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How the Inaugural D23 Expo Changed Theme Park Media

For the first two weeks of February 2016, the WDW Radio Blog Team will be reviewing great moments in Disney History. These moments have impacted the history of the company through film, parks, innovation, events and more.


Technology is in a constant state of change. We continually find new ways to exchange information. Much like Walt’s initial struggle with Tomorrowland, the mass media can barely keep up with itself before what’s current is replaced by what’s next. This has been at hand since the advent of movable type, and continues today in a height of social media. The various apps, websites, and devices that have become so popular within the last eight years or so have redefined how guests experience the Disney theme parks. Back home, they’ve helped shape how fans communicate with one another and receive the latest news and updates, with one particular entity spearheading the charge. While Twitter has been around since 2006, it was not until a specific event in 2009 that this app’s true ingenuity proved itself to forever change the relationship between Disney, the media, and the general public.

D23 Expo 2009 Logo - DisneySeptember 2009 was an exciting time to be a Disney fan. Earlier that year, Up had soared into theaters. Hannah Montana was in its peak on the airwaves. Anticipation was building for a new hand-drawn musical, The Princess and the Frog, which would release that Christmas. In the thick of it all was the first-ever official Disney fan club, D23, hosting its inaugural Expo in Anaheim, California. A new event from a new department, no one quite knew what to expect from the D23 Expo, but its happenings set a new precedent for fan communication and the way Disney would announce its new projects.

On day three of the four-day weekend (which has since been trimmed down to three), Walt Disney Parks and Resorts took to the stage for its presentation. The bar had been raised from previous days’ presentations about Disney Legends, animation, and live-action films, which had included exclusive footage, first-look news, and surprise appearances by Johnny Depp, Miley Cyrus, the Muppets, and an onslaught of other A-List celebrities. By this point, I had noticed that many of the major news outlets I followed were updating their Twitter feeds quite frequently as they reported live from the event. So, when the time came for the Parks and Resorts presentation, I was ready: logged into Twitter and patiently awaiting any updates that my following accounts might graciously provide.

What I experienced was unexpected and euphoric, and my first authentic exposure to the phenomenon of social media.

Yep, those news accounts and fan sites were updating their feeds, all right… nearly every minute, providing near-real-time updates, with descriptions and photos of what was happening at that exact moment in time. There was practically no delay of hearing anything. It was the closest I could ever get to being there without leaving my home. The most thrilling part of the event was confirmation of a huge rumor that had been swirling around Disney fan sites all summer. Jay Rasulo, who at the time was Chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, took the stage.

“Before we go any further, I need to clarify something that’s kind of been on my mind. There have been a lot of rumors online, and I don’t know where they come from, and I don’t even know where they get started, but it’s about a big expansion of Fantasyland at Walt Disney World. Well, these rumors are absolutely—true.”

New Fantasyland 2009 Concept Art - DisneyWoah! I couldn’t click refresh fast enough as flurries of reactions, concept art, and more details filled my Twitter stream. I sat, mouth agape, as I read how Fantasyland would double, welcoming new attractions and experiences surrounding some of Disney’s most classic animated stories. (As it turns out, much of what Rasulo announced that day would be revised during the project’s construction. Character encounters with Cinderella and Aurora, as well as a Pixie Hollow-themed area, were all never opened in favor of Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and a larger Storybook Circus. The revision announcement in 2011 would, again, usher a lively Twitter session.) To me, it was nothing short of remarkable that I could get real-time updates so fast. Before this, it would at least be a few hours before any of that news would have been relayed. Reporters would sit through the entire presentation, scurry to a convenient writing spot, and construct a full article, which would be accessed by us, the readers, whenever we happened to log in to that news page. It wouldn’t be immediately sent to a mobile device that alerts us within seconds.

The social media reaction to the 2009 D23 Expo opened the floodgates for an entirely new way of communicating. It was the first big time that I can recall interacting with other fans on Twitter and carrying on conversations about the new announcements. It changed the landscape for how Disney made announcements and how the public could collectively respond to those announcements. Slowly but surely over the years, this evolved into the Twitter conversations readily available today from countless amounts of fans. Each time a new project is revealed, the public’s reaction can immediately be gauged by scrolling through Twitter. There is no wondering what people think about it. From then on out, a new layer of excitement surrounded anytime Disney held press events or conferences. I knew I wouldn’t have to wait to hear about everything in the aftermath; I could engage with the content right away, along with many other people. And while the D23 Expo doesn’t always include as significant an announcement as New Fantasyland, more often than not, the Expo is breeding ground for pretty thrilling news.

In just six and a half short years since that first D23 Expo, technology has already progressed so much more. While Twitter is still a relevant social media outlet, particularly from the standpoint of a news resource, we thirst for information even quicker than the short time it takes to compose a tweet. We want it instantly. And as it turns out, refreshing a Twitter feed in 2009 wasn’t as close to being there as I could be, despite what it seemed. If you had told me in 2009 that I would view the 2015 D23 presentations on a live video stream, I would have been amazed. (Let’s face it, even in 2015, I was amazed.)

Who knows what awaits us for the future, but the 2009 D23 Expo was a game-changer in the history of Walt Disney World for the way it carried the Disney fandom into the true heart of new media.


Images © Disney.

Mickey - Blake


Blake studies Electronic Media and Film at Appalachian State University. His favorite attraction is the Hub Grass. You can find him on Twitter @blake_242 or at BlakeOnline.com.