D23 Expo: Friday in the Arena or: How Disney Needs to Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Disney needs to learn to let go.

I am a remarkably uptight person. I plan my vacations down to the minute. My version of “plan B” also includes plans C through ZZ. There is but one sure way to make me shudder, and it is by uttering the phrase “let’s just wing it.”

And I, of all people, am saying that Disney needs to learn to let go.


At the D23 Expo today, the Arena was slated to host “Art and Imagination: Animation at The Walt Disney Studios,” scheduled as a 2 1/2 hour beast of a panel covering upcoming projects from Pixar, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and Disneytoons.

What fans ended up sitting through was a 3 hour plus event that felt more like a keynote speech at a shareholder’s meeting.

Disney CEO Bob Iger kicked the presentation off with an introduction riddled with bland corporate-speak, lingering on stage for some 10 minutes before showing an all-TWDC-encompassing sizzle reel.  John Lasseter made a fine host, and the projects showcased – particularly from Pixar – look promising enough. But the directors and producers presenting their work came across as awkward and nervous, the jokes (even from the celebrity talent) felt forced and over-rehearsed, and the lack of audience participation (even in the form of Q&A) made the whole panel feel distant. Sandwiched between the obviously more popular Pixar and Disney Studios projects, the Disneytoons presentation made the event feel bloated.

Yes, there were fun celebrity moments to be witnessed: see Tom Hiddleston singing “The Bare Necessities” a cappella (I’m sure Tumblr has it in video, still, and gif form by now if you missed it), or Bill Hader’s sea cucumber character pitch for Finding Dory. Some of the exclusive clips and concept art shown were absolutely delightful, including the 10 minute preview of Toy Story of Terror, the debut of the new Mickey Mouse short Get a Horse, footage from 2014’s The Good Dinosaur, and the new Monsters University short Party Central.

But the fans’ patience was being tested before the lights in the Arena even went down. The panel started over half an hour late: the completely ludicrous step of camera check added an unbelievable amount of time to the entrance process. (To clarify, small items were allowed to remain with you provided they were powered off and sealed in an opaque plastic bag; DSLR-sized cameras had to be checked at the door. Annoyingly, security guards were poorly informed of what qualifies as a “recording device,” since my Kindle, which lacks both a camera and a microphone, was required to be checked. There also seemed to be minor issues with line cutting, as my group witnessed people walk right off the show floor into the “secure,” post-camera check portion of the line while thousands waited outside.) Worse, Disney insisted on escorting the lines to their seats, a misguided attempt to seat people in a more orderly fashion that only ended up lengthening the time it takes to fill that room (I’ve seen the Arena fill more quickly during WonderCon).


I know Disney is a company that wants to be in control of everything at all times. It’s why they don’t trust fans to find a seat on their own, why they have no faith in fans keeping their cameras tucked away, and why they insist on doing one massive “coming soon” panel rather than breaking them into smaller panels by studio. But that desperate need for control robs the Expo of many of the shared experiences that make fan gatherings so popular and so social media friendly. Case in point: upon entering the Arena today, fans were greeted by massive video screens encouraging them to tweet about what they were up to in the Arena with the hashtag #D23ExpoDayOne… using what, the smartphones they were all just forced to shut off and seal in an envelope? It was merely an oversight by organizers, but to many fans who had been treated like toddlers all morning it was nothing short of mockery.

In fact, that seems to be the greatest difference between a big panel at D23 versus one at San Diego Comic-Con: both know they’re there to hawk their wares to captive eyeballs. One just does a better job perpetuating the illusion that it’s still about the gathering of a community of fans.