Disneyland’s Matt Conover on Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, Avengers Campus and putting the audience first

In part two of this interview with Matt Conover – Vice President of Disney Live Entertainment at Disneyland – we talk research, inspiration and the importance of creating experiences that speak to new audiences.

Matt, picking up where we left off last time, there are so many iconic Disney movies, and new classics come along almost every year. What sways your decision in terms of what to bring into the parks?
It’s a great question and it’s one of our real challenges. If you saw our Investors Day last December, the sheer amount of content that the company is creating is amazing. That said, there’s no way that the parks division can think about bringing all of that to life. We are being selective and thoughtful, and we think about what we can bring to life in unique ways.

The other dimension to this is relevancy. We need to ensure an experience is relevant to all of our guests and all of our consumers who want to be guests. Allowing our guests to see themselves in our stories is a challenge we must take on and succeed at going forward. It also has to be relevant in terms of timeliness.

The best recent example of that is WandaVision. We chose not to make it a traditional character experience for a number of reasons, largely that we’re in the middle of a pandemic so you’re not going to go and hug the Scarlett Witch!

Instead, our designers created a set where you have the couch, the wall and the living room in black and white from episode one of the show.

Matt Conover, Disneyland
It was a photo opportunity that’s clearly branded as WandaVision, and it puts people in the story. We wanted to see how we could evolve the activation alongside the show, so two weeks ago we added – just off to the side – a director’s chair that has ‘AGATHA’ written across the back. 70% of people didn’t see it and didn’t get it, but some people did and it was a great way of building out the story.

That’s a lovely touch! Has being in your role it changed how you watch the films? Do you watch Soul, for example, and immediately want to get to work on building a jazz club?
Ha! Well, we actually have a food and wine festival that we do at California Adventure. It celebrates lots of different kinds of music and we often use southern Californian musicians that don’t really tie into any films or TV properties. With Soul, now we have a chance to do that.

I’ll keep an eye on that! Now my nearest Disneyland is Paris – are there any surprises in terms of what works in some parks and what doesn’t work in other culturally?
Sometimes we have looked at something that works somewhere and think it will also work in, say, Hong Kong – and then we realise that it doesn’t quite work, and we have to re-tool it. It’s why Bob Iger, when we went into Shanghai, insisted it had to be authentically Disney but distinctly Chinese. An example is that when we named attractions there, we named them in Chinese first and translated them into English. It’s about putting the audience first.

Even in the States we have to do a better job of that because our audience is dramatically changing in front of our eyes. If we want to continue to be successful as a business, we have to change and acknowledge that. If our goal is to have our products experienced by everybody, we need to make it accessible and relevant to everybody. And do that without making it a big blob of vanilla! You still want it to have an identity.

On that, do any examples spring to mind of recent shows that you feel did a great job in making classic characters relevant in a fresh new way?
Magic Happens, the parade we debuted at Disneyland last year, is an amazing example. Our creative director, David Duffy – who now leads the Disneyland Paris entertainment organisation – had a vision for what he wanted this to be… Magic makers bringing their magic to life.

Matt Conover, Disneyland
He worked with designers and the director to bring it to life through stories like Moana, Coco, Mickey Mouse and Frozen. Then we worked with Todrick Hall, an amazing creative composer, to bring a super fresh flavour to the music that’s not traditional and not what we’ve done before. Mickey is 90 years old! We had to find a way to make him fresh and stand alongside Moana and Coco, which are properties that are clearly fresh and clearly speak to a new audience.

You mentioned Jungle Cruise a moment ago, and there’s a film coming out soon inspired by that ride. Do you sometimes have an eye on how your park experiences might eventually translate into movies or TV shows?
When it has happened and happened successfully – like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise – it’s a case of not straightforward retellings, but the ride acting as an inspiration or a route into a world. And it works both ways. Jungle Cruise is not a retelling of the ride, it’s inspired by the ride.

Look at Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge – that is not something from any movie. It’s a unique place set within the universe created by those movies. It tells its own stories.

Matt Conover, Disneyland
With Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, some of our guests came looking for the Star Wars that they knew and were confronted with a Star Wars that nobody knew because we haven’t “written” it yet. It’s a space that allows you to be in the story. It’s taken some of our guests a little while to adjust but it’s something we’re doing in so many of our worlds.

Avengers Campus is coming later this year here at Disney California Adventure and we’re not trying to recreate any Marvel film. We’re being inspired by those heroes and those stories and bring them to life in a new way. You can sit on your couch with your amazing home theatre system and watch Iron Man or Avengers: Infinity War. We’re bringing those characters to life in a different way.

Matt Conover, Disneyland
The Avengers Campus sounds exciting – when you’re prepping new experiences for the parks, what is your creative process? Are you re-watching the films, reading the comics…? What do those first steps look like?

It all comes down to research and inspiration; it’s a combination of the two. Yes, you could re-watch all the Avengers films and read all of the comics, but it’s about how you are inspired by those things – and other experiences in your life – that can then help you translate your understanding of a story into a live experience.

The other piece of this is that I believe in a single vision. Our best products come from an articulated vision. If my creative director articulates a vision and everyone else on the team can present that vision to other people and it be clearly understood, then we’re going to succeed.

On a show like Magic Happens or an experience like Galaxy’s Edge, the visions were so clear that what was translated in reality feel like they came from one person, even though it was a collaboration of hundreds and hundreds of people.

Throughout that process, do you engage much with the teams from the movies or source material?
Depending on the product, there are Marvel filmmakers or Disney Animation Studios filmmakers who want to be involved with us, and we want to be involved with them. It’s a healthy conversation because the language of the filmmaker is different to the language of live experience. Frozen’s Anna has eyeballs as big as her hands, so in real life we have to do things differently!

As we translate our stories from films and into real life, we have to develop experiences that allow everybody to see themselves in them. Frozen: Live at the Hyperion, which we ran at California Adventure, had people of every colour and creed playing the roles of Anna, Elsa and other characters. It allowed everybody in the audience to see themselves in the show and in the story.

It’s a little different from how we did things 20 years ago when it was about recreating exactly what the movies looked like. We are continuing to evolve our storytelling to be as inclusive and connected to as many of our audience members as possible.

Matt Conover, Disneyland
Matt, this has been brilliant. Thank you so much for making the time. I have one final question – is there one show or experience that stands out as being a real creative challenge that you’re especially proud to have cracked?

The one that comes to mind is the grand opening of the Shanghai Disney Resort, which happened five years ago. It was a spectacular unlike anything I’ve ever done, and I’ve done a few Super Bowl half-time shows! It was well beyond anything like that.

We worked on it for more than two years. Sylvia Hase was the creative director who had the vision for what it was, and she’s one of those visionaries who everybody can march behind. We worked with amazing artists like Steve Bass who was the visual designer, choreographer Michael Pena and a wide variety of Chinese and global collaborators. We worked with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. We were creating a gorgeous spectacle, and ultimately, a TV show that was going to be broadcast to all of China and around the world.

Matt Conover, Disneyland
It was going to take place outside, in front of Enchanted Storybook Castle, and we got to two days before the event and it looked like it was going to rain! Rain and symphony orchestras don’t go together. We had considered it before then, but the reality really sunk in.

We were shooting the show for television and we had already filmed the dress rehearsal, so we had it in the can. We also shot the show without any of our A-list star talent. There was a theatre in the park that seats around a thousand people and has a big LED video wall. Our rain back-up plan was that we would show this alternate version of the filmed experience with live vocalists and piano players in-front of it.

On that day, at 4:30PM, we made the decision to go to rain plan rather than go live to the world. The audience for the show was actually already in the park having dinner. We directed the audience to the theatre. They watched the rain plan show, and many of them had no idea that wasn’t ‘the show’ and it came off flawlessly. Meanwhile, the show that went out on television was the dress rehearsal show – you can see it on Disney+.

Our team was able to create this amazing experience and have the professional dedication and foresight to have a plan B that equally worked for that live audience there.

I can’t imagine the stress that must’ve been wrapped up in all that, but what a way of pulling it off! Before I let you go – last question! How do you fuel your creativity?
It’s about consuming content – and simple things, like every week on Spotify, I’ll listen to the top 20. It’s probably not my taste in music, but it’s important for me to hear what the world is listening to.

I really enjoy my conversations with my kids. I have four kids – one’s in law school in Texas, one’s at school in Chicago, one’s working in Chicago and one’s a senior here in high school. I talk to them about what they’re doing and what they’re listening to and they’ll send me TikTok videos – it’s a touchpoint. Yes, it’s a very narrow touchpoint because they’re my kids, but it’s at least a window into that world.

Before the pandemic, anytime I’d travel I would always try to experience something somewhere. Could be a national park, a museum or a show – I always try to be inspired by other’s work.

Brilliant. Great stuff. Well a huge thanks for this Matt; it’s been fascinating. I really appreciate it and hopefully we can catch up again soon.

To read part one of the interview with Matt Conover – Vice President of Disney Live Entertainment at Disneyland – click here.

Stay up to date with the latest news, interviews and opinions with our weekly newsletter

Sign Up

Enter your details to receive Brands Untapped updates & news.

    This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.