The opening arena event of the D23 Expo was the induction of the 2011 class of Disney Legends. The class included five actresses who provided voices for modern Disney princesses, business contributors on the board of directors and in merchandising, two television stars, the original owners of the Disneyland Hotel, and a man who never officially worked for Disney, but began a partnership with the company that only came to fruition after his death. The ceremony was hosted by Tom Bergeron, who also hosts two reality shows for Disney's ABC Television arm, Dancing with the Stars and America's Funniest Videos.
The festivities opened big, with a salute to the princess voices. First up was the speaking and singing voice of the second-newest Disney princess (next to Rapunzel), Princess Tiana: Anika Noni Rose. She is the youngest-ever recipient of the Disney Legends Award, and there have been many in the Disney fan community who, in the weeks since the announcement, have wondered whether the induction was too soon in this instance. Feel free to leave your thoughts on the matter in the comments thread at the end of this story. Rose claimed that she had been so busy that she didn't realize until the rehearsal the previous day that it was she being honored and not Tiana. She thanked her grandmother, "who told me that I could be whatever I wanted to be, whatever that was," and her mother, "for telling me from the very beginning that I was part of Disney. She had me convinced I was a dancing mushroom." She finished by thanking "my guys: Ron [Clements], John [Musker], Peter [Del Vecho], and John Lasseter… for believing in me and trusting in what I had to bring.…"
The focus then moved back to the first three movies of the "Second Golden Age" of Disney animated films. First up was Aladdin. The speaking voice of Princess Jasmine, Linda Larkin, thanked her family, Ron Clements, John Musker, the Walt Disney Company, Rick Dempsey and the team at Disney Character Voices, and the fans.
Jasmine's singing voice (and Mulan's singing voice), Lea Salonga, was next. Salonga opened by saying that "I'm usually really great at shooting from the hip, but right now I've just been rendered speechless by this." She thanked the Walt Disney Company, Alan Menken, Tim Rice, Linda Larkin (for not knowing how to sing, so that Salonga was offered the singing role), Albert Tovares (casting director for Aladdin), everyone who worked on Aladdin and Mulan, the millions of little girls "that continue to inspire princesses everywhere," the fans, and the Disney music department, and her family.
Next up was Paige O'Hara, the speaking and singing voice of Belle from Beauty and the Beast, who noted that "I think it's important that I make it very clear that I am just a very small part of the family that made Belle who she is," specifically mentioning Don Hahn, Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, Linda Woolverton, Kirk Wise, Gary Trousdale, Mark Henn, and James Baxter. She also thanked Robby Benson, Howard Green, and Disney Character Voices. "I have to be honest, there's one thing that I really don't like about Belle," continued O'Hara. "She never gets older." She finished by thanking the fans for all of their love and support through the good years and bad, noting that their letters and emails have meant so much to her.
The last princess voice to receive her Disney Legend Award was Jodi Benson, the speaking and singing voice of Ariel in The Little Mermaid. Benson showed off her Cast Member ID card. "I'm a proud cast member of our Disney company. Twenty-six years. This card is 26 years old. It does not swipe any more. I couldn't get my discount yesterday. I'm very, very proud of this card. I'm very proud of our company." Benson, in tears throughout her speech, thanked many people, including the fans, her husband and children, her mother, her friends. "My good friend, Roy Disney, I miss you terribly, and you need to be here with me today. Because that's why I'm here." Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, Ron Clements and John Musker, Glen Keane, John Lasseter, and the team at Disney Character Voices were also singled out.
With tears flowing and a catch in her voice (and leaving not a dry eye in the house), Benson concluded: "But I want you guys to know something, D23ers and Disney enthusiasts. Like Walt, who I did not have the honor to meet—the privilege of getting to meet him—my heart is with this company. My heart is with Disney-Pixar.… But I just want you guys to know that this matters to me. This really matters to me. When I stand on the stage and I sing, and I go in the studio, and I hang out with you guys, this is just not a job. This is a gift that God has given me and it's my ministry, and it's the way I get to love on people. And John 15:5 is my life verse.… I can do nothing without my God, and I can not do anything without all you guys here today."
Larkin returned to the stage to introduce the four singing voices to sing hallmark songs of their princesses' movies. O'Hara sang "Belle," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Be Our Guest." Salonga followed, singing "Reflection" from Mulan. Rose sang "Almost There" before Benson took the stage to round out the solo performances with "Part of Your World." The four then assembled to sing a wonderful version of "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes," receiving a standing ovation.
Watch a highlight video from the ceremony. MousePlanet video by Steven Ng.
Former Disney chairman Ray Watson was next. Watson brought his real estate development acumen to the company, serving on the board of directors from 1973 to 2004, and as chairman of the board immediately preceding Michael Eisner from 1983 to 1984. He was instrumental in fending off two hostile takeovers during his time as chairman. Watson, 84, displayed his sense of humor by opening his speech with "Should I sing?" to great laughter.
The late Barton "Bo" Boyd was the marketing genius behind theme park-specific merchandise for the domestic Disney parks. His 33-year career at Disney eventually led him to become the Chairman of Disney Consumer Products, a division where he oversaw the launch of Hyperion Press, Disney Catalog, Disney Interactive, ESPN - The Store, Walt Disney Classics Collection, Walt Disney Collectors Society, and the Disney Store chain. His daughter Kristin Schmidt noted that "If you could look at his blood under a microscope, you would see Mickey ears." Schmidt also told a story of she and her sister running through Walt Disney World with the princess of Morocco as the princess' bodyguards tried desperately to keep up. Boyd's daughter Kelly Kiesselbach told how, at the first D23 Expo, he was so happy to meet everyone that he cried in the car on the way home because it made him so happy.
The award for the late Guy Williams was accepted by his wife, son, daughter, and nephew. Steve Catalano, Williams' son, brought along the sword that Williams used as Zorro, and saluted the crowd in Zorro fashion with it as a way of showing the family's gratitude.
The late Jack and Bonita Wrather were saluted as the original owners of the Disneyland Hotel, who built the resort at Walt Disney's urging in 1954. Construction took six and a half months in 1955, and the hotel opened less than three months after the park. Bergeron quoted Jack Wrather as saying "I had heard a little bit about the Disneyland plan, but when they told me where it was going to be built, all I could exclaim was 'Anaheim. Oh God, Anaheim.'" The award was accepted by the Wrathers' son and one of their daughters.
Regis Philbin's introduction included a video from his TV talk show co-host Kelly Ripa sharing some of her favorite "Regis moments." Philbin was his usual bombastic, raconteur self, teasing Bergeron, recalling his early days in the TV business, talking about the generations of visitors that he met while filming the Walt Disney World Christmas Parade, and telling a "this could only happen to Regis" story.
The big finish was the Disney Legend Award for the late Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets. Henson's daughter Lisa talked about her father and how "my father once said, 'when I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in the world, and my hope was to leave the world a little bit better for having been here.'"
Following a medley of Muppet video clips and interview clips of Jim Henson, Henson's son Brian and Leslie Carrara-Rudolph of Henson Alternative Stuffed and Unstrung performed "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face," a routine first performed in 1956 by Jim Henson and his wife Jane. Brian Henson then came to the podium and told a story of how his father couldn't do anything without making sound effects (complete with examples). He talked about how his father loved to laugh, and how the laughter on set would eventually break everyone up, from puppeteers to union workers. He recalled that his father "had this wonderful, infectious energy that just spread to everybody that worked around him." Brian Henson noted that Jim Henson was a huge fan of the Disney theme parks, and "that was always what he felt was about the most wonderful thing in the world, were the Disney theme parks."
After the Legends award was officially presented to Lisa and Brian Henson, Kermit and Rowlf appeared center stage and closed the ceremony by singing "The Rainbow Connection," which they turned into an audience sing-along.
The ceremony was a touching tribute to those honored, and many of the heartfelt acceptance speeches were moved the audience to tears, laughter, or both. The performances were outstanding, and the festivities were a great way to welcome the fans and kick off the three days of the D23 Expo. We'll have more stories from the Expo in the coming weeks, so—as Regis would say—stay tuned!