When Walt Disney Imagineering and the Walt Disney Studios announced their alternate reality game called The Optimist in early July, no one knew exactly what to expect out of this powerhouse creative team. As we eagerly entered the adventure that spanned the web and Twitter, it quickly became clear that this Walt Disney-inspired game was going to be quite an adventure.
And so we followed it to the Tam O’Shanter restaurant, one of Walt Disney’s favorite spots, taking notes throughout. Clues led us to Chili John’s, Griffith Park, and inside Disneyland’s exclusive Club 33. Some players outside the Los Angeles area even got to participate when a mysterious record arrived in the mail. Then The Optimist took us to the Carolwood railroad barn and back to Disneyland for a visit to an even more exclusive spot, Walt’s own private apartment.
All the while, Imagineering was relying on decades of storytelling to tell the tale of young Amelia, whose grandfather Carlos had recently passed away, leaving behind an apartment filled with unusual items connecting him to the Walt Disney Company. Amelia shared her findings with the world online, unexpectedly wrapping herself in the world of a secret society in which The Optimist’s other main character Wallace was an insider, subtly leaking out clues on his web site that led players on this wild chase for answers.
So how did it all end? And what was the point?
When it first began, Disney promised The Optimist would wrap up at the 2013 D23 Expo, the biennial grand gathering of Disney fans in Anaheim, just down the street from Disneyland. And on Friday, August 9, 2013, when the Expo halls opened, many loyal “optimists” made a beeline for Wallace’s own booth, #539 in the show’s Collector’s Forum.
From there, the culmination of weeks of work paid off with a fast-paced, unforgettable journey leading up to a few grand finale prizes.
The Optimist Finale
Sit back and take the time to go on that adventure with me in the 24-minute video below, followed by a closer look at each step along the way.
Video: The Optimist concludes at the 2013 D23 Expo and Disneyland
Whether they had been following along with The Optimist since its inception or just spotted Wallace’s ad in the D23 Expo guidebook, all attendees were invited to participate in its finale, which began by visiting the Disney Cartography booth to talk to Wallace himself, joined by a few associates dressed in grey shirts with a particularly futuristic emblem on them. Long lines formed throughout the weekend filled with fans eager to begin the quest.
The booth itself was set up as Wallace’s office, his Disney attraction-inspired artwork hanging on the wall, clips of Walt playing on an old TV, and inspirational books and sculptures lining his furniture.
Take note of the book about Orson Welles. More on him later.
Wallace was eager to meet with all Disney fans at the Expo, but particularly those who he had previously conversed with over the past few weeks. He instantly knew me, thanking me for my contributions to his efforts online. The Optimist game suddenly became very real for me, having only participated from afar. Sadly, Jeremiah Daws, who covered the first half of this adventure for us, had family matters to attend to across the country, so he couldn’t be there for the finale. But Wallace sent his best regards to Jeremiah, whom he had spoken to just a couple weeks ago on the phone at Club 33.
After a brief chat, players were given a special map and Wallace’s business card with a special message on the back pointing the way to the first step of this final leg.
The card and map both referred to the World Clock. Keeping with the ongoing tie-ins to Disney history present throughout The Optimist, the World Clock model on display at the D23 Expo was the first clue to find. The real World Clock was an icon of Tomorrowland on Disneyland’s opening day, telling the time of any spot on the planet at any given moment. At the Expo, it was located in the silent auction preview area of the show floor.
Wallace noted that players would have to work together to solve the remainder of the puzzles and that teamwork began instantly, requiring players with different color-coded maps to align them, matching the sun and moon symbols on the World Clock sign, pointing to the next destination: the Walt Disney Parks & Resorts pavilion.
Inside, players had to figure out they needed to find the two items represented on the map: The Space Pavilion and Progress City.
Again, the Disney history lesson continued with a look at two concepts that never became reality. Epcot never truly became the “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” and its thrilling Mission: Space ride isn’t exactly the massively conceived Space Pavilion.
Lining up arrows on the map with shapes on these exhibits, players retrieved six letters: L N S H A W.
After some thought and perhaps a little asking around, the letters were discovered to spell Ellenshaw, referring to Disney artist Peter Ellenshaw, whose iconic Disneyland map was on display inside the Imagineering Art Library section of the pavilion. Again, this was yet another opportunity for The Optimist players to come close to a piece of Disney history. Like much of the game, this impressive piece of artwork held its own hidden secret: Under blacklight, windows, light fixtures, and waterways glowed brightly. And this was the first time Disney had ever displayed it to the public in this fashion.
(No photography was allowed of this piece at the D23 Expo.)
It wasn’t actually necessary to see the Ellenshaw piece to solve the next clue, but it absolutely should not have been missed, one of those unforgettable rare experiences up there with visiting Club 33 or Walt’s apartment.
Outside a blacklight was available for players to shine on their maps, once again working together to uncover a hidden stamp.
Lining the pieces up revealed a familiar symbol surrounded by the words “Rendezvous with our agent to receive further instructions.” Here the path split, depending on the map. Some featured an arrow pointing to the Disneyland fire station, others to Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, which is where my path went next, just 10 minutes down the road from the D23 Expo.
Inside, the agent was found wearing a grey collared shirt, pacing the lobby. She pulled groups to the side, making sure no one else overheard, confirming what all players had only suspected until this moment. The society was real – or so the story goes. Walt Disney, Amelia Earhart, Thomas Edison, Nikola Telsa, and other great innovators of the past had at one time all been members, somehow working together to “build a better tomorrow,” the theme that Wallace regularly repeated. And this was an opportunity to join the society, with secret steps built in to Disneyland itself.
The agent marked the wishing well next to Sleeping Beauty Castle as the next stop, also marking a pair of attractions on the map, requiring players to meet up with others who received different clues.
Once again joining two maps together and drawing lines between the marked attractions revealed the Esmerelda fortune teller machine on Main Street as the next step in society initiation.
Placing a quarter into the machine, Esmerelda offered her latest written prophecy, with key words “Lilly,” “Belle,” and “tomorrow.”
Taking another step into Disney history, players then had to board the Lilly Belle train car, a special enclosed parlor car named for Walt’s wife Lillian. It’s another of those must-do extra special Disneyland experiences.
Inside, upon entering the Primeval World section of the track (a throwback to the 1964-65 World’s Fair, a common theme to The Optimist), a secret audio message played within the train car instructing players to find and solve clues before searching back in the park for another agent with a blue and white striped tie across from the Mad Hatter.
The Lilly Belle is a pleasure to ride in, comfortable and offering an overwhelming feeling of Disney history. It’s like stepping into Walt’s apartment on wheels. Normally, it’s recommended to spend as much time in this train car as possible, going for the grand circle tour. But in this society initiation, time was of the essence.
Quickly looking around, the familiar recurring symbol was spotted on a wooden box.
Inside was a sealed set of cards.
Small groups worked together to unscramble the four-letter cards to assemble a message reading, “Hold up this ticket when the time is right. The code word is steamboat.”
Departing at the Main Street train station, the Mad Hatter shop was just across Town Square, where the agent with the blue-and-white tie was quickly spotted. Holding up one of the cards and offering the code word finally led players to The Optimist’s grand finale.
The Main Street Cinema was the final destination.
After a few moments watching old Mickey Mouse cartoons, the sound went out, lights dimmed, and screens flashed to “AUTHORIZED VIEWING ONLY.”
From there, an emotional video played across all screens in the room, with different images flashing rapidly from Disney’s past while futuristic words from Walt himself played over them. Everything Wallace had hinted at for weeks was coming together in this one moment.
In the end, two familiar faces graced the screen: Carlos and Tanya, Amelia’s grandfather and mother. There was no doubt that these individuals were key players in this secret society that included a who’s who of famous innovators. And finally, all who followed the adventure this far were officially welcomed into the group as a glowing box rose up from underneath the cinema’s main screen containing “T” logo pins for everyone.
The adventure and story ended there for many, but those who remembered Wallace’s words ventured back to see him one more time, sharing their new membership into the society. And for that, Wallace offered congratulations and the opportunity to choose one of his often-admired pieces of artwork to take home, a perfect souvenir to remember him by.
For those who followed Amelia on Twitter, during the D23 Expo on Saturday she revealed one last surprising detail. Her mom, Tanya, who was particularly skeptical about all of the findings from her dad’s files, was going to be in Disneyland to see it all for herself. Our friends at The_Con_Fluence Covers captured Amelia’s mom arriving to the Main Street Cinema, seeing the old photo of her with her dad on the screen, receiving her society pin, and even calling Amelia to talk to the crowd.
Video: Amelia’s mom arrives to Disneyland
Video: Amelia’s mom receives her pin
Video: Phone call with Amelia
And just like that, it was over – for now.
Wallace emphasized that this leg of the journey had ended, but there may be more in store for the future. Likewise, Amelia posted on her blog that has more to show “in the next week or two.” And that is why The Optimist has not wrapped up neatly. The story continues, just a whole lot less active at this moment.
So what was the takeaway from playing The Optimist, both for those who were able to participate in person as well as those who followed from afar?
In its simplest form, The Optimist was a particularly riveting alternate reality game in which Disney fans were eager to suspend disbelief and play along with Imagineering’s story and characters, so much so that players rarely broke character, treating each step as if it was truly important, even while talking to Amelia’s mom face-to-face in the park. It was an adult version of “make believe,” very much in the spirit of fantasy that persists every day at Disneyland.
But beyond that, The Optimist was invented as a large-scale viral promotion for Disney’s upcoming film “Tomorrowland,” due in theaters in December 2014 from Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof. It’s not yet completely clear how the story of Amelia, Carlos, Tanya, and Wallace will tie in to the film, as these filmmakers are having far too much fun teasing out tiny details.
Simultaneously with the finale events of The Optimist, the pair appeared at the Walt Disney Studios presentation at the D23 Expo, conducting their own investigation by opening the “1952″ box that began the whole mystery with a two tweets back in January 2013. Bird and Lindelof broke out the white gloves and blacklight to inspect bizarre artifacts found within this box, including a “hoaxed” photo of Walt Disney sitting with Amelia Earhart, “it’s a small world” blueprints, and a silver disc featuring an unusual animation.
That animation, which was exclusively shown to the D23 Expo audience, featured a split vision of the future, narrated by someone who sounded a whole lot like Orson Wells. (Remember that connection above?)
The short film showed the promise of tomorrow juxtaposed with menacing imagery as a pendulum swung back and forth, flipping between peaceful everyday images like a standard automotive transportation and a tyrannical wartime tanks. It seems the society’s task to “build a better tomorrow” may not work out exactly as they planned.
Following the Walt Disney Studios presentation, a large “Tomorrowland” booth was also unveiled on the D23 Expo show floor. Photography was strictly prohibited while standing inside the booth, which displayed many of those artifacts from the “1952″ box, with an accompanying audio tour, also available via an app on iTunes.
“Tomorrowland” is scheduled to be released to theaters on December 19, 2014, starring George Clooney, Judy Greer, Hugh Laurie, and – most interestingly – young actress Britt Robinson playing the yet-to-be-announced lead role. Rumors suggest the film will be about a young girl who stumbles across futuristic technologies from the past… just like Amelia.
According to the Imagineers who crafted the alternate reality game that ended at the 2013 D23 Expo, The Optimist was meant to be real life while the story of “Tomorrowland” is a Hollywood retelling of those events. If The Optimist was to be believed, Walt Disney and his famed Imagineers secretly developed incredibly advanced energy, transportation, and communication technologies that were way before their time, all while working with some of the world’s greatest minds from the past. And at the center of that story was Carlos Moreau, whose “Orbit’s Story” screenplay was picked up by the Walt Disney Studios to be made into a future production – likely “Tomorrowland.”
It’s an intricately weaved tale that definitely hasn’t concluded. But for those who joined The Optimist last month and saw it through to its D23 Expo end, it was quite the adventure, not only filled with fun puzzle solving and opportunities to meet new friends, but also an unprecedented opportunity to dive deep into Disney history and literally walk in Walt’s footsteps, reliving so much of his past while eagerly looking toward the future. After all, there’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, just a dream away…
More photos from The Optimist finale at the 2013 D23 Expo: