I just got back from spending the weekend in sunny Anaheim, CA at this year’s D23 Expo 2013. As you know, The Walt Disney Company throws this event every other year as their own Disney-specific Comic-Con, so to speak. The first D23 Expo was held in 2009, the second in 2011 and the third one just took place on August 9 -11, 2013. Having been to all three, I have a few comparative things to say along with an overall review of what I experienced at the Anaheim Convention Center over the weekend.
Thankfully, there was much good that happened at this year’s D23 Expo.
Greatly Improved Layout and Crowd Control: First off, major, major, major kudos go to Steven Clark and his team at D23 for doing a wonderful job in the planning and execution of D23 Expo 2013. It was a fantastic experience overall and probably the best of the three. The first D23 Expo in 2009 was very fun and seemed more like an experiment than anything else—an experiment worth repeating. In 2011, the D23 Expo experienced some major growing pains along with some very serious missteps. I believe that Disney was completely ill-prepared for the crowds that descended upon Anaheim to see the entire cast of Marvel’s The Avengers as well as the other programming planned.
Those of us in attendance in 2011 had to suffer through endless lines, clueless cast members, and just general confusion and discontent from everyone. This year, entry into the Convention Center was well-marked, helpful cast members were at every turn, signage was improved, the convention floor layout was expanded and more thoughtfully laid out, and the experience overall was just more positive and fun. The crowds were huge, but at least you knew where to go and how long your wait was going to be. Adding the Stage Pass advance ticketing option for certain panel presentations was a nice addition as well. Bravo to D23 for fixing these problems!
Great Stuff for Animation Fans: While the D23 Expo is designed to appeal to all levels and ages of Disney fans, my main Disney interests are animation and theme parks, and I was not disappointed. From the fantastic presentations from Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios at the Animation arena presentation hosted by John Lasseter on Friday to the cool animation pavilion hosted and staffed by the team at Walt Disney Animation Studios, it was a really fun weekend to be a Disney animation fan. I got to meet many animation directors, producers and staff from both the Studios and the Animation Research Library as well as take part in excellent giveaways and many other surprises that happened at the pavilion all weekend. Many thanks again to the team at Walt Disney Animation Studios for putting together one of the best parts of the D23 Expo 2013.
Great Stuff for Disney Theme Park Fans: I am crazy about Disney theme parks. Although the Walt Disney Parks and Resorts team decided not to make any big announcements at this year’s Expo (much to the chagrin of the Disney theme park fan community), Walt Disney Imagineering still showed up with a killer pavilion with lots of wonderful artifacts to look at and lots of Disney Imagineers to talk with personally and informally. Seeing the original pencil sketch of Disneyland drawn by artist Herb Ryman was a highlight, not to mention seeing models of attractions that never made it out of the design phase. With hints of big things to come (ahem, Star Wars…), I was still able to really enjoy what Imagineering put together.
Great Stuff for Movie Fans: Getting to hear from Kevin Feige in person, about the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 2 was the best (as was seeing Natalie Portman in person…). I’m very intrigued by the incredibly elaborate mythos being created for Brad Bird’s upcoming Tomorrowland film. It was fun to explore the contents of the mysterious “1952” box that was on display in the Tomorrowland pavilion on the convention floor that provided some possible hints to the film, not to mention the conversation I had with “Wallace” at the Expo who is part of the fictional interactive game that the Walt Disney Studios and Walt Disney Imagineering have put together as part of the film’s marketing (see Ricky Brigante’s full synopsis of “The Optimist” game here). As you’ve probably heard, there was no real news about Star Wars: Episode VII, but I personally wasn’t expecting any (and sorry to those that were).
While my list of bad items pales in comparison to the terror that was D23 Expo 2011, there were still a couple of things that didn’t work well from my perspective this time around.
Not Being Able to Be in Two (or Three) Places at Once: OK, this one is kind of stupid, but with so many things always happening during the Expo, the opportunity costs got frustrating. Since by choosing one thing made me miss another, I was happy about what I got to see and attend but was also sad to think about what I missed, too. Oh well, such is life at these types of events (but attending a convention as a highly coordinated team of like four people or more could potentially be a good thing—except at the giveaways when there’s only one item per person…).
Disneytoon Studios Presentation: I am eternally grateful to John Lasseter and team for putting a stop to the “sequelitis” that was happening during the Eisner era (Cinderella III, anyone?). Still, I view direct-to-video products as a necessary evil. I understand that the movies are a cash cow for Disney and I also understand the need for fun, new programming for young kids to watch, but I still think that the films are usually lacking in the story department and just aren’t that well made. Spending almost an hour in the Animation arena presentation highlighting the three films on the Disneytoon Studios slate bored me out of my mind. The Pirate Fairy as an origin story for Captain Hook—really? Ugh. And how can Captain Hook be Captain Hook when he had both of his hands? (Although it was cool to see Tom Hiddleston and Christina Hendricks.) Oh well, I survived and the bookends of the presentation (Pixar and Disney) were beyond terrific.
No Film Festival (Again): In 2009, a classic Disney film was screened every night during the first D23 Expo. As part of D23’s “50 and Fabulous” film series, they screened three different films that were celebrating their 50th anniversary in 2009 along with an intro from a historian or one of the filmmakers or stars. The films screened in 2009 included the original The Shaggy Dog (with actor Tommy Kirk on hand to introduce the film), the animated classic Sleeping Beauty (along with Mary Costa herself to introduce the film and sign autographs afterwards) and Darby O’Gill and the Little People (which I unfortunately slept through most of…). While D23 has continued the “50 and Fabulous” festival by showing films to D23 members on the Walt Disney Studios lot in Burbank, CA (which is an incredibly cool experience if you haven’t done it already), I really wish the friends at D23 would consider again doing some kind of a nightly film festival as part of the next D23 Expo.
I’ve got to tell you, there weren’t very many ugly or “whatever” experiences at this year’s Expo. When I left the 2011 Expo, I wasn’t sure if I would ever go to another one. But reason (and consistent messaging from D23 about changes coming to the D23 Expo 2013) bore sway and I’m very glad that I gave it another chance. It’s hard to believe that I was within arm’s distance of such Disney Animation luminaries as Ron Clements, John Musker, Byron Howard, Don Hall, Chris Buck and others. I also got to see Tony Baxter and other Imagineers up close and personal.
We got to see some footage of the amazing-looking films coming from Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Animation Studios and Marvel Studios along with other live-action films with great potential on the slate for the Walt Disney Studios. All in all, it got me very excited about Disney’s future and I left this year’s Expo with a big smile on my face. Bob Iger announced during the Disney Legends’ ceremony that the D23 Expo will be coming back in 2015 and I am definitely planning on making a return trip.