Disney World’s Reluctant Dragon

Written by Jeff Heimbuch. Posted in Disney, Disney Parks, Features, The 626, Walt Disney World

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Published on December 16, 2012 at 4:02 am with 30 Comments

Well, it’s official. The “largest expansion ever in Magic Kingdom history,” New Fantasyland, is open and the holiday season crowds have descended upon it. If you’re visiting the Vacation Kingdom of the World anytime soon, chances are you’ll be experiencing long waits to either dive Under The Sea with Ariel or to dine in style with Belle.

But that’s fine, because in my honest opinion, most of that stuff is worth the wait. But I’m not here to talk about that today. I’d like to talk about “New” Fantasyland’s dragon problem.

“Dragon problem?” you may say. “What dragon problem? It looked pretty neat to me!” And you’d be right. It DID look neat. But its staying power was vastly diminished by Disney’s social media campaign to promote it.

Let’s take a step back and start from the beginning…

Part of the New Fantasyland “shtick” is that it has always been there since the Park opened in 1971. The villains, for whatever reason, hid it away from our eyes, and it was only just recently that the curse was broken to allow guests into it. This was promoted by a pretty great looking website, where guests could help “break” the curse by playing games and answering trivia questions. This, in turn, unlocked portions of the land on the interactive site, giving you some fun tidbits about it.

Kind of cheesy, but well done. It’s cute enough in its own right, and they didn’t shove it down our throats.

But then, a few weeks ago, Disney started ANOTHER big social media push for New Fantasyland. This one, headed by Gary from the Disney Parks Blog, claimed that, while building the Magic Kingdom back in the 70s, Imagineers came across a real, live dragon egg. Of course, the egg was already hatched, with dragon foot prints leading away. This evidence was supported by “photos” from WED, and an old 8MM film that was pushed out.

If they had stopped at that, it would have been great.

However, from then on, it was a full on out viral campaign to try to convince the world that a dragon was wandering around free, and that it would, ultimately, return home to the Magic Kingdom.

If you followed the entire thing, you know what I am talking about. New, blurry photos of “dragon sightings” were posted every day. Multiple shaky cam amateur footage of the dragon was revealed, in true Cloverfield-like fashion. And finally, Gary, our guide trying to figure out this mystery, set out to interview the denizens of the Magic Kingdom to find out the truth.

Look, Disney, I get what you were trying to do. And honestly, I’ll give you a lot of credit for how much effort you put into what you are trying to accomplish. But the entire thing, from start to finish, was a disjointed, uneven affair that left a lot of us in the dark. The tone kept shifting back and forth, between serious and funny, and it lost a lot of people in the process.

For example, we had the one video where a farmer who was investigating a noise by his barn was confronted by the dragon. The video was played completely straight, as it should have been, and left us with a sense of wonder. But to follow it up, we get another video, with Gary dressed in dragon pajamas, running around New Fantasyland at night, making a joke out of it. The going from one extreme to the other was a poor choice, and it just didn’t sit right with me or anyone else I’ve spoken with about it.

Another thing I disagreed with is that they played on our sense of nostalgia. Quite a number of times throughout the process, they made reference to some classic Disney dragons: Elliott, from Pete’s Dragon, Figment from Journey Into Imagination, and the dragon from the Animal Kingdom logo that was meant to be part of the (unbuilt) Beastly Kingdome. To me, this was a tease…especially the use of Figment. For years, Disney fans have lamented the fact that the Imagination Pavilion is terrible, and they wanted some form of the original, beloved Figment attraction to come back.

By using all of these classic dragons, even as fleeting as some of them were, they tried to play on our nostalgia factor. In a lot of ways, they got people’s hopes up that maybe, just maybe, something would be done with the characters again. Alas, it was all for naught, since they were just tools for Disney’s overreaching social media machine.

But I think the factor that bothered me the most was how it ended.

Disney spent who knows how much money on this massive, online campaign, but their ultimate decision was to unveil the dragon for one night only.

Yes, that is correct. According to its official “reveal” video on the Disney Parks Blog, the dragon would appear for only one night, when New Fantasyland opened. And to make it worse, it was unveiled during the media event only.

Yes, the MEDIA EVENT. There were no regular, day to day guests there, but instead, members of the news media who could report back on the amazing thing they had just seen that no one else would be able to experience.

Kind of seems like a big waste, don’t you think? It seems like a move like this would alienate their loyal paying customers. What about the Annual Pass Holders? Or the DVC Members? Or regular, everyday paying guests? Do THEY get to see this special event taking place? No, apparently not, it seems.

In fact, it really leads me to believe that the entire campaign was geared specifically toward their target demographic of the folks in attendance at that media event (mommie bloggers), and that, in turn, would garner the entire thing rave reviews in those online and print communities.

But the average consumer, who was force feed the whole dragon campaign through Disney’s various outlets, was left out in the cold. This “mystery” that was shoved in our faces for weeks and was ultimately unveiled to a group of people that most guests do not belong too, and now, will never have the chance to see for themselves. And that has led to a bit of a fan backlash.

I admit, the dragon itself was pretty impressive. The way it “flew” over the Magic Kingdom, with its wings flapping and fire shooting from its mouth, was an amazing sight in that video they posted. However, its entire presence was lessened by the social media campaign. If they had just kept the dragon as a surprise, and really wowed those in attendance with its appearance, it would truly have been a feat not easily topped by other theme parks. Can you imagine how amazing that would have been? People would have been sitting there, enjoying the New Fantasyland, when all of a sudden a massive dragon would fly over their heads, shooting flames as it roared! It would have definitely surprised a few people and left them with their jaws open.

Instead, Disney decided to force feed us a story to get us all excited about something really cool they were going to do and instead killed the impact of the entire thing by making it impossible for any of those folks to see it.

And I really don’t get why they decided to use it for just this one night. In fact, that’s a pretty ridiculous thing to do to their guests. Wow them with this great effect, but only roll it out for a small group of people? Come on now…who WOULDN’T want to see a dragon fly over Fantasyland every so often? That would be a great “plus” for the Park.

I’m sure there are some safety issues to take into concern with this, such as the weather, the technology being used, and mechanical failure (no one wants to see a dragon take a nose dive into a crowd of people), but they could still roll it out for special events. Hell, even a once a week surprise appearance would go a long way toward creating good will with their guests.

Instead, we’re lead to believe we’ll never see the flying dragon in Disney World again.

Of course, I don’t actually believe that, and I’m sure it’ll make an appearance again sometime in the future. But for now, after all that hoopla of trying to “find” it again, he’s gone. And all we have left are the memories from the mommy bloggers and a social media campaign that wasn’t exactly filling.

In the end, I’m left annoyed and puzzled as to why anyone at Disney would think this campaign made sense, or why they would spend so much time and money to alienate the fans that actually take the time to read their blog (like me). But I really hope that, in the future, they learn from their mistake. Disney should be reaching out to the entire fan community and Disney guests in general.  When you create media buzz, you need to follow through and let your audience enjoy the thing you’ve been promoting.

I’d like to know your thoughts. Were you wowed by the social media campaign or frustrated by it?

by Jeff Heimbuch

If you have a tip, questions, comments, or gripes, please feel free email me at [email protected] or leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

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Comments for Disney World’s Reluctant Dragon are now closed.

  1. So… did you like the dragon then?

    • Yes, he liked the Dragon, that was the first thing he told us. What he didn’t like is that Disney built it up for weeks and then tricked everyone by showing it only to their select media (mostly mommy bloggers). If they were going to do something only for the media, there was no reason for them to promote it to the general public. The ultimate bait and switch and VERY stupid from a social media perspective. You can build something up all you want, but if you don’t deliver, then you should expect some backlash.

      Disney deserves this sort of scolding for their dragon drama. They led us to believe something new was coming and then said, see look at this neat thing you’ll never see in person.

      I really appreciate Jeff’s perspective on this subject. The Dragon is really neat, but Disney was wrong to over-hype it like they did.

    • Absolutely, I liked the dragon itself! I thought I was clear on that, and I apologize if I wasn’t. It really is a feat, and it looks amazing. But everything around the dragon, including their massive campaign and its “one night only status” was an absolute failure on their end.

  2. Jeff, I agree with your critique of the social media campaign, but you have to admit that they spent a lot of time and money on it and you gotta give ‘em credit for trying. Marketing through social media is still somewhat of an infant industry, with much to learn and mistakes to make along the way. Disney “should” do the job better than most, but in the end how many other companies would have gone through so much effort for a “one time only” event? The video was amazing; even though (if you watched very carefully) you could tell it was a totally man-made flying machine of some sort (or a man flying, not quite sure which, as I couldn’t judge the scale), the overall effect was nothing short of miraculous. The “dragon”‘s head, wings and tail moved with a natural effect, it stayed on course, and spurt out fireworks. Who could ask for anything more?

    • I can’t imagine that anyone would argue that the dragon itself is anything other than amazing. That’s not what this story is about. It’s about leading folks to believe one thing and then yanking the rug out from under them at the last minute.

      If they had released just the video of the dragon and said that it flew for one night only for media at the grand opening of New Fantasyland, it would have been fine. There would still be some grumbles that Disney was putting on a show the regular guest would be denied, but not at the level seen in this disasterous campaign.

      And as for social media being new, that’s just not the case. Disney has perhaps the largest and most qualified social media team in the industry. Businesses the world over look to Disney as the example. Though, in this case, I’d expect the Dragon drama to become a textbook case of what NOT to do in product marketing (over-promote a product which you won’t deliver to your target market).

      • I’m not taking away from their feat of engineering or the time, effort, and money spent on the effort, Tom. I am, however, saying it was a lot of effort and money spent on a specifically set group of people, so that they could, in turn, give Disney rave reviews. My issue isn’t with the dragon itself. It’s that Disney is alienating the folks that keep them in business, their money-spending guests, but not delivering on a “promise” of sorts. To have a massive campaign like this, and only pay it off to folks who are there on Disney’s dime is just ridiculous. They are missing out on making the same magic for regular folks who come to Disney every day and keep them in business.

        Like Dusty said, I have to disagree about social media being an infant industry. The last few years, there have been many successful social media campaigns that delivered on their promise at the end of the day. Disney should have taken a cue from these and made the dragon for all, not just the people they are wining and dining for good reviews.

    • tomjmoses, clearly social media marketing is not an infant industry, especially with a multi-national company like Disney. They employ whole teams for social media marketing alone. This is clearly a Disney failure based not on design, but execution.

  3. Jeff, I totally agree and think you made a good point on the Communicore Weekly show about the same thing. I really don’t have a huge deal with what they did if it was leading to a new attraction or regular feature. The idea of “limited time magic” is just a smokescreen to keep them from focusing as much on the attractions. There are so many that need updating and just basic refurbishments, and instead they’re focusing on a one-time gimmick. This attention to marketing over actual content is a frustrating part of the current regime, even when they do hit a home run with a place like Cars Land here and there. Great post.

    • You bring up a very good point that I didn’t even think of, but feeds directly into this. So many things at WDW can benefit from a little TLC, but instead, their money is being spent in areas that are limited. Thanks for pointing that out!
      And thanks for reading, glad you enjoyed!

  4. Disney has seen how difficult it is for a large company to create a social media campaign. Their Youtube offerings have been laughable and the D23 “Club” is centered around the more affable and LA-centric fans. People simply don’t trust large companies when is comes to social media and brand presentation.

    The dragon was spectacular. The fact that Disney presented it ONLY to a group of hand-picked “mommy bloggers” that were there with their families is very telling. They wanted New Fantasyland to look spectacular so they only invited (and paid for) people that they knew would offer a golden opinion. I love New Fantasyland, but I also realize that it’s not the best that Disney could of done. It is picture perfect but lacks a blockbuster attraction. There’s nothing that is driving families and travelers to WDW.

    I still think the best thing would have been for Disney to roll it out without telling anyone.

    The “viral-ness” of that event would have been amazing if it all would have been promoted by the bloggers afterward.

    A good friend, author and former Imagineer defined the difference between historian and blogger. I really liked his summation.

    “The difference between a ‘blogger’ and a historian has to do with tone and dignity. I class you guys as historians because you are able to have fun while remaining informed and dignified. And authoritative.”

    I think what Jeff is offering in this op-ed piece is an opinion-based column backed by years of research and dealings with bloggers, historians, journalists, fan boys (and girls) and foamers.

    Hear! Hear!

    • ^ What he said! Haha

      In all seriousness, George and I have talked about things like this at length many times. It’s frustrating that a company that is supposed all about making magic for families is only committed to making them for folks that will give them rave reviews.

  5. After all the test flights in California being reported in the news last June, I can see how the got the idea. The whole concept sounds dangerous and unsafe to do every night. Rabid word of mouth is what’s selling Carsland, so maybe the same will happen with the fairy princess stuff they just added.

    • I can definitely understand how safety was a huge factor. But again, if that was the case, they should have rolled it out for the regular guests, so THEY could experience it as well, not just the hand picked folks they had there.

  6. George, you couldn’t be farther from the truth in your comments about the “mommy bloggers.” As someone who has always felt outside of the whole social media side of Disney, depsite having a larger presence on facebook than many so called “mommy bloggers” who were actually in attendance, I completely get your point. The reality is, the vast majority of invited guests were from legitimate news sources (CNN, major morning shows, larger travel websites, and just about every large radio station in the country). I am still stunned that the podcast I do was invited since there were very few Disney “people” there other than Ricky, John Frost, Lou and Touring Plans.

    Clearly Disney’s intent is to get the word out from sources who don’t normally report about Disney, but that just makes smart business sense. And really, that’s how Disney has always done it. Disney eschewed paid advertising for years in lieu of inviting smaller media outlets to the parks, paying for their stay, and then counting on them to go back to some little town in Iowa and report back on it–hopefully in a favorable way. In this sense, they’re not really doing anything new. If I can get free advertising from a “mommy” blogger with a million readers a year (which is not a massive amount) in exchange for two free nights at a value and some swag (which was crappy, by the way), why not?

    Finally, I find the term “mommy blogger,” as used frequently by some in the Disney community, to be demeaning and sexist, as though these writers only discuss poopy diapers and coupon giveaways, when in fact threre’s some really good writing going on out there. I think there are bettter ways to express your discontent with Disney’s choice to invote smaller bloggers than to marginalize them and minimize their work. It only makes the writer sounds angry that they weren’t invited.

    • I get that the use of the term “mommy blogger” may be offensive to some (and unfortunately, that is just the nature of the beast when it comes to these things…I meant no offense to any, whether personally or to their writing), but that really wasn’t the point of the argument. My point was that they are rolling out expensive, ground breaking “magic” only for the folks who WILL give them free advertising. The fact remains that they are leaving MILLIONS of guests out in the cold when it comes to seeing this amazing dragon in action. They lead them on with a social media campaign, but when push comes to shove, they only rolled it out for those who can, in turn, help them bring them more money.

      From an advertising perspective, yes, I can why they did this. But from making good will with their every day, paying guests, it’s bad show. It really puts a damper on their whole perspective of who (or what) matters in their eyes.

    • Actually, “mommy blogger” is the term Disney uses for the segment they targeted for this campaign.

      The names you mentioned are the folks Disney can count on NOT to offer an honest opinion, but rather to only shill the happy positive Disney line.

      But the more controlling Disney becomes, the more they hurt themselves.

      • touche

  7. Jeff,
    Were you invited to the media event?

    • I wasn’t, but I was lucky enough to experience New Fantasyland a few weeks before!

  8. Reading this and seeing the lead up hints about this dragon reminds me of something I read many months ago about mysterious flying dragons near Bakersfield, CA, I think. At the time, the rumor had it linked to the new Avatar land….I think this social media build up has done it’s purpose…the backlash is designed. If this holds out the way I see it, we will see dragons flying over the animal kingdom in a few years. But for now, people are talking about the “disappointment” which will far out last any positive reviews that would have come from a one time only surprise showing of the dragon.

    Look at it like this…even thought the so-called “mommy bloggers” were the intended audience….who is talking about the dragon now?

    Disney may be risking alientating some fans…but let’s face it, it’s Disney…they ain’t all leaving because of this. There are many other reasons for folks to feel dis-enchanted with disney now-a-days (didn’t Walt himself once say, “you can’t improve pigs with pigs” (horrible recollection, but I think I get the point)). Everything seems to be a repeat of something already done somewhere else, Cars lite at studios, a Pirates test for Hong Kong, I have seen a lot of talk about “give me a UNIQUE reason to want to go to Diseny World” Dragons are not unique enough? A throw away sentence at the end of this essay – “Of course, I don’t actually believe that, and I’m sure it’ll make an appearance again sometime in the future.” Don’t think for a second that the “prototype” we got a glimpse of will not fly over Animal Kingdom sometime soon. The video from disney showed some flaws, but ultimatley – they will improve this one time event before it is revealed full time.

    My humble opinon as just a guy on the outside looking in — trust me, I am not an expert and do not pretend to be – Disney is trying. They are just reaching towards the future…they can not build anything today that will compete against Harry Potter and Universal, but man if we are not talking about the future of flying dragons at Disney World already!

    They are simply looking outward…its too late for the present and they are smart enough to know that…by the time Avatar (or any Star Wars, Indiana Jones attractions) open…people will be ready for something new — Universal will be out and DW will be back in! (and now Universal can’t unleash their own dragon at the new Harry Potter after all the early summer leaks of test dragons in Callifornia! without beinbg accused of copying someone else’s technology!)

  9. Dragon flying unexpectedly over Fantasyland at night? Brilliant idea, whether it happens only once or every night or just now-&-then.

    Dragging the whole thing out with a feeble promotion campaign that even the producers themselves would find juvenile and insulting? Bad idea.

    Respect the idea — It was a good one; trust that the dragon that impressed you will be enough to impress your guests (they are at least as discerning as you are yourself, guys).

    And respect your guests’ intelligence — they can tell when you’re ‘talking down’ to them, and they (we) don’t like it.

  10. I’m reminded of a WDW visit back in 1996, on the 25th anniversary of the entire project. They promoted it everywhere, letting everyone know that there would be the HUGE marching band on Main Street, and speeches in front of the castle from Michael Eisner, Roy Disney and Hillary Clinton. I showed up for the festivities, only to be shunted into Tomorrowland where I could watch the entire thing on a big video screen. Really? I came all this way to watch TV? Very very lame promotion. And I wouldn’t have minded if they’d just promoted it to the media. But they told ME that I could see all this stuff, when in fact I could only watch it on a video feed.

  11. The guy in PJ’s was by far the worse part of this campaign.

  12. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if they did the same thing but with Dumbo!? Have him fly around once in a while with music from the film…that’d be beautiful.

  13. Jeff, thankyou SO much for this opinion piece. I thought I may be only viewer out there feeling a bit “off” with the campaign. Was it two campaigns, or just the one with WILDLY swinging tendencies? Had I missed something? What story was fed to the viewing media at the fly-over? Or was it a case of “now look to the skies folks!”? I was grateful Disney were trying, and I tried to follow along, but the wacky and the serious viral vids just didn’t sit well together. Pick a story and stick with it!

    I was so happy with the actual Dragon flight (footage), and I don’t think many people would dispute its technological success, but the lead up to that flyover, and the fact that is was just for this one night and that tiny selected audience just baffled me, and doesn’t sit well at all.

    If it was just planned for this selected and exclusive group, WHY hype it up to the entire public of the Disney fan world? That achieves NOTHING positive. In that case, they should have just done the Dragon flyover that night as a surprise, I can bet it would have created a REAL Viral video then (no-one would believe they had seen a dragon flying over head, until word and phone video leaked out after the event!), and then perhaps, do the wacky videos to fill in some of the backstory.
    Thanks again for this article, I’m glad I was not alone in my thoughts.

  14. I agree this whole dragon thing was misguided and a bit bizarre. I did like the “House Hunters” promotion Disney made about the new Fantasyland. I thought it was nicely done.

    I think this dragon promotion is a sign of something larger going on with the Walt Disney Company. With the exception of recent expansions at the WDW Value Resorts, more and more they are catering to a small segments of people while leaving regular, average park visitors out in the cold.

    Fastpass is now evolving into a more exclusive priviledge for resort guests only. The restaurants are nearly impossible to get into without reservations made many weeks in advance. In order to get good viewing for shows, guests must buy expensive dinners or dessert packages.

    The new Disney resort in Hawaii is prohibitively expensive. The DVC expansions at Animal Kingdom Lodge, the Contemporary Resort and the Grand Californian are also at the very high end. And we’ve heard recently that the Disneyland Candlelight Processional will likely become an indoor, hard-ticket event; no doubt with a very high price tag.

    Thus, I’m not surprised Disney displayed their dragon for an exclusive group of media types and Mommy Bloggers. I expect they’ll reserve the dragon for private parties and VIP events only.

    One of the great things about Disney parks used to be how they were very American and devoid of the European Class system. Outside of Club 33, everyone was welcome everywhere once they paid they’r admission fee. But now it seems Disney will carve more and more segments out for people paying premium prices at premium hotels or for celebrities and their cronies.

  15. I have to agree that the dragon being used for one night only if they pulugged it for families.
    That man with his dragon pajamas was just plain bad, but typical when Disney tries to do something modern. However, the dragon was amazing, and I hope it is used for more often

    Thanks Jeff for your views