At the D23 Expo August 9-11, in a big flashy Walt Disney Studios live action presentation, Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof came out on stage with a dusty box of old stuff, labeled “1952,” to promote the new Tomorrowland movie coming out late 2014. Inside the box was a forged picture of Walt Disney, some interesting letters, and ‘found’ animation on a unique format – which talked of a secret society formed at the 1889 World’s Fair.

However, many in the audience already knew of this society – some even became a member of it by completing a complex set of puzzles placed in locations throughout Los Angeles. The last leg of that adventure was at the Expo itself over the weekend.

The Optimist - Our Tomorrowland Adventure Began Here
The Optimist – Our Tomorrowland adventure began here

This adventure was called “The Optimist”, a 6 week ‘alternate reality game’ (ARG) that explored the backstory of Tomorrowland. What is an ‘alternate reality game’? Well, think of it as a real life Myst game – solving puzzles and getting clues that exist in the real world, but the characters and some of the history are altered from the truth. This is Walt Disney Imagineering’s first game of this nature, and was worked on in collaboration with the studios.

In this article, we’ll explore two different viewpoints of Tomorrowland and the Optimist:

  • Hastin’s perspective – Hastin Zylstra, MiceChat Administrator and technology geek, was involved with The Optimist from the very start and attended all the events and game locations. For Hastin, The Optimist was a 5 week adventure leading up to the D23 Expo. He live streamed most of the experiences on the internet, so that other internet players could follow along. He documented his day-by-day adventures on MiceChat.
  • Japhy’s perspective – Japhy Grant (, a digital entertainment creator and expert, started playing The Optimist directly at the D23 Expo and has a unique perspective on the experience and the future of digital media.

The Optimist Recap – Adventures in Disneyland, Los Angeles and D23 Expo

Before the D23 Expo (Hastin’s perspective):

When Disney announced “The Optimist”, we found out about Amelia, a fake character, from Rhode Island. She had discovered some interesting artifacts from her grandfather (Carlos), and knew that he sold a story, called ‘Orbit’s Story’ to Walt Disney. Obviously, this is clearly part of the ‘fake history’ of the game. She created a blog ( where we could all chat online, share information and clues, and advance the game. She also had a Twitter account that you could follow for fun and live updates.

Amelia’s Blog – Story Orbit Films

As Amelia started posting scans and articles from her grandfather, those following along began to unlock clues. The first thing posted was a phone number, which connected to another website, Lott Family Construction. From here, you had to email another character in order to unlock the next clue, that you needed a project code for the website.

After these introductions to the game online, it began to enter the real world. After posting a scan of a napkin, telling us that Carlos needed to “Meet Walt at The Snug at ‘The Tam’”, we knew that we had to go to the real-life Tam ‘O Shanter, one of Walt Disney’s favorite restaurants. Here, we discovered a poster and a table with all kinds of clues and images that were sketched into it!

The real-world adventures didn’t stop there. Once discovering Wallace of (another fake character), he posted a map of Tomorrowland, and said there were still references to old aspects in the current Tomorrowland. Clever changes were made in Tomorrowland by the Imagineers, including swapping out the flags on the Submarine Voyage, and adding a hidden clue to the Monorail platform.

Clue at the Disneyland Monorail Platform - Visible only with Flash
Clue at the Disneyland Monorail Platform (code above the sign) – Visible only with Flash

In other real-world adventures, Wallace had us running around to many of “Walt’s Haunts”, to find clues and backstory:

The first of these was The Grand Courtyard at Disneyland. Here, many fellow Optimists met up to see what would happen. After handing out cards for groups, we were escorted to Club 33! Players had a private chat with Wallace (the character), and discovered the founders and members of the society.

Plate of The Society members inside Club 33
Plate of The Society members inside Club 33

In addition to Disneyland, many destinations around the LA area, including the Griffith Park Carousel (where an additional strap was added to one horse with a word puzzle on it), Chili John’s (where you received a ‘can of chili’ which had a secret note inside it), and Walt’s Carolwood Barn (which had a clue that lead to the swapping out of the Morse Code audio at the Disneyland Railroad).

Tricky puzzle on the Griffith Park Carousel
Tricky puzzle on the Griffith Park Carousel

The last of “Walt’s Haunts” was The Bench. Over 100 Optimists met up at this quest and Wallace greeted the group. After an introduction, we were taken up to Walt’s Apartment, where there was another clue placed. In addition, we went around the park finding clues on the Peoplemover track and at the Mark Twain.

After a brief live chat, including Bob Gurr talking about the society, the game culminated at the D23 Expo.

During the D23 Expo (Japhy’s perspective):

Japhy Grant, a digital entertainment expert, jumped into the game at the D23 Expo and found it just as rewarding:

The attraction breaks up into three parts, each part a little more involved.

The 1952 Archive

At the most casual level, a Tomorrowland exhibit was available on the D23 Expo floor. It purports to be about the mysterious 1952 box that filmmaker Brad Bird discovered in the Walt Disney archives which serves as the inspiration for the new movie and features an iPad audio tour — which you can download here. There are artifacts and mysterious recordings and photos, all hinting at a Society of Optimists (also called “Plus Ultra”) that has included Jules Verne, Henry Ford, Nicola Tesla, Amelia Earheart and Walt Disney among its members.

Sketches of Audio-Animatronics designed for mining and construction, vague warnings of some future disaster and a blueprints of a mysterious chamber underneath It’s a Small World fill the exhibit, which cleverly spends much of its time trying to convince viewers that any speculation about what it all means would be frivolous.

The Society of Optimists

The next step down the rabbit hole, designed for those willing to devote some time to unlocking these secrets, starts with a mysterious ad for a booth at the Expo called Disney Cartography, run by a man named Wallace. You can find him on Twitter at @DCartography. The ad has a code on it and if you decided to go to Wallace’s booth and tell him the code, he would start talking about Walt’s vision of the future and a message he wants us to discover. At that point, you receive a map with one side showing some unrealized Disney projects (like Ray Bradbury’s Space Pavilion for EPCOT) and on the other, a very stylized map of Disneyland.

With a few additional instructions, you’re off – meeting other “Optimists” and decoding clues around the expo.

Some of these quests wind up being very cool – for instance, at one point, you discover a secret symbol that can only be revealed in black light (which you only discover by seeing the original painting of Disneyland — which actually shows what the park would look like at night under black light). Truthfully, at first I had little interest in wasting my time at the Expo on a scavenger hunt, but at each point in the experience, mysterious strangers would appear to help out, or an Imagineer (wearing a strange Tomorrowland pin) would come up and take interest in what we were doing. These “characters” made you feel like you were part of something bigger and by the time we discovered our next stop was in Disneyland Park itself, we were basically running over as fast as we could to meet our “agent.”

The Disneyland leg of the experience required working with fellow “Optimists” as the puzzle could not be solved by one map alone. Imagine meeting a random stranger, realizing that we had to go to Esmerelda, the fortune teller on Main Street for our next clue and deciphering from her fortune that we needed somehow to sneak onto the Lily Belle – the custom furnished car Walt created for his wife. Once on board, more clues and mysterious messages led us to another agent, who finally snuck us into the Main Street Cinema.

The Optimist journey ends

With all the clues assembled, our new group of intrepid explorers “activated” the cinema, where the silent films flicked off and an inspiring video message from The Society of Optimists congratulated us for proving our worth — and welcoming us into its ranks as a member. Finally, a small softly-lit wooden platform arose holding the strange Tomorrowland pins we had seen all weekend – one for each of us.

Clever Clues at the D23 Expo - Photo: mach1monorail
Clever Clues at the D23 Expo – Photo: mach1monorail

During the D23 Expo (Hastin’s perspective):

Japhy’s description above covers the final quest quite well – which was an amazing adventure itself. Because I was one of the first to complete the adventure, I had not seen the pins around the Expo as Japhy had – for me it was the drive to complete what I had started weeks ago.

Meeting Wallace - Photo: mach1monorail
Meeting Wallace – Photo: mach1monorail

If you went back to Wallace after that final adventure, you showed him your pin, and received a copy of one of his posters. Mine has been proudly hung on my wall, next to all the other treasures I got on this adventure!

Throughout the entire Optimist experience, Amelia was following us online – cheering us on, and posting recaps for new players. At the end of the adventure, we had discovered that this society was what her grandfather was working on, and what Wallace had wanted us to be a part of. So, in one last final hurrah, Amelia’s Mom (conveniently in LA) came down to Disneyland to see the video for herself. All Optimists got together, and tears were shed over her Mom seeing the message. The blend of real and fictional characters in the game worked quite well, and was a highlight of the weekend.

As you can see, it was quite an adventure. Spreading online, in the real world, at the D23 Expo, and Disneyland – it was a very ambitious thing for WDI to put on.

At Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof’s presentation of the ‘dusty old box’, I felt as if they were speaking directly to me, especially when the “+U” logo (the society logo) appeared on the ‘found’ animation and materials. For me, this video was a confirmation of what I had discovered over the last few weeks. I already feel like I have a connection to the film.

If you are more interested in the full details of the story, see my recap thread on the MiceChat Forums, and check out my live streamed videos on my Ustream channel.

Could this be the future of Entertainment from WDI?

Japhy Grant brings up some fantastic points on why The Optimist was an excellent medium for Disney to promote the movie and why WDI could be sparking the future of promotion and entertainment:

It’s not just about content, but how you discover the content. The Optimist made use of existing attractions, like the Disney Railroad and The Main Street Cinema, but presented them in new and novel ways. In digital entertainment we often talk about discoverability, but rarely talk about the storytelling behind that discoverability. What is the narrative we want to tell as we move users from one piece of content or platform to another?

  • Casual, Connected, Committed – The Optimist had something for everyone – from the casual browser to the die-hard fan. Unlike TV or film, digital entertainment isn’t something you sit down and watch, it’s something you experience and interact with. To be successful, it needs to be just as rewarding for the person who will look at it for 5 minutes during a coffee break as it is for the person who wants to make it a part of their life. There needs to be doorways between each level that draws users in deeper.
  • Digital Entertainment is Social Entertainment – You could not complete The Optimist without the help of other players. They become characters, as do you, and the experience takes on a life of its own. There’s a reason the most successful folks on YouTube are the ones who create relationships with their audiences. It’s a tricky thing to pull off – nothing is more gimmicky than artificial human interaction. The Optimist succeeded because it kept the interaction authentic and responded to the users.
  • Reward Users – It’s amazing how much emotional value I found myself putting in that weird little Tomorrowland pin once I received it. Having seen WDI Chief Creative Executive Bruce Vaughn wearing one earlier, as well as other Disney luminaries, invested it with real meaning and a sense of belonging. On the internet, everyone loves a badge, but the lesson here isn’t just to give away rewards, but to invest them with emotional meaning.

There were several additional aspects to the game which made it enjoyable to me.

  • Meetups creates relationships – Because many of the events had time specific requirements (like meeting at a specific time and day), many of the same players would attend each of the events. After combining the online personas with meeting the players in the real world – you couldn’t help but form a real-world friendship. Keeping the players land-locked to Disneyland and specific areas also ensured that players shared common interests. Because of this, players formed relationships – and a thriving community to help promote the movie in the future.
  • Keep it short and simple – Unlike previous ARGs, The Optimist was a short experience – only 6 weeks. Because of this, one could become quickly obsessed and driven by it, but it wasn’t long enough to experience burnout. Just like the shelf-life of a traditional video game – keeping it short ensured that players didn’t bore of the game before it ended. Most of the challenges were very straightforward and simple enough to complete. This ensured that no one got ‘lost’, and that you could focus on the game at hand. While harder puzzles would have been nice, it was nice that the game was accessible to all.
  • Independent experiences means maximum players – The Optimist was specifically designed with short, independant experiences. This meant that players could participate in the aspects they wanted to, and didn’t need to have previous knowledge to jump into the game. As Japhy explained, he was able to complete all of the D23 Expo adventures without needing to know the previous 5 weeks of challenges. However, for those looking to be more immersed in the world – the full story allowed for that.
  • Emphatic for characters – The characters in the game were written in a way that enabled the players to feel emotionally connected to them. From Wallace’s friendly, warm, yet mysterious charm throughout the game – to Amelia’s can-do attitude – any player could connect and appreciate the characters. As Japhy mentioned before, the human interaction element is important – and interacting with the characters was quite an experience.

As you can see, Japhy and I both really enjoyed The Optimist, and we think that if WDI capitalizes on this form of entertainment, it could be used to successfully promote other films as well.

As for Tomororowland the movie and the ‘dusty old box’ – we have no idea what is next. However, there’s a whole group of Optimists ready to solve any new challenges that Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof present to us – and we hope they are as engaging as The Optimist was.

A group of The Optimists ride the trains near Walt's Barn
A group of The Optimists ride the trains near Walt’s Barn

What do you think? Did you play or participate in The Optimist? Did it make you interested in the new Tomorrowland movie? What do you think WDI could do with this sort of interactive marketing in the future?

  • Bongo

    Looks like fun and is a brilliant marketing technique, but is sadly not my kind of fun. I love interactivity, but not in this way. Still, sounds like many people enjoyed this, and I hope they keep on doing this for future promotions.

    As for what they’re promoting is what I am more interested in…

    • Hastin Zylstra

      The movie does seem interesting, and the thing that I really like about these games – is that they just expand the backstory of them. It’s going to be a long 16 months until the release!

  • As a marketing professional myself, I found this campaign fascinating. The execution by WDI was flawless, with tons of detail and a rich backstory woven directly into reality. It’s the sort of innovative marketing that the entire industry is trying to understand and harness.

    However, there are two things which have me curious. First, what did this cost? So much time and effort went into this game. Creation of thematic elements; repurposing of real life locations (like the Tam O’Shanter); hiring of actors. Secondly, how many people were actually able to participate and what was their demographic? Most of the early game play took place during the week when the average person was working. So, who were these people who were able to play? Driving age teens and college students on summer break who don’t have jobs? Stay at home moms? The unemployed? And were they the correct demographic?

    We know that the folks who played loved the game, I’m just wondering if it paid off for Disney? Generally, for a marketing initiative to be declared a success, it needs to deliver a value many times its cost and hit its target demographic (that is, the funds spent are consumed by the folks most likely to buy the product and those folks in turn spend more on the product than the cost of the marketing). I’m finding it hard to believe that happened in this case, given the high cost and limited potential participation. Though, the movie won’t be out for a long time and it is very hard to judge the impact of a campaign like this one. Clearly, folks like Hastin posting video and writing about the game online helped to spread the word considerably.

    I’m fascinated by the entire thing. So clever.

    • Hastin Zylstra

      As for demographics, the entire game I found young people. Young couples, young families, and young single people. Obviously, this is the demographic they want. ARG type games never really go that mainstream, but the goal of them is to create early hype for films – and being the word-of-mouth process. For example, with Tron – there was a huge ARG before the film, called Flynn Lives – that basically the only goal was to create hype for the film. Lots of other films have ARGs as well, including Godzilla, The Dark Knight, etc. It’s becoming the trendy thing to do.

      But this ARG is different. Instead of being run by an entertainment vendor – it’s being run directly from the studio, and from Imagineering. For WDI, the cost of this was minimal. Working with external companies (like the Tam and Chili John’s) is fairly standard and easy to do. WDI had the ability to use in-park locations even easier. Also, it’s clear we got some major story and plot setup from the film – weeks before it was exposed to the public.

      It’s clear that WDI is testing new types of quests, beyond what they have done with the Pirate’s quest and Sorcerer’s in WDW. By integrating a backstory into it, and leveraging social networking – they are doing what Disney does best – telling a story.

  • MWH1980

    I had hear some rumblings about Wallace, and visited him on Saturday of the Expo.

    A friend had figured out a secret word in the Guide Book, and giving it to one of his assistants at his booth, I think that made Wallace give me a business card with a ‘secret message’ on the back.

    I spent about 20 minutes walking around the clock on the floor, and not sure what I was looking for.

    Things looked up on Sunday, when I saw a group doing the same. It was then we realized I had a ‘red’ pamphlet, and they had a ‘blue’ one.

    It was rather exciting as a few of us rushed off to the Imagineering pavilion.

    However, when the instructions said we’d need to go to the Fire House, I had to stop, as I didn’t have a pass.

    However, I did go back to Wallace to see if there was any consolation for the rather fun sense of discovery and clue-finding. I think Wallace could read the enthusiasm, and as a form of consolation, allowed me to partake of one of his prints. As I had seen almost all of the World’s Fair exhibits at Disneyland, with the exception of one that went away, I chose a print of the Carousel of Progress.

    I wish I could have done more, but my time was rather limited, as there was so much to do on the floors.

    Btw, did anyone find any clues in the Tomorrowland exhibit? I found a strange code in one item. It was a typed message, but above several of the typed letters, were pin-pricks. I deciphered them to read, “Install Wire Transfer.”

    • Hastin Zylstra

      Glad to hear that you at least got to enjoy part of the journey!

      As for the Tomorrowland booth, many of us have been working on what we were given, but with no clear hints or ‘next step’ – we’re kinda stuck until we get a more obvious set of clues or instructions!

  • Attic Haunt

    In response to the question of what demographic this event attracted… I am an older (47), married, employed (not a stay at home mom, college student or unemployed), waaay-out-of-town (Ohio) person, I enjoyed the game very much! It was the team atmosphere that made the whole game work for me. I decided to play along for a while, assuming I’d lose interest once the challenges went real world. Hastin and others live-streaming and posting their experiences to allow the rest of us to live vicariously through them and enjoy the game all the way to the end. The absolute only complaint I have is that they are not offering fans who registered for the game and contributed the chance to purchase the 11″x17″ prints. I understand the pin. That should be the bonus for actually attending D23 and completing the tasks in person. But the prints? C’mon! Throw a bone to the out of town, unable to swing a trip cross-country, ready to give you our money fans!

    Whether Disney set out with the idea of attracting me in their quest for demographic, they got me. I can’t wait to see 1) what they come up with for an SRG for the actual movie buildup and 2) the movie itself! this was a Disney win. I certainly hope they consider doing it again!

    • Just want to make it clear. I’m not slamming the Optimist. I think it is ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT. I was just confounded that everything took place during the week, which made it impossible for most folks to take part.

      • Gwendolyn Dreyer

        I think, like the AP events, that was Disney’s attempt at crowd control. After the Club 33 visit, could you imagine how many people would show up to the next in-park event dreaming of going to Walt’s Apartment or other exclusive places? Imagine how many MORE people would have been there if it was on a weekend.

        I was lucky that my boss let me swap days so I could be at the Walt’s Apartment day. But I have no idea if they could do these types of highly specialized rewards if it was on a weekend. Just waiting in line at the cinema for Amelia’s Mom on Saturday, there were major crowd control issues. And that was just random people walking by assuming something special was going on.

  • daveyjones

    i must admit, i don’t see the appeal of these ARGs. to me it feels like you’re being given homework. i’m not interested in ‘interacting’ or ‘discovering’ or whatever they’re calling it. ‘quests’ and ‘adventures’ of this kind just seem tiresome. maybe the demographic is more for people who like video games and board games? or maybe scavenger hunts?

    i’d rather be curled up at home with a good book about disney history.

    • bfdf55

      I agree, the ARG doesn’t appeal to me either.

      I get the feeling that it’s kind of like being given clues to something hidden in a good novel. But instead of actually reading and absorbing the novel’s story and being drawn into it, people are so intent on the clues that they become totally oblivious to the novel itself.

      In this case, people are chasing around looking for clues and actually missing all the environment they are hidden in. How much time did it take out of the limited the Expo experience to complete the various challenges set for that portion of the challenge?

      I kind of have the same feeling about other interactive projects the company is developing. Of course, I guess to those people who enjoy interactive participation (small portion) over just passive experiences (largest majority) should be given their opportunity. But I just hope they aren’t diminishing the bigger experience (investment) for most people for a very limited interactive program.

      • Hastin Zylstra

        As for the story, the ARG is as interactive or passive as you want it to be. I wouldn’t equate it to ‘clues IN a novel, but ‘clues ARE the novel’. As the new clues happen, the backstory reveals itself more. Plus, WDI did the smart thing of these events only taking a couple of hours – so even if you just bought a day ticket into the park – you could complete the adventure in the morning, and enjoy the rest of the day in the park. Even on D23 Expo weekend, it didn’t have to be completed all at once.

        I was mainly at the Expo strictly for this adventure – it was more important to me than any panel, arena event, or any other aspect. For that, I was crazy satisfied with the Expo this year, because WDI handled this so well.

  • JulieMouse

    As a person with a heavy work schedule, I really couldn’t commit to this and D23 weekend was a blur for me (I like to attend as many of the events/panels as possible). However, I really enjoyed going to the Tam and watching Hastin discovering exciting things and live streaming so much of it! It was especially exciting when Hastin was specifically asked for by Wallace when a call came in at the beautiful phone booth upstairs when the group visited Club 33!!

    I’m very proud of our own Hastin for helping so many people take part in this virtually and help generate more excitement amongst friends and fellow Disney fans! Great article, we look forward to hearing more updates in the future as the movie gets closer!!

  • MasterA1024

    Wow! that sounds like it would’ve been awesome! wish I could’ve been there! I’m a Disney Teen and am captivated by the idea on going on missions and add Disney to it I’d be all in! I had no clue that they were doing this but if I was at the Expo I totally would’ve. On the side of marketing I also find it very interesting. I Hope that they do more of this kind of stuff soon and on a more national range so that non-Californians can participate! too!

  • KiMcHeEfOrLiFe

    While the game was fun for me at the beginning, I got turned off once some of the “challenges” required you to be at Disneyland to complete. Since I didn’t have an AP or have any way to freely enter Disneyland whenever I want, it kind of felt like there was no point in participating in the game anymore. So I decided that I would just enjoy the game from a distance and follow other people’s progress.

    At the D23 Expo, I was curious about some of the guests running around the expo doing what appeared to be some sort of scavenger hunt. I got really excited once I realized it was for the Optimist game and instantly wanted to participate. But as soon as I heard that some portions of the hunt required you to search for clues at Disneyland, I was once again turned off from participating because there wouldn’t be any way for me to complete the scavenger hunt without purchasing a ticket to Disneyland. I kind of wish if Disney does these types of games that they didn’t require us to spend loads of money to participate. I understand the need to not have thousands of people participating but, seriously, come on!

    Sorry about the mini rant. I think in the end, I’m just super bummed that I wasn’t able to earn one of those super cool pins 🙁

  • poohmeg

    I enjoyed playing, even from Ohio – I wonder if Disney had a contingency plan in case someone like Hastin hadn’t come along with the ability and willingness to livestream the in-person parts. There is definitely a generational difference in how people perceive this kind of marketing – I’m 34, and thought it was awesome and unique. My parents would be in the school of daveyjones and bfdf55 above – they would think it was too much hassle and not understand why people would spend time and money on something that is essentially an elaborate advertisement for a movie. Younger people than myself seem to expect these kinds of campaigns, and don’t really view the concept as novel – they just judge on how well it’s executed. So I think if Disney keeps doing them this well, this kind of experience would be a great way for them to build buzz in the right demographic for upcoming movies, TV shows, etc. I would love to see something like this incorporated into the games they’ve added in the WDW parks – as a childless adult, I love the concept, but they are definitely intended for kids. Something like this could have multiple levels to it, so it could also be enjoyed by adults. It also helps that the subject matter of this particular game was much more interesting to me than pirates or spells, so that could be affecting my opinion of it. 🙂

  • daveyjones

    Hastin Zylstra
    August 20, 2013 at 6:17 am

    ‘clues ARE the novel’

    you’ve managed to put your finger on exactly what i find unappealing about the concept.