Much like Groucho Marx, I wouldn't belong to a club that would accept me as a member, with a few exceptions: As a child of the early '80s, I joined the Official Star Wars Fan Club to receive the Bantha Tracks newsletter; in college I was in the Rocky Horror Picture Show Fan Club (member No. 4711, natch).
Last June I joined D23, the official Walt Disney Company fan club – not for the Chip and Dale-emblazoned ID card, but for invitations to events like last Friday's Fanniversary. The only Southeast stop in D23's 10-city spring tour was held March 8 at the Atlantic Dance Hall on WDW's Boardwalk. Since I hadn't attended last year's sold-out Fanniversary, I didn't know what to expect, but imagined that there would be a Q&A session and a galley of artifacts to inspect.
As it turned out, the event was a heavily scripted two-hour PowerPoint slide show hosted by Rick Lorentz, an avuncular old-timer from Disney's legendary Archives, and Cynthia Momdjian, D23's decidedly less authoritative "social media expert." The pair narrated a catalog of Disney anniversaries being celebrated this year, going back to the company's founding 90 years ago in 1923, with rarely- or never-before-seen images marking major milestones. D23's nine decades of secret sights included some ephemera I'd only previously heard rumors of, like:
– The earliest known drawings of Mickey Mouse, and a radio interview where Walt explains (in falsetto) that he performed Mickey's voice because he "knew [he'd] always be on the payroll."
– Ferdinand Horvath's macabre concepts for the unfinished cartoon "Mickey's Toothache," a "surreal nightmare in which [Mickey] is tormented by monstrous dental tools" that prefigure Little Shop of Horrors.
– A handmade doll presented to Walt on his South American goodwill tour, one of the few actual objects exhibited at the event.
– Mary Blair's adorable paintings of ballet-dancing babies, inspiration for an abandoned segment of Fantasia.
– The '80s-tastic opening ceremonies of Epcot's Horizons and Tokyo Disneyland, plus footage from Japan's obscure Meet the World and Mystery Castle Tour attractions.
– Early pencil tests from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, starring completely different incarnations of Roger, Jessica Rabbit and Eddie Valiant.
– A rare Disney Channel clip of young Tim Burton working on his only-aired-once reinterpretation of Hansel and Gretel.
Though teeming with trivia, the event was a bit butt-numbing even for this hard-core Disnerd; I'd have liked a little less corporate cheerleading and more audience interaction. In contrast, that evening I hit downtown's Orange County Regional History Center, where the Entertainment Designer Forum conducted a much more casual and candid conversation about the theme park industry. The event sold more than 300 seats (double last year's attendance) with 100 percent of ticket and silent auction proceeds donated to cancer research in honor of late local artist Stephanie Girard.
This year's freewheeling Q&A, hosted by Universal Studios designer Kim Gromoll, covered the usual subjects, such as "how to break into the business" (network, knock on doors, never give up) and "hand-drafted vs. computer-aided" (always begin with pencil and paper). But there were also unexpected tales of theming triumph and travesty:
– Imagineer Matt Usi is such a Star Wars geek that he has a Wampa rug on his wall, but even he found it "sickening" to ride Star Tours 34 times a day during testing.
– Cecil Magpuri of Falcon's Treehouse eulogized his unbuilt Apollo 13 ride, an indoor coaster that would have delivered a 2.3G launch and seven seconds of weightlessness; "the highest budgeted project for Universal at the time" was shelved for the Men in Black ride.
– Local actress Summer Aiello shared her struggle to break into the comedy "boys club" and the joy of converting audiences who think that "girls aren't funny."
– SeaWorld Parks' Brian Morrow originally wanted propane flames to shoot from the top of Cheetah Hunt's tower in Busch Gardens: "It would have been totally badass."
– Michael Roddy wrote a failed X-Men stunt show at Germany's MovieWorld for an ex-Olympic diver director who wanted a dancing Wolverine without claws.
There were scores of insider stories, but Morrow gave the best quote of the night, critiquing new smartphone-based technology like Disney's MyMagic+: "People [look at screens] at home all day long. They come to theme parks to connect with their families, not their devices."