As a pretty big theme park nerd (shocker, I know), I was SO THRILLED to be invited to attend the DIS Family Reunion at Disney’s Contemporary Resort. Presented by The DIS (Disney Information Station) and benefiting Give Kids The World, this unique conference featured fascinating presentations by celebrities and theme park leadership, an auction with vintage memorabilia and exclusive experiences, a vendor hall spotlighting local artists and small businesses, and so much more! A huge THANK YOU to Give Kids The World for inviting me out to the event.
What is the Give Kids The World?
The DIS Family Reunion is more than just an awesome conference and opportunity to hear from your favorite theme park legends, it’s also an important fundraiser for Give Kids The World. Also known as GKTW or The Village, this organization is a 89-acre wonderland offering weeklong vacations for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. Each family receives complimentary lodging, meals, and attraction tickets as part of their magical stay. You can read more about their mission, current programs, and events (like the upcoming holiday spectacular -Night of a Million Lights) on their website.
The DIS Family Reunion!
If you’ve ever been to a traditional conference before, you know the format to expect – a schedule of available activities from which participants pick their preferred itinerary. But what makes this expo so unique is the content! Seemingly crafted for theme park and Disney fans, there was so much to see and do. But my absolute favorite parts of the experience were the incredible guest presentations!
Guest Presentations and Educational Sessions
If you are a Disney fan, theme park nerd, or anything in between; you are sure to be captivated by the fascinating speakers and presentations. Each day was filled with sessions as dynamic and varied as the theme parks themselves – ensuring that everyone would find a guest they simply couldn’t wait to hear. A few of the highlights included:
Welcome by Pam Landwirth and Wish Child Kellen
A fitting start to the conference, Give Kids The World CEO Pam Landwirth kicked off the event with an introduction to The Village and its important work. During her presentation, we also go to meet Kellen – a former Wish Kid and mixed media artist who told of his Village experiences and memories.
As an artist and advocate for the Village, Kellen announced that he would sell prints of his original work during the event with proceeds benefiting Give Kids The World. The selected piece, titled “Darkness to Light” depicts how Kellen’s heart felt upon entering the Village for the first time – as if the darkness of his diagnosis and treatments were chased away by a brilliant light.
Of course, how could I do anything but support the artistry of this amazing young man? I purchased a print the first day and Kellen was nice enough to even autograph it for me! Thanks, Kellen!
Conversations with Chef Art Smith
If you ask me to name my favorite restaurants on Disney property, I will undoubtedly mention Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’ at Disney Springs. So you can imagine my delight when I learned that the Chef would hold his own session to discuss stories from his career, family life, and path to success. He has an engaging personality, and I was hooked on every word!
Panel Discussion with Attraction Actors
In one of my favorite sessions, we joined Kat Cressida (Constance Hatchaway from the Haunted Mansion), David Danipour (Dr. Stevens from Flight of Passage), and Ron Schneider (Dreamfinder from Journey Into Imagination) in a conversation about their theme park careers, from initial auditions to final productions! I could have spent all day learning about their creative processes and performance experiences.
Common Sense Leadership
Lee and Dan Cockerell, father/son duo and former leaders at Walt Disney World, sat down to share their practical advice and actionable tips for effective leadership and successful careers. They did a really wonderful job of sharing their wisdom through personal anecdotes and simple concepts – making it easy for everyone to get great tidbits out of the session! I learned a lot!
Lessons from Universal Creative
Jason Surrell, current Senior Creative Director at Universal and former Disney Imagineer, had tons of amazing stories from his lifelong career in themed entertainment. From the Jungle Cruise to Epic Universe, we got to hear about it all – and IT WAS AWESOME!
Chatting with a Real Disney Artist
Lon Smart took the stage to share his stories of movie animation and theme park artwork. It was a fascinating presentation, really laying out exactly how much thought, preparation, and hard work goes into every piece of Walt Disney World – from random signage in a queue line to park entrance topiaries to special event guide maps!
Writing Tips from Ridley Pearson
As a writer, I was particularly thrilled to hear to the author of The Kingdom Keepers talk about his creative process and career successes!
I could have listened to days and days worth of these sessions, and the above entries are only my highlights! There were so many other amazing guests including Jodi Benson, Pat Sajak, Linda Larkin, and Tony Baxter!
With proceeds benefiting Give Kids The World, the Auction featured a wide variety of signature experiences (such as a tour of the Village from Pam Landwirth, dinner with Kat Cressida, or even a guest spot on the DIS Unplugged Podcast) and vintage memorabilia available for bidding.
Presented in a separate meeting room, the physical memorbilia displays were almost museum-like. There were so many fascinating finds like old park maps, merchandise from retired attractions, fast food toys, and collectible snow globes. There were even shoes worn by past Broadway Disney stars! Whether you planned to bid or not, this room was a must-see!
Open from 9am-8pm during the course of the conference, the Vendor Hall was filled with independent artists and small businesses. While I can’t spotlight every vendor on the floor, I do want to call out some of the fascinating booths I visited during the event.
It’s All Geek To Me
It’s All Geek To Me specializes in handmade and up-cycled jewelry, artwork, and household goods. Of course, much of their merchandise features a fandom theme – such as Disney, comic books, or vintage toys. At the DIS Family Reunion, we got to peruse their collection of earrings, toy ornaments, and layered paper art. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram to find out more!
Self-described as a character creator and illustrator, Kyle Gentry designs art books and wall prints. We got to learn a little bit about his work during our visit.
While his art features a variety of different stories and characters, our favorites were an art book called Tourist! and a wall print series called Monty The Unfortunate Octopus. In Tourist!, Kyle creates a series of characters and drawings inspired by real life theme park guests!
Monty stars in a series of wall prints, intending to be displayed together (kind of like a comic book) to create a unique story. Each combination of prints tells a particular tale, with fans having the ability to change the story by simply adding, subtracting, or mixing various panels. Keep in touch with Kyle by following his Instagram!
Lillian & Co
Creating beautiful bracelets, rings, and other jewelry; each piece from Lillan & Co is engraved with a Disney-inspired quote. Some of my favorites include: “Keep Moving Forward,” “What is grief if not love persevering?,” and a couple’s set saying “I love you” and “I know.” You can find more of their designs on their Instagram account.
There were so many other experiences to enjoy during the DIS Family Reunion, including live music from favorite theme park acts (Off Kilter, Yeehaw Bob, and the Palm Beach [formerly Grand Floridian] Society Orchestra), photo/autograph sessions, a six-hour DIS Marathon recording, and even a panel discussion and reunion from the Mickey Mouse Club!
I had an amazing time at the DIS Family Reunion, and I absolutely hope it returns with more special guests and theme park fun in the coming years. Another HUGE THANK YOU to Give Kids The World for inviting me out and to The DIS for organizing such an awesome event!