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Thursday Treasures

December 22, 2011

'I never get to do anything!' That's a phrase you're likely to hear from a child in pretty much any given scenario. Well, when you're dealing with a manchild such as myself who happens to be an extreme Disney nerd, you'll find that exclamation quite common. You see, despite such an esteemed title, this Disney nerd hasn't had a great many opportunities to experience the magic of Walt Disney World ' at least, not in the way he (aka I) prefer. Usually when I visit a Disney park, I tend to take on the persona of a ragdoll. I'm thrown about from attraction to attraction with nary a moment's rest and with little say in the matter. My friends are so determined to blitz to the most popular rides that not only do we often neglect my more charming favorites (pretty much anything in Fantasyland), but I don't have the opportunity to really take in what Disney has to offer. That changed this year.

I got to visit Walt Disney World not once, not twice, but thrice this year (and for those of you who wonder who the heck says 'thrice' nowadays, I believe I just did). I'm not here to tell you about those other two trips, however. My third trip is the one this story is about and the one you're likely to find the most interesting. It was my 10th visit to the 'most magical place on earth,' and in a fitting way to commemorate that, it so happened to become my first D23 event: Magic and Merriment.

The Magic and Merriment event began the morning of December 9 when my friend Reuben and I made our way to the World Showplace pavilion in Epcot. After standing in a line that moved as quickly as an Ang Lee film, we finally made it inside and registered for the proceedings. Waiting for us inside the large, Christmas-decorated room were buffet tables hosting various breakfast foods. Reuben, I'm sure, will discuss those in detail at a later time (yes, Kids: he's THAT Reuben from our very own Sunday Brunch articles). While he can surely do a thorough analysis of our morning's content, all I can say is, 'Mmm, tasty colors.'

Sitting down at a table with four other D23 members, we made some small talk before the presentations began. The theme of the presentation was 'Sense of the Holidays,' and each panel was associated with one of the five senses. As they didn't really tell us which panel was associated with each sense, I'll do my best to match them up. The first was 'Holiday D'cor' with Imagineer Alex Caruthers and Holiday D'cor Manager Lisa Borotkanics, which I suppose falls under 'sight.' The pair got up on the stage our tables were surrounding and discussed the Christmas decorations you see in various Disney parks and resort.

The most interesting story for me was the drama caused by ABC's annual telecast of Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Parade some years back. ABC decided they wanted a great money shot of Main Street filmed up where the train station is. Unfortunately, the American flag was in their way. They casually told the Imagineers to relocate it, not realizing what an effort that actually was. The flagpole wasn't designed to be mobile, so after considerable effort in removing it, they ran into the challenge of just where to place it. It was thought the area by City Hall would be ideal'except there was the famous 'Sharing the Magic' statue of Roy Disney and Minnie Mouse in the way. So it was decided the statue would be moved towards the center of the street while the flagpole (now designed to be mobile) would be moved to the statue's area by City Hall, leaving the area wide open for the ABC crew. That wasn't the end of the Imagineers' woes, though, as drama erupted over which way the eagle on the top of the pole was to be facing (for those who don't know, it's supposed to be point towards Washington D.C.). This was just one of several anecdotes shared that made me appreciate the hard work Disney cast members put into creating holiday festivities. Following this, we were each given a different ornament replica of the ones found on the Main Street tree.

The next panel was 'History of the Candlelight Processional' with Disney Archivist Steven Vagnini (the 'sound' aspect of the senses, I presume). While the previous presentation mostly had the participants talking on stage, Vagnini was accompanied by a slideshow that was projected onto two screens on either side of the stage. He told us how the Candlelight Processional actually started off in Disneyland with local high school students making up a living Christmas tree. This continued for several years before Disney's own cast members got involved and turned the presentation into a caroling procession that finally became the official Candlelight Processional in 1958. Many fascinating photos from both the Disneyland and Walt Disney World versions over the years were shown and accompanied by various trivia facts such as Cary Grant holding the record for the most appearances in the show. To go along with the 'sound' motif, we were given one of two Disney Christmas CDs that featured early 90s read-alongs accompanied with songs. Reuben and I received 'Ariel's Christmas Under the Sea' while others got 'Mickey's Christmas Around the World.' The CD actually brought back great memories for me as I used to own the read-along book and cassette when I was a child (a real child, mind you, not a manchild).

Following this was 'Creation of the Cinderella Castle Dream Suite' (which I believe is the 'touch' panel). Imagineer Gary Landrum, like the presenter before him, had a slideshow to work with throughout the whole presentation. He pointed how much he and his team studied the artwork for Cinderella, not just in the final film but also Mary Blair's concept art. In fact, they decided that since royalty often would commission a particular artist to be official one for the royal family, that Mary Blair would have that honor by having her concept pieces displayed throughout the suite. Many design choices from both her and from Dorothea Redmond's artwork used for the castle mosaic murals downstairs were implemented into room. Unbelievably, the imagineers only had about one year to complete the project, and Disney actually announced the suite in a press release before even telling their own staff. Other topics such as the challenge to embed modern technology in a sort of Victorian style were also touched upon. As our 'touch' gifts, we got a red scarf with the Magic and Merriment logo on it along with a commemorative patch.

Then came the part of the presentation lineup I had been looking forward to the most: 'The Walt Disney Christmas Show' with Kathryn Beaumont. To make this the 'taste' aspect of the presentations, we were given sugar cookies with green frosting and sprinkles cut in the shape of Christmas trees. I inhaled mine and bounced repeatedly in my seat, eager for the show to start. The program had not been seen by the general public since its original airdate of December 25, 1951 on CBS. For those who've seen Disney's first television special, 'One Hour in Wonderland' found on the Alice in Wonderland DVD and Blu-ray, will find 'The Walt Disney Christmas Show' familiar. It starts with the same party room from that special with the same sort of jovial atmosphere. This time, though, we see Walt in front of an easel that's holding oversized sketches of different Peter Pan characters. He's surrounded by eager children wishing to know more, and they're joined by Kathryn Beaumont dressed as her character of Wendy Moira Angela Darling (though Wendy's enough), Paul Collins as John Darling, and Tommy Luske as Michael. Appearing with a crow comes Peter Pan himself, Bobby Driscoll.

Kathryn approaches the Magic Mirror (played once again by her co-star Hans Conried, the voice of Captain Hook) and asks him to present a clip for the attendees. He starts with the classic Mickey Mouse short 'The Band Concert' from 1935. Following this, the children at the party eagerly give suggestions to the Mirror as to what he should play next. He's obviously proud of the Disney film he co-starred in, for he chooses to play 'Whistle While You Work' from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Because there are so many international children at the party, they request him to play the clip in their own native tongue. This proves to be a challenge for the befuddled Mirror, but after some goading from Bobby/Peter, he rises to the occasion and plays the scene in 10 different languages. The children become so excited after seeing the clip that they request to see the entire film, and the Mirror is just about to oblige until a stern look from Walt reminds him to inform audiences of Snow White's forthcoming re-issue in theaters. The group remains satisfied regardless save for one little girl from India whose language had been snubbed. Unable to resist her sad puppy eyes, the Mirror relents and presents a clip from Bambi in Hindi. The scene, showing Bambi's exploration of the forest for the first time, is bizarre because unlike the usual Disney dub, the score has been completely repurposed to the style of music found in India. It is unclear whether this is indicative of the actual Hindi mix or whether it was done just for the show.

While the Indian girl is appreciative of the gesture, the rest of the children still want more. Walt informs them all that the Mirror has been working hard all evening and that he could use a break. The Mirror uses this window of opportunity to bemoan how overworked and underpaid he is and that he has but one request. Indicating a mysterious box lying on the table, he has Walt open it to reveal a small hand mirror inside. It is explained that this mirror is the Mirror's nephew, Willoughby, who's trying to break into show business. The nephew is played by none other than Bill Thompson, the voice of Smee. Walt wryly decides to give him an audition right there on the spot, but the spluttering Willoughby has difficulty performing. A coaching session follows where the Magic Mirror sharply instructs him on how to summon the powers that be, and while Willoughby's version of storm clouds sounds more like Mr. Toad's motorcar engine, he manages to conjure up the 1936 short 'Donald and Pluto.' It is with this that the special ends, though not before we reminded of two things: 1) that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is being re-released to theaters in the coming months, and 2) that this special has been brought to you by Johnson & Johnson, the leading brand in baby skincare. While I enjoyed the special and was ecstatic to see something so rare (at least until it inevitably shows up on the Peter Pan Blu-ray), I was a bit shocked at how short it was. I honestly don't think it ran very much over 30 minutes, 40 tops. This is odd considering 'One Hour in Wonderland' was about 55 minutes, and the closing remarks announcer on 'The Walt Disney Christmas Show' makes reference to 'the past hour.' I suppose in the year between both specials, commercial breaks significantly increased.

With the close of the special came the real treat: the Q&A discussion with Kathryn Beaumont. She sat on stage with the host who asked her about her work on both Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Beaumont reminisced about the first time she ever met Walt Disney. She was 10 and was invited to meet him in his office. The whole thing was treated as a publicity event as several photographers were there to snap photos. Walt ignored them and invited Kathryn to sit with him on his couch. He pulled out a single volume that held both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, proceeding to go through each chapter and explaining what he intended on keeping and what he was throwing out. Beaumont recalls feeling very at ease at that point because he made her feel like she was a part of the creative process since the beginning.

She went on to discuss the crazy contraptions used on her while she was filming the live-action reference footage. One time, they fully constructed a model of the White Rabbit's house for her to get inside of for the scene where Alice grows inside his home. The animators argued that the model was useless because all they could see were Kathy's arms and legs. They needed to be able to see her torso and waist so they could fully understand how contorted it would be inside the house. So the props department fashioned a bare wooden frame in the shape of the house and slipped it over Kathy. This made it easier for the animators to determine how Alice would move.

Beaumont didn't really have time to let the weight of the Alice publicity sink in. After the Friday premiere of the film, she went back to the studio the following Monday to record as Wendy for Peter Pan. She was terrified about working with Hans Conried because she was a fan of his radio work for years. He was, perhaps, the only voice artist she worked with whom she had a great familiarity with beforehand. Luckily for her, Conried was very accommodating and always worked closely with her during the recording sessions.

In regards to the two Christmas specials, Beaumont revealed that they were both filmed in the summer of their respective years. Because of that, she was able to spend a lot of time with the children who played extras in each, perhaps moreso than with co-stars like Bobby Driscoll with whom she could only spend a short while with before each of them was whisked away to school each day. After filming 'The Walt Disney Christmas Show,' she went back to the soundstage to get another look at the decorations. She was disappointed to see that the decorations were already in the process of being stored away. One of the crew members there noticed this and asked her if she'd like to take some of the ornaments since there were no future plans for them, anyway. She was delighted at the opportunity and took several which she still has to this day.

Afterwards, she accepted questions from the audience. At hearing this, my heart stopped, and my mind went racing trying to think of something, anything just for the sake of speaking with her. It seems my mind works faster when my heart fails me, for I ended up being the first person to raise my hand with a question. In my excitement to get the microphone handed to me, I spoke too closely into it, resulting in a rather loud and echoey, 'Hi, Kathryn.' Ignoring the few background chuckles, I spoke far enough from the mic to ask her if she remembers recording any scenes or songs for either Alice or Peter than didn't make it into either film. The same people who were snickering a few seconds earlier were now going, 'Oooh' at my question, something no one else apparently thought about. Kathy told me that she recorded a ton of material that ended up not getting used, but that they weren't scenes so much as lines. She said the reason for this was because unlike today where actors are recorded separately, all the actors in a given scene shared a booth with separate microphones. Because of this, a lot of improvising went on, especially on Alice in Wonderland, and the screenplays were flexible enough that almost every take yielded something different.

Once the 'Sense of the Holidays' presentation ended, we were told we could get a photo with Kathryn. This was the biggest reason I attended this event since, as many of you reading this are probably aware, I'm an obsessive Alice in Wonderland fan. While she attends Disney events all the time, she rarely does so in Florida, so the chance to meet her on what would be my 10th Disney trip, my first D23 event, and the year of her film's 60th anniversary was too perfect to pass up. I had bought myself a litho of Alice falling down the rabbit hole for her to sign. I decided on that particular one because I wanted her to sign an actual still from the film, not an artist's interpretation of a scene. The rabbit hole scene was ideal because not only is it iconic, but it was an image that allowed Alice to be in the spotlight without dozens of Wonderland denizens overshadowing her.

As I made my way in line, the photographer, Heather, said that Kathryn wouldn't be able to sign autographs as it would hold up the line. I understood and put my litho away. After several people came and went, it was my turn. Here I was, meeting my first Disney legend, and it was someone who has had a massive influence on me for as long as I could remember. Kathryn smiled and greeted me as I approached her. I told her what a huge fan I was and showed her the Mad Hatter artwork on my t-shirt that has been obscured by my event pass. She chuckled as she noted how cute she thought the shirt was and how it needed to be seen for the photo. I swung my pass around my neck and posed for the photo. As I thanked her, I told her what an honor it was for me to finally meet her. She thanked me very much for the compliment, and as Reuben went up to her to take his photo, I thought to myself that if I couldn't get her autograph, at least I got a photo.

We wandered around the room for a bit and took some snapshots before we noticed two girls were waiting by the Kathryn Beaumont line some ways off, and one of them had a massive poster of Alice sleeping under the tree. We realized that they were going to dare to ask for Kathryn's autograph once the line died down, so Reuben and I decided to take the risk and wait next to the girls. We figured we'd let them be guinea pigs and go first that way they could be turned down instead of us. As the last person posed for a photo and left, the girls approached the photographers and asked about the autograph. I could tell by the look of unease on cast members' faces that they weren't too crazy about the idea, and they admitted that Kathryn needed to leave for lunch (as if someone as superhuman as Kathryn Beaumont really needed nourishment). They asked her, and to our relief, Kathryn said she'd gladly sign some autographs. She made her way to one of the tables, and after chatting a bit with the girls, invited Reuben and me over.

I felt rather guilty standing there as I knew I was holding her up from lunch, and I apologized for imposing. She then said, 'Don't worry about it' with an expression that seemed to suggest that it was the Disney cast members who were making the big deal about it and not her. I told her how much both Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan meant to me, Alice especially, which I told her was my favorite Disney film. She looked up in surprise and said, 'Really? Now that's interesting because most boys I talk to tend to prefer Peter Pan.' 'Because of the adventure and piracy,' I answered. She nodded, and I said that while Peter Pan was up there on my favorite Disney film list, Alice appealed to me more because of its surrealism and wit. 'It is really witty, isn't it?' she replied with a twinkle in her eye. She then asked if I wanted her to write anything in particular on the litho. I was tempted to give her my name to personalize it, but I felt as though I was already becoming the annoying fanboy who wouldn't go away, so I told her to sign it however she preferred. She signed her name and put 'Alice' beneath in a loopy signature that was actually rather similar to the way the character signs it in the parks. I walked away with my signed litho in hand unsure of whether to bounce off the walls or collapse on the spot, so I just sort of walked away in a contented daze.

For the next few hours, we had free time to explore Epcot. While there was a lounge just for us on the second story of Norway's Maelstrom building, we missed it while checking out attractions. Well, I should say we half missed it. We figured we missed the period to enjoy the refreshments up in the lounge based on the time schedule we were given, but Reuben and I decided to give it a shot, regardless. We asked a cast member about it, but they stared at us blankly before asking another cast member. A few minutes went by, and suddenly they were pointing us where to go. The two of us went up a hidden elevator located near the gift shop and found ourselves facing a very elegant and expansive ballroom-looking locale. Unfortunately, all of the people and refreshments were gone, but Reuben and I felt privileged just to be up there. It was a bit surprising how easy it was for them to let us up there unescorted. While we felt special for getting to explore the area on our own, we didn't realize just how special we really were. After we came back down, the cast member we had asked earlier asked us how was it up there. She had never seen it, and apparently no one has recently. The lounge used to be open for cast members to enjoy during their breaks, but a few of them abused the privilege via horseplay, and now the area is shut off to pretty much anyone. Reuben and I looked at each stunned at just how exclusive that area truly was.

Later that evening, we headed to the Magic Kingdom for Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. Anyone who's been to this event knows what to expect: free hot chocolate and cookies, 'Celebrate the Season' castle show, Mickey's Once Upon a Christmastime Parade, and special Christmas versions of 'The Magic, the Memories, and You' and 'Wishes!' fireworks spectacular. So what was different about it for people attending D23's Magic and Merriment event? We got a reserved area for us in Liberty Square by Sleepy Hollow that gave us a great view of the parade. They also brought the cookies to us instead of us having to go get them as the designated sections. We ran into Heather, the photographer from earlier, again. She had us take a picture as if we were crazy excited to be there. We were, of course, but walking around a Disney park all day can make you look a bit ragged, hence the instructions. The photo ended up on the official D23 website, so either Disney found the two of us a glamorous representation of their fanbase, or they were so horrified by what they had seen that they figured someone could use it for one of those prank videos where you stare a still image for a while before something terrifying jumps at you. I'm inclined to think the former, and that's what I'm sticking to.

We later caught an enjoyably campy show in Tomorrowland called 'A Totally Tomorrowland Christmas' in which Stitch attempts a Lock-Shock-and-Barrel by kidnapping Santa Claus (Buzz Lightyear and Mike Wazowski also made appearances). While enjoying it all amidst a cool evening breeze, I got to meet my two favorite princesses (Cinderella and Belle) and their beaus (Prince Charming and the Beast). Cinderella pointed out to me the fact that we're technically neighbors since I live in Florida, and Belle invited me over to her library to share a book sometime. Character meeting is one of those things I usually don't get to do while visiting the parks since the people I go with don't care for it much. That made the two meetings very memorable.

Since this was my first time at a Disney park at Christmas time, what was common place for many people was new and special for me. Seeing the dream lights on Cinderella castle gave me chills, and the numerous decorations on Main Street were almost overwhelming. It's an overused adjective by Disney's marketing team, but Walt Disney World is a magical place. I always thought it felt even more magical at night for some reason, and seeing it at night with all of the holiday splendor increased the magic quotient by several notches. As snow fell on me while walking down Main Street, I reflected upon my day and decided that this was one of the best trips to Walt Disney World I had ever made, and it was only halfway over'


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