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I am Number Three: Competing in the Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament

I am Number Three: Competing in the Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament

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I really should have studied.

That was the main thought going through my mind as I walked toward the Anaheim Convention Center on Thursday, August 18th. I had meant to prepare for the Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament by reading my copy of "Disney A to Z" and any Disney trivia books I could get my hands on, but I never found the time. And by this point, it was too late to do anything about it. I was going to have to hope that whatever amount of Disney knowledge that was floating around in my brain was going to be enough to get me far enough in the tournament that I wouldn't embarrass myself. 

Please understand that I had shown up for the Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament with no expectation that I'd be in the running for the grand prize, a 3-day cruise on the Disney Fantasy. I had decided to participate just to get an idea of how much I knew about Disney, and because the whole idea of competing against some of the most knowledgeable Disney fans as well as the quiz masters from D23 & the Walt Disney Archives sounded as intriguing to me as it sounded terrifying.  I made up my mind from the beginning that I'd be happy with my final standing in the tournament no matter how far I got - as long as I didn't get eliminated right from the start.

Dan Roebuck of  "LOST" fame served as MC of the 2011 Ultimate Disney Trivia
tournament. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

That Thursday morning, there were a couple hundred people standing in line outside the Anaheim Convention Center waiting to test their mettle.  The group was very diverse as far as ages and background. There were teenage girls and older men, folks from southern California and folks from the East Coast and Japan, and people that I knew pretty well from the Disney fan community as well as people who I'd never met before.

Some people were quizzing each other in the queue in the hope of improving their chances. While others just stood quietly, confident that they were ready for whatever Disney could throw at them.  I spotted several people in line that I knew would go pretty far in the tournament. After hearing a few trivia questions, I was even surer that I really should have studied more. Well, as the Ghost Host might say, there's no turning back now.

The first round of the Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament was the one that had me the most worried. What the folks from D23 did for the first round was to have a couple of people at a time walk through the doors of the Convention Center, where a D23 staff member would then meet each contestant.  Each contestant would be asked one question. If the contestant got the question, they'd then get a sticker with Ludwig Von Drake on it, and they'd proceed up the escalator to the third floor of the Convention Center and Round Two of the tournament. If the person blew the question, they'd get a sticker with Bertie Birdbrain from Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom on it and they were done, although the person could get back in line and try again. The line was supposed to be cut off by 9:30 a.m., or as soon as Disney had 2,000 people who made it through the first round. Fortunately for anyone who did mess up on their question, it didn't look like there would be enough contestants for the 2,000-person-limit to be a problem.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

I walked up to the D23 staff member, as nervous as all get-out and hoping that I wouldn't be taking the "Disney Trivia Walk of Shame". Then came the question: What were the names of Donald's nephews? I breathed a sigh of relief that I had gotten such an easy question, answered "Huey, Dewey, and Louie", and then got my Ludwig von Drake sticker.

Although I'd read the rules of the Tournament before deciding to participate, I really didn't know what to expect as I stepped off the escalator and walked to the entrance of D23 Expo's Stage 23. I definitely wasn't expecting to be handed a pencil and a Scantron sheet as I walked through the door.  But that's what was used to test the contestants in the second round of the Tournament. 

The contestants would be asked 50 multiple choice questions; they had 30 seconds to read the question shown on the auditorium's video screen and choose the correct response.  A certain number of contestants with the highest scores would advance to the third round; a list of the people that would be announced later in the day, via a posting on the D23 website and a list posted at the entrance to the Convention Center Although Disney's original plan called for multiple second round quizzes to be administered to 500 people at a time, there couldn't have been more than a couple of hundred contestants in Stage 23 for this first quiz, so by this point I think everyone in the auditorium was feeling confident about their chances of making it to the third round. That didn't mean that any of us were going to take the second round quiz in stride, however.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Four friends of mine from the Disneyana Fan Club - David, Doug, Eric, and Roger - had also entered the Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament and made it to Stage 23. So we decided to sit together to provide each other moral support.  Our quizmaster for the second round, Graham from the Walt Disney Archives, walked on stage, explained how the quiz would work, and told us how to correctly complete the Scantron sheet. (Well, it had been a while since the last time some of us had taken a test).  

The first ten questions of the second round quiz were easy enough that there were more than a few chuckles coming from the audience, but the questions got harder as the quiz continued. By the time Graham had gotten to the last 10 questions, things were getting pretty tricky. (Some examples: What year did the Flying Saucers attraction open at Disneyland?  What was the real name of Marge Champion, the model for Snow White?) I felt relatively confident that I'd done well on the quiz, although I didn't think I'd done all that well on the final questions; my friends felt pretty confident, too.  We handed in our Scantrons as we left Stage 23 and went our separate ways to wait for the afternoon and the announcement of the contestants selected to advance to the third round.  (Oh, and for those of you who are wondering: The Flying Saucers opened in 1961 and Marge Champion's real name was Marjorie Belcher.)

It was about 1:30 on Thursday afternoon when I got the word. My girlfriend and I had decided to walk over to Disney California Adventure for lunch, and after we'd finished eating at Boardwalk Pizza and Pasta, I borrowed my girlfriend's iPhone and had a look at the D23 website.  Disney had selected about 100 contestants to advance to the third round, and my friends and I were all on the list! I had until 3 p.m. to report back to Stage 23 for the third round, but I wasn't going to take any chances; my girlfriend and I left DCA and walked back to the Convention Center.  After having faced my old schoolhouse nemesis the Scantron in the second round, I thought for a moment that for the third round we'd be handed "blue books" and asked to write a "compare and contrast" essay.  The folks from D23 and the Archives weren't quite that mean, but some of the questions they asked in the third round made me feel like they'd gotten pretty close.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

The contestants entering Stage 23 for the third round were given a sticker featuring Professor Owl and a big white sticker with a number. (We later learned that the number roughly matched our standings from the second round. It turns out that I came in about 15th - wow!). The contestants were divided into groups of eight, and each group was directed to sit in a row. On stage were several sets of flip boards, and each board had three sets of flip cards with the letters A through E. One row at a time would be brought on stage, and the quizmasters would ask each group three multiple choice questions; the contestants on stage would answer the questions using the flip cards. If someone got at least two questions right, they'd continue in the tournament. If they got no questions right or just one question right, they were out of the tournament. This would continue until there were about 30 contestants left.

Another new element for this round of the tournament was that we'd have an audience. Friends and family could join the contestants in Stage 23, and contestants who were eliminated from the tournament could then stay and watch as well. So now we had witnesses if we crashed and burned. Graham, who again served as our quizmaster for part of the third round, informed the competitors that the questions would be a little more difficult, with some of the questions being downright "fiendish".   No pressure.

Actually, in spite of the added twists, things went reasonably well. This biggest problem the competitors ran into was a series of "flip card malfunctions", where the cards would fall off the stands from being tossed a little too vigorously. (We Disney geeks take our trivia quizzes seriously, folks.) The D23 folks were quick to take the problem flip card boards away at the first sign of trouble, so these flip card issues were at worst an annoyance. The questions...well, the questions were definitely getting really tough by this point.

Jason Robards and Jonathan Pryce in Walt Disney Pictures' 1983 release "Something
Wicked This Way Comes." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Anything related to Disney, no matter how obscure, was a possible topic, and the questions covered most of the major parts of the world of Disney equally well. A competitor might answer a question like "Where do the Wizards of Waverly Place live?" (New York),  followed by a question about the name for the canoe attraction in Tokyo Disneyland (the Beaver Brothers Explorer Canoes), and then get a question about Jason Robards' character in "Something Wicked This Way Comes." (Jason Robards was actually in that movie?)  A few competitors fell by the wayside in the initial quizzes. But after about three of four trips to the stage, most of the competitors - myself included - were doing well enough that it looked like this round was going to take a while. (Thank goodness you could miss one question in each round without being eliminated.) 

Of course, Disney could not let this competition go on forever, so they made a few changes. Graham left the stage to be replaced by Steven Vagnini from the Archives, and short while thereafter came - DUM DUM DUUUM!!! - the tougher questions. This was the point where we really started losing competitors - we were down from about 70 competitors to 26 in almost no time at all. Alas, my friend David was the first in our circle of friends to fall, followed a short time later by Eric. But three of our group survived to make it into a group of 26 that would compete in the second part of the third round.

If the first part of the third round had been like running a series of sprints, the second part was more like running a 5K. We were once again divided into small groups - one group of 8, two groups of 9 - and each group was asked 23 questions in a row. The competitors flipped up their answers three at a time, and then cleared their flip boards for the next set of three questions. The questions were tougher than ever. But at least this time, there was no chance of instant elimination - the judges kept tallies of the number of questions gotten right, and once everyone had gotten their turn on stage, the scores were added up. The top 18 people would be invited to compete in the semi-finals.  I don't know how everyone else felt, but I walked off the stage after my set of questions figuring I was done - I was sure I hadn't gotten more than two-thirds of them right, and I was sure that that wouldn't be good enough to get me into the next round. Well, at least I had made it this far.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

The scores were added up, and a funny thing happened. I made the cut! My friends Doug, Roger, and I had all been selected to compete in the semi-finals, to be held at Stage 23 the following evening. The competitors received a button featuring Merlin from "The Sword in the Stone," and the 8 folks who didn't make it were then invited to come to the show the next day; they would serve as alternates if anybody failed to show up.

Remember the group of friends that I was afraid I was going to embarrass myself in front of? They offered their congratulations and wished all three of us the best of luck in the competition. About this time, Dan Roebuck from "LOST"  -- who would be our MC for the final rounds -- came by and offered his congratulations. Dan told us that he was looking forward to seeing us in the competition.  Somehow it didn't seem real to me just yet. 

Let's flash forward to late Friday afternoon, when the remaining competitors gathered outside Stage 23. We were met by Graham, who told us the rules for the final rounds of the competition. First off, the 18 competitors who'd made it through the previous day's rounds would be joined by two more competitors who'd been selected in competitions at the Destination D events in California and Florida. We would be split into two groups, with one group being sequestered off-stage while the other group competed. We learned the how the final rounds would work (more on that later). We also learned that there would be no more multiple choice questions - we were on our own as far as coming up with answers, although we were told there would be notepads available for us to work with. (Oh, no - did that mean there would be MATH QUESTIONS?!?)

The stakes get higher as the 2011 edition of D23's Ultimate Disney Trivia Challenge
enters its final phase. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Saying that I was nervous at this point would be a massive understatement, but Graham said something at this point that was actually comforting: "Just remember that no matter what happens inside, you folks are the twenty smartest people in the building today."  I realized that making it this far was in itself a major accomplishment, and no matter how bad I flubbed it on stage, at least nobody could take that away from me. A little calmer now but not necessarily any more relaxed,  I was escorted with everyone else to the waiting area, where we'd all sit and chat for a bit while the audience and our judges took their places inside Stage 23.

Each group sat at opposite ends in the waiting area - not out of animosity or anything, but just because the D23 folks wanted to be sure the first group could be quickly gotten on stage and the second group would be unable to hear how things were going for the first group once they went in, to prevent the second group from gaining any sort of advantage. Our group idly chatted about things Disney - by this point, nobody felt like quizzing each other to test their knowledge! I learned that two of the competitors in my group had won employee trivia tournaments once held by the Disney Store. That didn't make me feel much better about my chances. But by then I had decided that was going to be happy if I managed to get a couple of questions right and could thus be eliminated with a bit of dignity. A short time later, my group was brought on stage.

On stage, there was a table with ten mikes and notepads. Next to the table were a couple of plush leather chairs. And in those chairs were the competition's main judges: retired Disney archivist Dave Smith, current head of the Walt Disney Archives Becky Cline and our old friend Graham, who -- along with Steven Vagnini -- had written many of the questions for the Tournament. Dan Roebuck paced in front of the table with his mike and his cards. And in front of him (or behind him, from our perspective) were more judges and one really big audience. Aside from all my friends cheering me on as I took to the stage, I really didn't notice the audience much. Whether it was because they were obscured by the stage lights or because I was too nervous to notice, I wasn't sure.

"The biggest word you ever heard and this is how it goes ... "
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

The first round was the Basil of Baker Street Round. Each contestant was asked three questions. They earned a point for each question they got right, with no points deducted for wrong answers, and only the person being asked the questions could answer them. I can't remember what the first question I got was, but I do remember that I got it right, and that I got a nice round of applause from the audience. My next question was about "Something Wicked This Way Comes," and I didn't have an answer at all. (Someday I'm really going to have to watch that movie.)  Fortunately, I got my third question right. Not a bad showing at all, if I say so myself. It could have been a lot worse - one contestant was asked to spell "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!"

The second round of the semi-finals was the Scare Floor Round. An image of a set of 12 doors appeared on the video screens in Stage 23, and each contestant got to choose one door; each door featured an audio clue, a video clue, or a prop that was brought on stage. For my question, an Egyptian pharaoh's headdress was brought onstage, and I was asked to name the attraction where this headdress had come from. (I recognized it almost immediately as being from Spaceship Earth.) Another contestant got a video from Disney Legend Bob Gurr, who asked for the name of the person that he and Walt had taken for an unauthorized ride on the Disneyland Monorail on its opening day. (That would be Vice-President Richard Nixon.)  The questions were tricky, but our group did pretty well with them.

The third round of the semi-finals was the Lightning McQueen Round. Each of the contestants had buzzers in front of them, and for three minutes, Dan asked a series of questions. As soon as someone had the answer, they'd then try to buzz in first and respond. Unlike the two prior rounds, if someone missed the question, they lost a point, and other contestants could buzz in to try to answer. I decided that my best bet was to be conservative. If I wasn't sure of the answer, I wasn't going to try to buzz in and guess. I didn't lose any points following this strategy, but I didn't pick up any, either.

Then-Vice President Richard Nixon and his family help Walt Disney cut
the ribbon at the official opening of Disneyland's monorail system.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

The person next to me on stage, John Kurowski, had no intention of playing conservatively; he buzzed in on just about every question, and he got just about every one that he buzzed in on right. John got enough points that he easily became the top scorer of our group. The competition for the next two highest scores - and for the two remaining invitations to compete in the final round - was going to be closer.

I was so focused on trying to beat John to the questions that I really didn't notice the scores until the round was over. When I looked, it turned out that I'd gotten third place in my group. I had made it to the final round! Unfortunately, my friends Doug and Roger hadn't been as lucky in their round. It was up to me to make a good showing for our group. Again, no pressure.

The finals of the Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament had only six contestants, and it worked about the same as the semi-final round. There were only two parts to the final round: The Hasbro's Trivial Pursuit Disney Edition Round and a second Lightning McQueen Round. For the Trivial Pursuit round, each of us would choose a Trivial Pursuit category and try to answer a question (roughly) based on that category. Each contestant got two points for getting the question right and lost no points lost for missing it. But the question would be open to everyone else if it was missed. By this time, I was so wrapped up in the excitement of being in the finals that all I remember about this round was that I answered a question about the location of Walt Disney World (it's in Orange and Osceola Counties), and I think that I missed my own question.

Walt Disney stands in front of the Florida Project site map in 1966.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

After having competed against John in the semi-final Lightning McQueen Round, I was pretty sure that the outcome of the final Lightning McQueen round - and thus the Tournament - was a foregone conclusion, and I was right. The round was five minutes long this time, and once again John dominated the round. He overwhelmed everyone else so thoroughly that by the final minute or so of the round - when I finally managed to beat John to the buzzer a couple of times - John was given my points by mistake.  By the time the round was over, John was undeniably the winner of the Tournament and of that cruise on the Disney Fantasy. According to the scores displayed on the monitors, I was going to have to be content with finishing in fifth place. 

Or was I? As soon as Dan went to shake the hand of the third-pace finisher, calls went out from the group that had come to cheer me on that the scores were wrong. The judges checked out the scores, and sure enough, I actually had a couple more points than the scoreboard showed. John was in no danger of losing the Tournament. But with the revised scores, I'd moved up from fifth place to third. When I heard that, even I was impressed!

Now I didn't get anything for my third-place finish in the Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament other than bragging rights and a copy of Hasbro's new Trivial Pursuit Disney For All game (everyone who made it to the semi-finals got a copy). But I really didn't mind. I'd competed against some of the best and the brightest Disney fans, and I'd done better than I'd ever expected. I'm not going to claim I was smarter than anyone else on stage - honestly, had it not been for a bit of luck as well as what I had remembered, the outcome might have been very different. But it was an amazing experience, and I enjoyed all of the congratulations that I got from my friends throughout the weekend of the D23 Expo. A few friends called out "Hey, Number 3!" and held three fingers up in the air every time they saw me.  And of course, I proudly wore my third-round button for the entire weekend. 

"And for our runners-up, a lovely parting gift: a copy of Hasbro's new Trivial Pursuit
Disney For All game." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

I can't wait for the next Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament. I don't know if how far I'll make it next time, but I know it'll be fun. And who knows? Maybe if I study next time and learn to handle a buzzer better, I just might pull off a win. No pressure.

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  • Thanks for sharing your story about the experience. I was one of the competitors, and I was #21 (the last one eliminated in the Thursday rounds). In fact, do you remember the tie-breaker round? I was one of the two in that, and I lost it by one question. I really wondered what it was like for you guys in the final rounds, so I was glad to read your story. Thanks again!

  • well I was number 4.......

  • Also Something Wicked This Way Come is at Target for like 9 bucks in the Halloween area. It is a really good movie! Also I want to say it was one of the last things shoot on the backlot at the Disney Studios....Jim?

  • That's great, Jeremiah! Good job!

  • Hey Paul! Thanks for the story. I had no idea I was given points that I didn't earn. It sounds like you had a fun experience doing this and I did too. Keep in touch!

  • Hi guys!  As far as I'm concerned, we're all winners for getting as far as we did. Congratulations John - enjoy the cruise!  Hope to see you all at the next tournament!

  • Ah, it was fun, wasn't it?  I went into it knowing that I was "rusty", but I still had an awesome time, and finished in the top 18.  It was great to participate again after all this time, and I was proud of how far I got.  :)

  • Thanks for writing such a good article, I stumbled onto your blog and read a few post. I like your style of writing...

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