Ghosts, Wookie Band Practice, and Broadway Divas at the 2019 D23 Expo

by Todd Pickering, contributing writer

Alan Dalinka and I spent all three days at the biannual "Ultimate" Disney Fan Event at the Anaheim Convention Center this past weekend, the D23 Expo. I interviewed everyone I sat with at lunch or walked with to and from the convention, and the biggest takeaway I have is that everyone had a very different experience. This year was the first time that they used an online reservation system for the panels a week prior to the event. The site crashed Friday at noon when it was supposed to start so it was ultimately moved to Saturday.

There were people that got a lot of reservations and there were people that got none. There were people that got incorrect badge numbers so they could not register for that lottery. There were people that did not get badges until the lottery was over. There were people that got no reservations and had a great time. There were people who camped out on the street Wednesday evening and then spent the night in the basement on Thursday to be the first in line to shop at The Disney Store. I know that my jaw literally dropped like a cartoon character upon being told this; when I asked them if they were happy with that experience they beamed an affirmative. Every single shopper that I spoke with was absolutely thrilled with their purchases and shrugged off the wait times.

Shopping lines were usually at least an hour long, although they sometimes went down at the end of the day. Photo by Todd Pickering.

Should you go to the D23 Expo in 2021? We can only imagine that the reservation system will be improved from this year's event. It may go away or it may be offered to D23 Gold Members only, we can't say for sure. With a sold out event we can only imagine that the crowd will be as big 2021 and that people will camp out on Wednesday again. It takes one full day to walk around and enjoy each and every booth on the show floor without going to any of the panels whatsoever.

The costumes are amazing and many people have different outfits for every day. If you happen to attend two large panels most of your day is taken up after having arrived at dawn. So keep those things in mind when you decide to book or not to book all three days or just one day. The question we keep asking ourselves is; who were those 48 people that were there earlier than the two that camped out on Wednesday and how early did they get there?

The Music and Sound of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge

I have gone to Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge with quite a few people, and the last friend that I took with me was a huge Star Wars fan, Christina Marie Leonard. She was overwhelmed upon walking into the land for the first time, but after a few minutes she became crestfallen. "Where is the theme? It's missing the Star Wars theme," she said. It is here that I will tell all of you readers that I am mostly a fan of the original three movies with the original picture that in my book is still called Star Wars (Christina informs me it is technically called Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope) There are only two other pieces of music that I recognize and they are the Cantina Song and what I call "Darth Vader's Ominous Theme." (Christina has informed me it is called "The Imperial March").

Producer and Arranger Bill Ross and Executive Music Director John Dennis spoke first at this panel held in the D23 Expo Arena. John Williams was in Southern California working on The Rise of Skywalker, so he appeared in some prerecorded segments. All three men used the word collaboration to describe the process during the making of Galaxy's Edge. Since Batuu was something that was alive and full of people rather than a movie they worked hard to keep the music very specific. They wanted to make sure that music was written specifically for the new land. Mr. Williams also wanted to use the film canon but with distinct "purpose."

SPOILER ALERT: One example they gave was in Savi's Workshop when the lightsabers are all ceremoniously lifted at the end of the experience, the music they chose was the scoring when Yoda lifted the X-Wing out of the swamp in The Empire Strikes Back. When John Dennis spoke about going to Savi's Workshop with his two sons and he got to see them make lightsabers he got choked up. I let my friend Christina know that perhaps we may hear the Star Wars Theme at some point? Time will tell.

Sound Design from Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge is played by John "JK" Kestler. Photo courtesy of Disney.

Principal Audio Media Designer John "JK" Kestler from Walt Disney Imagineering played us several sound effects you may hear when you visit Black Spire Outpost at Disneyland or Disney's Hollywood Studios. The key word in that last sentence is "may," considering that there 2,979 sound files used. We have observed the difference of the sounds in the forest on the outskirts of animals depending on the time of day you are walking by. Of course there are many space ships taking off and by the time you make it outside they have already flown off-planet.

The radio station features many interesting original pieces. Kestler played a shampoo commercial for Wookies. There is a pod race airing on the radio over by the Speeder Shop area. Our favorite was definitely from the marketplace where there is a Wookie apartment. You can hear Wookies all day in there and the one he played for us occurs at night when the teenage Wookies have band practice and a neighbor complains in yet a different alien language. Our appreciation for this land has deepened yet again, and we look forward to returning and listening.

Jason Mater, Matt Wood, and Adam Dorn were all involved with the music played in Oga's Cantina. Photo courtesy of Disney.

Musicians and an expert in creating alien languages rounded out the panel to discuss the work on the music for Oga's Cantina. Jason Mater goes by the name Chaka Mater Laka on Batuu and is responsible for "Batuu Boogie." Matt Wood from Lucasfilm was the resident alien language linguist. The best story was told by Adam Dorn who got to remix the Cantina Song, which is entitled "Mad About Mad About Me." His genuine excitement and geek-out attitude about being selected to remix one of the most famous tunes in the galaxy was delightful. He then told us that John Williams gave him the ultimate compliment possibly of his career when he said that it was the only remix that he liked over all these years.

Judith Hill and her band performs Oola Shuka. Photo courtesy of Disney.

The most exciting part of this panel was when Judith Hill got up and performed her song "Oola Shuka." Her character is Gaya and was described as a sort of Lady Gaga of the Galaxy. Ending a panel on music with live music was the way to go and the crowd really enjoyed it. (I didn't say that "it was out of this world." Aren't you glad?). If you want to download some of the songs that DJ Rex plays at Oga's Cantina, the album is available for digital download from Apple Music, Spotify, and Google Play Music.

Haunted Mansion: Celebrating 50 Years

Our fans adore the Haunted Mansion. I have always been obsessed with the Haunted Mansion, and we were not alone in the slightest. Imagineer Daniel Joseph showed the crowd some do-it-yourself special effects. Chris Merritt told us about his mentoring and friendship with Disney Legend Marc Davis. Imagineer Jillian Pagan told us how obsessed her mother was with this attraction. There was a short film with Skippers Jen and Nick from the Jungle Cruise riding the Doom Buggies with their microphones and telling some corny jokes:

  • Look at those two spiders... aww... they must be Newly Webs.
  • These Doom Buggies are 13 hearse power
  • (upon coming into the seance room) Just a head on the left...
  • (regarding the Hat Box Ghost) Always working to get a head.

Sally Slater, Kelsey McCullough, and Uncle Deadly do a dramatic reading of X. Atencio's 1968 draft of the Haunted Mansion script. Photo courtesy of Disney.

All of these panelists were delightful, but then out came Kelsey McCullough, the granddaughter of Imagineer X. Atencio, to regale us with stories of riding her grandfather's attractions at Disneyland. X. Atencio wrote the scripts for Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion, including the song lyrics. They were never sad to leave Disneyland because her grandfather's house was a Disneyland unto itself; he never stopped creating art throughout his retirement. It was then announced that there would be a dramatic reading of X. Atencio's 1968 draft of the Haunted Mansion.

Uncle Deadly was ghoulishly delightful as our Ghost Host. Photo by Todd Pickering.

Sally Slater, the tight-rope walking lady from the stretching room, came out to narrate followed by Muppet Uncle Deadly to read the part of the Ghost Host. Kelsey herself read the part of the Mysterious Medium, who later would be named Madame Leota. Uncle Deadly was deadpan, hilarious,and of course a fan favorite. He was a perfect foil to the perky and sweet Sally Slater. The intro had a lot of the rhymes that would later become song lyrics for "Grim Grinning Ghosts." There was a bust that began this speech. These later would sing in the graveyard. The stretching room was in this draft along with all of the paintings and gags we still see to this day. The script of course was quite a bit longer and needed some trimming. The ballroom scene seemed to be more sight gags with bells ringing and then the ghosts appear with the bells in hand and a floating couch and then the two ghost movers would materialize. There was still the attic and it was written clearly that you were thrown out the window to fall backwards into an "upbeat" graveyard. What a treat for all of the Haunted Mansion fans present.

Disney On Broadway: A 25th Anniversary Celebration

25 Years of Disney on Broadway was beautifully performed by six amazing talents: Gavin Lee and Ashley Brown from Mary Poppins; Josh Strickland from Tarzan; Kissy Simmons and Alton Fitzgerald Brown from The Lion King; and Heidi Blickenstaff from The Little Mermaid and Freaky Friday. They sang beautifully together and seemed to be just topping each other in the most supporting way possible. These people were born to perform.

Gavin Lee, Ashley Brown, Josh Strickland, Kissy Simmons, Alton Fitzgerald White, and Heidi Blickenstaff perform during the concert. Photo courtesy of Disney.

Kissy Simmons played Nala in "The Lion King" on Broadway. Photo courtesy of Disney.

Kissy Simmons singing Nala's "Shadowland" was so powerful. Josh Strickland was in his best diva form at all times, and totally in control of his exuberant high range. Heidi Blickenstaff's "Poor Unfortunate Souls" had some of the best acting and vocal control I have ever heard on that song. Alton Fitzgerald White's rich baritone was never pushed and even his voice seemed to wink with delight. Gavin Lee's tap dancing made me long for more dancing in the Disney parks. As a group the Hercules numbers absolutely brought down the house making me wonder when we can see that in the parks and on Broadway. If I had to pick a favorite performance—and only if I have to—it would be Ashley Brown's simply stated "Feed the Birds." Every note was crystal clear. Ms. Brown never pushed an iota of this song and I was not the only one in my row with goosebumps. There is no wonder this was Walt's favorite song in the Disney canon.

Ashley Brown sang Walt Disney's favorite song in the Disney catalog, "Feed the Birds." Photo courtesy of Disney.

Cosplay at the Expo

One of the best things about D23 Expo is all of the fans. It was great meeting everyone and I am always happy to say hello. Cosplay (people dressing up in costume to represent their favorite character) abounds at the D23 Expo. Rather than talking about though, As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Bo Cruz and Angelo Ignacio as Bo Peep and a great gender-bending Officer Giggles McDimples. Photo by Todd Pickering.

Steven and Millie Tani (cosplayparents on social media) dressed as Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter on day one of the Expo. Photo by Todd Pickering.

Kaliya (daughter) and Naomi (mom) as Hella and Valkyrie. Photo by Todd Pickering.

Amber Arden as a mashup of Minnie Mouse and Snow White and Traci Hines as a Mickey Mouse/Ariel mashup. Photo by Todd Pickering.

Naomi Smentkowski and Alicia Luoma as Vanessa and gender-bending Bruce Banner are changing. Look out! Photo by Todd Pickering.

Chris Onderisin, Derek Barillas, Shawn Parkinson, and Valentin Navarro as Hades, Hercules, Jedi-Cuzco, and Mulan

Charlotte Cryska and Corina Hernandez represent the Haunted Mansion. Photo by Todd Pickering.

Ranita Coleman is always so darn striking. Photo by Todd Pickering.

It's Dude Vader. Dude! Photo by Todd Pickering.

Mary Poppins and Jack as worn by Melody Jacobson and Bret Conner Jr. Photo by Todd Pickering.

Cathy and Maggie as Woody and Jessie, Cathy, and Maggie as Buzz and Bo. Photo by Todd Pickering.

The Cosplay Parents Steven and Millie Tani on day two of the Expo as Carl and Ellie from "Up." Photo by Todd Pickering.