D23: A Disney Fan's First Trip to the Ultimate Fan Fest

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Also check out our D23 photo gallery.

While there are no thrilling rides, parades, or nighttime fireworks set to sweeping orchestral music, there’s still a bit of Disney magic to be found at its ultimate fan expo, D23.

As a Disney fan, I expected to thoroughly enjoy myself as a first-timer to the biennial event, which took place in Anaheim, Calif. this past weekend. But as a twelve-year member of the games and geek press, and as a person that has attended over 100 conventions worldwide, I came ready for the worst. I’m glad to say that the worst never came up, and that D23 is special among conventions.

It only took about 5 minutes before goosebumps washed over me. I’ll admit to being very susceptible to this kind of stuff as a lifelong Disney fan. I know and love all of the films, of course. Some of them make me cry for no good reason—Bambi’s old, warbley audio gets me every time. I can play (piano) and sing countless Disney songs from memory, with the ballads being my specialty. I even played the lead role of Aladdin in the school play in high school, and nailed that power duet with Jasmine.

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I had barely entered the main hall when I was attracted to a booth where Disney-themed Vans shoes and socks were being presented. While shopping, I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of footage from Pixar’s latest movie, The Good Dinosaur. Then I saw a beautiful lady in a Mary Poppins costume just ahead, and about the same time I heard far off cues of a song from Pixar’s Inside Out (I cried three times during that film). My eyes shifted just beyond Poppins’ umbrella to Chinese lanterns in the distance. Is that an exhibit for Disneyland Shanghai? Oh my God—yes, it is. I was immediately overwhelmed, just like when I enter one of Disney’s parks. Goosebumps.

I spent three hours in that Shanghai booth. I’m one of those that has to see it all. I’ve visited all the Disney theme parks internationally, and continue to do so regularly with annual trips. I’ve toured studios and visited Disney museums, and have been lucky enough to meet and even befriend stars and talent. I’ve taken special backlot tours, dined at Club 33 on the balcony during an evening parade, dined with Princesses in Cinderella’s Castle at Christmas, and even once cut in line for Japan’s coveted gyoza dogs at DisneySea (the best park). And I’m still saving up for what I feel to be the ultimate Disney trip, an $8,000 per-person 12-day guided tour of China from Adventures by Disney. One day.

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So Shanghai is next, naturally. Disney blew open the $5.5 billion park with this exhibit, placing photos, models, video, and props in a room, and manning it with the Disney Imagineers that created it. I spoke with all of them, and they were all wonderful, knowledgeable people. One explained that the park’s castle would be the company’s biggest, even outranking the huge, beautiful one in Paris. Another chatted with me about the technical logistics of creating a boat tour that runs under the castle—a Disney first. He explained that the ride uses the same projection system that Disney uses during its evening parades to map fantastic scenes on cave walls to create an experience unlike any other that the company has put together. One Imagineer even helped me plan my trip, covering everything from transportation to language notes.

I took about one-hundred pictures and copious notes during this time, and annoyed my wife with about half of them.

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D23 featured similar exhibits for upcoming films and attractions. I enjoyed the themed booth for upcoming Disney World attraction The World of Avatar. Disney employed cast members to stage the booth as a sort of ride, just like in the theme parks. Inside, I was able to examine a detailed scale model of what the world will look like. When it opens in 2017, guests will be dwarfed by alien plant life and massive floating rocks in the sky. This recreation of the film’s world, Pandora, will even feature bioluminescence, and will let attendees fly on alien creatures, just like in the movie.

Disneyland: The Exhibit featured hour-long lines (just like the theme parks!) to see its various treasures, which included vintage merchandise, original props, and rare documents. Some of these archive pieces were shown for the very first time here. I enjoyed looking at maps and concept drawings created back when Disneyland was first being conceptualized. The biggest hit of the exhibit was the very first Disneyland ticket ever, which was displayed on a spinning pedestal, behind glass. It had to be the most photographed item at D23 2015.

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The various vendors’ booths of D23’s merchandise area were like smaller exhibits, with many containing vintage Disney treasures. Wandering its passageways was much like visiting a Disney museum. As you can imagine, many of the wares were priced at a premium. I saw $500 pins, $10,000 statues, and artwork that went for nearly double that. Attendees marveled at the collection of original animation cels from classic films. A few thousand dollars would have you owning a physical piece of history. I circled back a few times before finally passing on a cel from The Three Caballeros.

I tried shopping, but I wasn’t prepared for the task. I’m a bit of a collector — my Christmas tree is pure white, and decorated only with my large collection of Donald Duck ornaments, many of which are rare collectables. So ornament hunts were in the plans. The lines for the three main shopping areas were always at least an hour long, with one of the most popular snaking on itself 5 times for a wait closer to two hours. I managed to finally enter one of the shops on the last day of D23 only to find it picked over, and sold out of most of what I wanted.

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Talking, seeing, and photographing made my D23. I did my thing. But what I really loved about the event is how it mirrored the way that Disney parks are so many different things to different people. I saw tears in the eyes of fans that made it to the front of the line to hug their favorite Disney Channel star. Others added to their autograph collections at the various meet-and-greets. Cosplayers posed to show off their handiwork for photographers while kids traded pins in the background. I admired countless older and senior couples wearing matching Disney garb, often from previous shows or park anniversaries, imagining that this one day would be my wife and I.

I’ll definitely be back for the next D23 Expo in 2017.

Dale North writes about videogames, food, travel and music. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two corgis.

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