As Disneyland Paris enters its third decade, Dedicated to DLP takes a deeper look at what makes Europe’s only Disney theme park so unique. From opening day on April 12, 1992 to becoming the continent’s number one tourism destination, the resort has had quite a ride, and this summer its second park, Walt Disney Studios, is about to open the gates on a bold new expansion that has been fours years in the making.
To inaugurate this special Disneyland Paris 30th Anniversary series, Dedicated to DLP sat down, via Zoom, with David Duffy, the resort’s Vice President of Entertainment, a longstanding Walt Disney Company leader in creative development, production and operation who freshly joined the French team at the height of the pandemic lockdown. We discussed his Disney journey, the challenge of reopening after many months of lockdown, the trailblazing shows created for the 30th celebrations and a look ahead for what surprises Avengers Campus may bring.
This Interview was first aired in episode 156 of our Dedicated to DLP Podcast, which you can hear at the end of the article.
Beth: To kick this off I’d like you to tell us maybe a bit about your Disney background and how you came to be at Disneyland Paris.
David Duffy: Sure, it’s been quite a journey, I have to say. I started with Disney in 1989, so almost 33 years ago. I started at Walt Disney World in Florida and was an actor in the Theme Parks, I was a performer at what was then called the Disney MGM Studios way back in the day, and was also an actor in Orlando doing television shows and commercials and things like that. I then had the chance to Segway from being a performer to the production side of entertainment in the mid-90s and just have had an amazing opportunity to work on a wide variety of Disney projects, from the opening of the first two Disney cruise ships in 1998 and 1999, being a part of the team at Disney’s Animal Kingdom through the early 2000s when we really kind of reinvented that Park and the stories that it was telling, then the opportunity to go back to Disney Cruise Line in the late-2000s when we were getting ready to launch the third and fourth cruise ships, the Disney Dream and the Disney Fantasy, and also had the chance to work on the Aulani project which is the Disney Resort and Spa in Hawaii.
And then I spent an amazing 8 years in Southern California at Disneyland, the place where all of the magic really started. I had the chance there to lead both the Creative and Production teams at Disneyland and through the reopening of Disney California Adventure in the reinvigoration of that park, through the 60th Anniversary of Disneyland, and then I had what is probably the ultimate opportunity to move to Paris in January of 2021. Of course a very interesting time to move to France with quarantines and lockdowns, but still was super excited to join the team here, reopen the parks in the summer of ‘21 and now leading the team through all of our 30th Anniversary entertainment as well as reopening the incredible entertainment program that is here at Disneyland Paris.
Beth: What a story! (David laughs) That’s great, you’ve experienced it all and somehow we were lucky enough to end up with you here.
David Duffy: Oh, well I think I’m the lucky one, but it’s a pretty cool opportunity I have to say.
Beth: Now because of Covid that gave you a very strange beginning to your time at DLP, I think there was that park closure almost right away, that must have been really a weird way for you to begin, how did that go for you?
David Duffy: Well you’re absolutely right, it was, just like for all of us, our lives at that point turned so upside down by covid, of course our business had been turned upside down as well. So, you know, I arrive to Paris with a 6 PM curfew and no restaurants, which are two things you don’t expect out of Paris, but what was really fantastic was a chance to begin to integrate myself into the team at Disneyland Paris, both within Entertainment but also within the whole Resort, and I really loved the opportunity to work with all of the great Entertainment team and all of the other partners in figuring out how we were going to safely operate the parks, safely for our guests, safely for our cast, and as quickly as possible, and as quickly as the government would allow a reopen. You know we had to make lots of accommodations in the staging of our shows, the character presentations, just everything had to be adapted and thought about. But luckily the team was up for the challenge and was just fantastic.
Beth: Wow, yeah as you say, what a challenge. I guess it’s unlike anything you really had to face before, despite the fact you’ve done so many varied things, and didn’t have to face putting on shows during the plague.
“The global pandemic that we all knew we were in became something that really brought us together as a Disney Theme Parks team to figure out the best way to deliver our product.”
David Duffy: Absolutely, and luckily we’re a part of a bigger Disney Global family and team, whether its partners in China or Japan or back in the States, we were really able to draw on best practices around the world. We did things here in Disneyland Paris that were then adapted and used by parks in the States, we watched practices and Shanghai and adapted those for how we could safely do things here, so literally the global pandemic that we all knew that we were in, became something that really brought us together as a Disney Theme Parks team to figure out the best way to deliver our product.
Beth: I love that synergy kind of turns something negative into something relatively positive. Now when you went about creating these shows, we’ve noticed that a lot of the publicity leading up to the 30th, there was a commercial in which a young boy is marveling at a parade in DLP with his father, and that same boy later as a grown man with his own daughter still being immersed in the magic, 30 years on. How do you go about creating that special Disney Magic, this entertainment that appeals to everybody from toddlers up to adults?
David Duffy: Well I think that’s something that’s so unique about the Disney brand, as you know it is such a legacy and our stories have spanned from Snow White in 1937, who is just as popular today as she was then, all the way up to the most recent of characters. Our guests are experiencing, at all different points in their lives, these Disney stories and Disney music and these emotions, so we really, for the 30th Anniversary, wanted to make sure that we really took a good look back and that we really wanted to honour the heritage of both Disney and Disneyland Paris, but also make sure that we were embracing today and also looking forward. We know that the multi-generations coming to the Park are experiencing Disney in many different ways in their lives, and we wanted all of that to come together in a very special way at the park.
Beth: Well I think it is a big success and everybody’s been enjoying that the old has not been left behind in favor of the new and there’s this great mixture going on.
David Duffy: Well I think that’s just so important and in my time with Disney and all the amazing artists that I’ve had the opportunity to to work with over the years, that’s one of the things that I’ve just really taken to heart as I work with all of them is always knowing our heritage, always knowing where we’ve come from, while at the same time always looking forward, always bringing in new perspectives, and looking for new stories and new ways to tell them.
Beth: We all know Disney fans can get really protective and obsessive about their fave attractions and shows of the past, DLP fans are no exception. So I guess you were able to lean a bit into the nostalgia and still integrate all the new stuff that everybody wants to see.
David Duffy: And also making sure, what you just said, Beth, is very important, right, what are the unique things to Disneyland Paris? Whether it’s the smallest of things of, you know, Chip ‘n Dale’s girlfriend Clarice who, quite frankly in 32 years I had never used in a show before, but was made very clear that was something the Disneyland Paris guests loved and expected, so was happy to include her, and that’s just one tiny example, but making sure that the show also feels very relevant and special to the audience here.
“This is the very first time that drones have been used as a part of a daily show at any Disney park in the world, so we’re very very proud of that.”
Beth: That’s great, I love it that we’re just such a quirky bunch over here. (David laughs). Well, talking about other unique aspects, I think right now most Disney fans have been hearing a lot about the Disney D-light drones show, and I think we’d all love to hear about the origins of that idea and why you thought that was going to be a good fit to trot it out first for us here at DLP?
David Duffy: Well you’re right, this is the very first time that drones have been used as a part of a daily show at any Disney park in the world, so we’re very very proud of that, were also very excited to have an amazing French company that we’re working with to deliver that on a daily basis, a company called Dronisos, who we’re in partnership with. Very early on, our Marketing team created this fantastic logo that we’re all so familiar with now, this shining, glimmering 30, that also of course echoes the shape of Mickey’s silhouette. So that really influenced all of our design, it really influenced the Gardens of Wonder, it influenced the character costumes, influenced all the color palette, and then ultimately we were like: “Well we need to do that picture, we need to do that picture of the castle with a 30 beside it, and the only way to do that is drones.” So really born out of that amazing logo came this conversation about how do we do drones, and we’re very lucky to work through all of the safety details, because of course doing drones safely is a number one priority, and it just inspired us, and so we worked and figured it out and had amazing partners, and are so excited to do it, to present it nightly.
Beth: That has been such a hit with the guests, I love being there for that show and just hearing the Ooohs and Aaahs. You must sneak out into the crowd to listen to that too, I bet.
David Duffy: Oh absolutely, whether it’s in the crowd or on video, you know I love that first moment: “Haaaa!”
Beth: Yeah, it’s so fun, it never gets old.
David Duffy: It’s super cool.
Beth: What aspect of the 30th Anniversary, in the run-up to it, what were you most looking forward to and then how did it turn out in reality?
David Duffy: Well, I think what we were so focused on in the early development, because we started development on the 30th Anniversary before the Parks had even reopened, so we knew that when it came time to reopen the park, yes we’d have a few months, but you know as we hit March and April of 2020, we knew that that would still be the time that so many people would be coming back for their first visit since the closure, right? So, for us it was very important to make the celebration and the entertainment feel very optimistic, and feel very hopeful, which led us to our song, Un Monde Qui S’Illumine, this idea of the world being filled with light and coming out of this pandemic as we slowly are, just really getting a sense of hope and optimism in the music and the message, and then just a real sense of celebration, which is what we also hope that the show Dream and Shine Brighter does in front of the castle is gives us optimism and celebration and we just thought coming out of the pandemic it’s the perfect time to do this, you know, to just give this positive, exciting sense of the world moving forward, and just like Disneyland Paris is moving forward. That’s what really informed all of our work quite honestly.
“We just thought coming out of the pandemic it’s the perfect time to do this, to just give this positive, exciting sense of the world moving forward, and just like Disneyland Paris is moving forward.”
Beth: Congrats on succeeding, because I really think you guys nailed it.
David Duffy: Thank you.
Beth: I’ve just been hearing so much about Un monde Qui S’Illumine, people are loving the Dream and Shine Brighter show, I think it really is giving this great sense of energy and optimism you guys were going.
David Duffy: Then we also wanted to make sure, as I mentioned, as we continue to move forward with Disneyland Paris, what makes it a unique Park amongst the Disney portfolio of Theme Parks, and the project that became the Gardens of Wonder is really for me an example of that, we wanted something that we said… you know, we were playing with different decoration ideas and decor ideas, and this idea started to evolve of sort of an art installation, and I said: “gosh, what would it be like if Versailles or Luxembourg Gardens or Jardins des Plantes in Paris, if they were going to do an installation in one of their gardens, what might that look like, and that really inspired this very, we feel, very European unique approach to our characters and our stories, combining Horticulture and art to tell the Disney stories in yet another different way and also something that the guests would just be able to experience all day and all evening, sort of at their own pace, and make their own discoveries with, without having to attend a specific showtime. So we wanted the experience to really tell the story on multiple levels throughout the guest’s day.
“What would it be like if Versailles or Luxembourg Gardens or Jardins des Plantes in Paris were going to do an installation in one of their gardens? That really inspired this very, we feel, European unique approach to our characters and our stories, combining horticulture and art to tell the Disney stories in yet another different way.”
Beth: And I love how the Gardens of Wonder have a bit of that, like, traditional European feel, but it is so social media-friendly and modern, all the GIFs of the spinning, kinetic elements… that was very clever.
David Duffy: As you say, we’re not at all immune to the Tik-Tok, Instagram, boomerang world and so, giving things hidden surprises, the movement so it can be created as a GIF or a boomerang, captured in unique ways, that was really all very intentional in its design.
Beth: Oh nice. Now you mentioned some beautiful historical spots in France, such as Versailles and all of that, did you already have an attraction to living in France that kind of steered you our way? And maybe if you want to add, because I feel like Marq really wanted to know about if you feel differences in the Disney cultures and creative processes between say, where you worked in the States and in France then?
David Duffy: Yeah I think, you know, to answer the first part was, I am being totally honest, I had actually only been to Paris one other time in 2007. I came here when we brought the very first Disney Cruise to Barcelona in 2007, we made the Transatlantic crossing and then we came up to Paris after that to visit Disneyland Paris, and during that time we of course visited the parks we also went to Puy du Fou, we traveled around the city and experienced that, and I just loved it, loved it. And then my path just did not bring me back here until this opportunity, so as soon as this opportunity presented itself and as soon as the World opened up again, you know I spent several months walking around Paris looking at closed restaurants and museums, but making a list of what I would visit as soon as it opened, and I’ve really very quickly been ticking off that list and visiting all of these sites both in Paris and around the country, because I want to make sure I really understand the place, the people and culture of where this Park is.
You know, as for working at Disneyland Paris, just as I found between Disney Cruise Line or Walt Disney World or Disneyland, we each have our own culture, if you will, but we’re all still doing the same thing, and we’re all working from the same family of stories. we are doing the production and development of entertainment which is very similar all around the world, so while of course the language is unique and the people are new, I found it actually incredibly comforting to just jump into a process which I luckily am very familiar with. So I love doing that process with new people, but I also love that around the world we approach our work in a very similar fashion.
Beth: A couple more questions for you then, first of all any more surprises for the 30th that have not yet been revealed?
David Duffy: Well you know, the 30th we’re excited about keeping it going and I think the big surprises for us on the horizon are Avengers Campus, we are very excited about what Avengers Campus is going to offer, so in addition to keeping the magic of the 30th Anniversary going, it’s the introduction of Avengers Campus in the very near future. As you know we just reopened Mickey and the Magician the other day, just this past weekend as we’re recording this, so we’re excited to have that show back because with that it actually brings us back to our pre-covid levels of entertainment, and in some ways even more with D-light and the castle hub show. We’re just excited to keep the energy going and keep the changes coming with new types of entertainment and new offerings.
“I think the big surprises for us on the horizon are Avengers Campus, we are very excited about what Avengers Campus is going to offer, in addition to keeping the magic of the 30th Anniversary going.”
Beth: That sounds wonderful. I guess the last thing to talk about is a bit of a reveal that this is not the first time we chatted, this is far from the first time we chatted!
David Duffy: What??!
Beth: Yeah, people might be surprised to know that David Duffy and I have known each other since long before Disneyland Paris was even built.
David Duffy: That’s true, Beth and I, we actually are both from the same place in the States, Lincoln, Nebraska and we went to High School together.
Beth: So here in Europe it would correspond to an age like 14, 15, 16, it’s like the last schooling you do before you go onto University or whatever, and I guess you were always on-brand, in theater and…
David Duffy: Well we both were, let’s be clear, let’s also talk about Beth, she’s a fabulous singer as some of you may know, and had the lead in The King and I when we were in High School, so Beth and I go way back in our relationship and until I saw Beth at the reopening last summer, the last time I had seen her was at our 20th High School reunion, so it was so amazing to see you here in France after all these years and all this time, what a crazy, crazy coincidence.
Beth: It really was, what made it even more fabulous was we’d been messaging about meeting each other at the park but I knew you’d be busy and we ended up just running into each other that very first day of the reopening on Main Street. You wouldn’t believe it if it was in a film.
David Duffy: It’s been so cool to reconnect with you and then to also see your fan base with Dedicated to DLP and to know that you’re a big fan of Disneyland Paris living here in the country with your family, it’s just been really cool to reconnect again.
Beth: Well I can’t believe that my old friend from way back is here, one of the leaders in helping keep that Disney Magic going here at Disneyland Paris. Thank you so much for doing this interview with us, David and we hope this won’t be the last time.
David Duffy: I hope not either, and it’s been great both on the professional and personal level so I look forward to the next one.