference or convention, for business or pleasure, where I was able to accomplish that. Yes, there was a lot of walking, but that made up for not getting in my usual exercise time. No. I didn’t get very much of the special Expo merchandise, but I that wasn’t why I attended. Yes, I was tired, but I will still take advantage of the discounted Disneyland tickets again this year.

Last year, I was able to attend the 25th anniversary showing of Beauty and the Beast at  Lincoln Center. Not only did we get to see the movie on a big screen, but there was a panel discussion with Angela Lansbury, Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White and producer Don Hahn. We were treated to a mini concert by Alan Menken and then cane a complete surprised. Ms. Lansbury came out and sang Beauty and the Beast accompanied by Mr. Menken.

This year I had the unique opportunity to attend a D23 Gold member event in NYC, which celebrated the 20th anniversary of Disney re-opening the historic Amsterdam Theater in NYC. You can read the full account of this amazing day in my post Report on D23’s “Behind the Scenes” NYC Event.

So, here we are, less than a week away from Expo 2017. Certainly, knowledge is power, I’m less nervous about what to expect. But, since it seems that Disney is always tinkering with things, I expect that there will be differences in how things work this year. Again, I’m managing my expectations for what sessions I would like to attend. Now that the full schedule is out, there are many things I’d like to see and experience. Many of them overlap or happen at the same time.

I hope that my second Expo is as fun and fulfilling as the first. I will try to attend some of the large sessions for Parks and movies and some of the reunion/celebration sessions for Lion King, Zorro and Hercules. I also would like to get to the sessions celebrating some of the Disney magic makers from the past like the Ink and Paint women, Disney product legacy, and the virtual visit to Hyperion Studio.

I hope all of you that have taken advantage of D23 are enjoying your membership as much as I am. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that it would be nice if the profitable Disney organization would not charge extra for tickets to all these events. But, I do understand that everything costs money. And I wouldn’t want them to skimp on the quality of the events. Even though many activities take place in Anaheim, the Disney Company is making a real effort to reach out to fans in many ways. Certainly, mounting an event as ambitious as the Expo every two years involves hundreds of people and very complicated logistics. If they were to ask me, I would encourage them to do more in the future and keep me and the rest of my Disney fan community feeling appreciated.

 

 

walt carousel benchWalt always said that he built Disneyland so an average family could all have fun together, instead of the parents watching from a nearby bench, as he had done with his daughters. The attractions Walt created in the first decade of the park from the Main St. USA entrance, to Frontierland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland and, of course, Fantasyland were designed, primarily, with the idea of imaginative play. Have the changes to the parks that have occurred over the decades stayed true to his original vision? Or has time made it necessary for the Disney company to alter course to meet the demands of modern visitors?

Contrary to urban legend, on opening day Disneyland’s attraction list was modest, consisting of about 12 attractions, the Disneyland band, a movie theater, shooting gallery, a horse car, musical revue and the Castle. But for a 1950s audience, the park was like opening a play chest full of costumes, props and toys. What kid in that era didn’t want to pretend to be a heroic Davy Crockett fighting Indians or an adventurous explorer discovering the unknowns of the deep jungle, fly like Peter Pan or Dumbo or drive a car. Adults could happily ride with their kids and then the kids could join their parents in experiencing idealized versions of the past by riding a steam powered train, gliding on a Mississippi riverboat, relive your childhood on a magnificently restored 19th century carousel where every horse was a jumper or shoot like a western marksman.

With the introduction of the Matterhorn in 1959 Disney introduced the first themed, steel roller coaster to the theme park world. But Walt, who had wanted a Disneyland coaster matterhorn 1959from the start, still managed to have his cake and ate it too. The Matterhorn’s tubuler track and nylon wheels combined with reaching a height of only 80 feet (modern coasters go well over 255 feet) made for the kind of family friendly attraction that fit, what he believed, (and magically seemed to know) his guests wanted. While the theming and zooming in and out of the mountain make for a highly stylized view of the Iconic European Alps, it was a departure from what most 50s Americans would have imagined they might ever do.

Alice8-58The family friendly, imaginative play theme continued through Walt’s lifetime with the additions of Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes, Alice in Wonderland and the Sailing Ship Columbia, peaking perhaps, in the early 60s. Walt began to take advantage of technological advancements accelerated by WED’s work for the 1964 NY World’s Fair. (See my posts Walt Disney Goes to the Fair and Report on D23’s “Behind the Scenes” NYC Event for more Disney Fair info) And we can see Walt’s attention turning more toward the future as guests were treated to a new form of transportation when the Disneyland Monorail took off in 1959. Even today, many visitors (and the Disney Company) consider the Monorail an attraction.

monorail opening

VP Nixon & family help Walt Disney dedicate the Monorail at Disneyland June 1959.

Aside from the Monorail, the rest of attractions which Disney had direct input into: Enchanted Tiki Room; The Disneyland Story presenting Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln; It’s a Small World; and finally Pirates of the Caribbean, all could and still are enjoyed by all guests, from the oldest to the youngest. Pacific island theming was very hot in the 60s, with tiki bars serving Mai Tais everywhere and Hawaiian shirts in every man’s closet. Perhaps more than previous attractions, music now played an important part in the overall design as Walt continued to create a movie-like experience for guests.

062613_tiki-room-50th-anniversary-archives-15

In the decades after Walt’s death Walt Disney World opened and the attractions at the two U.S. parks haven’t always matched. But, in general, attractions like Space Mountain, Star Tours, Indiana Jones Adventure/Dinosaur, Splash Mountain, as well as the newer Soarin’ versions, in my opinion, demonstrate an approach which is still steeped in Imagineering theming and storytelling. But the emphasis is on thrills and a more immersive feel with little room for individual imagination. We experience the attractions without necessarily having to use our own imaginations to be entertained. In some cases it’s all about the thrills, in attractions like Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Expedition Everest and California Screamin’. Theme parks and amusement parks continue to up the ante on thrill rides, so, it follows, that in order to keep customers who want to feel an adrenaline rush, Disney had to offer those options to their guests.

Family style entertainment still has a place in the U.S. theme parks, plussed (Disney style enhancement) by 3D projections in attractions like Muppetvision and Toy Story Midway Mania. Sometimes 3D is combined with other sensory surprises found in Mickey’s Philharmagic and It’s Tough to be a Bug. Animatonics have seen their share of added pizazz  through computer animation seen in Seven Dwarves Mine Train and Radiator Springs Racers.

avatar bustFinally, with the opening of Pandora and the imminent unveiling of Star Wars Land, Disney is taking theming to new levels of immersiveness. Not only are there new attractions in these mini-parks, but, instead of just entering into the story of the attraction starting at the queue, we are plunged into that story from the moment we enter the Land. The theming encompasses everything around the visitor, food, costuming, and, in the case of Pandora, flora. During the Star Wars Land announcement at the 2015 D23 Expo, Bob Iger joked that they were looking for future park employees who could speak a variety of alien languages. I’ll bet that if it were possible, Disney would be all in.

It’s my opinion that Disney keeps an ear to the ground, listening for changes in theme park entertainment to compete with other park operators.  But, they also have an eye on a public that demands more thrills and expects technology to play more than a supporting role in attractions. With the commercial availability of virtual reality gear, it may only be a matter of time before we’re all strapping on goggles and headsets for future attractions.

As the U.S. Disney parks continue to grow and change, we still see the spirit of Walt’s family oriented approach in rides like Toy Story Midway Mania, the upcoming Toy Story Land, Voyage of the Little Mermaid and the continued popularity of attractions like Small World and Peter Pan’s Flight. Not everyone can take advantage of every attraction anymore. But that doesn’t mean adults or children have to sit on a bench and watch. There’s more than enough to keep everyone happy and entertained during a vacation stay.

I don’t like to refer to audience sophistication, because, in the end we all want to be entertained, whether through thrills, scares, laughs or surprises. But because we have so much entertainment, literally, at our fingertips, Disney has had to meet our expanded expectations. And we always want more. How many of you don’t think twice about seeing a movie in 3D? How many of you have young children who turn up their noses at the carousel or Dumbo?

My children loved to play pretend, using their imaginations to turn their bedroom into a Buzz Lightyear rocket ship or do the twilight bark with their stuffed animals. And Walt certainly gave those early Disneyland visitors the same opportunity, albeit, with a little more pizazz. I think flexing our imaginations and dreaming helped create generations of inventors, strivers and dreamers that built companies like IBM, Ford, Apple and Google and made our country the envy of the world. I hope that having our entertainment fed to us rather than having to work for it a little will not lead us to be a country that sits and waits for things to happen instead of making magic.

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