Cybher: The Round-Up

I’ve just submitted a piece to BitchBuzz on the general wonder that was Cybher, so here I’m just going to stick to my own personal highlights. If you want to find out more about the event, just head over to the website.

Well, what a day that was. I’m seriously in awe of Sian To, as she swept like a nattily-dressed force of nature through proceedings without ever losing the smile on her face (except when she teared up at how far Cybher has come, which is understandable). Impressive stuff.

The highlights for me:

  • Meeting Disney PR / social media bod Grace Yee and boring the poor woman silly with my thoughts on Epcot, Alan Menken and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (or, as Ramona called it this morning ‘Mickey House Clubmouse’).
  • Getting to see two marvellous women, Lori Smith and Natalie Lue, both leading sessions on their areas of expertise, and owning the room.
  • Seeing the world’s most self-possessed nine-year-old presenting on a huge and intimidating stage without blinking.
  • Getting a list of apps to explore for work as well as fun.
  • Finding out some more proactive strategies – and legal info – for dealing with trolls when ‘not feeding’ doesn’t work (and I always think ignoring it is somehow pretty unfair anyway).
  • Being really inspired by Jennifer Begg and others in a session about social media for social good. (Must read Half the Sky!).
  • Meeting and chatting to various people I know in real life and from Twitter such as Gail Doggett and Esther Freeman, but also people I’d never met before who were rather marvellous.

An honourable mention has to go to the Palmer’s PRs who must have got sick of hearing the words “I had no idea you did all this stuff!” and calmly passed out immensely generous bags of cocoa butter goodies – presumably so they never had to hear it again. Oh, and we had the most kick-arse branded goodie bags – actual leather satchels – I’ve ever seen. None of which are the main reasons anyone goes to an event like this – no, really – but they’re a massively appreciated bonus.

It really was a fabulous day and I would go again. So there.

Let the Memories Begin: Disney embraces social media even more, I drool a little

If you read some of the tweets from Disney’s most hardcore (mostly Florida-dwelling) fans yesterday, you’d have thought that the company emptied a big barrel of acid over Cinderella Castle while they were forced to watch, thunderstruck. In fact, what really happened is that expectations were not managed all that well. You can argue til you’re blue in the face over whether Disney should know better than to announce a marketing campaign as if it’s a major upgrade to the parks or whether the fans should know by now that Disney always does it this way but both of those would be missing the point in a major way. In fact it is an exciting announcement for two reasons: firstly, it’s a fun addition to a holiday – something I think it’s much easier to appreciate if, like me, you can afford to go every few years, not weeks – and secondly and more importantly, it’s a major adoption of social media on a massive scale.

The campaign is called Let the Memories Begin, and it’s a two-part strategy. The new holiday element is the inclusion of a nightly slideshow projection onto Cinderella Castle (WDW) or It’s A Small World (DL) of photos of revellers taken around the parks; something that was derided as a ‘screensaver’ by some fans. The even more social element is actually an advertising campaign; users submit video, photo and text content about memories made at the parks, and Disney selects and uses these in its advertising. One TV commercial has already been constructed with submitted videos.

To find out more you can:

Read the full press release and view the video at The Disney Blog (an excellent site for considered commentary).

Visit the dedicated pages for uploading etc at

Why were fans disappointed then? Well, there had been rumours of a Monsters, Inc. coaster at the Studios (and of all the parks, HS needs the most revamping) or the addition of Spain to the World Showcase in Epcot. But those rumours probably didn’t account for the fact that Disney is massively revamping Star Tours in two parks, building the Art of Animation resort hotel, expanding in China, re-staging much-loved attractions like Captain EO and carrying out a huge, expensive update to Fantasyland in the WDW Magic Kingdom. With wobbly visitor numbers due to the global financial problems, Disney’s already committed huge amounts of money to park updates, so it’s hardly surprising that they’re committing another chunk to tempting more people through the doors as well as keeping the existing fans happy.

I think it really is exciting to think of your picture being projected against Cinderella Castle. I’ve written before about my first Disney trip, complete with charmingly gormless photo, and  you can guarantee that child would have wet herself with delight if it had happened. I would be ridiculously excited now that I have better bladder control. But what’s even more exciting is the thought of, as a dedicated fan, having those memories recognised and having them appear in Disney’s marketing. Because it’s basically taking what we’re already doing with our blogs, forums, tweets, videos etc and applying a megaphone to it. We’re already telling the world how much we love Disney, and now Disney’s realised that helping us do it makes us feel special and potentially benefits them massively (and let’s not forget, Disney making more money means those precious park expansions can continue to happen).

I understand that the annual passholders who go several times a year every year want to see something new, but when that gormless four-year-old was watching a parade in the Magic Kingdom less than 30 years ago there were just two parks there, and one (the then EPCOT Centre) was only two years old. Now, in Florida alone, there are four main parks, two water parks, swathes of shopping areas, new dedicated resorts for Disney Vacation Club members… you name it. Disneylands Anaheim and Paris have expanded massively and there are cruise liners galore.

Disney’s social media team, in particular the Disney Moms Panel (and just to be clear, you don’t have to be a parent, or even female, to apply) has an enormous job to do; it takes some time for me to go through all the messages to Dogs Trust every day and that’s 100,000 people on a Facebook page and under 15,000 on Twitter – huge, important numbers to us, but nothing like what Disney is dealing with. For us it’s absolutely essential that we reply to everyone we can and make sure they get the answers they’re looking for, because these are the people that make our work possible and they deserve the best we can be. Yet because of the scale involved it can be a disappointing experience messaging Disney in the social space unless you’re talking directly to someone like Thomas Smith or Laura Spencer, who are both excellent. Disney’s found another way to interact and reward instead; it’s less conversational – it sort of turns broadcasting on its head by broadcasting back the message to those who produce it – but no less powerful. They’ve taken the most simple route by addressing the fan’s strength in creating material and the organisation’s strength in broadcasting it.

And simplicity in social media – as in every other arena – is so often the best way. I truly look forward to seeing what happens next.

My first Disney visit: 1984

Magic Kingdom, 1984

Magic Kingdom, 1984

Picture it, Orlando, 1984.

Disney had cemented its utter takeover of central Florida. The other attractions were still scrabbling to make a presence, Epcot (then EPCOT Center) was barely two years old and post-70s optimism was on the up. And there I was, four years old, utterly transfixed by the afternoon parade.

The Magic Kingdom, to my young eyes, was quite simply the most magical place on Earth. Although I’ve since transferred my allegiance to Epcot somewhat, I still literally squeal with delight when pulling in to the Disney car parks and preparing to board the monorail to the Transportation and Ticketing Centre. That look of gobsmacked immersion has never quite left me – I’m sure if anyone had taken a similarly candid photo when we were watching the Spectromagic Parade in April this year I would have looked similarly entranced (and, admittedly, gormless).

There’s a reason why people are so utterly Disney-mad. And for me it all exists in the picture above. I still have the personalised Mouse Ears somewhere…

Magic Kingdom, 2009 (taken by me)

Magic Kingdom, 2009 (taken by me)


End of holiday post: Recovering at home

The Happiest Place I Know

The Happiest Place I Know

Well, it was a pretty spectacular holiday – actually, belated honeymoon. Everything was in our favour: good weather, fun times, well-organised and, best of all, good health all round. We went for a morning swim (I miss that already!), ate loads, walked loads, soaked up the sun and were entertained almost to the point of feeling guilty. I was left with a slight feeling of dread, even; after all that goodness surely something must go wrong?! But even the flights were good. And I’m planning a fear of flying course in the summer to stop me having any more travel-related meltdowns. I don’t want it holding me back. Plans are afoot to book our next trip once the coffers have been replenished. This time to Toronto. I’ve never been to Canada – any recommendations / tips?

My favourite moments are many, so I won’t list them all. But anyone who sets foot within 100 miles of Epcot should get over there are ride Soarin’ (one of the few we rode twice, so brilliant is its gentle, awe-inspiring hang gliding simulation). As mid-price restaurants go, Redrock Canyon Grill is lovely and does the best steak and mashed potato on International Drive by miles. Tarpon Springs is apparently a great place to walk your dog. But if you want to know more about my travels, just check out my Flickr feed, where I shall eventually put the photos.

I really want to talk books. I read three and a half while travelling: Anthony Flew’s There Is a God, a fascinating and highly intelligently written discourse on how the famous atheist found faith; Mark Gatiss’s second Lucifer Box novel, The Devil in Amber (slightly disappointing compared to the first as Box has become a little tiresome, but still amusing enough) and Augusten Burrough’s A Wolf at the Table were the completed ones. The last was relentlessly depressing. I had wondered how Burroughs could make an entire career – spanning some six or seven books – out of a dysfunctional childhood, but I had reckoned without the truly terrifying entity his sociopathic father turned out to be. Read this only if you have a good grip on your emotions; it is highly distressing and uncomfortable, not to mention frightening. There’s even guinea pig death. You were warned.

I’m still picking through Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, which is far better than its title. His spare, evocative writing, which I loved so much in Wicked, is put to excellent use once more in a plotline slightly reminiscent of Girl With a Peal Earring (though it might have been published before – I forget). It was totally worth loading up my Sony Reader, even with all the irksome issues I had with Waterstones before we left.

Tomorrow, we begin repainting the living room. I’ve been gently immersing myself back in social media – I relinquished all but my crutch, Twitter, while I was away, mainly to see if I even COULD – and I’ve missed my old friend. Tuesday will herald business as usual: baking, blogging, and dreaming of the next time I’ll have the time and cash to visit WDW.

Ten Days of Disney: EPCOT

Now, I appreciate that the Magic Kingdom is the symbol of Disney in every sense. Not only was it the original theme park from which I have pictures of a four-year-old slack-jawed Alex watching a parade in absolute, blissful awe, but the image of Cinderella Castle – particularly with fireworks breaking in the sky above – is absolutely synonymous with everything from film idents to promotional materials.

But it’s not my favourite park. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Pirates of the Caribbean and the newly-refitted Haunted Mansion are totally on my “don’t leave without seeing” list (It’s a Small World not so much but then I’m no longer a small person). But as much as the Lands of Fantasy, Frontier and more delight me and fill me with excitement and joy, it’s EPCOT that I really look forward to visiting.

The giant silver golf ball that marks the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow makes my heart race when it hoves into view from the monorail. I was always, always a techy, geeky kid. Fascinated by computers, the first one to figure out how to programme the VCR to record. I took after my mother – she was the one setting timers and changing plugs in our house, and she’s taught herself HTML in her 60s just because she felt like it, really. So heading into a whole world of beeps and whistles, a supercharged collection of the most fun science museum stands, was tremendously exciting. EPCOT, with its Spaceship Earth based around communication, is really an inevitable choice for a social media and online communications bod, isn’t it?

More than that, though, there was the World Showcase. A brilliantly multi-cultural idea from a company who could at times seem a bit sterile and white, it’s also by far the best place to eat in the whole of WDW (especially Morocco). Oh, and the best vantage point to watch the gorgeous Illuminations light and firework show over the lake.

This year is my first visit to Animal Kingdom. It was open when I last went in 2004 but I was only there for a week and chose to revisit old friends rather than trying to spend time getting to know a new park. I imagine it will be a great experience, but my first priority will be introducing my complete Disnewbie of a husband to EPCOT.

Ten Days of Disney Day One: Howard Ashman & Alan Menken

Four websites in one month…

..lying in the depths of my imagination.

There’s an awful lot going on just around the corner. Some of it is public knowledge; we’ve been awaiting a new website from Reading Room for a while now, and it looks like that is mere weeks away, post proper usability testing.Then there’s the website I was talking about recreating the other day, which needs finishing touches, one more to rebuild and another to build – at least the creative’s in the bag on that one.

I find this all quite exciting. I admit I never used to be this ambitious and focussed, but then I hadn’t yet found The Job. You know, the thing you finally realise you could do for a good long time, and be passionate about. I always thought that would be writing, but I didn’t necessarily expect it to be online writing. This job fills me with confidence because I know there’s a large part of it I can already do, and that I have a genuine interest in learning what I don’t know. And interest is surely half the battle when it comes to learning? Things come easily to people who are enthusiastic, or at least working hard does. This job makes me want to work as hard as I possibly can because it’s interesting and often fun.

I also find it a bit scary and nerve-wracking. I mean, after all, there’s a lot to do, and J and I both have long holidays planned in the next month because when we booked them none of this was specifically on the cards. I can’t help feeling the tension is part of what makes it interesting, though; I suspect we do better work when we’re slightly under pressure because it forces a special sharpness of the mind. It’s impossible to get distracted when there simply isn’t the time.

Speaking of distractions – positive ones – I’m reading a garbled mixture of Howard Jacobson’s The Making of Henry, Frank Skinner’s autobiography, rubbish free daily papers and a peppering of technology blogs, pet columns and, of course, Disney stuff. Jacobson is almost cruelly observant – it’s unsettling. I warm to his character only to realise I’m empathising with an object of ridicule; affectionate ridicule but ridicule nonetheless. I suspect that’s Jacobson’s point – that we’re all faintly ludicrous. Alarming, but undoubtedly true. Frank Skinner is honest to the point of discomfort, but I am fascinated by his discourses on Catholicism, and some of the stories are laugh-out-loud funny (funnier than any of his acts, in fact!). The rest you can read for yourselves.