D23: Now, later, or never?

by Steve Russo, staff writer

The D23 announcement was one of the most significant broadcasts from Disney in quite some time. It also helped me appreciate one of the real difficulties in writing a bi-weekly column: major announcements always seem to come just after I've turned in a column. By the time my next column hits the MousePlanet site, everything that needed to be said has been said, and anything that needed to be written has been written. Or has it? Maybe there's something to be said for allowing the waters to calm just a bit before wading in.

The recent D23 announcement is extremely significant for the Disney fan, but it seems to mean something different based on the type of fan you are. Much of its value is arguably contained within the new collectibles line, The Walt Disney Archives Collection, which will be sold exclusively through Disney Shopping's D23 Web site. I'm a Disney fanatic, but I would classify myself more of a parks fan than a collector. Sure, I have a few pins and snow globes. I have more than a few Disney movies on DVD—and still a few VHS tapes as well. My walls contain some Disney World photographs and giclee prints. However, the only thing I seem to collect are restaurant receipts and Mickey golf shirts. Given that, what does this D23 announcement mean to me, or you, the typical park fan?

Let's begin with a quick review of what a one-year D23 Charter Membership, at a cost of $74.99, will include.

Membership card and certificate

You receive a membership card and certificate, suitable for framing. While I'm certainly a Disney geek, I guess I haven't yet reached the level of Disney-geekdom where I need to carry evidence in my wallet that I'm a fan. While I have a number of Disney World photographs and prints hanging in my home, hanging a framed membership certificate is not something that would appeal to me. However, I could certainly understand why some folks would enjoy that. Nevertheless, while there might be disagreement, I don't see a great deal of value in these items.

Disney twenty-three quarterly publication

Your membership will get you a one-year subscription (four issues) to the Disney twenty-three quarterly publication. Other than previews, I have not yet seen this magazine. Most reports have indicated it's 64 pages of high-quality articles and photographs with no advertising. While it does offer some unique content, most have said it's nothing they don't already receive via newsletters, Web site updates, and so on. It's hard to put a price on something like this but most have indicated its value falls somewhere short of the $16 price tag. Many have done the math and concluded that these four quarterly publications, at $16 each, are valued at $64. That means that only $11 (of the $75 membership fee) buys you the remaining benefits. I would maintain that's only true if you would be willing to shell out $16 per copy on a regular basis. I'm not so sure I would be.

Surprise collectible gift

If only we knew what the “Surprise Collectible Gift” is. While Disney has stated it's “not a pin,” could it be something of equal value? My bet is that this will be something unique enough and with a coolness-factor high enough to make the true Disney fan take notice. I'd also wager that if this gift is nice enough, D23 enrollment might increase significantly. (As I write this, there are some early, unconfirmed reports that it's a 20” x 30” lithograph of Mickey's 80th birthday celebration. These reports also state that it's not signed or a limited edition so I may be off on the coolness factor. We'll have to wait and see.)

Exclusive special events and merchandise

It's much too early to gauge this item. What are the exclusive special events? They've only told us about one, the D23 Expo, and hinted at some others.

If the merchandise is what I've seen on the D23 Web site, its appeal will lie mainly with the collector. While I'd love to own some of the Walt Disney signature items, I'm not the collector type nor am I willing to fork over the major investment needed to acquire these items. I'm also not particularly enamored with the D23 labeled T-shirts and polos.

Included in the special events is a discounted admission to the “D23 Expo,” described as “The Ultimate Disney Fan Experience coming this Fall to Anaheim.” From what I've read, this expo may very well be special, but remember it's not exclusive—it's open to everyone. You do not need a D23 membership to attend, but the membership will get you a discount of $7 on a one-day ticket (slightly more if you purchase a four-day ticket).

While this D23 Expo sounds like it might be a great time, it holds little value for this East Coaster. If I were (reasonably) local to Anaheim, I would certainly take advantage of this event. Unfortunately, my vacation time and budget are too valuable to me to use them here. I'm betting many others feel the same. It's important to note here that the Expo will take place in Anaheim for its first four years before moving elsewhere (Walt Disney World?).

Might they also host additional “special events” elsewhere? Maybe even in theme parks? Will they be “exclusive”? If there were events of interest held at Disney World, I might be tempted to attend. However, that brings up another potential issue… the D23 membership is an individual one. If I'm a member attending a special members-only event, can I bring my wife or other family member? Would they need to purchase their own D23 membership? I see no evidence of a “family” membership so that's how it looks right now.

D23 fan community

Last but not least, there's an opportunity to stay connected via the new D23 Web site. When I saw that D23 was to be a “fan community” to reward Disney's best fans, I held out hope that this might represent some type of reward system that could provide frequent traveler type benefits to those of us that regularly visit the theme parks. That was not to be. What kind of fan community will D23 be? Most online communities provide a forum for those fans to discuss all things Disney: the theme parks, films, trip planning, collectibles, trip reports… you name it. These discussion forums, like MousePlanet's Mousepad (here), are typically offered free of charge.

In the case of the D23 site, you don't need to be a member to peruse the site so, in that sense, it's free. Membership is only required to purchase the collectible items. However, there doesn't seem to be a real interactive forum where fans can offer comments and suggestions or communicate amongst themselves. I'm betting Disney wants no part of the discussion forum world—they'd have to provide the bandwidth and storage for each forum that was established. Because I believe it's a given that Disney would never offer an un-moderated forum, they'd also have to provide discussion board moderators as well.

The D23 fan site promises to offer breaking Disney news, exclusive feature stories, blogs, historical retrospectives, special event information, and other content. Outside of the collectibles boutique, which requires membership, is there anything there not offered free of charge on MousePlanet or any of the other quality Disney-themed sites? And in the 24/7 world of rapidly expanding electronic social networks like Twitter and Facebook, how much of an edge would a D23 member have for getting "breaking" news?

Will D23 have an impact on the already established Disney fan sites? I don't see it. While Disney fans, members and non-members alike, will certainly visit the D23 site, I just don't see them abandoning their “homes”—the online communities where they regularly read and post about their particular Disney obsession. Many fans that regularly visit MousePad, the DisBoards, RADP and the other forums, truly feel a sense of community there. They consider the folks they “talk” to online to be friends and I don't see them leaving that community for D23.

Why now?

At the company's annual shareholder's meeting, Disney President and CEO Bob Iger said, “D23 is our way of saying 'thank you' and celebrating our fans, who bring the magic of Disney to life every day in every corner of the world.”

While it's obvious that Disney has been working on D23 for some time, the timing of this release, given the current economic climate, is interesting to say the least. Is it prudent on Disney's part to offer this $75 membership at a time when many people are cutting back on their budgets? Apparently, Disney's way of saying “thank you” to its many fans is to charge them $75 for some additional shopping opportunities. OK, that's a cheap shot but, to me, this is reminiscent of an announcement in the not-too-distant past that involved the “re-imagineering” (I love that word) of Pleasure Island. At that time, Disney management told us that their extensive research had shown that guests were clamoring for additional dining and shopping opportunities. Maybe we should have clamored for bags of cash because it sure seems Disney is giving us what we asked for.

Lessons in history

Allow me to offer one last history lesson. Does anyone remember the (free) Magic Kingdom Club, or the Disney Club, introduced as its fee-based successor in 2000? For an annual membership fee, you could join the Disney Club and enjoy a number of perks, including:

  • Savings on selected Disneyland and Disney World vacations, and resort accommodations
  • Reduced prices on multi-day Disneyland and Walt Disney World theme park tickets and passes, with different options to choose from
  • 10% discounts on selected Disney merchandise at the Disney Store, Disney Catalog, and Disney Store.com
  • A collectible membership card
  • A subscription to Disney Magazine with news about everything that is happening at Disney
  • A members' only Web site, monthly mailings, and toll-free number
  • Access to unique merchandise and special offers

Sound familiar?

What happened to the Disney Club and, more importantly, why did it happen? The demise of that program roughly coincided with the introduction of the Disney Visa card. Let's not lose sight of the fact that Disney is a corporation with a goal of making money for its shareholders. Did the Magic Kingdom Club/Disney Club cease to be profitable? What happens if D23 membership lags behind target numbers? …I'm just asking.

So where does that leave us? There is certainly value in a D23 membership. The quarterly publication, discounted entry to the D23 Expo, and the collectible gift may very well be worth more than the $75 membership fee. Based on the information above, however, my inclination is to give D23 a pass—at least for now. I don't find anything there that I can't get elsewhere or live without. I doubt I'll be going to the Expo, having no plans to visit Anaheim anytime soon, but if I did want to go, it would simply cost me an extra $7.

However… and that's a very big however… I truly believe that what we have now is the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.” It would be very unlike Disney to roll out the plan we see today without having some additional items waiting in the wings, in process, on the drawing boards… you catch my drift. I could be wrong, but I'll bet you a Dole Whip this program will look a lot different six months or a year down the road.

I'm a sucker for all things Disney. I've drunk the Kool-Aid. I have a closetful of Mickey golf shirts. I wear a Disney watch. I'm a Disney Vacation Club member. I was a member of both the Magic Kingdom Club and Disney Club, and I have a Disney Visa card. Walt Disney World is by far my favorite vacation spot in the world. Will I be joining D23? Not yet. I think I'll wait just a bit and see what else follows but I'm betting there's more to come.

That's my opinion. What's yours?

[Author's Note: You can read some additional commentary here on MousePlanet. Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix provided a review of the D23 press release in her blog (link). Mark Goldhaber attended a Webcast of the Annual Shareholder's meeting and ensuing conference call. He wrote an article on MousePlanet called Finding 23 (link). Later, Chris Barry looked at D23 from the Disney collector's viewpoint and you can read his comments here (link).]