top of page

DisNet and Animation Immersion: Disney Synergy Turns Us into Kids

 
A group of DisNet scholars stand in front of a Steamboat Willie cutout
DisNeteers become a part of Steamboat Willie

As many of us Disneteers converged on San Antonio for PCA this year, the Disney Animation Immersive Experience just happened to be in town. Of course, that meant a group of us had to go and check it out!


Disclaimer: I had a very good time and may have been openly crying by the end of it. From what I could see of the rest of our DisNeteers, they also had a very good time. If you get a chance, I strongly suggest you go, and you can find more about it here: Disney Animation Immersive Experience.


But we are Disney scholars, so this post is going to be about how Disney made us feel (you know, besides the fact that we're all a bunch of Disney adults who have more emotions about Disney than is probably average).


While we, as a field, will probably continue to debate over where Disney falls on the good/evil spectrum, you have to admit this: they are very good at eliciting emotion. At the Immersive Experience, I noticed three tactics in particular that Disney is known for: one from the parks, one from their marketing strategy, and one from the animated films themselves. I will break down our visit to explain how the Immersive Experience uses these three techniques to get at your heart strings and keep us tied (emotionally) to Disney.

 

Don't Let Them Get Bored: Immersed While Waiting

A group of DisNet scholars stand in front of a cardboard Casita from Encanto (2021)
DisNeteers in front of Casita

As soon as we walked in the door, we found ourselves in a large room that included various ways to interact with Disney and its history. First were sets and backdrops for us to take pictures with, specifically Mickie and boat from Steamboat Willie (1928) and Casita from Encanto (2021), visually spanning nearly the entirety of the company's 100 year history. These two photo-ops were placed right inside the door, before you even get to the check-in/out counter, but we were already hooked.


Our fascination continued as we moved about the room, which featured explanations of Disney's various animation techniques, prints and 3-D models of favorite Disney characters, and an art table with instructions on how to draw your own Disney character (shown below). There was a lot to learn in this room, but there was also something for everyone: children (and those still young-at-heart) flocked to the art table, while the others interested in animation or Disney's history read the signs around the room, and many people just enjoyed (and maybe even sang along to) the instrumental Disney music playing in the background.


When we first entered I thought this room was the Immersive Experience (as did a few others in our group). I was a little let down; this information was interesting, but it was static and not what I imagined at all. Then we saw the line at the back of the room and realized that we were in the antechamber for the real show. Just as Disney's parks famously have the best lines in the world - full of elements to keep young and old alike entertained during the wait that can sometimes feel endless - they had designed this waiting room in a way to engage their customers so people would not mind waiting for the show to begin (for more on the immersion feature of the Parks, see Kokai & Robson, Williams, Bryman, and many others; for more on Disney Park lines, see Dholakia & Schroeder and Daniels et al.).

A wall dedicated to Walt Disney, with a black and white Walt Disney and older version of Mickey Mouse holding a star.
Mural depicting Walt and an early Mickey Mouse

Specifically, this material was intended to remind us of the artistry and magic of Disney animation, to immerse us in the veneration of the animation company, before we even get to see the animation itself. After all, that is what this experience is all about: paying homage to the animation company who has enthralled us for the last century. This focus on the company's history (and legacy) was best illustrated by the full-wall mural of the man and mouse who started it all.



 

Marketing Nostalgia

When we were finally allowed to go into the show room (shown to the side and below), well...that's when our inner children truly came out. To set the scene: what I'm calling the "show room" is actually two rooms that are floor-to-ceiling screens (and the floor very much was part of the show). Before the show actually started, we appeared to be surrounded by wooden walls (a la Arendelle's castle) on which hang paintings depicting various iconic scenes and characters from Disney's catalogue.

This immediately became a game of spot-your-favorite-character, which for Disney scholars, can be quite intense (especially if they didn't have our favorite characters). The paintings spanned Disney's history, reminding visitors of all the ways Disney has worked itself into our lives over the years.


Before the true show could begin, Disney made it clear that the entire room was a nod to perhaps their most well-known marketing strategy: the Disney Vault. The Disney Vault became iconic as part of a series of advertisements from the late 1980s to the early 2000s which encouraged viewers to buy re-released Disney movies before they were once again locked away in this mystical vault. The narration that begins and ends the show starts by welcoming us to the Disney Vault, suggesting that we were sitting inside the coveted (and figurative) place where Disney tales are safe-guarded. The Vault was a mainstay of any 90s kid's memory of how Disney was marketed to us, making us afraid to miss out on Disney before we really understood concepts of market scarcity (for more on how the the Disney Vault campaign instills Disney appreciation, see Verheul and Rowe). I was inside the vault, surrounded by many of the films that my own family purchased as part of the Disney Vault campaign, and that realization gave me chills, even as I immediately understood their strategy.


Simply put: Disney surrounds entering audience members with some of their favorite characters, encouraging people to reminisce on their favorite Disney moments. Then, by physicalizing the Vault itself, the Immersive Experience reminds viewers of an early period in Disney history and our relationship to not just their past films but also that feeling that Disney films are precious enough to need the Disney Vault, both then and now. It's a masterstroke in layering Disney appreciation to get the audience in the right headspace for the show itself.


 

Disney Plots Emotion


After we took our seats, the animation sequences finally began! The show features thirteen songs and medleys, all the way from Pinocchio (1940) to Frozen 2 (2019), accompanied by 360° floor-to-ceiling animations from a variety of films. Some songs keep the animation from the original film. Other songs show scenes from other films that match the theme of the song being played. This show is Disney in-your-face, so big and loud that you can feel it in your bones.

Half the fun was watching other people react, like this child who sang to the"Circle of Life"

As the show progressed, I realized that the order of the songs follows the typical plot structure of what Janet Wako calls the Classic Disney movie: a hero going through the ups and downs of their journey. To understand such a journey, I will break down the song order and purpose, imagining that we are following the story of a compilation of a Disney hero:


1. "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes" from Cinderella (1950) transitions from the narrator to the show, setting us firmly within the world of Disney, much like the Disney logo that plays before every film.


2. For a brief moment, the room goes dark, then "Circle of Life" from The Lion King (1994) crests over the audience, giving us the be-all, end-all openings to a film. This song and the animation, which focuses on the original scene from Lion King, is the perfect example of an establishment song, setting the stage for our tale.


3. From lions, we transition to bunnies with "Try Everything" from Zootopia (2016). While the song plays, the background shows scenes of various Disney characters failing in funny ways, such as young Hercules in the beginning of the movie bearing his name (1997). These snippets establish our compilated hero as an everyman who is not perfect but gives it their all, a true middle American stereotype.


4. Our hero then explores their world and leaves the safety of home with "A Whole New World" from Aladdin (1992). Although this song is technically a love song, it is almost completely removed from its filmic context in the Immersive Experience. Instead, we are treated to various settings throughout Disney animation, starting with the forests of Brother Bear (2003), and moving continuously up, up, up, eventually through Hercules' Olympus and onto Treasure Planet's (2002) Montressor Spaceport. While Aladdin and Jasmine may be falling in love, we're going the distance.


5. While things have been fun and fancy free so far, this medley plot needs tension, leading to our villain song: "Poor Unfortunate Souls" from The Little Mermaid (1989). This song keeps its animation and is joined by bubbles being pumped throughout the room (we found out afterwards that the bubbles are safe for consumption, in an attempt to protect children, and are, in fact, strawberry-flavored).


6. With the new threat of a villain, the tension continues to climb with "Colors of the Wind" from Pocahontas (1995). This song serves as a didactic song where a character (often but not always the hero) gets a chance to teach another character (and the audience) an important lesson. The lesson here is clearly about humans' connection to nature as the animated clips feature the American forests of Pocahontas and Brother Bear and the jungles of India with The Jungle Book (1967).

  • This is not the point of this post, but the racism and colonialism dripping from this number was almost staggering as it juxtaposes three different colonized peoples and then associates them with nature. For more on Disney's problems with racism and colonialism, especially in regards to Pocahontas, see Ono & Buescher and Sardar.

7. To give a moment of respite and lower the tension, we learn to fly with a combination of "You Can Fly" from Peter Pan (1953) and, curiously enough, "First Flight" from Big Hero 6 (2014). These songs accompany images of characters flying from a wide variety of films, including, of course, the two films that the songs come from, but also some less well-known films such as The Rescuers Down Under (1990) and Fantasia 2000 (1999), among many others. Spirits, at this point, are flying high, and anything feels possible.


8. Of course, it wouldn't be a Disney movie without romance, so our next song is "Now I See the Light" from Tangled (2010). This song keeps pretty close to the original animation, which makes sense as the lanterns are absolutely breath-taking on the 360° screens.


9. Now that our hero is feeling good and is in love, it's time to pull up our sleeves and tuck into work with "Almost There" from The Princess and the Frog (2009). This song also sticks to its original animation and represents our compilated hero moving from love to action.

  • Again, not the point of this post, but it's worth noting that they did pick one of the few songs from this film where Tiana is not a frog, which is great since one of the major criticisms of the film is that Disney's first Black princess spends most of the film as a frog. However, the scene does feature stylized animation that makes Tiana look like she's in a picture rather than a real human, so better than a frog, but not great. For more on the problems with the representation of race in The Princess and the Frog, see Gehlawat, Gregory, and Turner.

10. Now that the hero is underway, danger becomes a real possibility (though never actualized; this is a Disney movie, after all). The next number is another medley, starting with "Firebird Suite" from Fantasia 2000 then transitioning into instrumental music from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)--possibly from the more dramatic parts of "The Bells of Notre Dame" or "Hellfire." The animation starts with the goddess of spring waking up and exploring, as seen in Fantasia 2000, before climaxing when she wakes the volcano and everything is destroyed. From there, the music transitions, and we see scene after scene of the most iconic heartbreaks in Disney, including Bambi looking for his (dead) mother and Mufasa dying. This is the low point of the journey, when the hero thinks they have failed.


11. The show must go on, and to help us transition towards a happy ending, we get "I Am Moana" from, well, Moana (2016), accompanied by the animation from the movie. This is when Moana is going through a similar spate of doubt before being encouraged by her grandmother to go back into the fight.


12. As Moana jumps headlong back into her fight, so does our compilated hero. In this particular pieced-together plot, the fight is to find yourself (or, at least, yourself as represented by Disney). What better song to demonstrate that than "Show Yourself" from Frozen 2? In this song, Elsa begins by looking for another entity that she thinks will solve her problems before coming to realize that she was the hero all along (very Wizard of Oz (1939), if you ask me). Our hero has now picked themself up, finds out that they're the hero, and rides off into the sunset.


13. ...Or into a field of stars, as our show closes with "When You Wish Upon a Star" from Pinocchio (1940). Like "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes", this song acts as the bridge between show and frame as our narrator returns us to the Disney Vault with the hope that all our wishes will come true.


Using just songs from various movies paired with a variety of animated scenes, the Disney Animation Immersive Experience is able to tell the Classic Disney story of an everyman exploring the world, falling in love, coming across troubles, but ultimately succeeding by finding the hero within themself. The peaks and valleys of this story draw you in and prey on your emotions, especially if it's a plot that you've seen dozens of times across your lifetime and are familiar enough with to fill in the gaps.

 

So, there you have it. We (tearfully) exited the show room, bought way too much merchandise on our way out through the gift shop, and remained in awe for some time. From the waiting room designed like a Disney park line to entering the Disney Vault to experiencing a mash-up of Disney music turned into a Disney plot, the Disney Animation Immersive Experience successfully combines some of Disney's most effective strategies in order to hit you right in the feels and to keep you coming back--back to the experience, maybe, but always, always back to Disney.

DisNeteers pose with Walt and Mickey on our way out

 

References:


Bryman, Alan. Disney & His Worlds. Routledge, 2003.


Daniels, Ellen C., et al. "Theme Park Queue Line Perception." International Journal and Cultural Heritage, vol. 2, 2017, pp. 105-118.


Dholakia, Nikhilesh and Jonathan Schroeder. “Disney: Delights and Doubts.” Journal of Research for the Consumer, vol. 1, no. 2 (2001).


Gehlawat, Ajay. “The Strange Case of The Princess and the Frog: Passing and the Elision of Race.” Journal of African American Studies, vol. 14, no. 4, 2010, pp. 417-431.


Gregory, Sarita. McCoy. “Disney’s Second Line: New Orleans, Racial Masquerade, and the Reproduction of Whiteness in The Princess and the Frog.” Journal of African American Studies, vol. 14, no. 4, 2010, pp. 432-449.


Kokai, Jennifer A. and Tom Robson. “You’re in the Parade! Disney as Immersive Theatre and the Tourist as Actor.” In Performance and the Disney Theme Park Experience, edited by Jennifer A. Kokai and Tom Robson, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, pp. 3-20.


Ono, Kent A., & Derek T. Buescher. “Deciphering Pocahontas: Unpackaging the Commodification of a Native American Woman.” Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 18, no. 1, 2001, 23-43.


Rowe, Rebecca. "Disney Does Disney: Re-Releasing, Remaking, and Retelling Animated Films for a New Generation." Journal of Popular Film and Television, vol. 50, no. 3, 2022, pp. 98-111.


Sardar, Ziauddin. “Walt Disney and the Double Victimisation of Pocahontas.” Third Text, vol. 10, no. 37, 1996, pp. 17-26.


Turner, Sarah E. “Blackness, Bayous and Gumbo: Encoding and Decoding Race in a Colorblind World.” In Diversity in Disney films: Critical essays on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and disability, edited by Jonson Cheu, McFarland, 2013, pp. 83-98.


Verheul, Jaap. “Opening the Vault: Streaming the Film Library in the Age of Pandemic Content.” Pandemic Media: Preliminary Notes Toward an Inventory, edited by Philipp Dominik Keidl, Laliv Melamed, Vinzenz Hediger, and Antonio Somaini, Meson Press, 2020, pp. 51-59.


Wasko, Janet. Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy. John Wiley & Sons, 2020.

Williams, Rebecca. Theme Park Fandom: Spatial Transmedia, Materiality and Participatory Cultures. Amsterdam University Press, 2020.



 

But wait! There's MORE!


If you love all things Disney, if you had a presentation that you would love to see written down (and citable) come out into the world, email Bee! Check out our Want to Write for Disnet post.


(Bee's email is also disnetblog@gmail.com)


 

Comments


bottom of page