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Monday, August 29, 2011

D23 Expo - 2011

Boy, what a weekend. What a mess. What cool merchandise! What more I wished I could have seen…

Disney may not want to hear all of my thoughts, opinions and suggestions directly from their little survey that practically everyone wanted to fill out to give them a piece of their mind, but I’m going to say it anyway. Who knows…perhaps those in charge might actually read something here.

I went to the first D23 Expo back in 2009. It had a lot of great panels, a decent amount of vendors, and was a dream to attend for a hardcore Disney geek like myself on that Saturday with all of the big parks announcements (granted, I knew about most of them already from a recent leak at the time) and things to look at. It wasn't too crowded, which was great for me, though that was probably not so great for Disney's numbers.

So Disney did what really anyone else would have done in their situation. “Okay. We had a decent amount of people come, but maybe we should scale things back a bit. Let’s wait 2 years to gather up some more hype, have fewer panels and make the spaces for them smaller.”

Little did they know what was coming their way…

Ticket sales really should have been an indicator, but Disney wanted to sell tickets on-site during the Expo. One has to wonder how many tickets were sold pre-sale versus the day-of. In any case, while the first Expo was thrown together and advertised only a few months ahead of time in 2009, 2011 had fans waiting for 2 whole years with word-of-mouth, a few advertisements and great expectations. I have no idea how many people came to D23 this year, but I have to tell you that it felt like 2009 had only 15-20% of what I saw for this second run. As a result, the Expo could not meet the desires and expectations of its customers.

The chaos began even before anyone was allowed to enter the building. Because Disney scaled back its offerings, they decided to hire less people; so, when the masses descended upon Anaheim to start lining up, whether they were members of D23 and could enter the Convention Center an hour early or were part of the general public, no one could find an informed employee to tell them where they were supposed to go. On Friday, there were supposed to be separate lines depending on your ticket type, but you could not find a sign or employee to point you to where you needed to queue up. On Saturday, everyone was thrown into one line, which made many people even more angry and confused, especially since the main event of that day started at 10:30 a.m. and there was just no way for a non-D23 member to go see it. (Please note that I did not go on Sunday.)

Most of the people working the event were very nice and I do not blame them for what happened. No one saw what was coming that weekend. However, Disney always loves to use the line “subject to change without notice” – so I have to wonder why someone did not take the initiative to stall certain panels and events to open up the seating to more guests. The Anaheim Convention Center is huge, the largest on the West Coast, with the Anaheim Arena (a.k.a. the largest space where the biggest events take place) holding 10,000 seats! Al Lutz reported that Disney was to push the stage forward and have 4,000 seats instead, but when I was at the event I was told that the arena could hold only 1,000 people. Why didn’t anyone try to fix this when they realized how little space there was for the amount of people that were at the Expo?

One of the worst offenders was the main event that was in the morning on Saturday. The day was sold out, and the event that everyone wanted to see was running from 10:30 to…1 p.m.? Are you kidding me? It was the Walt Disney Studios event, which had enough things going for it that the event could have easily been broken up into 6 different panels. Perhaps then fans of Marvel would not have to sit through information about the new Muppets film, and vice-versa.

I did not try to go to the Dick Van Dyke event on Friday night, but I heard from other people (while waiting in line for 3 hours for the Pixar: 25 Years panel) that the line for that event was cut off around 3 hours before it was supposed to start. Disney didn’t even place the event in the Anaheim Arena, but shoved them in a small hall. Really, really bad decision, since 1) The Arena was available, and 2) It was a musical performance with fricken’ Dick Van Dyke.

Anyhow, now that the damage has been done and the event is over, I have a few pieces of tips and advice for Disney when they try to plan the next D23 Expo.

1) All tickets should be pre-sale and cut off before the Expo starts so that expected guests count can be tallied. That way, the amount of staff, panels and seats can be planned appropriately to accommodate the amount of people that come. 

  2) Break it up. The Studio presentation had way too much going on. Instead of shoving everything together, have a devoted Wreck-it Ralph panel, a panel on the Making of the Muppets, etc. And there are so many other things the fans are interested in (especially the very large group that usually populates the Disneyland Resort.) How about a panel focusing on the developments in Audio-Animatronics over the years? The Re-Awakening of the Sleeping Beauty Walkthrough? How Do You Create a Gourmet Menu on the Disney Cruise Line? Walt Disney’s Love of Trains? Seriously, I could do this all day…

  3) If there isn’t enough time for more questions, let the people who have been standing in line for the microphone for half an hour ahead of time, not just announce “We have time for one more question.”

    4) If it is going to be a madhouse for lines, give us some quality Disney entertainment. When I waited for the big Pixar: 25 Years panel, the room we waited in played the same 15-minute music loop over and over and over again. I love “Under the Sea” and everything, but it was starting to make us all go a little crazy. There is so much room – why can’t there be some classic Disney cartoons being played in the waiting rooms? Maybe Disney could even throw in a few commercials for their latest and greatest offerings? If you are waiting for a Pixar panel, why not play a few Pixar shorts? Maybe all of Toy Story? If it is the lines outside, why not bring out the Muppet Mobile, PUSH, Lucky the Dinosaur, WALL-E or R2-D2 to interact with the crowd? I can almost guarantee that impatient guests will instantly be forgiving.

  5) If there isn’t enough room for guests to make it into a major event/panel, then why not stream it live on some TV screens in the standby area? It would take a bit of the sting out, for sure.

  6) Just because a visitor to the Expo isn’t a D23 member doesn’t make them a 3rd-class citizen (without any sort of 2nd-class to be found). Don’t schedule a major presentation at 10:30 a.m. if most non-D23 members who have waited in line for several hours to get into the Convention Center won’t make it inside until at least 11-11:30 a.m. If you must schedule a presentation or panel that early, why not let everyone line up outside for it? That would make it fair for everyone.

  7) Don’t be so stingy on the freebies! Half of the fun of conventions is getting the free swag! I noticed that some departments were far more giving than others, so maybe this issue is a bit more complicated, but it would be good of the people overseeing this thing to impress this upon the different booths that set up camp.

  8) Include Pretty Little Liars – probably ABC Family’s strongest property right now – next time! This show is extremely successful and I’m pretty sure a handful of the stars would have loved to come to the Expo, as some of them hit the Black Carpet for the Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides premiere.

  9) Remember that most of the people coming to this Expo are adults that love Disney history – so, don’t skimp on Disney history.

10) Remember that a high percentage of the people that come to the Expo probably visit Disneyland on a regular basis – so, have plenty of panels related to the parks and allow guests to talk to their favorite Imagineers!

With all of that negativity out of way, here is what D23 did right (in no particular order):

1)     The Pixar Panels. The people working at Pixar are a fun, creative, and hard-working team that are fascinating to listen to. None of them seemed to have an issue with public speaking or talking about their labors of love (from what I saw). I know that this year was special since Pixar is celebrating 25 years, but I sincerely hope that they have a strong presence at the next D23 Expo as well.

2)     The beginnings of peace for the popular critics online that Disney has not been too fond of in the past. Jim Hill from actually introduced a panel! Anyone that I mentioned this to (and who knew of Jim) was shocked by this, as Jim likes to share information that Disney often does not make public (or hasn’t yet) and used to give guided tours of the parks until Disney asked him to stop and leave. Hmm…perhaps Al Lutz or Kevin Yee will be next?

3)    Cool merchandise. I could go on and on about this, but the best example from all of this was Mickeys of Glendale, the store with Walt Disney Imagineering merchandise.

4)    The Great Destini! This was a nifty little guy that I would like to coin as an AAA (Autonomous-Audio-Animatronic). That’s right, guys – this robot can think, talk and interact completely for himself, without any aid of a human being! He was able to do this with special facial-recognition programming that the brilliant minds at WDI came up with – and if you will remember, at the first D23 Expo they had an AA using this technology but he was unable to operate on his own. Anyhow, the Great Destini tells fortunes and prints out a big sticker with your face on it. He gave me a love fortune, so he put big hearts on my eyes. The wait was really long to see him, but it was completely worth it.

5)    The Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Pavillion in general. While I felt it was overall a lot less stuff to look at as compared to the first Expo, I was pleasantly surprised to see the test-vehicle for the future Seven Dwarves Mine Coaster (with concept art and video).

6)     I’m not terribly interested in the teenie-bopper stuff, but it was good that it had a presence for some variety, especially the Perry the Platypus Bus.

7)    Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives.

8)    Showing The Lion King 3D.

9)    Having people like Don Hahn talk about the creative process and do meet and greets.

10) Having people like the creators of The Little Mermaid just walking the floor and being so nice to fans who want to say hello.

With all of that, I will leave you with a few pictures and videos that I took. See you next time!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Sleeping Beauty Post

I just took a lovely trip to Europe and spent a whole week in Paris. I wanted to hit several tourist spots, but I knew that I absolutely had to visit Disneyland Paris. I am a California native, and had only been to the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, so I was very excited to visit a different set of Disney parks.

While I will not go into detail here about that trip, I would like to take a look at the differences between Anaheim's and Paris' castles, as they share a distinctly connective feature: Sleeping Beauty.

Originally, Sleeping Beauty Castle in Anaheim was to be named Snow White Castle (in fact, Walt accidentally called it that on television). Disneyland opened in 1955, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves had garnered Disney many awards and achievements, so it seemed to just be natural that the first animated film would have a tribute to it smack dab in the center of Walt's grand park. However, since the beginning of the 1950s, the Walt Disney Animation Studio had been hard at work trying to translate the classic fairytale of Sleeping Beauty into a full-length animated feature film. The movie was causing the studio a great amount of headaches, and costing quite a bit of money because it was taking so long to make (the film didn't finally open until 1959). The detail that went into this film was incredible – it took a whole week just to finish painting a single background for the film, and for the first time, it was the backgrounds and environments that were taking precedence over the design of the film instead of the characters. As they say in Hollywood, time is money, and this picture was worrying a lot of people at the studio in terms of finances. But Walt was proud of what his Studio was creating, and wanted to give the film a bit of a promotional boost…so Walt decided to name his new castle Sleeping Beauty Castle instead. Additionally, in the original model for the castle, the top half was backwards; one of the designers had been playing with the model, and as Walt was about to walk in, the top half got switched around and the Imagineers did not have enough time to turn it back the "right way" before the big boss came in. Ironically, Walt loved the castle backwards, so the design stuck. For the overall design, Imagineers took inspiration from the Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany.

Since Disneyland opened before Sleeping Beauty was released to theaters, this was the perfect way to advertise ahead of time. The downside to this was that not everything in the film had been finalized; still, the Imagineers worked with what they had. The Walk-Through was not there when the park first opened, but Walt hated unused space (and loved using that space to create even grander things), so the idea for guests to actually go up inside the castle was born. To create more of an attraction out of the castle, WED built the Sleeping Beauty Walk-Through, which visually told the story of Sleeping Beauty (albeit in a more dark and dramatic way with perhaps more focus on Maleficent than the full story) through flat paintings that were inspired by Eyvind Earle's artistry (the man who created the look for the film, and he was also directly involved in the creation of the attraction) – and that version opened in 1957. Twenty years later, the attraction was re-designed with three-dimensional dioramas. While this face-lift made the attraction more "hip" for the time and gave a full account of the Sleeping Beauty story, it somewhat lacked the artistic finesse that had been seen with Earle's artistic look. As the years passed, Disneyland's upkeep became rather questionable, and the Walk-Through, while still open, wasn't tremendously popular (many guests didn't even know about it, for that matter). After September 11th, 2001, Disneyland's attendance and revenue took a nasty turn for the worse, and management was looking to find any way they could to make cuts. The attraction closed in October "for refurbishment" – in reality, Disney probably had no intention to ever refurbish the attraction. Disneyland's 50th anniversary came and went, with a major resurgence of popularity and fiscal gain, but still the Walk-Through remained closed (and was rumored of being used as a storage area for the 50th fireworks). But Disney loves synergy, and that fact alone just might have been enough to greenlight an updated version of the attraction to tie-in with the release of the Sleeping Beauty Blu-Ray/DVD release for the film's 50th anniversary. The newest version now showcases the old school Eyvid Earle style, but makes it three-dimensional in dioramas with up-to-date special effects to make for some really magical displays.

When Imagineers were given the task to create a new Sleeping Beauty Castle for Paris, however, they wanted to do something different. By that point, several other Disney castles had been built and WDI had created a better system for physically setting up their parks to accommodate large crowds (and to make things look even grander than before). The park was built with complete consideration of beauty, so WDI created a Sleeping Beauty Castle (or, in French, Le Ch√Ęteau de la Belle au Bois Dormant) straight out of their 1959 film, complete with a beautiful grassy hill. To make the castle even more spectacular, they created three levels: at the bottom, a dungeon-like area with Maleficent in dragon form (and perhaps the most amazing Audio-Animatronic that I have ever seen), the normal entry-level to go in from Main Street and out into Fantasyland, and at the top a set of beautiful stained-glass windows and tapestries detailing the story of Sleeping Beauty.

On the one hand, we have the original. Disneyland in Anaheim is the original Disney theme park period, and it is the only one that Walt Disney personally touched. Being the first, it is smaller, so of course, the castle is smaller than Disneyland Paris'. While some like to say that bigger is always better, I personally treasure how intimate Disneyland is, and as a result, I love that the castle is the size that it is. However, the scale is perfectly calculated in Paris…Main Street is much bigger by all accounts, so of course the castle needs to be bigger. Their castle is also film-accurate, down to the look of the base on a lovely green hill. The entrance is spectacular, with a gorgeous moat (well…when the moat is properly filled, that is)…but, Anaheim has a real-working drawbridge, while Paris does not. Both castles have fun film-detailing: in Anaheim you can find statues of Briar Rose's friends surrounding the castle, while in Paris you can find the characters designed into the architecture. At Anaheim, the castle sparkles! In Paris, it…well, could use some more paint. Paris has a dragon with smoke coming out of her nostrils, while Anaheim has a mix of dioramas and interactive elements. I was bummed when I visited Paris because the castle was under construction, so I never got to see the top floor. I'm glad that they are finally giving the castle some proper TLC at least.

And perhaps that is ultimately why I still love the castle in Anaheim a little bit more. Had the castle in Paris been kept up over the years like the one in Anaheim, I would possibly re-consider…but the fact that their management let the castle fall into the shape that it was in (to show such a dramatic extent of work that had to be done on the castle to clean it up) really hurt the way the castle (and, as I found in other parts, the whole park) looked in my eyes. In defense of the castle, though, I can see that in pristine condition it would be a glorious sight to behold…and heaven knows that I could have stared at that dragon for a whole hour (my family had to urge me to finally go on). What a shame that Walt Disney World's Animal Park did not receive even a part of the design of the dragon for that ill-fated Discovery River Ride that would have tied in with the Beastly Kingdom concept. Too bad Disney threw the money at creating an animatronic of a character from their movie Dinosaur instead. Anyhow…hopefully, when this transformation on the castle (and the park) is complete for the park's big birthday celebration next year, it will be something that Princess Aurora could be proud of. There is currently quite a bit of excitement going on, as there has been some interesting work done on the moat to make some wonder if there might be some World of Color-esque fountains being installed to make for an exciting show for the anniversary.

I don't know about you, but one of my favorite bits from Sleeping Beauty is Flora and Merryweather fighting over what color Aurora's beautiful dress should be (and I really, really wish Disney would give us a little more blue). As a bride today, women have more than just the typical white option – and in fact, blue and pink are gaining quite a bit of momentum in the bridal market. So, for the Aurora at heart, I felt it would be great to feature a little blue and a little pink. From top to bottom: Claire Pettibone, Jewel by Priscilla of Boston, Oscar de la Renta, and Judd Waddell for 2012.