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 (www.japhygrant.com), 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 (http://storyorbit.com/) 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 DisneyCartography.com (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?