Long Lost Friends

Written by Kevin Yee. Posted in Walt Disney World

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Published on January 29, 2013 at 4:04 am with 25 Comments

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.

Long lost friends. Sounds good!

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.

Robin Hood is pretty rare, after all.

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.

Here they come!

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.

Lots of forks still around. And Practical Pig has his arms crossed. Love it! The video is here.

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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About Kevin Yee

Kevin Yee is an author and blogger writing about travel, tourism, and theme parks in Central Florida. He is a founding member of MiceAge and has written numerous books about Disney parks (see http://bit.ly/kevinyee).

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  • Stickii

    and this week is literally voting for future artwork on line. It’s pretty awful. I’m at WDW this week and I complained

  • SpectroMan

    I was nonplussed with the selection of “rare” characters as well. Many of have been, at one time or another, on the boat in Fantasmic! and Gepetto and Clarabelle are both in the Christmas parade. Of course, I’m talking Disneyland, not WDW here. Robin Hood and his merry band were out and about when I went to Disneyland Paris in the 90s.

    Now – bring out Bernard, Bianca and Orville and I’ll make a special trip.

  • stamphead

    of course the characters have static faces but the ‘look’ on Practical Pig’s face fit the situation perfectly. Either he was so offended he couldn’t say anything or he wanted to say ‘What the hell?!?’

  • themur

    Does anyone know what the goal of this promotion is? There is clearly supposition (it is a fan site after all) but I haven’t seen any metrics that are being evaluated. I haven’t seen any TV ads promotion “Limited Time Magic” so I am not sure booking trips is the goal.

    Maybe the goal is to creat magical moments. Kevin theorizes that his magical moment was different because it was outside of the routine but he had a group of 20 who were all together and waited because there was a promotion and it delivered in spades.

    This might not be focused on occasional visitors but what a neat surprise if you are on one of those once in a lifetime trips and there was something “extra” going on. Sounds magical to me.

  • StevenW

    It seems like the Wolf and Three Little Pigs catered to your group. I hope no other families were neglected. Limited Time Magic indeed!!!

  • Kevin Yee

    StevenW, I had that thought myself afterward. After a few minutes of worrying about it, I was consoled by the math. Our group of 20 did NOT take as long as ten groups of two, so there was definitely some time savings for folks in line.

  • tjcjr

    I have to agree that is type of promotion has to be directed toward locals or non local Disney Fanatics (of which I am one) who can afford to plan on a moments notice or change their plans without much disruption as may be the case (of which I am not one) to take advantage of these opportunities. But what I don’t understand is why they can’t offer these types of opportunities more often throughout the year to accommodate more people. Compared to the 1 billion just spent on the NextGen initiative, the cost to produce events like this is a drop in the bucket but they would be so vrey much appreciated by so many people. Or how about simply just having the characters appear in various locations more often throughout the parks as was referenced in the article. I actually remember not too long ago seeing Jiminy Cricket appearing at Animal Kingdom and quite a while ago seeing Robin Hood and Maid Marian in the garden/maze area at the UK in Epcot but now I am probably dating myself. But if they are obviously still relevant, why the heck not? Why can’t they pull out Cinderella’s coach more often for photo ops at the castle? That would work for me.

  • darkamor

    It’s so nice to read something positive occurring @ WDW (vs. being reminded that George K. is going to have his work cut out for him in getting the Orlando Theme Parks better maintained). I think this could be a brilliant idea which can capitalize on every single diamond release onto blu-ray (the latest to be released in 2013 will be 1953′s PETER PAN, so it would be swell to see Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, Captain Hook, Mr. Smee, Tick-Tock the CrocCrocadile, etc in person) …..

    Yes, getting handed pre-signed cards isn’t as personal as having a character sign a booklet, but it is very efficient (and should keep the lines moving fast). Perhaps this will be the sort of Magic+ experience one will expect from Walt Disney Theme Parks in the future?

    C J

  • LeonardKinsey

    Cool story, Kevin! Reminds me of Ron Schneider’s tips to character actors for creating positive and memorable interactions with Guests. He was the king of this with his Dreamfinder and Figment characters. Sounds like these Pigs were doing something similar, i.e., interacting with Guests to create a fun and “magical” experience instead of just being props for pictures.

    As an aside, on my recent visit to Disneyland I was impressed with how their character interactions seemed more organic. There were only a few organized meet-and-greets. The rest of the characters I saw were randomly appearing in various areas of the park, or strolling through their respective lands. It made walking through the park a much more exciting and fun experience.