Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Disney - The Epic Story

OK, here goes….. Disney; its going to be a long one.

Much like The Muppets, I do not remember life without Disney. That I remember, I did not have a huge amount of Disney toys as a child, I certainly do not remember having plush; but I do remember having Disney characters on my birthday cakes and watching the Disney anthology TV shows from a very young age.

This is the point where in previous blogs I have started telling the story of the subject and weave in where I come into it, but in this case it is just impossible, Disney is just too big a subject to even attempt it; there are 2 inch thick books on just the man, let alone the company. So, instead I will just say that Walter Elias Disney was born on December 5th 1901 and changed the world forever.

Now I know there are some people who would question that comment, these are the same people who question or give a funny look to an adult being an admitted Disney geek; something that every Disney geek experiences. But I often find that when you question them back, pretty much everyone is a fan of something Disney deep down. Sure, there are levels of fandom, there always are; but Disney’s reach and range of products is so great and wide that I doubt there are many whose lives have not been and are still touched by Disney on a daily basis. Because Disney isn’t just Mickey Mouse and friends, or the theme parks, the Disney Channels or even all the animated classics or motion pictures that most people associate with it; it’s a whole range of brand names like ESPN (“The World Wide Leader in Sports” – apparently) and ABC Television (which in recent times has made shows like Lost and Desperate Housewives), Touchstone Pictures (which made numerous popular movies since the 80s) and Miramax (Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, both Disney); and countless others that cover all kinds of media and consumerism, recently adding Marvel and Playdom to the list.

But there is also a whole different side to Disney that you don’t get with other brand names; there is a fan community that transcends both the brand and its products.

The BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands report for 2011 lists Disney at number 38 (up from 41 the previous year); a number which may seem quite low down, but consider that Budweiser is ranked 45, Mercedes 50, Nike 57, Pepsi 63, Starbucks 72, Nintendo 79 and Sony 85; so 38 is really very high. But also looking down the list, of which the Top 10 are Apple, Google, IBM, McDonalds, Microsoft, Coca Cola, AT&T, Marlboro, China Mobile and GE; none of them have a fan following or community the same way that Disney does. A better comparison from a fan following point of view would be product franchises such as Star Wars, Star Trek, or dare I say it, Harry Potter, or even…. Twilight (little bit of sick in my throat from even typing that). But even these are not really comparable to Disney either because they are a reasonably limited and closed universe in stories and products, whereas Disney is a breathing company that is always changing, expanding and releasing new content.

Oddly enough, the best comparison to Disney fans I can think of is those of pro wrestling; which as some of you may know, I used to be involved in as a fan and professionally. Now I know that even the Disney fans reading this are now giving me a very odd look and thinking I have finally completely lost the plot; but hear me out. In both wrestling and Disney you have two very distinct halves, “the show” and the reality behind it; in wrestling the line between the two is called “kayfabe” and is rarely broken.

The kayfabe line also splits the two main definitions of fan. For a large amount of fans, all they will ever know and be a fan of is “the show”, the fictional side; what they see on film, on TV, read on company produced documents or websites, or experience in person as presented as part of the show; in wrestling these are called “marks”. This doesn’t mean to say that marks do not know that what they are enjoying or consuming is fake; it just means that they suspend disbelief to enjoy the fictional side without caring about the reality behind it. However, you do then get fans who do delve deeper, that care about the small details of the show and the reality behind them as it is often much more interesting than the show itself, they care about the people behind the show, listen for rumours of changes to be made or new things introduced, debate whether things are being done properly in reality to produce the best show and often as a progressional aspect of this, learn about the history of both the show and reality as they get deeper and deeper involved; in wrestling these are called “smart marks”. Now this doesn’t mean that smart marks can’t enjoy the show for what it is, they still suspend disbelief while watching the show and lose themselves in the story; they are just more informed and often appreciative of what has gone into producing the show as presented when it is done right; and often more annoyed when it is done badly.

Hopefully the Disney fans reading this are now onboard with my comparison and the men in white suits have been cancelled. But I think that all Disney fans start as marks, often at a very young age and can continue to be a mark for Disney for as long as they chose to, enjoying the entertainment, the movies, the parks etc for what they are. Then one day they pick up one of the many books on sale about Disney, or listen to a non company produced podcast or even watch DVD extras and suddenly the curtain is lifted between show and backstage; kayfabe is broken. At this point they could say “oh, that’s interesting” and think nothing more of it remaining a mark; or it could open their eyes to a whole new level of fandom as they become smart marks and become fans of Disney and not just the Disney product. And if or when they do, they suddenly find that not only is there is a huge amount of subject base and resources available, but there is also a very big and welcoming fan community to which they can become a part of.

I will go into my conversion from mark to smart mark a little later, but first we have to go way back to the late seventies when I was a just a few years old.

The Ferguson Videostar 3V22 (pictured here in all its retro glory) was released in the UK in 1978 and my parents were pretty early adopters of the VHS technology getting one in 79/80. No-one quite remembers how we came to have them, but we had pretty much the entire catalogue, two per tape, of Disney animated classics; obviously not legit as they weren’t released officially for many years after this. So from a very young age I watched these movies over and over and over again and in a time before Transformers, MASK and Thundercats, these were very much my main entertainment. I also saw a lot of the theatrical re-releases of the classics seeing almost all of them on the big screen, and also the 1981 debut release of The Fox and the Hound, which also turned up on VHS in our household and was one of my favourites. One of the theatrical re-releases I was taken to was the 1979 release of Bedknobs and Broomsticks; and without going into detail, I slept with my light on until my teens thanks to that experience.

Skipping ahead a few years, Easter 1985 saw my family’s first trip to Walt Disney World (WDW) in Florida. Being 8 at the time, I have quite a few memories, but they are mostly glimpses and small snippets of information. Space Mountain was my first ever roller coaster, although Big Thunder became the family favourite. We rode Toad many many times, but I never rode Dumbo. Rope drop back then was past Main Street, and the only character meal took place aboard the Empress Lilly at the Disney Village. EPCOT Center was still new, and we loved the Journey into Imagination and Horizons attractions; although World Showcase didn’t do much for young me.

Our next trip to WDW was in 1988 and to be honest, I have difficulty distinguishing between this and the first trip; apart from the opening of the Living Seas at EPCOT, very little had changed and for the most part we were riding the same rides and seeing the same shows again. The most noticeable difference for me was the introduction of Captain EO in the Imagination pavilion; I quickly had the tshirt and 3D comic book. One of the oddest memories I have of both these first trips is that back then, Main Street USA was the only place we knew where we could buy Knotts Berry Farm Boysenberry Syrup, a family favourite, so we would bring back bottles of it on every trip.

It was after this point, and as I approached my teen years that Disney started to take a back seat in my list of interests. In fact, in 1990 at the age of 14, I not only spent over a month in Boca Raton and didn’t visit the park, but at the summer camp at which I was a junior councillor (in art), I complained every day whenever the new Little Mermaid soundtrack CD was put on; I know, I know, I’m hanging my head in shame.

However, when I eventually saw the Little Mermaid I quickly changed my tune, and I saw all of the renaissance movies (excluding Pocahontas) in the cinema in the years that followed. I also throughout my teens watched and owned a lot of the Touchstone movies, not knowing at the time that they had anything to do with Disney; some of which I consider movies that defined my teen years.

Disneyland Paris (DLRP), then EuroDisney, opened in 1992 and we went for my sister’s birthday in September of that year. I have to say that I remember very little about this trip; and if it hadn’t been for a nagging memory of going as a family (pre-Tara) and me sleeping in bunk beds, then I probably would have forgotten about it completely.

1993 saw my return to WDW on another family easter trip. Now at the age of 16, this is what I consider to be my last trip as a kid; but also marked my first visit to the then named Disney-MGM Studios where I got to see the studio tour in its original form although I do not remember what was being produced in the animation wing at the time as it was before work began on Mulan; the first feature film to be made there.

When I travelled the USA in 1997 I had my first opportunity to visit Disneyland (DLR). I spent a single day there and I have to admit, that I was not overly appreciative of all that makes Disneyland so important or great. Having been used to WDW, I was too busy thinking everything seemed so small (especially the castle) to notice how perfectly everything is interwoven, or how so many of their rides are superior to their east coast counterpart. I did, however, have a really nice day there and it was capped off by my main memory of the visit, sitting around the Rivers of America and seeing Fantasmic for the first time; a show that blew me away.

By early 1999, Tara and I were together and while spending a few weeks at the Ft Lauderdale office of my place of employment at the time, we took a weekend to visit the Orlando area spending at day at the Magic Kingdom and another at Universal (sorry for swearing). We spent much of the day meeting characters and doing our favourite rides, and while the trip was too quick for me to notice the major differences since my childhood visits; I did at that time have to mourn the loss of 20,000 Leagues, at that time replaced by the Pooh, Tigger and Eeyore meet, and Mr Toad’s Wild Ride, now The Adventures of Pooh dark ride.

Late ’99 saw us visit Disneyland Paris for my Dad’s 50th Birthday and experience the Christmas celebrations; it was a very cold weekend. We were supposed to return for Halloween a couple of years later but weather at the time put a stop on the Eurostar services and the trip was unfortunately abandoned. In case you were wondering, I lost over 3 stone (42lbs) between the start and end of 1999.

It wouldn’t be until Halloween 2005 that we next visited Disneyland Paris; by this time with a son. This trip was important for many reasons; predominantly because it was Gage’s first visit to a Disney park (aged 2), but it was unknowingly the start of our pin trading collection and also the start of the reinvigoration of my love of Disney.

Now of course I never stopped loving Disney, but we hadn’t bothered to see many of the animated films since the turn of the millennium; and as already mentioned, in the period from 1993 until 2005 I had only spent 4 days in a Disney park. I think like many, my main Disney exposure during this period was the Pixar produced movies which had revolutionised the industry.

In 2006 we returned to WDW, other than the single day in 99, this was my first proper visit in 13 years. This was a visit of highs and lows; we had a great time, but there were so many things that I had loved as a kid that I wanted to share with my son that were no longer the way they had been and that I had loved; and often not for the better. Obviously I knew that Toad and Leagues had gone, and it didn’t take long to notice Alien Encounter which Tara and I had loved in ’99 was also gone; but the biggest surprise came when we visited Epcot. Firstly I saw “the wand” but for some reason I knew about it’s existence already, then there was no Horizons any more which I thought was a terrible shame; but the biggest shock came as we went into the Imagination pavilion. I was so excited as I hadn’t ridden Journey into Imagination since 1993 and was looking forward to Gage falling in love with Figment the way I had; and then we rode it. There were however some nice firsts during the trip; my first visit to Animal Kingdom, Flower & Garden festival at Epcot, and La Nouba at Downtown Disney; not to mention the Steak ‘n Shake that our hotel backed onto. This trip also contributed towards the slippery slope that is pin collecting.

Importantly, this truly was the pivotal point in my fandom of Disney; obviously I hated what had happened to Imagination, but I was also annoyed with myself that I was clueless to it happening as well as Horizons closing and so many other things changing; I had a head full of questions. The following week was spent in Tara’s hometown in Alabama and this gave me a lot of downtime which I spent trawling the internet for information and in that week I started down the road to becoming a smart mark fan of Disney. Obviously, a lot of my searches led me to Wiki pages and using the reference links I started finding other websites such as MiceAge/MiceChat; but while I found the answers to my questions, I also started finding out loads of information that I wished I had known about a week earlier as it could only have enhanced our visit. My searching also led me to a podcast called MouseTunes by Lou Mongello and Nathan Rose which I started listening to religiously (to the point that I bought an iPod just to facilitate listening). The discovery of this podcast really contributed towards a change in my life, especially when a few months after this trip I started working in the city again and so with almost 10 hours of commute time a week, this podcast, and others that I heard about through it, became a companion and I started becoming a part of the community. From this point onwards, I was a Disney fan in its deepest sense; not someone who just enjoyed the movies, or enjoyed the occasional visit to the park; but I started reading history books, blogs and news sites and consuming information on the company and not just it’s product. I will be doing blogs in the future about my favourite Disney related podcasts and books.

Oddly our next Disney experience was the Word Of Disney store which in 2007 was a three storey store on the corner of 5th and 55th St in New York. Now I know this was just store, but it had character meets twice a day on certain days, and during our trip, there weren’t many sessions that we missed. The visits to this store were also the end of any claims Tara and I had that we weren’t into Disney pin trading as our lanyards filled up.

For Halloween 2007 we returned to Disneyland Paris and knowing more than I ever had before, we had great trip. If I learnt two things from all the podcasts etc, it was to look out for attention to detail (and Hidden Mickeys) and to experience proper dining in the parks. In all the times we had been to any of the parks, apart from a few character breakfasts, we were guilty of grabbing the quick hamburger and fries meals rather than sitting down for an hour plus and eating properly; this was the first trip that we changed that habit and enjoyed finer dining and we haven’t changed back since. This holiday will also always be remembered for the holiday where we were stalked by Friar Tuck; everywhere we went, the Tuck was there!!

2008 didn’t quite go as planned so no visits, but in early 2009 Disney launched the D23 fan club, of which I was an early member (although sadly I cannot claim first day).

Halloween 2009 saw our return to WDW; and I have to say that its only when writing this now, that I am realising how many of our trips are at Halloween time. With all the knowledge I had picked up since 2006, this was a trip of firsts. Our first time staying “on property”, our first time using the Dining Plan (as it was financially beneficial back then – especially as counter service DP came free and all I had to pay was upgrade) and thus our first time experiencing many of the better restaurants like Le Cellier and 50s Prime Time, our first Mickey’s Not So Scary party and our first Epcot Food and Wine Festival.

Our next trip was to Disneyland Paris in August 2010. This was a very odd trip for me as I had lost my dad to cancer a few weeks earlier; but it was a much needed break for the same reasons. This was the trip where we got our first Vinylmation figures for fun (mostly because they were Muppet ones), and we started using a 9” blank Vinylmation figure as our trip autograph book, which has become a tradition since.

This was followed by an unforgettable Christmas/New Year 2010 trip to Florida for both good and bad reasons; I have never had a travelling experience as draining and mentally exhausting as this was thanks to the snow; but it all worked out in the end. Again a trip of firsts, we got to stay at two more on property resorts, experience the Christmas celebrations and New Years Eve in the parks and we spent Christmas day with the family aboard the Disney Wonder as we enjoyed our first Disney Cruise Line experience as we toured the Caribbean. This was also the trip that I became a Disney Premier Passport holder; few pieces of plastic have made me happier.

2011 was another mega trip year for us, this time in August we spent an enjoyable week at WDW before hopping coast and spending just over a week at Disneyland; the first 3 days of which were at the D23 Expo. I will have to write a blog on those days alone at some point, but this was a chance for me to not only see and experience some cool stuff; but mostly a chance to meet so many of the people that I knew from the online community, an awesome few days. In many ways I also think of this as my first real trip to Disneyland, now with the California Adventure second park; and I loved it, so much charm and detail, its an amazing place to be.

When Tara and Gage went to Alabama in November of 2011 I decided to make an impromptu solo trip to Disneyland Paris for a long weekend, although it turned out to directly coincide with my Mum, Sister and her family being there so wasn’t so solo after all. This was a fun couple of days for me because I was able to take the tours that the park offers but I never have the time to do on family visits. Also, financially, it worked out beneficial for me to become an Annual Passholder for that park too; so for 4 weeks of 2011 I was an Annual Passholder of every Disney park on two continents :)

And that brings me to the present. What next? Well, it would be wrong of me not to use my Disneyland Paris annual pass, but we probably wont return there until after April once all of the new entertainment for the 20th Anniversary has started. Tara and I will be heading to WDW for Halloween this year (yes, Halloween again) for Mickey’s Not So Scary on Halloween night itself and for some gorging at Food & Wine; but mostly to be a part of the WDW Radio Dream Cruise 2.0 which we are really looking forward to. A year ago, Tara and I thought up a cool concept for a podcast of our own which keeps coming up in my mind, maybe we will do something about that one day. As for me personally, well, I hope to be blogging more and more here, and most likely a lot of it will be Disney related. So I do ask, that if you are a Disney fan, please tweet this out or link it on your facebook using the tools below; after writing 4,000 words, it would be nice if someone reads it.

Speak Soon :)


  1. Awesome post Mark, thanks for sharing your Disney history! I love sitting and thinking about the 'concept' of being an adult Disney fan, its something people either totally understand or totally dismiss as silly! For me it's all about the history of one man and his dream, and how we are lucky enough to understand why we have to keep his dream alive :)

  2. I used to draw my favorite Disney characters over and over when I was little..I wanted to be an animator for Disney! I was probably the only 2nd grader on the planet who was reading the autobiography of Walt Disney on the bus ride to and from school. As many, I lost interest as I got older but you & Tara help bring it all back to me from time to time. :)

  3. Nice story, thanks for sharing Mark.

    We're really in the mark category, but it's a pretty good place to be.

    I cannot believe we have taken k to Disney parks three years in a row. I would have thought that an impossibility, but we've done it. In a few years I want to take her to the one on your side of the pond. I sure hope we can coordinate that trip with you and the family!

    Staying on property is a great advantage and something I recommend for everyone.

    Our biggest miss has been the good eating. We ate the quick food on the dining plan this trip and I was very unsatisfied. We will have to really work on this for the next trip. I do think the Dining Plan is great, though. Kristi scored this for free, and just paid for an upgrade I think, and really loved it. We definitely want to use this again.

    I think you know, we went to WDW for our Honeymoon 13 years ago. We toured Boardwalk and looked at the Vacation Club plan. I still think about it and every so often I do more research on it. I'm sure I'll sign up for it one day!

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