Disney World has really gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to the national promotion called limited time magic. Disney considers the program to be part of its one Disney initiative, meaning that it can choose to do a special event on just one coast each week and still boast that they have 52 weeks of things to experience. It’s a perplexing promotion. Many of the events have such limited scale or limited appeal that it’s hard to see just who this was designed for.
Disneyland at least has brought back a beloved stage show and fan favorite in the form of the Golden Horseshoe Revue. Walt Disney World, however, has had to make do with limp ideas such as a half-baked New Year’s Eve celebration that repeated daily for a week, or a miniscule meet and greet starring characters that were recently at the upcharge Christmas party. This past week, the Disney World event sounded more promising: more meet and greets, but this time with long-lost friends, meaning characters, we have not seen at Disney World in some time. Many fans were excited, especially if they grew up with these characters and had taken photographs with them on vacations many years prior.
Well, not begrudging the nostalgia factor for these other fans, I had much lower expectations when it came to my own family. My kids never seemed like posing with the Disney characters. After all, there’s something inherently creepy about the entire ordeal: neither human nor recognizable animal, this “thing” looked too large to be friendly and approachable, despite being covered in child-friendly fur. There aren’t many pictures of me with such characters at a young age either, possibly for similar reasons. Or possibly because Disney characters in the 1970s often contained an unintentional demonic look in their faces. I had even more reason than my children to fear being devoured by these uncanny creatures. So news of the long-lost friends character opportunity left me feeling mostly indifferent.
My already low expectations ratcheted down another level when I learned just who would be showing up for this event. The majority of these characters, it seems to me, I had already seen in some capacity in recent years. Jiminy Cricket was greeting guests on a daily basis at Conservation Station not too long ago. Most of the others I had seen while running Disney marathons and half marathons, or as part of the Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween party. In other words, these were not truly LONG lost friends.
But when I arrived to take pictures of the events simply for posterity, I was impressed by how long the lines were to meet these characters. Clearly, the group that I did not belong to — those with memories dating back from childhood of meeting such characters — was the much larger group. In fact, it looked like Disney might have the opposite problem on its hands, that the scale of their operation would not come close to meeting demand.
I was with a group of about 20 friends here to meet the characters. We waited in line to see Robin Hood, since that is perhaps the one character who I have not often seen in the parts in recent years, perhaps the one truly long-lost friend. With him were other characters from the same movie, though I have seen some of them in parades and other events more recently. This meet and greet proceeded smoothly, after our 30 minute wait in line. To save time, the characters do not sign autographs. Instead, the nearby attendant hands out preprinted cards with preprinted signatures on them. It was less “magical” than would otherwise be the case, but by golly it was also way more efficient. I approved of this choice since Park operators had to balance these competing objectives against each other, and I think they made the right choice.
Not much had changed about my initial impression of this event by the time we had finished the first photograph. I was ready to go to Big Thunder, where there were new props in the standby queue to look at. But others in my group wanted to also see the Three Little Pigs, so we got in that line too. Before we made it through the line, however, the characters’ set time had ended. We would have to wait another 30 minutes for them to come back out. While we waited, we talked and joked as is our wont whenever we have down time such as this. Crazy ideas are more likely to be accepted since we were just killing time, so it seemed to all of us like a stroke of bloody brilliance when someone suggested that we grab 20 plastic forks from Casey’s Corner to serve as props in our photograph with the Three Little Pigs. It seemed delicious and daring. At the time, and I’m pretty sure all of us were tingling with anticipation.
What happened next will live with me for a long time in my memory. The characters could have chosen to ignore our props, or to simply roll with it after a brief recognition, such as a shrug of the shoulders. But the characters seemed to love the idea, even more than we did. The Big Bad Wolf was handed a fork early on, and he used it to menace the Three Little Pigs, much to our delight. The pigs also played it up, pantomiming their little porcine hearts out, as if they were terrified.
Around this time, they noticed that all 20 of us had forks, and then it just went off the rails, in a good way. Two of the pigs acted scared and horrified, and maybe even reproachful and a friendly kind of way, but Practical Pig decided to take a different tack. His facial expression permanently etched on his mask already depicts him as disapproving, so he was a perfect choice to disapprove of our shenanigans. He grabbed a fork from someone’s hands and threw it on the ground and wagged a finger at us. Then, with just the right amount of a pause to demonstrate that this actor truly understood comedic timing, Practical Pig then jumped on the fork on the ground to break it. We roared with laughter, then the pig kicked away the fork, still in apparent anger.
The photographers were also cracking up. The crowd behind them was equally amused, and we noticed a great many of them also snapping pictures of our little group, and the bedlam we had caused. Finally, Practical Pig settled down to pose with us, though not before snatching another fork from someone and hurling it away in mock disgust. I’d never grinned so hard, and so honestly, for a posed picture before.
It would not surprise me at all if this experience turns out to be one of those “you had to be there” moments in order to be funny. But I guess my larger point is that it WAS funny to us, uproariously so. Because of the efforts of these tremendous character actors, a magical moment was created for our group, as well as all of those watching from the line. Perhaps best of all, these actors enabled the experience to transcend its nominal borders. What was supposed to be merely an exercise in nostalgia, and in almost factory-like efficiency in processing visitors (the signature cards saw to that) was transformed into its opposite. We didn’t relive old memories — we created new ones. That sentence looks trite here on the page, even to my own eyes, but it is nonetheless true.
Perhaps this is one of the secrets of Disney’s enduring power and lasting hold over us fans. They can make us gush about our experiences, even when the words we have to choose look fake and forced. It probably doesn’t help matters that Disney has increasingly relied on the same words and hackneyed phrases (dreams, wishes, magical) in their marketing and the names of entertainment offerings. In an odd twist of fate, their overuse hollows out the experience and makes us fans feel like we are parroting the company jargon rather than relaying an earnest experience of exultation. Put simply, I feel LESS magical, simply because I have to use the words co-opted by Disney. It’s hard to describe the event without it feeling tarnished by the words which have become so corporatized. But the joy was certainly there in our actual experience.
My delightful time with the characters has given me new hope that this year-long promotion can still somehow be salvaged. Maybe they can do this with still more characters? Perhaps this time with ones that truly have not been seen in many years? That said, I’m still a little skeptical about the entire enterprise. The events are too small in scale to appeal to everyone, so it’s hard to understand why they would spend money on them at all. None of them are advertised more than a week or so in advance, so it is unrealistic to think that these are meant to attract new visitors who had otherwise had no visit planned for that week.
The only logical explanation that makes sense is still the idea that these must be targeted at frequent visitors, the kind who are not large in number and will not overwhelm the small scale, and those who are also most likely to be interested in esoteric changes like a new outfit for Donald Duck. But why target locals? I still maintain that this must, at some level, have something to do with the rollout of FASTPASS+, which is due to start any day now. Locals have the most to lose from FASTPASS+, so a promotion aimed at them seems likely intended to salve any hurt feelings or disappointment from that crowd.
I think it is unlikely that Disney is making up the promotion week by week. There’s a master calendar somewhere. That they have not released it to the public speaks volumes. Clearly, they recognize that such a list, if released in its entirety for the whole year, would drive new attendance and new travel. Since when does Disney not want new travel? Since now, when they already have a program designed to attract new travel from those out-of-town. NextGen is costing Disney more than $1 billion, so that audience is already taken care of. If these limited time magic events were also marketed to that audience, the resulting crowds would overwhelm the small-scale events, and as a consequence, those locals who are already disgruntled about FASTPASS+ would not have “their own” event anymore.
What are your thoughts? Is this promotion getting you to consider a visit? Does one coast’s offerings appeal more to you than the other? Post your notes below…
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