Last week, after an extensive teaser campaign, the Walt Disney
Company introduced D23, an ambitious information and merchandising
program aimed at the Disney fan community. From Bob Iger's
appearances at the stockholders meeting and on the View TV show, to
handouts at the theme parks and a consumer e-mail blitz no stone was
left unturned in trying to get the message out. There was even a
conference call scheduled that not only the regular media was
invited to, but many people in the online community were also asked
to participate in.
To say I was surprised I received an invite to join in on the
call would be an understatement, so I figured this would be a
one-way presentation in which we would just get to listen in. Even
if they did allow questions they most likely would not choose mine.
As we waited for the call to begin, an e-mail arrived with links to
press information, which I began to read.
D23's teaser campaign made for a lot of speculation online, with
a few leaks indicating that it would include a glossy magazine and
some kind of merchandising program aimed at the high end Disney
collector. The Disney Company has a long history with fans in this
area, much of it mixed to put it kindly. Exclusive merchandise turns
out not to be so exclusive, video releases sold as complete aren't
and series begun many times are never completed.
Reading through the press release all I could think was ‘here we
go again.’ Then I saw the price, $75 a year, and began to think
everyone involved with this project came from another planet –
because how else could you come up with a membership fee that high
during these trying economic times. Just as the call began my inbox
began flooding with e-mails, many of them furious with the price
points of collector’s items offered in the new D23 online shopping
area. Besides building interest, the teaser campaign also built
expectations, with many hoping it would be different this time, but
the merchandise site only seemed to confirm that it was business as
The call began, the principles involved gave their spiel and then
the floor was opened to questions. Imagine my surprise when I got to
ask question number two, "Have you considered a lower entry price
point?" Steven Clark (VP in charge of D23) to his credit gamely took
on the question and answered it, explaining the web site was free,
that there were high costs involved in producing the magazine, and
promising there would be much more to come. A few other questions
were answered, then Marty Sklar former Imagineering head, jumped in
to again to emphasize that this wasn't a merchandising effort, it
genuinely was an attempt to work with and reach the fans. (Yeah
sure, I thought to myself as I hung up the line, I'm going to trust
the man who gave us California Adventure.)
Werner Weiss, the publisher of Yesterland.com, was also following
the day's events. He was kind enough to allow the observations he
made with me later that day to be shared with you now, as I simply
couldn't improve on them.
I was disappointed that D23 appeared to be little more than a
subscription to an expensive quarterly magazine, for more money than
buying the same magazine at a bookstore. The other benefits of D23
membership -- such as a 'suitable-for-framing charter member
certificate,' opportunities to buy 'exclusive' merchandise, and some
sort of unknown collectable that I probably wouldn't want anyway --
all appeared to be of little or no value to me.
The folks at DisneyShopping.com certainly didn't do the folks
at D23 any favors by putting the D23 memberships and expensive
Disney collectables together, effectively sending the message that
the real purpose of D23 is identify Disney collectors with a lot of
money who would fill their homes with even more Disney collectables.
It seemed that the purpose of D23 was to monetize the treasures of
the Disney Archives.
Not the annual stockholder report; it's Disney twenty-three
How about access to downloadable Walt Disney television
episodes? How about lounges in the Florida and California parks for
D23 members, with original artifacts from the Disney Archives? How
about park events that don't involve the release of ‘exclusive’
merchandise? How about D23-branded books that each deal with a
single subject, instead of a magazine that tries to cover all facets
D23 bills itself as 'The Official Community for Disney Fans,'
but there are many different kinds of Disney fans who have wildly
different interests in Disney. The collector of Disney collectables,
the obsessive Walt Disney World trip planner, the 'armchair
Imagineer,' the Walt Disney scholar, the animation buff, the theme
park rumor-monger, the avid Disney Channel watcher, and other
subcategories of Disney fans are all looking for different things.
With the $75 price tag, Disney fans are going to want magazine
content that matches their own definition of 'Disney fan.' Some
Disney fans fit more than one subcategory, but D23 may need to
define their primary target audience better and to cater to it.
While there are undoubtedly some Disney fans who want to see
pictures of High School Musical actors dressed up as animated Disney
characters and photographed by a famous photographer, my guess is
that Disney fans who were attracted to D23 by its connection to the
Archives and Imagineering would prefer other content.
Don't get me wrong. I genuinely appreciate that Disney is
willing to "pull back the curtains" on Disney's past, present, and
future. It's terrific that there will be articles based on the
Disney Archives. And Disney insiders should be able to provide great
inside stories and insight. I just hope there's not too much PR
filtering to cast everything that ever happened at Disney in a
glowing light. The creative process involves stumbling, mistakes,
and failures, along with the triumphs and brilliance. It should all
be part of the story. So the $75 price tag was a bit of a shock.
However, I'd be willing to pay $75 per year if I saw the value. So
far, I have not signed up for D23. I hope my perception changes.
One last thing... Did you take a look at the "D23 Terms and
Conditions" on the sign-up page? Who else but The Walt Disney
Company of today would require a 2,847-word legal agreement for a
glorified magazine subscription?
Now you see why I admire Werner's writing so much?
D23 was as big a surprise to Disneyland managers and most Team
Disney Anaheim (TDA) planners as it was to the fans. With the
exception of select TDA executives who were let in on the concept
early to help strategize the multi-million dollar budget for the D23
Expo in September, most salaried folks in Anaheim had no idea what
D23 was or what it meant to the park. The Disneyland Stores managers
in charge of the Disneyana Shop on Main Street USA had only been
told this past Tuesday, after D23 was announced up in Oakland, that
a David Pacheco "artist signing" would be taking place on Saturday,
March 14th. The Special Events team only had a few days notice to
pull together a group of CM’s to help with crowd control for the
artist signing, as they are used to doing for crowds of hundreds for
big artist events.
They needn’t have bothered with the crowd control however, as
only a few dozen mellow collectors showed up on Saturday morning to
purchase the signed prints or the pin. Disneyana was still selling
the leftover signed artwork and signed copies of the magazine on
Sunday, while the throngs of Annual Passholders ran past Disneyana
on their way to Tomorrowland to secure one of the 1,000 new pins
being released that day that have a chip of wood from an original
Tom Sawyer Island raft in it. The new "Pieces of History" raft pins
were gone within an hour with the long queue for the cash registers
held underground in the old Rocket Rods queue, while the signed D23
stuff sat quietly on the shelves.
While the first batch of D23 artwork may have languished on the
shelves, the bigger hit that Saturday morning however were the free
D23 buttons being handed out on the sidewalks of Main Street by
perky hostesses pulled from the Emporium. There were thousands of
buttons to hand out, and as you can imagine, the tourists streaming
up Main Street that morning all jumped at the chance for something
free from a smiling Cast Member. There was no explanation being
given as to what the buttons were for, but the tourists were happy
to grab a free button of Dopey or Mickey as they hustled on towards
Indiana Jones or Autopia.
Now that the Stores management team has been quickly brought up
to speed on just what D23 entails, they are trying to get the word
out to their Cast Members on how to explain the concept to customers
and what the "talking points" are behind the assorted D23 benefits.
You have to give it to Disney’s corporate communications department
and the D23 leadership in Burbank, they were very successful at
keeping this one tightly under wraps.
The other TDA group that was caught by surprise by the D23
announcement was the Cast Activities department. Cast Activities are
the folks who manage the far flung assortment of discounts, sports
leagues, package tours, employee parties and random events that are
all marketed under the "Disney Difference" brand of perks and
benefits to Anaheim Cast Members. Like the other Anaheim
departments, D23 was a total surprise to Cast Activities.
Surprisingly, there is no Cast Member discount being offered for D23
membership, and there is no current plan to offer Cast Member
discounts on the tickets to the four day D23 Expo in Anaheim this
While the D23 Expo, the self-described "fan mega event" being
held at the Anaheim Convention Center, will prove to be a massive
company-wide undertaking, there appears to be no accommodations
being made to include Cast Members in the event aside from expecting
them to buy a full-fare ticket and go in with the general public on
their own time. But the Expo is just one of the issues causing Cast
Activities to scratch their heads on whether or not D23 really
should be marketed to the Cast Members.
Late last week stacks of D23 brochures and piles of those free
buttons were dumped in the gritty backstage break rooms and dingy
cafeterias around the parks and at the hotels. But the $75 price tag
for this fan club, not to mention the D23 website touted on the
brochures selling $850 pens, seems rather inappropriate to market to
hourly Cast Members who are making 9 to 12 dollars an hour and who
struggle to make rent each month. The stacks of brochures and
buttons left in the cleaner and more lavish TDA break rooms also
struck a nerve with the salaried folks who have been recently
watching their coworkers laid-off and walked to their cars carrying
cardboard boxes full of personal effects.
Now is not the time for any Anaheim Cast Member, whether hourly
or salaried, to be spending big bucks on a fan club of questionable
value. And since no accommodation or discount is being extended to
Cast Members, the folks at Cast Activities are wishing D23 planners
hadn’t tried to include nervous Anaheim Cast Members in their launch
day membership drive last week. You can expect D23 to disappear
quickly from backstage mention, until the planners up in Burbank
agree to come up with some sort of a discounted Cast Member rate. If
ticket sales are weak this summer, there could also be a last minute
change to the plan to not offer Cast Member discounts to the D23
Expo as well.
Between the extremely light turn out for the Saturday artist
signing, the break room brochures, and even the thousands of buttons
handed out, the first few days of D23 at Disneyland seemed to be a
comedy of errors. The decision to host the first official D23 event
on a Saturday morning, when the majority of the 700,000 Annual
Passholders are blocked out from Disneyland entry, was the first big
mistake. All of those buttons handed out on Saturday were a nice
little souvenir, but their key marketing message was wasted on the
casual tourists and day visitors that visit on a Saturday.
Disneyland had a final attendance of 55,000 visitors this past
Saturday, and less than 5% of that was from Premium Annual
Passholders who have no blockout dates. Contrast that to a Sunday,
when up to 70% of park attendance can be from Passholders, and this
past Sunday’s attendance of 58,000 would have provided a perfect
slice of the exact demographic of Disney fans who might be
interested in D23 membership. A line of smiling Cast Members on Main
Street passing out D23 buttons on a Sunday morning to arriving
Annual Passholders would have been a perfect introduction to the
exact slice of Disney demographic that D23 is aimed at.
So, what went so terribly wrong? Asking around, two words kept
popping up: herding cats. Apparently this is a favorite catchphrase
at the Disney Company as well as with anyone else involved in any
type of big corporation, especially those that encourage autonomous
business units. While many people think there's one giant Dr.
Strangelove-style strategic planning room at Disney where everything
is perfectly coordinated and decided; the reality is quite
different. As in any huge business there are fiefdoms to be
conquered, egos to be massaged, scores to be settled, and sometimes
just plain incompetence to get past.
One way to overcome, if not just simply avoid these problems is
to plan far enough ahead to work the kinks out, which in the Walt
Disney Company of today is a minimum two-year time frame. While the
original concept for D23 was hatched two years ago, the final
approvals needed to begin work (including Iger’s vetting) and
setting of price points weren't started until about a year or so
This made everyone’s job all the more difficult and may have
allowed for blind spots, including the steep $75 membership fee,
plus the now infamous pen and $90 frame for your certificate that
most likely would have never been approved had they been seen in
advance. Add to what appears to be a lack of marketing oversight,
which allowed shrink-wrapped magazines to ship to retail without
even the most basic descriptions of what they contained somewhere on
the packaging, and you have a tough sell made even tougher in what
already is a very difficult fiscal environment.
My suggestion to those of you who may be considering a membership
purchase? You should probably wait, and see what develops with this
club. As I was told they do hear what the problems are, but may be
locked in to the current pricing point and feature set until the
first of the year. They appear to understand that a lower
entry-level price point is necessary, and they may have confused
prospective customers by introducing too much of the program at one
What do I think of the other offerings? The website is successful
in what it does and for the most part is free to all; you can't beat
that. The magazine, while beautiful to look at, is still a work in
progress. I found it lacking warmth and heart, especially ironic
considering those two traits are what help build the Walt Disney
Company into what it is today, it’s a supermodel trying to be Snow
White. The merchandise offerings are too sparse to judge yet, and
the Expo planned for later this year is still under wraps.
While the total secrecy of D23 prior to its launch was extremely
successful and most impressive in this online era, it seems to have
been all downhill from there when it comes to timing, planning, and
simply knowing where to find their audience. That's a shame because
the Walt Disney Company really needs to do something for their most
Let's hope they keep trying.