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Think Disney didn't announce anything significant at D23? Think again

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Published: August 23, 2011 at 11:28 AM
Disney might not have announced any huge new theme park projects at this year's D23 Expo, but don't be fooled into thinking that Disney didn't announce anything significant.

Tom Staggs at D23

Disney Parks Chairman Tom Staggs all but apologized to fans for the lack of fresh news at the Expo, in an update to his blog post on the Disney website. In that update, Staggs hinted at upcoming announcements from Disney, including news about the future of Downtown Disney in Orlando.

But what Disney did announce at the Expo - and what the company's been developing over the past few years - marks a very significant development for the company, one that fans shouldn't overlook in their zeal to hear about the next big land or ride.

Let's review what we did see or learn about at this year's D23:

  • A live, public showing of Talking Mickey
  • A Lumiere Audio Animatronic at the Magic Kingdom, using what sounds like microtechnology
  • An interactive queue for The Little Mermaid in Florida
  • New "special experiences" at Disneyland, including dinners with Imagineers and other special events themed to now-closed attractions
  • Confirmation of either a new club or expansion of Club 33 at the Disneyland Resort
  • Fantasy Faire, a new meet and greet area in the old Carnation Gardens at Disneyland
  • Details on several new experiences in Shanghai Disneyland's upcoming Enchanted Storybook Castle, including restaurants, shops and attractions

We also heard more details about Cars Land, the New Fantasyland and the Buena Vista Street entry plaza for Disney California Adventure. But look at the other news in the Disney Parks' D23 Expo presentation, and a pattern emerges: Disney is working on a variety of projects to make the theme park experience more interactive, more personal and more intimate than theme park attractions traditionally have been in the past.

As fans, we're almost programmed to be impressed by announcements of The Next Big Thing. But let's not overlook very important announcements of the next little things, too. When executed well, details often become the factors that distinguish great vacations.

One of the reasons why Universal Orlando's Harry Potter has been so wildly successful is that it provides a tangible place for fans to feel the emotional connection that they have with the Harry Potter universe. But it is Universal's faithful attention to recreating detail in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter that makes those connections flow.

Disney's pouring a billion dollars into its "NextGen" project, for which Disney - again - has been reticent on providing details, to the great frustration of its most dedicated fans. But whatever its forms turns out to be, NextGen is about the use of technology to create detail that forges connections.

The projects that Disney announced at D23 reflect that spirit. Even a character meet and greet - which many of us have derided as a cheap alternative to fixed attractions - can become much more emotionally engaging for the guests involved when its taken from a random pathway into am initimate themed setting, appropriate for the character being met.

Obviously, Disney needs big blockbuster attractions, too. But let's not forget that a generation of fans raised on video games looks for interactivity and individuated experiences in entertainment. Disney's turning a battleship in moving from traditional mass-experience theme park attractions to attractions that better support those individual, interactive experiences.

That's a significant change. Again, we'll have to see how well Disney pulls it off. But I don't want fans to overlook the significance of what Disney is doing, either.

Readers' Opinions

From Amy Tupper on August 23, 2011 at 11:42 AM
Let's hope the "Downtown Disney" announcement includes some reference to The Adventurer's Club, eh?
From Robert Niles on August 23, 2011 at 11:54 AM
If not a new Adventurer's Club, given the success of Trader Sam's at the Disneyland Hotel, I would be shocked if Disney World didn't try to implement some type of Tiki bar at Downtown Disney.
From Erik Yates on August 23, 2011 at 12:09 PM
Oh dear lord.
From Brandon Mendoza on August 23, 2011 at 12:49 PM
My biggest problem with D23 Expo was that most of the events, meet & greets, and panels were targeted towards Tweens. And any of the theme park related presentations couldn't handle the amount of people at the Expo.

One thing that was missing that I would have loved to see was some sort of free photo op area where you can "Hitchhike" with the ghosts or be in the Ballroom with the Ghosts. Or have an actual physical pirate ship wheel where you play the role of the skeleton. Memorable things like this are common at SD Comic Con, so why not at the Expo that's for Disney Fans? In '09 there were character meet and greets where the wait was about 2 minutes... this time it was almost non-existent with the exception of the talking Mickey.

I did love meeting the 1st President of Disneyland, going through the Archives, seeing fan made artwork (especially the PotC Jail Cell scene in the style of 101 Dalmatians), and seeing all of the scale models of the new additions to the parks.

There were a lot of great things at the Expo, but there were more downs than ups.

From Robert Niles on August 23, 2011 at 1:41 PM
Operationally, Disney can do anyone of several things to reduce the lines at D23:

1. It can raise the ticket price to lower the number of attendees.
2. It can establish some type of Fastpass-like reservation system to get a seat at presentations and to see some popular exhibits.
3. It can move the whole thing to Orlando, which would eliminate the large base of locals attending the event, as Orlando has fewer local Disney fans than SoCal does. Orlando also has a larger convention center, which would be the only way to increase capacity for the event.

Disney could do a combination of 1 and 2 by implementing a tiered ticket structure, where a regular ticket would get you into the show floor and a limited number of events, but you'd need a premium ticket to get into the Parks and Studios presentations, too.

Option 3 would reduce the crowds, but also make it more difficult to haul out all the Imagineers and Studio talent to Orlando. The Imagineers would come, but some of the "talent" wouldn't, so that's a non-starter for D23 as a Studio promotion event.

So a modification of option 3 would be to move a theme park-related D23 Expo to Orlando and keep a Studio-driven one in SoCal. Do one a year, and have them alternate years. The theme park one can alternate between coasts, too.

That'd be my pick, but Disney likely wouldn't like it because one of the major purposes of D23 is to expose the legions of Disney theme park fans to the company's studio and other product offerings. So I suspect we'll likely see the regular/premium ticket split next time, instead.

From 75.134.1.161 on August 23, 2011 at 2:45 PM
For years, we've needed a Disney Park in the Midwest. I realize the climate is not conducive to a full Theme Park, but with the extravagant casino's popping up all along the Mississippi river, it would be great if the world's premiere fantasy company would create a venue somewhere in the middle of the country.
From 170.200.64.1 on August 23, 2011 at 2:55 PM
Regarding D23 Expo sessions/lines, my real complaint vs. 2009 was that there was no "plan B" sessions. More people came and had less to do. Things that were in conference rooms in '09 were either not happening or happened on small stages on the floor. Once you missed a session, you had nothing to do, especially as the show floor is no Comic-Con in scale.

In 2009 I attended a session with Dave Pachecco and Andreas Deja about merchandise design that was intimate and amazing; it wasn't my first choice, but something I went to about 15 minutes before after missing whatever else I wanted to see. This year, similar design panels happened on the tiny stage in the Living area, next to all the hoopla. Hard to hear and with few seats, there was no effort to make those sessions seem like, well, real sessions. Putting them in conference rooms, or at least making the Living stage area bigger, would have helped.

On Sunday there was only one conference room going, not two. So after Marvel, which thankfully was line-free for us, we left. I didn't want to spend hours in line to maybe get into one of the three remaining events.

Few other thoughts:
- No complaints about the stuff for kids and tweens; actually think it brought balance that was lacking in '09. While not for me, the Disney Channel area was constantly hopping, and it seemed like it should have been larger. Not with more stuff, but more space (which was available).

- Use as many of the seats in the arena as possible, and make the ushers fill rows like they do at the parks: "use all available seats, slide down, etc." I was appalled that people were turned away as I saw empty seats, even for the Studios presentation. I'm not referring to the empty sections, where 750-1,000 more fans would have gladly sat, even with poor sightlines.

- The lines to get in Friday were plain insulting. Members were supposed to be able to enter at 9am. But they only had 3-4 people scanning passes. So I arrived at 8:45am, and only got in at 9:50--and I was lucky. Thankfully, they fixed this on Saturday and Sunday.

- Repeating some sessions, adding video feeds for arena shows where possible (obviously not Studios), and simply having more alternate sessions all can help. These don't require tiered pricing (which existed) or a venue change to Orlando, which really isn't feasible as employees and especially stars can't/won't travel.


All that said, I liked both D23 Expos, but I'm not sure I want to travel from NYC for another one as I liked this one far less. Will be interesting to see if it even happens again. If it does, they need to treat the guests better and not just count on us to be extras in the background for the press and consumers to buy tchotchkes. That's often how I and others I spoke with felt this year, which was a bummer after being amazed in 2009.

From Sylvain Comeau on August 23, 2011 at 7:36 PM
I'd trade one new, high quality E ticket for a billion dollars of "Next Gen" any day of the week. And twice on Sundays.

How about giving us what we really WANT, Disney? Like, say, what Universal did with Harry Potter.

From Ted Heumann on August 24, 2011 at 12:47 PM
Robert, you forgot about the "Amazing Destini" which was VERY intimate and interactive.
From Ted Heumann on August 24, 2011 at 12:52 PM
To Sylvain Comeau, in order to do something AMAZING, it costs LOTS of money (at LEAST $200-300 million) and YEARS of development and construction. Disney, Universal, etc can only do that once or twice a decade. Disney is doing that in Calif with the extreme makeover of DCA and in WDW with the new Fantasyland (and a couple of years ago with Expedition Everest).
What else do you want?!?

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