LAKE BUENA VISTA — It’s been a tough year for Disney, with politicians questioning its squeaky clean image, a changed business climate for TV and movie studios, and major shakeups in its executive ranks. And the Star Wars hotel is about to be shuttered in a few weeks at Hollywood Studios after a little over a year.
But what Disney does have in its back pocket is a fan base like no other. This weekend brings Destination D23, dubbed the “ultimate Disney fan event.” It sold out in less than 20 minutes at a cost of $329-$549, depending on your seating, for D23 members to revel in three days of Disney news, marketing and shopping.
Lines snaked around the ballroom lobby at Disney’s Contemporary Resort on Friday on the first day of the convention as D23 members waited to pick up their gift: a $60 backpack by Lug stuffed with goods like coffee, trading pins and Marvel toys. Those at the convention pay $99 per year to be Gold Members for the privilege of buying exclusive merchandise and attending events like this.
D23 was launched in 2009 as the official fan club of The Walt Disney Co. The “D” stands for Disney, and “23″ denotes 1923 — the year in which Walt Disney moved to California and opened his studio.
Orlando gets the smaller event called Destination D23, held every two years in the Contemporary Resort with about 2,300 fans in attendance. It alternates with the much larger D23 Expo, which is held every other year at the Anaheim Convention Center in California. That drew 80,000 fans in 2022, with attendees mobbing the cavernous center, many in elaborate cosplay.
Joy Sanchez, 38, flew in to Orlando from San Francisco with her wife, Milyn, saying she much preferred the low-key event to the huge Anaheim gathering, which she has also been to.
“This is a lot more organized and the lines aren’t as long,” she said as she stood behind hundreds waiting to pick up their gift bags. “This really isn’t bad. I’ve seen much longer.”
D23 arrives during one of Disney’s toughest years. In recent months, the company laid off 7,000 people. Disney shares in August closed at their lowest point since 2014 after a shakeup in which Bob Iger returned as CEO in November to boot out his successor, Bob Chapek, after less than three years.
Planning your weekend?
Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
And then there are the political fights the company has found itself in with Gov. Ron DeSantis, whom Disney is currently suing on a First Amendment claim that the governor politically retaliated against the company.
Disney execs take their rapturous fans at Destination D23 seriously, often holding back big announcements to be made there. They unveil new theme park attractions, cruise ship launches, and TV series or movie announcements from their Marvel, Star Wars and animation storehouses.
Saturday morning brings a big cheese from the Mouse House: Josh D’Amaro, chairperson of Disney parks, experiences and products. He is giving a talk on the future of Disney parks around the world. His presentation will be livestreamed on the D23 YouTube page, the Disney Parks Blog and Disney Parks social channels.
There is strong speculation they will finally announce an opening date for the new Epcot walk-through attraction Moana’s Journey of Water, which has already had employees testing it out and posting pictures on social media.
There’s also a new Epcot nighttime fireworks show that has been promised for a while now, with little indication of when. The Epcot park itself is riddled with construction walls as it undergoes a major overhaul, so it is due for some announcements on that project.
Less likely is more detail on what D’Amaro said last year at the D23 Expo about what he called his “blue sky” plans — Disney’s term for a brainstorm that hasn’t been greenlit yet. The movies “Moana” and “Zootopia” might be a good fit for new attractions at Animal Kingdom, he said. And there sure is a lot of land behind the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in Magic Kingdom that could be a whole new land or park, he said.
Though the theme parks are one of the company’s most profitable corners at the moment, this has also been one of the slowest summers for attendance at Disney parks, according to analysts like Touring Plans that monitor crowds and wait times. Could the escalating prices of theme parks have finally broken the spell? Even for those willing to pony up for tickets and annual passes, there has been constant grumbling about the My Disney Experience app changes and the Genie+ system that replaced the free FastPass system.
But hardcore fans like D23 members still return devoutly.
“They have their troubles sometimes,” said Kevin Nosworthy, 57, a retiree from Toronto who has a second home in Orlando and more than 2,000 Disney trading pins. “But Walt Disney is an all-American story, and he really had a knack for tying emotion to entertainment. It really makes you buy into the magic with the whole family.”