Day one of D23 Expo 2015 in Anaheim, CA kicked off with the induction of Legends and a show floor full of sights to see. With an extensive first look at the new Shanghai Disneyland coming in 2016, props and sets and character replicas and costumes from recent and upcoming films (like that little one, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), soon-to-release video games, and of course several different stores to visit and throw money at, the floor alone held hours of everything Disney for attendees.
In one corner of the animation display, which featured recent and still-to-come films from Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar, what appeared to be a “backstage” or storage area was walled off with floor-to-ceiling, heavy black curtains. As executives announced the new film Gigantic featuring Disney’s take on Jack and the Beanstalk, however, the curtain was pulled back as a giant beanstalk “magically grew from the ground.” Fans who passed the exhibit on their way into the Hall D23 panel room probably scarcely noticed the curtained-off portion. When they exited, they flocked to the area to see the newest edition to the slate. Of course, that reveal wasn’t all – when in the area and peering up at the Beanstalk, occasionally you’d hear the sound of giant footsteps echoing high above you. That extra care, that extra attention to detail, is Disney Magic.
As a lifelong fan of Disney, the storytelling from the company in tales like The Jungle Book, Robin Hood, and The Sword in the Stone peppered my early childhood. I was still a kid when the new golden age of Disney animated musicals – The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King – hit theaters and reminded everyone that Disney could still be the best at what they did. In recent years, Disney has become a much more personal part of my life, when three years ago (to the day) I got engaged at the wishing well outside Cinderella’s Castle in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, and would later spend the latter half of my honeymoon at Disneyland Paris. The fact that Disney now also owns two of my other favorite companies in Marvel and Lucasfilm certainly doesn’t hurt in my love for the company. If there’s one fandom I remember more vividly than Disney films, it’s Star Wars, and now they’re one in the same.
I had never attended D23 Expo, however, in its first three times around. Things got in the way, as life tends to do sometimes. I started my trip to D23 last week early, first attending the second annual Disney Infinity Toy Box Summit. I didn’t know when I signed up to attend that meant I’d also be getting a special, and relatively rare, experience as part of the welcome night: a tour of Walt Disney’s apartment in Disneyland.
Yes, Walt Disney truly had a place he could stay the night right there on the park’s grounds. If you’ve been to his first park, you’ve passed by it – it’s just above the classic Fire Station just to the left, right after entering the park. From there, Walt could watch park goers come in, personally witnessing the sense of awe on children’s faces, and see them leave, usually with smiles on the parents and other adults’ faces that echoed their kids from hours before. He would also spend time around the park, taking personal friends and family on tours in his custom vehicle, or merely checking in on the earliest cast members, his employees. When the lamp in the center window was lit, that meant Walt Disney was on the property, and as our tour guide told us, that didn’t make the employees nervous – it made them excited. Walt also spent time with this family in that surprising small studio apartment, reading his grandkids stories while they unknowingly at the time had an experience many would dream of and few would have – sleeping at Disneyland!
Entering the pristinely kept room is surreal. The decoration was done closer to Victorian-era home than a 1950s one. There are some modern conveniences, like a kitchenette and a shower (complete with multiple height shower heads for the little ones), but almost as Main Street Disneyland captures one era, the interior of the apartment captured another. Roses, the favorite flower of Walt’s wife Lily, were all over, and music played a big role on both ends of the room.
Walking around the room, seeing things that were used in the everyday life of an extraordinary storyteller, emotion flooded over me. While the tour guide told incredible stories with little details (those same little details that exemplify Disney Magic), and I looked out the center window, I began to cry. It’s difficult to describe, but in that moment, I could feel the sense of awe that Walt himself felt on a regular, day-to-day basis; it’s not quite the same sense of awe he still gives to people all over the world with his creations and his legacy, but it is fulfilling and beautiful.
That light in the window remains on 24 hours a day 7 days a week now, as Walt is always present.
The feeling at a Disney park remains unique, despite many other theme parks and experiences hoping to replicate the magic. Whether it’s the classic music, the characters who hold such a perfect innocence and sense of adventure, or those small attentions to detail (when Frozen takes center stage in the new fireworks show, it actually snows along Main Street), Disney Magic is everywhere. It’s hard to come away form the parks thinking about a long line or recalling a negative experience. People are kind and courteous, and while some lines are long, there are usually enough things along the way to keep you entertained and awed. D23 Expo had a similar sense prevailing throughout, from panel rooms to every corner of the show floor. Muppets came to life before your eyes, laughing and joking with each other and fans. Sizzle reels recalling the last several decades of WDAS and Pixar animated films brought tears to eyes and reminded you of not just the stories they told, but the emotions they made you feel. A South Pacific band played with native dancers and The Rock leading a Samoan call-and-response, and a full choir took the stage to help you see the celebration experiences from every Disney park around the world.
Quantifying a feeling is next to impossible, but if anyone has figured it out, it’s Disney. With Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm now supporting their already robust in-house line-up, it doesn’t look like Disney magic will be in short supply anytime soon, and that’s just the way this Disney fan would have it be.