View more photos in the D23 Expo slideshow.
Disney rolled out its equivalent of San Diego Comic-Con last weekend, the first time the company has attempted such a move. Tens of thousands of people converged on the D23 Expo in Anaheim to spend four days in mouse heaven.
The megacorporation wasn’t looking for any one, “ultimate Disney fan,” even though the promotional phrase was on billboards, convention badges and anything else its marketing team could get its hands on. Still, you had to wonder if the ultimate fan did exist. Was there one person who had out-Mickeyed and out-Minnied and Disneyfied his or her life more thoroughly and enthusiastically than everyone else?
Maybe it was the old man in mouse ears. He wore around his neck a ribbon festooned with Disney pins. “I specialize in Pirates of the Caribbean,” he explained.
Or maybe it was the woman shopping for “Bibbidi Bobbidi Blue” paint for her bedroom walls with coordinating “Fairest of Them All” princess-pink carpet. “It’s actually for my daughter,” she said, sheepishly. Her daughter couldn’t have been more than 2 years old. She seemed bored, and apparently had accepted her lot as an ultimate fan-in-training.
The convention offered no rides. Just long lines. Lots of walking, too, in the abundant square-footage of the Anaheim Convention Center. The celebrity appearances, the masses of Disney model toys, vinyl figures and posters left you longing for the real deal: Disneyland, practically across the street.
Being at the D23 Expo (23 as in 1923, the year Walt founded his animation studio) was like talking about sex without actually having it. You reconcile yourself to — and delight in — the tease.
At the Treasures of the Disney Archive exhibit, fans could see but not touch or photograph “crown jewels” like Annette Funicello’s Mickey Mouse Club sweater. Same for the sword Excalibur; Mary Poppins’ coat; a Tron body suit; and the heavy brocade gown Johnny Depp ripped off Keira Knightley’s heaving bosom in Pirates of the Caribbean. Divorced from their original context, these relics were both astonishingly beautiful and unnerving, packed away in their sarcophaguslike cases. The eyes of the furry animal face on Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap seemed to follow you around the room, not unlike the eyes of the politely watchful exhibit docents.
Spiritual valences were also strong with Michael Jackson’s original Captain EO costume, entombed behind glass. Its quilted white leather glowed in the dim light. “Look at the Velcro on his shoes,” whispered one man. “It still looks so modern.” He and his boyfriend cocked their heads and leaned in to peer at the shoes, as if genuflecting.
As with most things Disney, the Expo featured some surreal creations.
Take the fake skin. People were fascinated by it. There was a floppy, rubbery square of it in the lower-level Technology Magic showcase. This skin stretches over the robotized frames of the presidents in the Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World.
“Is that his real size?” a girl asked, gazing up at animatronic Abe Lincoln. His guts were exposed, and the fake skin covered just his head, neck and hands, as if the rest of the epidermis had been flayed away. His face had an appropriately melancholy expression.
“Oh, yeah. He was a tall guy,” said the guide. “He was 6 feet 4.”
The girl scooted over to take a picture of a replica of President Obama’s suit (black jacket, red power tie). “Obama’s been up since July at Walt Disney World,” offered the guide. “They were actually sculpting both Obama and McCain during the election so they could be ready to go right away no matter who won. So there’s a bust of McCain lying around somewhere.”
If you were an ultimate fan, you felt guided by the giant, four-fingered Mickey hand signs pointing you in the right direction. You felt buoyed — if a little creeped out — by the way the entire Disney organization controls your experience, down to the page in the D23 Expo guidebook where you are courteously reminded to “enter your parking location in the form below to remember where you have parked.” (Expect to see those guidebooks on eBay soon, by the way, if the man hawking used Disney ticket stubs in the vendor area is any indication.)
Everywhere was the regular strangeness Disney ultimate fans revel in. The castle built out of canned food, for instance, dominating the entryway. Or the Buzz Lightyear effigy made entirely of LEGOs.
Then there was the transcendent weirdness that lies at the outer edges of Disney’s brand-building strategy. The Daisy Duck blueberries, Mickey Mouse chicken nuggets and Mickey Mouse farm-fresh eggs. Is it weird that no one seemed to think any of it was weird? Yes. Then again, if a mouse can sell a $2,000 cruise to the Bahamas, why not dairy products?
Upstairs, a screening of rare, never-before-seen Disney animation shorts was in progress. The devil bonked Hitler on the head with a mallet. A cartoon man lost his plantation mansion to a giant malaria mosquito and wept. Dopey dwarf-sprayed poison onto a lake. In the pre-Eisenhower years, Disney studios made public-service announcements and war-propaganda films. “Your rifle is like a woman,” said a disembodied voice in one movie. “If you treat her right, she will never let you down.”
The line brought a chuckle from emcee David Bossert, Walt Disney Animation Studios creative director. “Now that’s a line of dialogue you never see in Disney films today.”
The ultimate fan expects to know things before other less ultimate fans, certainly before the general public. Thus, announcements are part of the D23 Expo experience: A new land for California Adventure is to open in 2012. It is centered around cars (groan). You could conceivably spend a half-day sitting in traffic trying to get to California Adventure, only to sit in faux traffic in Cars Land. No small coincidence that the opening year coincides with the Mayan doom prophecy for the end of the world. Hong Kong Disneyland is getting three new lands (Grizzly Trail, Mystic Point and Toy Story Land). It’s also getting a spooky Edwardian mansion called Mystic Manor. A mysterious adventurer/artifact collector lives there with his mischievous pet primate. “So,” said the guide, in utter seriousness, when an enthusiastic couple begged him to explain the ride’s storyline, “there’s this monkey.”
The ultimate defining characteristic of ultimate fans is that they spend money. The Expo makes it easy and seductive to.
At the auction closing out the event’s penultimate day, someone plunked down $6,900 for a handwritten check signed by Walt Disney. Another person bought a behind-the-scenes horticulture tour of Disneyland for 3,000 bucks (includes holiday gardening tips). But the most gasp-inducing purchase was a decommissioned passenger galleon from Peter Pan’s Flight ride for $35,000. The winning bidder, who gave his name simply as Pat, looked like he might be sick, even as other fans came up to shake his hand and congratulate him, perhaps realizing that for an equivalent amount, he could have had a new BMW.
“I didn’t want to go that high,” he said.
Pat plans to put the galleon in his house, next to his Mr. Toad and Snow White buggies. He just likes the ride vehicles, he told me. He’s not really even a fan of Peter Pan.