The Disney myth will be on display at D23 Expo. Here’s why we want to believe it

By now almost everyone is aware that there are two different Walt Disney Co.

One is a business empire with an impressive, risk-averse marketing department. The other lives in our collective imagination, the part of us that deeply desires to believe in the fantasy and magic that underpins Disney’s creative content. It’s more than a belief in fairy tales; It is the promise of what humanity could be and a reflection of how we hope to see ourselves.

These dual aspects of Disney rarely come together on a public stage, but there’s one place that easily embodies the company’s carefully calculated balancing act between its two sides: Disney’s sell-out fan convention, the D23 Expo. Now it’s back at the Anaheim Convention Center, where after a year’s hiatus because of the pandemic, worshipers have again been paying around $100 a day to wait in long lines to witness what’s next for Marvel, Lucasfilm and its theme parks comes.

Expect some additional reflections at this year’s D23 Expo. The event is the cornerstone for the start of The Walt Disney Company’s centennial celebration in 2023. Think of it as a marketing bonanza, but by an unprecedented entertainment conglomerate that has impacted generations, defined American culture and honored its own traditions while it has changed over time.

A number of panels and displays at this year’s D23 Expo will look back at Disney’s legacy. Imagine a museum-like exhibit that attempts to recreate the company’s most iconic moments, like the 1937 premiere of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” or presentations honoring everything from the 40th anniversary of the video game film “Tron.” to an in-depth look at the adventures of Walt Disney’s corporate plane, the construction of Florida’s Walt Disney World, or even the futuristic optimism of the company’s mid-century modern era.

All the while, there is hope that the current creative and executive leadership of The Walt Disney Co. is in the process of planning such future moments for the next 100 years. But in the ever-active, social media-driven era of 2022, the future is coming fast, and there’s no denying that we’re turning to entertainment companies for social responsibility. D23 Expo comes as the company is realigning its business with the Disney+ streaming service as its backbone, the core of the company’s “synergy engine,” to quote CEO Bob Chapek.

Attendees visit the Disney+ streaming service booth at D23 Expo 2019.

Attendees visit the Disney+ streaming service booth at D23 Expo 2019.

(Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

But magic, myth, and marketing have competing interests and can sometimes collide. The D23 Expo is an opportunity for the company to argue that they are on the same page. After a bumpy few months during which the company found itself in the political crosshairs, debates surrounding Disney are returning to more familiar issues, namely whether its products, particularly its theme parks, are overwhelming its fans.

There was, of course, no indication that demand for Disneyland is slowing after an extended 13-month pandemic-related shutdown. The company has even noticed that guest spending at its resorts has increased significantly as new features like skip-the-line add-ons like Genie+ and custom Lightning Lanes turn more aspects of the park into a transaction.

The latter are worth examining. Will Disneyland become less representative of American storytelling and more a reflection of its class system as more park perks are gradually fenced behind additional purchases? Think of it as an example of where there are tensions between Disney’s storytelling skills and its business interests. Expect this to be a heated debate among fans at his convention, even if it’s not defended on any stage.

Here’s what you’ll find at D23 Expo: treatises on the lively “The Muppets Christmas Carol” or the once again retired but never out of style Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland. What you don’t want: Little, if any, modern business perspective.

This quality is an indication of the company’s success, that its good ideas – the high artistic standards of “Fantasia”, the world construction of Disneyland or the reinvention of the hotel with the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser, to name just a few – overwhelm every corporate Outgrow branding and change the course of art and culture. At best, they appeal to the human experience, the idea that we understand the world through the stories we tell.

It’s also why recent history, such as Disney’s pandemic responses, its involvement in Florida politics, or its quick response to assist its employees impacted by the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade reversal, inspired national headlines. That’s not because Disney is controversial — rare these days — but rather representative of the emotional connection Disney’s output evokes. We don’t just want to believe in Disney’s myths. We want to know that the company itself adheres to it.

For example, the company survived the back-and-forth with the Florida government that began after fans and employees called on Disney to vocally oppose the so-called “don’t say gay” bill, widely considered anti-gay legislation. It took Disney a moment to get the message across, but that went awry in part because for a company that acts with idealism, taking the marketing route — the neutral route — isn’t enough.

Chapek said, “I believe the best way for our company to create lasting change is through the inspirational content we produce, the welcoming culture we create and the diverse community organizations we support.” There is truth in that statement. That content — and the fact that so much of what Disney has produced over the past 100 years connects to various aspects of our lives — is the company’s strength.

And nearing its 100th anniversary, the Walt Disney Co. has become folklore itself, presenting an often unspoken challenge to modern corporate leaders. Or an opportunity to turn a vintage Grumman Gulfstream I, which once essentially served as corporate patriarch Walt Disney’s personal plane, into a tourist attraction and merchandising opportunity.

The Gulfstream will be featured in the Expo area where it will be treated as a storytelling device. The plane once explored filming locations for Walt Disney World, transported company luminaries to the 1964 World’s Fair and even appeared in a few Disney films. It might be considered an odd sight for a fan conference, but its presence here underscores the importance the Walt Disney Co. has to our country – even its vehicles are treated with a mythical reverence once reserved for political dignitaries.

A picture of Walt Disney in front of his Grumman Gulfstream I plane shared by Disney.

A picture of Walt Disney in front of his Grumman Gulfstream I plane, shared by Disney ahead of the fan convention D23 Expo where the plane will be on display.

(Disney / D23 Expo)

For D23 Expo’s signature exhibit – a presentation by the company’s archives division entitled Step in Time – the team didn’t take a point-by-point, fact-by-fact approach. Nor are they doing so for Disney100: The Exhibition, which will premiere next February at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and will be previewed at D23 Expo (the latter, like many D23 Expo panels, is streamed live). . Such a task, says Rebecca Cline, director of the Walt Disney Archives, would be “impossible.” It may also be a way to avoid delving into more difficult aspects of the company’s history.

“We take storytelling as a fundamental premise, and that was Walt’s,” says Cline of the Philadelphia show. “So there’s a gallery that’s all about storytelling. There is a gallery about the meaning of music. There’s one about the experience of being in the parks. There’s a gallery about personality in animation, something that Walt started by creating characters that you had an emotional connection with… We’re doing the same thing in Step in Time, to a lesser extent.”

That means a 1950s exhibit at D23 Expo will look at the launch of Disneyland. “We’re recreating what it was like to walk through the gates of Disneyland,” says Cline. “You can go in and see the posters – many original posters from when the park opened – that are set up so you can see what it was like to go in and see Mickey in flowers and the train station. You can experience that moment where you might experience what it was like to be the first kid at Disneyland.”

Instead of just showing us facts and figures, Cline and her team attempted to create a simulacrum of what Disneyland looked like when it opened in July 1955. Don’t write it off as nostalgia. Disneyland is arguably America’s most famous export.

The main ingredient of the park is the way it has changed over time. Disneyland has represented our dreams, fears and ideals, whether it’s transforming Western images of death into light-hearted, melodic fare (The Haunted Mansion), juxtaposing romantic ideals with images of hard work and perseverance (Snow White’s Enchanted Wish), or Finally realizing that its attractions need to better reflect the diverse audience that visits them (changes to the Jungle Cruise or the redesign of Splash Mountain into a Princess and the Frog-themed ride).

Disneyland itself arose out of its time, representative of post-war America adapting to more internalized, less overt fears, and has forever remained a balm to our country’s dark moments. From Vietnam to the AIDS crisis, the 2008 economic crash and now COVID-19, Disneyland and The Walt Disney Co. have survived, sometimes in awkward ways, such as the former once having to aggressively distance itself from its history of a less successful one . more than welcome approach to same-sex couples by sponsoring a major fundraiser for AIDS Project Los Angeles in 1987.

And yet, even if it takes a little patience, we have faith that Disney will get things right in the end.

Not because we’re nitwits or fell for a marketing scheme. No, in the midst of an often confusing, divisive century, Disney stories and theme parks have told us there is a happy ending. We believe in this magic because it’s worth believing, and fans line the halls of the Anaheim Convention Center — or confront Disney about how it spends its political dollars, how it pays its employees, and how it rates its theme parks — because of the magic is broken if a better, more inclusive and progressive world is not the goal of all concerned. The Disney myth will be on display at D23 Expo. Here’s why we want to believe it

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