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Disneyland history comes to life at D23's first anniversary party

Disneyland history comes to life at D23's first anniversary party

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Though I must admit that back in January, when the D23 Anniversary event at Disneyland was first announced, I was skeptical as to how Disney would put together a three-hour party on a Wednesday that was worth a three-hour drive to the park.Three hours, each way, I might add. Having just attended the event, I can tell you that the anniversary party wildly exceeded my expectations.The event was well-worth the six-hour round trip. In fact, if I spent twice that time in the car, I’d still be satisfied.

At the heart of the D23 experience is a movement to dismantle the barrier between The Walt Disney Company and its fans. For decades, Disney, which trades largely on its brand identity, has managed its image by controlling information about the company. The best of these D23 events flips that principle on its head, by allowing fans direct access to Imagineers, Disney Legends, animators, Disney archivists and voice actors.

But enough about the organization and onto the event itself.

Disney Legend Kathryn Beaumont
Disney Legend Kathryn Beaumont.
Photo by Todd James Pierce

The event was a mix-and-mingle affair, in which a dozen or so Disney celebrities mingled with a crowd of Disney enthusiasts. The celebs included Tony Baxter (Senior VP of Imagineering), Kathryn Beaumont (voice of Alice in the 1951 "Alice in Wonderland"), Bob Gurr (designer of the original Autopia cars and the Disneyland monorail), Dave Smith (founder of the Disney Archive), as well as more recent Disney personalities, such as Jennifer Cody and Michael-Leon Wooley, voice actors from "The Princess and the Frog."

The Princess and the Frog voice actors Jennifer Cody and Michael-leon Wooley
(L to R)
"The Princess and the Frog" voice actors
Jennifer Cody and Michael-Leon Wooley.
Photo by Todd James Pierce

I came with questions. And the Disney celebs were eager to provide answers.

I asked Tony Baxter about the fly-around Tinker Bell that, decades ago, he’d developed with animator Bill Justice. Their plan was to use a remote-controlled, motion-picture equipment helicopter to fly an animatronic Tinker Bell down Main Street, through the hub, and around the castle. I’ve known about the project for years, but never had a clear idea as to how it was to work or the exact reason it was shelved.

We thought, wouldn’t it be great if instead of having Tinker Bell on a wire — that you can usually see — that instead we had a much smaller, less-than-human scale figure of Tinker Bell that could literally circle the castle, fly back up to the Matterhorn, and really go all over the park. So we took a helicopter—one of these model helicopters that they use in the motion pictures for miniatures.We got one of those, stripped it all down to about ten pounds, and built a shell of a small little girl fairy. And then we put the wings on it…And then in Tinker Bell’s arm we put one actuator that allowed her arm to go down and sprinkle fairy dust. We had some glitter in the wand that would spill out when she lowered it.

Disneyland's Snow White castle at night
Photo by Todd James Pierce 

I remember the night we launched her from the center of the castle. We flew her up and she did everything — every single thing -- that we wanted her to do. The park was closed. But there were people on the maintenance shift that ran out from all over. It was like "Close Encounters" when her flight was over and she came back down. There must’ve been 150 people gathered around the hub. And we thought, this is it! This is a home run! This is the best thing anyone’s ever seen!

And then someone said: Have you thought about if someone gets the code that you’re using to program the flight — and jams it or takes control of it. All of a sudden there was a wet blanket that fell over the whole crowd. And that was sort of the end of it.

Concept art for Garden of the Gods, an unbuilt Disneyland attraction
Copyright Disney Enterprises,Inc. All Rights Reserved

When I came across Becky Cline, Manager of the Walt Disney Archives, I asked her about the Olympic Gods attraction once slated for the empty space beside Autopia — the land occupied long ago by the Motor Boat Cruise.

[The Garden of the Gods] was designed by Marc Davis. It was intended to be a peaceful, pastoral ride, similar to "Fantasia." It was a ride that would take you through different scenes with the Olympian Gods. We have one piece of artwork in our new [D23] calendar … It wasn’t a boat ride. It was on a track, with vehicles that looked like swan boats. An outdoor dark ride — with fountains and classical music … My understanding is that the reason it didn’t go in there is because — it is so close to Autopia that the noise from the Autopia cars [were so loud] that the designers wouldn’t get that pastoral, beautiful, peaceful feeling that they wanted for the ride.

Disney Legend Bob Gurr
Disney Legend Bob Gurr. Photo by Todd James Pierce

But my personal favorite moment was talking with Bob Gurr, who is one of the most generous and thoughtful people I know. I can’t tell you how many times that Bob has helped me out with research by answering questions about how the park was designed and built back in the 1950s and 1960s. As always, there was a long line of guests waiting to talk to Bob or simply to get his autograph. On display that night was Walt’s Runaround, an electric car that Walt used to maneuver through the park. Like most every Main Street vehicle, Bob built it.

One of the Main Street vehicles designed by Bob Gurr
Photo by Todd James Pierce

For Walt to walk down the sidewalk [at Disneyland], a lot of people would gather around and impede his progress. He would have to sign autographs. So he said, “Bob, what if we had a little car that we could run on the street. And we could also run it on the sidewalk. So I picked out a 1903 curved-dash Oldsmobile [as the inspiration for the historic Runaround]… We built four of those cars in 1960 [so that Walt could easily escort dignitaries and heads of state through the park]…Walt love to drive it because it had a tiller-type steering wheel. He could put his guests in the car. And because he’s in the car, [general park guests] didn’t try to prevail upon him. But they could get very close. Security could walk right along with him. That’s one of my favorite little cars because it’s all welded aluminum, the axel parts and details were special cast steel parts, with Italian motorcycle racing wire wheels [to finish it off].

The Country Bears happily meeting and greeting D23 enthusiasts at Disneyland
Photo by Todd James Pierce

The event took place almost entirely in Fantasyland, but the area was transformed with unique exhibits. Along with the electric Runaround, Mickey’s grand marshal parade car was on display, as was Cinderella’s Crystal Coach. There were photo meet-and-greet areas with Disney characters that haven’t been seen in the park in a long time, including the Country Bears, the Three Little Pigs, Clarabelle Cow, and Clara Cluck.

The 3 Little Pigs greeting d23 enthusiasts at Disneyland
Photo by Todd James Pierce

With these events, D23 is offering experiences that are entirely new to the Company, an honest and uncensored presentation of the inner-workings of Disney magic. In many ways, the D23 organization is quickly finding its identity. In the coming year many D23 events explore Disney’s historic connection to animation, film, and theme parks — giving some other Disney holdings (such as ESPN and the ABC network) far less attention. Based on last night’s event, I think this will be a successful approach for the organization. After all of the tremendous stories I heard at this mix-and-mingle event, I’m now looking forward to Destination D, the recently announced two-day D23 event scheduled for this coming September which will feature a series of panel discussions that will look at the history of Disneyland.

For further information about Destination D as well as the 2011 D23 EXPO, come by JHM on Monday. When Jim Hill will share what Steven Clark, President of D23, just told him about these upcoming events.

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  • Seems like all the events are on the West Coast.  You would think Disney could find some air fare deals to get folks on the East Coast.  Oh well...

  • This event sounded fun. It was just SOO EXPENSIVE. It was like more than $60 for 4 hours in Fantasyland.

    The new Disneyland history event sounds better, but I suspect it too will be VERY expensive.

  • If what they decided to charge for this year's Studio and Archives tours are any indication, it probably will be expensive, but it sounds like it might be worth it.

    I'd expect a rush to buy tickets in any case - the Grand Ballroom at the DLH doesn't hold that many people...

    Personally, if I'd had my choice I would have gone to WDW's D23 anniversary party - at least you had the chance to learn about the new Fantasyland expansion.

    But $60 to see the Disney celebrities I've met at the NFFC convention and Walt's electric cart? No wonder it didn't sell out.

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