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

By now, almost everyone knows that there are two separate Walt Disney Co.s.

One is a business empire with a formidable risk-averse marketing department. The other lives in our collective imagination, that part of us that deeply wants to believe in the fantasy and magic that underlies Disney creative content. It is 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 two sides of Disney rarely converge on a public stage, but there is one place that easily embodies the company’s carefully calculated balance between its two sides: Disney’s sold-out fan convention, the D23 Expo. He is now back at the Anaheim Convention Center where, after a year off due to the pandemic, worshipers have once again paid around $100 a day to wait in long lines to attend the theme park sequel. Marvel, Lucasfilm and Disney.

Expect extra thought at this year’s D23 Expo. The event is ground zero for the launch of the Walt Disney Co. Centennial Celebration in 2023. Think of it as a marketing boon, but from an unprecedented entertainment conglomerate that has influenced generations, defined American culture and honored its own traditions while changing with the times.

A number of panels and exhibits at this year’s D23 Expo will reflect on Disney’s legacy. Consider a museum-style exhibit that will seek to recreate the company’s most defining moments, like the premiere of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937, or displays that will honor everything from the game movie’s 40th anniversary “Tron” video. to a deep dive into the adventures of Walt Disney’s corporate airplane, the construction of Walt Disney World in Florida, or even the futuristic optimism of the company’s mid-century modern era.

All the while, the hope is that the current creative and executive leadership of the Walt Disney Co. is planning such moments for the next 100 years. But in the always-on, social-media-driven era of 2022, the future is coming fast, and it’s undeniable that we’re looking to entertainment companies for societal stewardship. D23 Expo comes at a time when the company is realigning its business with the Disney+ streaming service as its backbone, the centerpiece of the company’s “synergy machine,” to quote chief executive Bob Chapek.

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

(Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

But magic, myth and marketing have competing interests and can sometimes clash. D23 Expo is a chance for the company to make the case that it’s aligned. After a turbulent few months that found the company in the political crosshairs, the debates surrounding Disney are back on more familiar topics, whether its products, especially its theme parks, are costing its fans.

Of course, there’s no indication that Disneyland’s demand is slowing after an extended 13-month pandemic-related shutdown. The company even noted that customer spending at its resorts has increased dramatically as new features, such as line-skipping add-ons like Genie+ and individual Lightning Lanes, turn more aspects of the park into a transaction. .

These are worthy of examination. As more of the park’s perks gradually become locked behind additional purchases, does Disneyland become less representative of American storytelling and more a reflection of its class system? Consider this an example of the tension between Disney’s storytelling prowess and its business interests. Expect it to be a vigorous debate among fans at his convention, even if he’s not defended on any stage.

Here’s what you’ll find at Expo D23: treatises on the animated “The Muppets Christmas Carol” or the Main Street Electric Parade at Disneyland, once again retired but never out of fashion. What you won’t: Little to no modern business thinking.

This trait is an indication of the company’s success, whether its good ideas – the artistic aspirations of “Fantasia”, the building of the world of Disneyland or the reinvention of the hotel with the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser, among a few – continue to grow beyond any corporate branding and can alter the course of art and culture. At best, they are about the human experience, about the idea that we make sense of the world through the stories we tell.

It’s also why recent history, like Disney’s pandemic responses, its entanglement in Florida politics, or its swift reaction to support its employees impacted by the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, has inspired national headlines. It’s not because Disney is controversial – rarely these days – but more representative of the emotional connection that Disney production inspires. We don’t just want to believe Disney mythos. We want to know that the company itself adheres to it.

The company survived, for example, its back and forth with the Florida government, which began after fans and employees called on Disney to vocally oppose what was widely seen as anti-gay legislation. the so-called “don’t say gay” bill. . It took Disney a while to get the message across, but it exploded in part because taking the marketing route — the neutral route — isn’t enough for a company that trades in idealism.

Chapek said, “I believe the best way for our company to bring lasting change is through the inspiring content we produce, the welcoming culture we create, and the diverse community organizations we support. There is some truth in this statement. That content — and the fact that so much of what Disney has produced over the past 100 years ties into various aspects of our lives — is the power of the company.

And on the cusp of turning 100, the Walt Disney Co. has itself become a thing of folklore, posing an often unspoken challenge for modern business leaders. Or an opportunity to turn a vintage Grumman Gulfstream I, which once served primarily as the personal plane of company patriarch Walt Disney, into a tourist attraction and merchandise opportunity.

The Gulfstream will be present on the exhibition floor, where it will be treated as a storytelling device. The plane has previously scouted locations for Walt Disney World, carried company luminaries to the 1964 World’s Fair and even appeared in a few Disney movies. It might be considered an odd sight for a fan convention, but its presence here underscores the importance the Walt Disney Co. has had for our country – even its vehicles are treated with a mythical reverence once reserved for political dignitaries.

An image of Walt Disney in front of his Grumman Gulfstream I plane shared by Disney.

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

(Disney / Expo D23)

When it came to Expo D23’s flagship exhibit — a presentation from the company’s Archives division called “Step in Time” — the team didn’t take a point-by-point, fact-by-fact approach. Nor do they for “Disney100: The Exhibition,” which will premiere next February at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and will premiere at the D23 Expo (the latter, like many panels at the D23 Expo , will be broadcast live ). Such a task, says Rebecca Cline, director of the Walt Disney Archives, would be “impossible”. It may also be a way to avoid tackling more difficult aspects of the company’s history.

“We see storytelling as a basic premise, and that comes from Walt,” Cline says of the Philadelphia exhibit. “So there is a gallery devoted solely to storytelling. There is a gallery on the importance of music. There’s one about the experience of being in the parks. There’s a gallery on personality in animation, which Walt started, by creating characters that you had an emotional connection to. … We do the same kind of thing in ‘Step in Time’, to a lesser degree.

This means that 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 walk in and see the posters – lots of original posters of the park opening – put up so you can see what it was like to walk in and see the floral Mickey and the train station. You can have that moment of maybe experiencing what it was like to be the first kid at Disneyland.

Instead of just showing us facts and figures, Cline and her team sought 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 recognizable export.

The key ingredient of the park is how it has evolved over time. Disneyland has represented our dreams, fears and ideals, whether it’s turning western images of death into lighthearted tuneful fare (the haunted mansion), placing romantic ideals alongside images of hard work and of perseverance (Snow White’s enchanted wish) or finally acknowledging that its attractions need to better reflect the diverse audiences that visit them (changes to the Jungle Cruise or redesigning Splash Mountain into a “La princess and the frog”).

Disneyland itself was born of its time, representative of a post-war America that was adjusting to more internalized, less overtly visible fears, and has forever remained a balm for our country’s dark times. Across Vietnam, the AIDS crisis, the economic crash of 2008 and now COVID-19, Disneyland and Walt Disney Co. have survived, sometimes awkwardly, as the first that once had to aggressively distance itself from its history of less than -Welcoming approach to same-sex couples by organizing a large fundraiser in 1987 for AIDS Project Los Angeles.

And yet, we’re confident Disney will eventually get it right, even if it takes a little patience.

Not because we are accomplices or have fallen into the trap of a marketing scheme. No, in the midst of an often confusing and divisive century, Disney stories and theme parks told us there was one happily ever after. We buy into this magic because it’s worth believing in, and fans line up in halls at the Anaheim Convention Center — or blame Disney for where it spends its political money, how it pays its employees. and how it prices its theme parks – because the spell is broken if a better, more inclusive and progressive world isn’t the goal of all concerned.

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