Behind the scenes at Disney's first fan convention

At the D23 Expo, 'Mickey Mouse Club' takes on a whole new meaning.

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By Richard Siklos, editor at large

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ANAHEIM, Calif.(Fortune) -- Last Friday, Johnny Depp came onto a stage at the Anaheim Convention Center and wowed the crowd by appearing in full costume as Captain Jack Sparrow, the star of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. On the same stage, actors John Travolta and Nicholas Cage dropped by, and singer Miley Cyrus performed -- all surprises for star-struck fans who bought tickets to attend "D23 Expo", Walt Disney's first-ever in-house convention for its faithful.

To me, this conjured dj vu: Where had I seen this before? Oh, yes, the very same stars, including Depp as Captain Jack, had appeared at a private presentation the Disney Studio held late last year for journalists and analysts. But of course, this was the whole point of D23 -- a chance for real people, folks who have nothing to do with the media spindustrial complex, to get up close to their idols, go behind the scenes, and get the lowdown on what is coming next across Disney's vast film, TV, Web, resort, travel and consumer products divisions.

It was an interesting experiment in one of the few burgeoning trends in media today, a move toward selling already-loyal customers premium memberships that offer access to things they wouldn't normally see. It was a small glimpse at how an industry hungry for growth is trying new ways to find it. And it gave new meaning to the term "Mickey Mouse Club."

The broad concept behind D23 -- the 23 is a reference to 1923, the year young Walt left Kansas and arrived in Hollywood -- was to create an official fan club for all things Disney. D23 Expo is the company's own version of Comic-Con,the geekfest held in San Diego each summer that in recent years has been pretty much co-opted by the Hollywood studios who use it as a venue to hawk their biggest projects and stars -- many that have not a whit to do with comic books -- in front of an influential young audience and a boatload of press.

D23 Expo, which ended its four-day debut yesterday, was essentially Disney-Con -- and anyone could attend for $37 a day or $81 for the whole event (and members of the D23 club, which was founded earlier this year, get a discount.)

Because of its theme parks in particular, brand affinity is an area where Disney thinks it holds a clear advantage over its peers. Once, when I mentioned a rival movie studio to a senior Disney executive, he replied "there is a difference between a brand and a logo."

And it's hard to bet against Disney right now, which holds the mantle as the world's largest media company with a market valuation of nearly $53 billion. It is using that size to its advantage, recently agreeing to buy Marvel Entertainment -- the comic book company now churning out box office hits like Iron Man and Spider-Man -- for $4 billion. (It also announced a deal last week with fantasy-film director Guillermo Del Toro, adding even more heft to the idea that Disney is aggressively going after the young male market.)

I strolled D23 Expo on Saturday, the third day of the event, and probably the biggest in terms of attendance. (Officially, the company would only say that "tens of thousands" were on hand).

Having written extensively about Disney, it was interesting to see disparate elements of what I've observed internally at the company -- such as showrooms of Disney-branded furniture and folks from its hush-hush "Imagineering" division that builds theme-park attractions -- assembled in one place.

The convention floor itself did not feel crowded and was lower-key than you might expect, though there was a mini-stampede at a booth when a plate of mouse-ear-shaped chicken nuggets came out. Some exhibits were better than others (a shout-out to the the Lego mural and booth for "Lost University", a clever new online spin-off of the hit TV show on Disney's ABC network.)

Amid all the Disney and Pixar fare you'd expect stood a fairly anachronistic white "Action News" van from ABC's owned and operated Fresno, Ca. TV station tucked next to a far more heavily trafficked interactive games area. "We're just happy to be here," said the man minding the van.

Notably absent from the festivities was ESPN, the sports programming juggernaut that accounts for roughly a third of Disney's profits. There was, however, a subtle nod to Disney's partner in ESPN, 20% owner Hearst Corp., which also is a partners with Disney on other cable channels including A&E and Lifetime: signage on a barbecue concession outside noted that it served only "grass-fed beef from Hearst Ranch".

Saturday night there was a live auction that included a holiday dinner party at the corporate commissary in Burbank. During the day, the big event was a presentation by Jay Rasulo, the head of Disney's parks and resorts division.

During it, the arena attached to the convention center was nearly filled with several thousand people who hooted and applauded at every item Rasulo unveiled -- from new attractions at Disney's various theme parks to the pending arrival of two new Disney cruise ships. Star Wars storm troopers joined Rasulo onstage when he concluded by announcing a major upgrade a longstanding attraction related to the film at Disneyland.

Sitting there, I couldn't help but marvel that the crowd had paid to see what is essentially a sales pitch when they could have just gone literally across the street to Disneyland for the real deal. Yet they loved every word and image.

Of course this audience was already pre-sold on Disney, and what they were really paying for was the feeling of being an insider. But more than that was an inescapable irony: in the digital age, with all its virtual means to connect with consumers, the most valuable customer just might be the one you can get to come meet you in person. To top of page

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