While the Disney brand is best known for its family-oriented vacation opportunities, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts around the globe offers a number of inventive meeting and event spaces for groups of all sizes. Courtesy of Disney Destinations, Convene recently trekked to Anaheim, California, for a long weekend to attend D23 Expo — the “ultimate Disney fan event,” held every other year — as well as to learn how the company’s original 1955 Disneyland Resort is appealing to event planners in 2017 and beyond. Although it was strictly business, there was plenty of magic to go around.
YESTERDAY IN TOMORROWLAND
Once trip guests arrived at the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa — our luxury accommodations for the three-night stay — Disney cast members escorted our jet-lagged selves on a short walk to Disneyland Resort, where we encountered our first event-space offering of the trip: Starcade, located in the park’s futuristic Tomorrowland area. Although the space — formerly a video arcade — is the park’s newest event space, the evening we spent there was all about honoring the past.
Before dinner began, guests were given the chance to take pictures with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, an original Walt Disney character who predates Mickey Mouse. After the photo op, we sat down in front of a cutout recreation of Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles, where “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” premiered in 1937. The nostalgia continued as we feasted on many of Walt Disney’s favorite foods — macaroni and cheese with panko crust, roasted chicken, mini baked potatoes, chicken-fried steak medallions, and more. As guests ate, Disney sketch artist and historian Stacia Martin recounted the story of Walt Disney’s road to success, and drew some of his most popular characters right before our eyes.
After a night of reminiscing about the Walt Disney Company’s beginnings, we were whisked over to a prime viewing location for the classic 1972 Main Street Electrical Parade — a fan-favorite nighttime program that ran through the end of August — as well as the park’s nightly reworks show, held over Sleeping Beauty Castle.
LEGENDS AND THRILLS
The next morning, after pastries and an oatmeal brûlée with Donald Duck in the 3,021-square-foot Crystal Cove Room — housed in Paradise Pier Hotel, another of Disneyland Resort’s three centrally located hotels — we made our way to the Anaheim Convention Center, currently undergoing an expansion, to experience D23 Expo. Celebrities and fans alike gather at D23 for Disney movie announcements, trailer releases, and park updates.
Before even entering the convention center, it was clear how passionate D23-goers are, with lines of attendees dressed as Disney princesses, Star Wars characters, or a mash-up of the two—Boba Fett Rapunzel was spotted walking around — wrapped around the entirety of the building, waiting to get inside. There was no need for us to worry about lines, however, as we had reserved seats for the Disney Legends Awards Ceremony, where the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, were honored for their contributions to the brand. Julie Taymor, director of the Broadway production of “The Lion King,” was highlighted last, and was surprised — along with the rest of the audience — with a special performance from the hit musical’s cast.
We filled up on chicken and steak at Morton’s Steakhouse, just a short walk from the Anaheim Convention Center, before making our way back to D23 for another session — “Pirates of the Caribbean: 50 Years of Swashbuckling Adventures” — to celebrate the classic ride’s golden anniversary. The whirlwind day continued back at Disney- land Resort’s second, much younger theme park, California Adventure, where we were free to explore for a few hours before meeting at Disney Theatre for a night of bacon-themed treats. By day, the theater houses a children’s show, “Disney Junior Dance Party!,” but at night it can be transformed into a vibrant event space perfect for receptions.
Of course, our Disney hosts couldn’t let us end the day without a touch of magic. After munching on pork sliders and wedge salads, we made our way over to the World of Color Dessert Party, a VIP viewing experience for California Adventure’s late-night water and light spectacular, “World of Color,” while enjoying an assortment of cookies and macaroons. Before resting up for the next full day of events, those brave enough in the group took on “Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: BREAKOUT!,” one of the park’s hottest attractions, which just opened in May after undergoing a transformation from “The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror” into a colorful, Marvel Studios–themed thrill ride.
We kicked off our final day in Anaheim noshing on eggs in the Grand Californian’s 11,900-square-foot Sequoia Ballroom before being taken to the second day of D23 Expo. There, we had time to explore the expo floor, where the “Galaxy of Stories” pavilion offered the first peek at the new “Star Wars”– themed attractions set to debut in Disney World and Disneyland in 2019, as well as “The Lion King 360 VR Experience,” which places users right on the musical’s stage during a 90-second performance of its opening number.
But the main event of the day was the Walt Disney Parks & Resorts Presentation, where Parks & Resorts Chairman Bob Chapek gave attendees lucky enough to make it into the coveted session an exclusive look at updates to the brand’s many theme-park locations around the globe. Chapek also surprised the roughly 7,000 attendees gathered in Hall D23 with tickets for a preview of “Fantasmic!” — one of Disneyland’s most popular shows, featuring Sorcerer Mickey — which wasn’t set to reopen for another two days.
We were also surprised with tickets for that night to the nighttime show in the original Disneyland park, which features reworks and other pyrotechnics, water effects, and one mighty intimidating animatronic dragon. But before that last show of our trip, we saw what a luxurious evening reception in the Sequoia Ballroom looks like, featuring candlelight, lush greens, and signature green Tinker-tini drinks.
As we ate springtime vegetables, roasted chicken, and feta-stuffed lamb meatballs before our last night in Disneyland, we were treated to one final surprise: a visit from our gracious hosts, Mickey and Minnie. It was the exact touch of hospitality you expect when visiting a Disney resort, and a magical way to conclude a three-day extravaganza of meeting experiences.