Tales of Folly from D23

The inaugural D23 Expo turned out to be amazing convention based on reports that came from California over the weekend. For those of us who did not get to fly to Anaheim for the convention, we huddled around Twitter and Facebook reports gawking at the neverending list of surprises, gifts, and just the shear volume of talent assembled at the convention. (I wonder how many naysayers are still screaming about the ridiculous yearly membership fees for D23?) Perhaps one day there may end up being a folly among the announcements, but for now, the future looks bright.

The first few days of the convention focused on company and movie news, and other presentations with some big names stopping in to help promote their collaborations including (but not limited to) John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Miley Cyrus, Tim Burton and Robert Zemeckis. The latter two directors were there to promote a few highly-anticipated films such as Alice in Wonderland, A Christmas Carol and an update of The Beatles' Yellow Submarine. Johnny Depp even showed up in full Captain Jack Sparrow costuming to promote a 2011 release of the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film (On Stranger Tides). Clearly Disney was taking a cue from the San Diego ComiCon, which in recent years has become a successful way for studios to connect to a fervent fanbase, generating interest for movies long before the usual promotional machines kick up.

The weekend also included extended looks at the upcoming Princess and the Frog animated film, announcements of film projects such as a new Winnie the Pooh feature and the Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made, and updates to previously-announced features such as Toy Story 3, The Bear and the Bow, Rapunzel and Cars 2.

All hands were on deck at the convention as Disney animators, storytellers, Imagineers, Legends and executives were all part of the show. Between Walt Disney Pictures, Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar, the next few years look chock full of some very exciting films, animated, live-action and a mix of the two! Business-side, it's clear that Disney has plenty of profit to look forward to, with a number of films with franchise potential and a lot of family entertainment. Admittedly, it may not all be my cup of tea, but it's exciting to see that the studios are collaborating with both mainstream hit-makers and critically-acclaimed artists. And Bob Iger seems to be leading the entire company towards a greater connect with fans, as seen by the obvious success and presence of the D23 Expo.

Perhaps the biggest news to come from the expo was the announcement of the Fantasyland expansion coming to the Magic Kingdom in 2012 and 2013. Though rumored over the summer, this was Disney's first official unveiling of plans and news about the expansion. The expansion will serve to create mini themed-areas based on the Disney Princesses, as well as a Pixie Hollow section based on the Fairies franchise. The plans call for immersive experiences with the Princesses based on settings from the movies, such as Sleeping Beauty's cottage, a country chateau with Cinderella, and Belle's villa. Additionally, Beast's castle will be home to the Be Our Guest Restaurant, a much-needed eatery for the restaurant-deficient Magic Kingdom. There are also plans for Gaston's Tavern. (Total details are still pretty vague at this point and the plans seem to imply that there may be smaller aspects at each of the lands to fill in all the spaces between). Additionally, Dumbo is growing in size to include an interactive three-ring circus tent. Phew.

The Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland concept always fell flat with me. The architecture is very uninspired; perhaps it worked back in the '70s but now it looks incredibly outdated or just cheap. In comparison, Disneyland's treatment of Fantasyland is far superior in architecture and more fully realized with bigger spaces and more rides. The crime of it all is that Walt Disney World has had the space to expand, even in smaller phases. But so much of the land they are now expanding to was filled with meet-and-greets and the inexplicable contraction of the Fantasyland's largest ride (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). I know that Mickey's Toontown Fair had appeal for families with young children but it has provided nothing for me as an adult but a place to completely skip past in an effort to maximize the more appealing rides in the rest of the park. So I'm not going to be one to shed a tear for the land's merging with a larger Fantasyland.

Fantasyland often has the longest lines, particularly at it's a small world and Peter Pan's Flight, which creates a very large volume of guests in a concentrated area. If anything, the plans for the Fantasyland expansion certainly look like they'll only add even more volume to the area. However, dispersing crowds into all of these new sub-areas should help alleviate flow. (Though I imagine in its initial opening, the entire area is going to be difficult to navigate as crowds will be heavy.)

Though it remains to be seen how this will affect Disney as a business decision, it at least seems an extremely savvy choice. They've had the Princesses line for young girls for many years now so not only might these areas appeal to those girls as they've grown up, but will just provide more reason for the uninitiated. And I can attest that a great way to hook young families is appealing to the parents' own fandom of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. These were the movies of my generation, the now dominant target demographic for vacationers, so it won't just be the young sons and daughters anxious to see Beast's castle, but even thirtysomethings who grew up with the movie and have wanted to see Disney start giving its second animated renaissance the same architectural and ride treatment that the original masterpieces have had for years.

For me, looking at the artist's rendering of the expansion gave me a real sense of excitement that I haven't had for WDW since Animal Kingdom's opening. For years, Disney has been mostly developing new rides to replace existing rides or to fit into undeveloped areas. I don't deny that these are sometimes enough to generate enough desire to return to the parks to see the new buzz (or as the case may be, the new Buzz). It has been quite a while since the company has significantly renovated or expanded an entire land. And it's certainly been longer since that could be said for the Magic Kingom (since the Tomorrowland renovations were mostly visual, the last I can think of would've been the addition of the Mountains to Frontierland).

The rendering is beautiful and epic. (It is obviously still subject to change whether it be from economic concerns or practical issues that might arise with ride or structure development.) It really looks like the Disney Imagineers were able to finally let loose on the Fantasyland concept, even if it is in keeping with the company's Princesses and Fairies marketing efforts. The addition of the castle wall, along with the designs of The Little Mermaid attraction and the Beauty and the Beast area are remarkable, appealing to both children and we older Disney fans. I personally haven't felt a reason to linger too long in Fantasyland in my last few visits; it became a mostly surgical operation, darting to preferred rides while mostly avoiding anything with a long line. (As mentioned earlier, the land's architecture, other than a few areas and the castle, doesn't leave a lot of reason to gawk at structures or happily get caught in a 40-minute long queue.

Artist's rendering of new Little Mermaid attraction in expanded Fantasyland

While I'm hoping to get to Walt Disney World in 2010, perhaps getting one last visit in before starting my own family, I'm already getting excited about bringing that family to a whole new land of fantasy later in the decade.

In other long awaited news, it was announced that Star Tours would finally get an upgrade in 2011 (in both Disneyland and Disney's Hollywood Studios). The ride will upgrade to 3D technology along with new film of the vast collection of Star Wars planet locales. The preview video (as seen below) indicates that the Podracing on Tatooine (from Episode I) will be featured but some literature suggests that the ride will also visit other locales (as has always been hoped given the story concept of Star Tours).

The execution of this upgrade obviously remains to be seen. The ride has lost a bit of its luster in recent years, even to the notoriously die-hard Star Wars enthusiasts. There's only so much of the same Death Star trench seen once could take, especially in increasingly outdated vehicle technology. However, the Star Wars franchise remains popular and relevant, with an animated series entering its second season, a live-action TV series looming, and the consistent lure of the popular merchandising. (The ride pre-dates the prequels so now has twice as many movie locales and action sequences to tap into.) For many, including myself, the only change I've ever wanted to see was the ability to explore other realms of the Star Wars mythos. So I hope it's not confined to just the Podrace sequence but hopefully sequences from Hoth, Endor, Naboo, and Geonosis (as well as the many space battles from the original and prequel trilogies).

One can only assume that this is an indication that the relationship between Disney and George Lucas remains a happy relationship. Whether this will have any affect on updating the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectactular remains to be seen. (As successful as the recent Indiana Jones movie was, I don't know that it necessarily featured enough iconic segments to warrant highlighting over those iconic scenes currently reenacted at the show.)

Disney's California Adventure's upgrades were also given updates, though the details of these have been widely reported for a few years now.

Much thanks for DisneyPictures, DisneyParks and Lou Mongello's Twitter feeds which were updated throughout the entire expo and were my source for all the news coming out of Anaheim.