Walt Disney Imagineering is "playtesting" a new improve show at Disney California Adventure today and tomorrow. I spotted signs for "Imagine That!" while I was in the park today, and a cast member directed me to Stage 17 (the former "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" building) in Hollywood Land. Apparently there were sign ups somewhere in the park this morning, because cast members outside the sound stage were checking park visitors against a list. Those (like me) who happened by but weren't on the list were asked to form a standby line and wait until closer to showtime to see if we were needed. The show has a capacity of about 300 people, and for this first test they had about half that, so the 15 or so of us in standby were all admitted without problem.
If you'll be in DCA tomorrow (Thursday, December 6) and want to see the show for yourself, they are holding shows at 2, 4 and 6. Cast members said they would again have sign ups in the morning, but indicated that walk-ups would likely be accepted, so don't worry too much about finding the recruiters. The show lasts about 30 minutes (ours was closer to 40), and each participant receives a World of Color Fastpass.
A flyer distributed in the park described "Imagine That" as an "original improvisation show, where guests engage in an epic tale straight from their imaginations. Their ideas spring to life through interactive play and artistry. Every guest has a hand in creating a one-of-a-kind story that will never be experienced again."
We were never told where, when or if Disney plans to use this show. I have a personal suspicion, but I'll keep it to myself right now.
While it's never fair to "review" a show this early in the process, I'll share some details and thoughts below. I'm not going to bother with spoiler tags, so if you don't want to know any more about the show, stop reading NOW.
--------------------------------- Spoiler Alert - You've Been Warned -----------------------------------------
For this test, Stage 17 is divided with black pipe-and-drape into two sections. We entered the first section at the back of the building, where the Dancin' with Disney stage was still in place. The host greeted us, and asked us to gather close around the stage. Off to the side, a musician provided background music on keyboards.
The host gave a brief explanation about what we were doing there, explaining that Imagineers have come up with an idea for an interactive improv show, and they wanted to test it with real park guests to see how we liked it. He introduced three people he identified as Disney animators, and three more people identified as actors. (Side note: apparently one of the actors also works at Universal Studios - a guest in our group recognized him from her visit there earlier this week, and he admitted that it was him).
After asking us not to take any photos (lest we be placed in "Disney jail"), the host explained that we were creating a one-of-a-kind story starting with "once upon a time in a far away land," and asked for suggestions about what our far away land should be called. Someone in the crowd yelled "cheese land," and someone else suggested "Mordor," so the host went with a mix of those and asked one of the artists to draw the city of Mordor in cheese land.
Then the host divided the group into two, sending half to one end of the stage to work with one animator to design the hero of the story, and the others to the other side of the stage to work with another animator to design the villain. One of the actors joined each group, asking questions and serving as the liason between audience and animator. Screens on both sides of the stage let us see what the animator was drawing. I was in the villains group, and we created a mold monster. The actor prompted the group to provide details about the character - what did he wear, what were his hobbies, etc. The animator kept up with all of this, adding to his sketch as we talked.
With hero and villain designed, the groups gathered around the stage again, and the host asked members from each group to name the other group's character. Our villain was dubbed "Mister Stinky Poo," and the hero (a purple, lactose-intolerant cow) was named PLC. We also learned that PLC was looking for his lost sidekick, providing the plot for the story.
After asking a few more questions about the characters, the host asked us to divide up into six groups to further flesh out the story. My group worked with one of the actors, who asked us a series of predetermined questions to devise a list of special items the hero owned. She started with "Name something you'd use to move a heavy object." When someone suggested "a crane," the actor followed up with, "and what is special about your crane?" Following her chain of questioning, we ended up with a talking crane, an angry flea, a glass nail file, and an elephant in a refrigerator.
When we regrouped, we learned that the other groups had collaborated to create a sidekick for the villain, a house and a vehicle for the hero, a list of superpowers for the hero, and a theme song for the villain. After that, we moved into the second section of the soundstage, which had rows of chairs set before a stage with three large screens. As we took seats, one of the actors distributed pieces of foam board with words and pictures to various people in the front row and along the aisles, saying we'd need to bring them up to the stage when called upon.
The "show" consisted of the three performers acting out the story we'd created in front of the three screens, with the animators drawing and altering the backgrounds as the skit progressed. The audience participation continued throughout the show. When the villain took the stage, we all hummed his theme song. When the hero asked for one of his special items, and someone handed him the card with a drawing of the glass nail file, he then asked the audience for suggestions on how to use the nail file to defeat the villain. When the hero used his "sonic moo" on the villain, the entire audience was asked to moo along. After the villain was defeated and the hero reunited with his side kick, the show ended with three actors performing an improvised song using some of the names and items we'd suggested for the story.
As I said, it's never fair to review something this early in the development stage, so here are just a few thoughts.
- I found this entertaining, but not necessarily "Disney." If someone invited me to attend a family-friendly improv show at a random comedy club, this is what I'd expect. There just wasn't anything overtly Disney about it - we weren't rewriting Cinderella.
- That said, I loved the addition of the live animation - that's not something I've ever seen in an improv show, and it was my favorite part of this experience. That's definitely something Disney adds to the experience.
- The lack of "Disney" filters surprised me. When all was said and done, our story had a hero trying to cut the head off a wine-swilling villain. That's not exactly Playhouse Disney material.
- I was also surprised by the inclusion of non-Disney brands. At various times, the actors name-dropped Universal, Petsmart, Best Buy and Delta Airlines.
- If I cared overly about having my suggestions used (or even heard), I would have found the main group size (about 150 people) too large. The loudest folks, and those nearest the stage, dominated those parts of the creation process.
- That said, I appreciated the deliberate effort to include more people by sending actors with microphones to the back of the crowd to ask specific people to contribute certain elements.
- I also appreciated that in our smaller group, the actor made it a point to ask questions of people who had not yet contributed an answer, helping everyone feel included.
- It seemed that kids around 7 and up were the most interested in this. Younger kids seemed too shy to speak up, or just bored. The family behind me had an older child who was completely engaged, and a younger child who was far more interested in her handheld video game.
- The "show" seemed a bit too long, or just took too long to tell because of the constant audience participation. At some point, I felt like "Ok, we've given you tons of material, just finish the show."
All in all, it was worth the 40-minute time investment, and it's definitely something I'd do again with friends. If you're in DCA tomorrow, be sure to check it out.