Hard-Core Disney Fans Can't Be Corralled by the Corporate-Approved Fan Club, D23
Pete Werner had been clean and sober for nearly a year. He'd attended his third treatment program, moved in with his parents in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, and started working to slowly rebuild the life he had lost chasing booze and drugs. He had spent all his money and lived on the streets for a while, but at age 26, he had recently landed a job as a programmer for a company that made software for the military. He tried to keep his friends and his boyfriend close.
His next addiction started on a lonely business trip. Werner flew into Orlando International Airport in May 1991 for a conference. He had one day off before the event began, so he got in his rental car and followed the overhead signs toward Walt Disney World, destination zero. He didn't realize it at the time, but he was about to be reborn as one of the world's most influential Disney nerds.
He had no particular love for Disney lore, found no nostalgic childhood comfort in the movies or characters. Simply curious and killing time, he arrived at Epcot, paid his money, held a ticket in his hand. And then — as he tells this story, his Disney-mania foundation myth, he gets wistful and a little giddy remembering the rush — he walked around Future World.
He heard what he would later call "bush music," happy tunes emanating from speakers hidden behind Disney's immaculately landscaped shrubs. He watched the crowd, which was light on this weekday. He sat on a bench, dumbfounded but alive, and stared up at Spaceship Earth, the huge, resplendent polyhedron.
"This," thought Werner, "is why I did drugs."
During his treatment, Werner had tried to catalog his emotions, taking stock of his elusive highs and his more persistent, searching lows. This feeling was new, though. He had seen the skyscrapers of New York, but this was somehow larger. Disney World existed for the sole purpose of enjoyment. Abandon was OK here, and it didn't require chemicals.
Before long, Werner would find a way to feed his habit and sustain a full-time Disney high. He made Disney his work. He began organizing Disney tours and, more influentially, established an online fan forum: the DIS boards at disboards.com, the internet home to hundreds of thousands of hard-core Disney fans.
Disney, when measured by revenue — $30-some billion per year — is the largest media company in the world. It has a market capitalization of $62 billion and subsidiary businesses that include radio, television, sports broadcasting, hotels, movie studios, and videogame developers. So Disney's individual theme-park visitors might seem like a minuscule part of the business. But taken together — as they always are, streaming through the gates in sweating masses — they're a tremendous source of cash.
Pete Werner and superfans like him make up a small but important fraction of the Disney audience. They pour roughly bazillions of dollars into the company coffers, whether it's by collecting Disney merchandise or returning to the safe confines of Disney parks whenever they need a lift.
So when Disney announced in 2009 that it would be starting its own "official" fan club and convention, offering a sanitized, controlled take on the fan experience, it stood to reason that these devotees would have some high expectations.
Werner's reaction? "D23 is bullshit."
For eons," said Walter Cronkite, "our planet has drifted as a spaceship through the universe. And for a brief moment, we have been its passengers." Werner had gotten up from his bench to board Spaceship Earth, his first Disney ride.
His blue Omnimover vehicle neared the top of its track inside the huge sphere, where an animatronic young man sat in front of a "Network Operations Center." Werner was carried upward into the top of the dome. Stars were everywhere, and a blue Planet Earth hovered amid the constellations.
The carriage squeaked and jerked and rotated slowly. Moving backward, it retreated down a ramp. Werner's back was pressed against the seat, his gaze angled upward at the receding world. The music swelled, and Cronkite spoke again: "Today, our search for understanding is unbounded by space and time. Centuries of information stand ready to reach us in an instant: our link with the past, our hope for the future."
After Werner returned from his business trip, he told everybody about his Epcot revelation and started planning to return the following year. His second trip only cemented his new obsession, and he started coming once a year, dragging along whomever he was dating. He would break up with at least one man who couldn't embrace Disney's appeal.
In 1998, Werner and his partner moved down to Orlando. They bought passes to the parks and kept exploring them until Werner's knowledge needed an outlet. The internet was just gaining popularity, and Werner learned HTML and created a personal website. That turned into an online Disney travel-planning guide, the DIS, which he approached with his usual obsession.
In November 1999, he launched a travel agency, Dreams Unlimited Travel, using the knowledge he had collected to sell tailored trips around Disney World's resorts. "We staffed it with Disney fans and taught them and ourselves to be travel agents," he recalls. He put ads for the travel agency on the discussion-board and travel-guide pages, and it's still the way he makes most of his money. Werner says his business has "grown by double digits" in recent years, save an 8 percent decline in last year's tough market.
Today, the DIS contains the world's largest online community of Disney fans. It has guides to each of the parks, a weekly podcast hosted by Werner and some of his dozen-odd staff, and up-to-the-minute news blogs. The core of the site is its discussion forums, the DIS boards. The focus is mainly Walt Disney World (Werner's first love), but there are discussion boards for everything from Disneyland Paris to losing weight. There are other sites on the web for hard-core Disney fans (notably MiceChat, based in California; Intercot, focusing on the ins and outs of Disney World; and AllEars.net, the evolution of a Disney fan Usenet group), but the DIS boards get a quarter-million visitors each week.
Unlike many other fan sites and communities on the internet, Werner says, his site remains dedicated mostly to travel-planning. Members share tips on everything from where to sit when you're dining alone to where the trash cans should be placed.
Sometimes they get off the computer and meet in person. To identify one another in real life, they don the unofficial signature color of the DIS boards: neon lime green. Before their Disney trip, they go to the Home Depot and grab Disney-brand paint chips in the shape of Mickey heads. Lime-Green Mickey Heads. LGMH, they call their insignia. They pin these chips to their clothes, backpacks, fanny packs, and electric scooters when they go to the parks.
Some fans also look for love on the boards (Werner and his staff discussed, at one point, whether to allow dating threads). Today, there are multiple Disney singles threads (although some of the more debaucherous members, who enjoyed heavy social drinking at Disney bars, split off from the group and started their own thread, the Singles Social Club). Singles plan meetups at Disney bars or under the "Partners" statue at Magic Kingdom that shows Walt holding Mickey's hand, pointing into the future. The site has been responsible for many weddings.
But Werner's dark past wasn't behind him. For a while, he struggled to balance it with the dual businesses of selling and critiquing the "Most Magical Place on Earth."
He relapsed and began drinking in 2001, when his father died and his relationship started falling apart. "The next eight years were a living hell," he says. "I was incapable of functioning without something in me."
All the while, he was moderating the boards and hosting the weekly "DIS Unplugged" podcast. In recordings from those years, Werner sounds distant, removed from the full enthusiasm of his current, sober self. On the podcasts, his rants became vicious, targeting whoever offended him that week: Disney, the Orlando Magic, Mayor "Buddy" Dyer.
Though he's sober now, he's still opinionated, and some of his old unsuppressed rage comes forth in diatribes against Disney management when he perceives it to have a condescending attitude toward hard-core fans.
When Werner sobered up again in 2009, he talked publicly about his addiction. He could no longer bear to balance Disney cheerfulness with dark retreat. But that same year, Disney did something to provoke the old Werner anger: The company decided to one-up him at his own game.
Doug Moore, 50, is a different kind of Disney fan. The kind that "snorts the pixie dust," as Werner says.
Every summer Sunday night of his childhood, Moore went to play in the yard while the grownups had cocktails, then joined his family for dinner and helped wash the dishes afterward. Then, like millions of other little boys and girls, he sat down in front of his grandmother's color television at 7 sharp to watch the Wonderful World of Disney.
Growing up in San Diego in the 1960s, he traveled with his family to Disneyland and listened to Disney's storybook records, reading along with the crackling recordings. All the while, Moore collected bits of trivia. His parents bought him trivia books: Disney, sports, movies. He remembered just about everything. Still does.
He was in the marching band at San Diego State, combining his zeal for performance with an all-American dorky wholesomeness. Meanwhile, he kept an eye on Disney. Walt had died back in '66, leaving Disney in a long state of flux and misdirection until Michael Eisner took over the year Moore graduated: 1984.
Eisner would vastly expand Disney's media dominion, buying up ABC and ESPN and releasing totems of cultural upbringing like the Little Mermaid and Aladdin during a thriving period of hand-painted animation that's known today as the "Disney Renaissance."
After college, Moore went to work at Edwards Theaters, a cinema chain based in Southern California. He became a local manager and attended company meetings in Orange County, 90 minutes to the north. If he had a bad week, he'd sneak off afterward to explore Disneyland for a few hours of respite.
He got married in 1985, and his daughter was born soon after. But the Disney-loving family man was not immune to darker urges. He started going to the Indian casinos around San Diego, spending hour upon hour at the seven-card-stud tables until his money was gone. "You get hooked on it, and you want it again, and you'll stay at the table and lose everything you've got," he recalls. After seven years of marriage, his wife called it quits and moved away.
Then, says Moore, eager to get to the good part of the story, "God intervened, and I won a small lottery: $2,100." He asked for permission to take the kids to Walt Disney World in Florida and invited his estranged wife to come along. They got back together. In 1998, they bought a house nearby in the Azalea Park neighborhood, where they live today.
Moore got a job that February as a monorail driver at Walt Disney World, working there for 13 years, until February 2011. During unexpected delays, he would quiz his passengers over the microphone.
"Who's your favorite mouse?"
"Mickey!" the children would cheer, as if on autopilot.
"But," asked Moore, his voice quickening, "what about Minnie, Gus Gus, Jaq, Suzy and Perla, Bernard and Bianca?"
For all his cheer, Moore isn't immune to the real world that impinges on Disney magic. Early this year, an exiting passenger dropped a jacket into the deep trench that runs alongside the high-voltage monorail track. The company had tightened its safety rules since a driver was killed in a head-on monorail collision in 2009. Moore was supposed to tell the customer "A manager will be in touch with you" and then report the incident. Instead, Moore decided to perform a simple act of kindness: He got out of the cab and fished the jacket out with a long-handled pair of pincers.
Disney found out and fired him.
Pete Werner was pissed as hell, like really stinking pissed, one morning in early March 2010. "There's only one news story we're going to talk about this week, folks," Werner said in his New Jersey brogue at the beginning of his Disney podcast.
Disney CEO Bob Iger had just been on The View to announce what the company was calling its first official fan community. For $75 a year, members would receive a membership card, four issues of a glossy magazine, access to limited-edition merchandise, and a small discount on a "D23 Expo" to be held, for the first time, in Anaheim, California, that September. Also, a certificate of membership "suitable for framing."
"The frame, by the way, is $90. I'm not kidding," announced Werner. "I'm not sure what they're smoking in Burbank, but they messed this up big-time."
Sharon Reedy, who lived in Coral Springs before moving north to Ocala (a quick 90 minutes from the parks), runs an online Florida residents' discussion group and a corresponding Facebook page. But the group's activity has waned in recent months, and she says tight budgets are one reason.
Reedy (who has no official connection with Reedy Creek Improvement District, the autonomous municipality through which Disney exerts full governmental control over the land it owns) says that many of her fellow Disney fans have curtailed their trips to the theme parks. "A lot of people had financial issues and couldn't afford it anymore," she says. That's another constant concern for the fans on the boards: the best ways to save money.
Disney announced D23 when the American economy was on its knees. Unemployment was at 8.5 percent and climbing, and a newly elected president was ordering up new stimuli. Disney had posted almost $10 billion in revenues for the first quarter of 2009. Nearly a third of that revenue came from its parks and resorts, the chief subject of Werner's fascination and the most discussed topic on the online boards. Still, after a six-month plummet, Disney stock was trading at its lowest price since 2003. Fans like Werner had to shell out more and more to get their fix, as ticket prices climbed year by year. An annual pass to Walt Disney World now costs $552 a year for an adult, or $414 for Florida residents. Werner says that as long as fans are willing to pay — which they are, apparently — the prices will continue to rise.
Sitting at his podcast microphone in March 2009, he addressed the company directly. "Are you even aware how difficult some of your most loyal fans are finding it to pay for their next theme park visit?... Do you have any idea that a large number of your fans have increasingly felt their business is underappreciated?"
Steven Clark, head of D23 since its inception, is one target of Werner's ire. Recently, Clark canceled a scheduled phone interview with New Times. In an email, he sent corporate-approved responses to written questions.
Responding to the gripe that D23 doesn't provide much benefit in return for its membership fee, he pointed out that Premium Annual Passholders, who pay around $100 more for access to extra theme parks around Walt Disney World, are entitled to certain discounts. He said that D23 members will soon have access to an expanded offering of events around the country.
After D23 was announced, Werner noted that Disney said it had looked to existing online communities for inspiration. "They must not have looked at ours," he thought.
Clark wrote, "At D23, we absolutely look at guest and member feedback in all forms, whether it's member surveys of our own to someone who takes the time to write us a letter or post in an online forum. We are lucky as a company to have so many passionate fans."
He did not directly respond to a question asking whether a public forum of millions of obsessive, opinionated fans is more of an asset or a liability to Disney.
Werner believes that his boards have changed the company's business forever, whether Disney execs acknowledge it or not. "Before the internet, you come to the parks, something's not right, you fill out a feedback form, and the only people who read that are people at Disney. Now you go to a website and you post on a board, and suddenly 10,000 people know what happened. And the louder that gets, the more likely Disney is to fix it."
The queue (that's line in Disney parlance) stretched on: men, women, children, strollers, wheelchairs, scooters. It started at the door of the Anaheim Convention Center Arena and spilled onto a vast, blue-carpeted convention floor. It passed through a retracta-belt corral with 60 switchbacks, past autographed original Mickey cels, past collectors and traders and entrepreneurs churning in the deep fiscal wake of all things Disney, past a ship's wheel from Pirates of the Caribbean, some pounding technology ("Come see yourself in 3D!"), and grownups playing games on Xbox Kinect.
The air smelled of popcorn and vinyl, and people in sneakers milled across the carpet at 2 o'clock in the afternoon on this exciting Friday. On a red carpet, the original Tinkerbell model signed photographs, and on a stage, Radio Disney's barely pubescent Zack Montana postured to a hip-hop track. It was August 19, the first day of the second biennial D23 Expo, "the ultimate Disney fan event." Disney had announced that it was expecting 45,000 attendees, yet the arena at the front of the line would hold only 4,500 people. Many eventually were turned away. Disney has not yet released actual attendance numbers for the expo.
For three days, Disney was king at the convention hall. Fans in costumes made the rounds, stopping for photographs. Disney theme music bah-bah-baaaaahed in the entrance hall. Area hotels were heavily booked. A presentation of future Walt Disney Studios movies featured surprise appearances by celebrities. Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. appeared for a preview of The Avengers, a product of Disney's recently acquired Marvel division. Jason Segel, Jennifer Garner, and Two and a Half Men's John Cryer also stopped by.
In just a few minutes, the Walt Disney Co. was set to reveal details about future changes to its parks and resorts in front of the lucky, merry fans who had lined up in time. Finally, the crowd waiting for the Parks and Resorts presentation surged into the large arena. Guests answered trivia questions as they waited for the show to begin. Then Tom Staggs, the company's director of theme parks, came out onto the stage. Mickey played a set on the drums, movie clips were shown, a boy received a free ticket to Disney's new resort in Hawaii, and the company revealed...
"They didn't release any more information than they did two years ago," T.J. Alioto said afterward. Alioto is a fan from Wisconsin who had paid $1,000 for a "Sorcerer" pass that enabled him to skip to the front of the line.
"There was nothing that was exclusive," agreed his friend Thad Parker, who had come up from San Diego.
This is what Disney was dealing with: fans who were already experts. They wanted something new and exclusive, not just a sales pitch.
As afternoon turned to evening outside the fluorescent confines of the conference center, Doug Moore — who had shown up at the convention, spirits undampened, despite his termination as a monorail driver — prepared for the trivia championship. In two rounds, contestants would answer questions of increasing difficulty about all manner of Disney facts.
Moore wasn't concerned about the difficulty of the questions. The dude lives trivia. What worried him was the good chance that he'd miss what would happen in the room immediately after the tournament: an intimate musical appearance by Dick Van Dyke and the Vantastix. A new line had already formed in the hallway for access to his show. By the time the trivia contestants got back in line, they would be too late, Moore worried.
Who was accidentally left behind at the station when Richard Nixon took the inaugural Disneyland monorail ride in 1959? His Secret Service detail. Easy.
During a break between two rounds, Moore returned to the backroom. He looked up, and a spry old man was walking past him. It was Dick Van Dyke. "Sometimes God smiles on you," Moore said later.
Someone stepped on Belle's golden ball gown on Saturday morning, breaking some of the seams, so Cinderella's Fairy Godmother knelt behind her in the lobby of the convention center Marriott, carefully restitching the bunches of silk in her elegant train. The custom-made gown, explained the Fairy Godmother, more precisely followed the movie version of Beauty and the Beast than the Disney-approved costumes used during character appearances at the parks.
"Obviously, a bunch of executives don't know anything about dresses," she complained. Her real name is Lisa Fabio, and she's a designer in Southern California who makes costumes for "cosplay," the branch of fandom that involves dressing up, to the most exact degree possible, as a fictional character.
Belle was the brown-haired Michelle Moreno, Fabio's friend and fellow cosplayer. "I'm mostly here as a fan," she said, holding still. "We love Disney, but we're also actors. All of us want to work for Disney."
Two little girls wandered up to Belle, clinging to her dress. "You want to take a picture?" asked the princess. The children nodded, and Mom snapped a couple of shots.
As they were disbanding, a male business traveler in a polo shirt came from the elevators. "Can I get one too?" he asked, handing his smartphone to a bystander. "I want to show the guys in the office."
Across the street on the ground floor of the convention center, a crowd had formed for the big arena event of the afternoon: a screening of a new 3-D version of The Lion King. The hoi polloi gathered in the main queue section, while a smaller line formed near a set of side doors for a select group: the 50 people who had paid $1,000 for Expo tickets at the "Sorcerer" level.
Winn Gillette, who had been across the street at Disneyland on the day it opened in 1955 and was a charter member of D23, was also first in line among the gathering Sorcerers. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a summer hat. He was annoyed that anyone who had gotten media credentials (and free admission) was ushered into presentations at the front of the lines, before even the Sorcerers and their slightly less-exclusive brethren, the 250 Premiere Package ticket holders, who had paid $500 each. He was sick of seeing people — including one family of mom, dad, and son — with press passes, cutting him in line.
"When you promote that extra access, it should mean something," Gillette griped.
The media armada appeared to be part of Disney's public-relations strategy. For the price of a few dozen free tickets, Disney could unleash through these "exclusive" presentations the next round of Disney news and rumor to scores of websites, YouTube channels, discussion boards, and podcasts. Staff from the California-based MiceChat site manned a booth on the show floor and roamed the halls wearing custom name tags. Independent bloggers tweeted #D23Expo updates to their followers. Before a presentation on the art in the upcoming Pixar movie Brave, production designer Tia Kratter said, "We ask that you please keep these images private and not photograph them, because we're going to show you a lot." Yet throughout the presentation, the screens of digital cameras lit up continually, and no one seemed to mind.
But one person was notably absent: Pete Werner. Lime-green Mickey heads were everywhere, but DIS had no table at the convention.
Later that evening, as vacuums prowled the show floor, a crowd emerged from the last presentation of the day: a panel of Disney "Imagineers," who design and build the whole elaborate show of parks, cruise ships, and resorts.
Andre Willey, a computer programmer from the United Kingdom wearing a black T-shirt with an airbrushed Walt and Mickey, and Trey Walters, a fluid engineer from Colorado wearing a lime-green Mickey head, stopped to talk by a railing over the atrium. After a day of waiting in lines together, the two men realized they had already been in contact for years on the boards.
Walters is "HydroGuy," with 9,967 posts (as of presstime) on the disboards. His magnum opus is a post titled "World of Color Superthread," which explains all aspects of the light-and-water show at Disney's California Adventure Park. Willey, with 1,857 posts (and more on another British Disney fan site), runs PortOrleans.org, an unofficial guide to the resort that he, his wife, and his daughter visit every year.
Willey and Walters were just two of hundreds of online fans who traveled to the Expo — and they didn't share Werner's negative view of the proceedings. In fact, they wondered why he wasn't there.
"Someone should ask Pete Werner why there's no DIS booth at D23," said Walters. "Tell him to get real. He should be here if he wants his website to succeed."
Willey agreed. "There are 50,000 people here who are into Disney. He should take advantage of it."
"Why didn't I have a table there? Because I didn't want to be there," said Werner, digging into a Monte Cristo sandwich at his favorite restaurant in Epcot, Les Chefs de France. The room filled up with people taking refuge from the pouring rain outside. "And you know what? You're not the biggest fan club, or the biggest anything, if my site isn't represented there. If they had reached out to us and other fan communities when this was launching, and said let's work together on this, I'd have been right on board, absolutely. But they didn't."
Werner wore a black polo, embroidered with the Shanghai Disney logo, and a pendant necklace. He enjoys his food, his coffee, his cigarettes, his camera equipment.
"If your life hasn't been picture-perfect, you find something to grab onto. One of the things I learned with my addiction was the energy behind how I did drugs and drank and self-destructed, that energy's always there. It's just a question of how I choose to move it."
And when things get really bad?
"When I need to be wrapped up in that larger-than-life, everything's-happy, everything's-cool feeling, I can come here," he said. "There are so many ways that has saved my life."
He paid the bill, showing his $75-a-year Tables in Wonderland card for a 20 percent discount, and wandered outside. The rain had slowed to a light drizzle. He took his new camera out of the bag and snapped pictures of France, Morocco, Japan. Walking along the promenade in the World Showcase, he noticed a couple of people dressed head to toe in neon green. DISers?
"Probably," he said begrudgingly. "I want to be on the record: I had nothing to do with that color. It's like 1983 called — it wants DayGlo back! And poor Home Depot, losing all those paint chips."
If you're not a smoker or friend of one, you probably don't notice all the smoking areas tucked away under trees or behind structures at Epcot. But Werner knows them all. He stopped at one of them, near the American Adventure Pavilion, and lit up.
He recalled that he was always a little annoyed by the children in the parks — the shin-attacking strollers, the red-faced screaming fits — until he brought his own 2-year-old niece. For a moment, his critical affect evaporated. "She won't remember much of it, but watching her reactions, seeing it through her eyes, was a whole different experience," he says. "If you want the real experience, come here with someone you love."
Moore, the monorail driver, didn't win the trivia contest in California — he came in second place, after a last-minute upset. Still, the Dick Van Dyke sighting and the glimpses of Disney future that he saw at the presentations were enough to tide him over for a happy weekend.
Moore and Werner may have never met (and Moore doesn't visit fan sites), but they are two sides of a coin that's flowing straight into Disney's coffers. Despite their individual gripes against the Mouse, neither looks ready to give up the Disney-infused life — and the thrill of showing it to other people — anytime soon.
"Yeah, I'm a Disney person," says Moore. "You turn on the news today and see the terrible wars, and people are dying... I don't want to hear that. I know it's there, but I have faith in mankind. This is the way the world's supposed to be."
After being fired for picking the guest's jacket out of the monorail tracks, Moore filed an appeal with Disney's employment office. His union representative is currently negotiating with the company, and if Moore doesn't get his job back, a lawsuit could be in the works. He'll do what it takes to get back in the magic. He wants to stay on the inside.
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.