No, that’s not a hashtag, it’s a hexadecimal color code. Comprised of around 75% red, 71% green and 94% blue, it’s perhaps first-cousins with mauve and sometimes confused with “Wisteria” by Sherwin Williams. Not as dark as a Wonka coat nor pale enough to be confused with pink, this particular color purple and its related tints have had a sudden and massive effect on the Walt Disney World fan community.
Birthed out of the the 1994 Tomorrowland redesign, this color was not intended to be a social media phenomenon or spark a line of merchandise and yet, a painted wall now has its own baseball cap, magic band, and signature drink. But this is just a symptom of a larger cultural predicament: Disney’s attempt to please (and of course make money from) its die hard fan community.
How We Got Here
Before the age of social media, there wasn’t a way for Disney to understand its park fandom’s eccentricities. Sure, through analytical data from surveys conducted in the parks, they might determine what restaurant or ride had good word of mouth or could entice a return visit, but fans were siloed by location and, beyond some underground magazines and the occasional Disney-produced book, they were just happy to learn what they could about the park and share it with those interested.
Then a seismic shift happened. The Internet allowed fans to truly interact for the first time and the histories and mysteries of the parks were written out for all to read free of charge. For the more artistic, the shift also sparked the fandom’s creative community and not only were they allowed to share their talents with each other, but, as independent web commerce took off, some found ways to sell their wares while skirting The Mouse’s legal department.
Fast forward to today, and you have a community that is not only for the die-hard fans, but also the more casual visitors, and the broadening of Disney fandom online has provided the company new ways to target fans, for better or worse. Generally, beliefs about this relationship fall into two categories…
The Happy Consumer
More than willing to sip on a purple wall slushie, these fans embrace the company’s attempt to bolster what they love. Their social media is adorned with photos from all nine of the “official walls” (including a moss-based Pandorian backdrop) and they consider Disney’s response to social media popularity as a sign that the company understands what the fans like.
The members of crowd are not fools. They know Disney wants to make money but, instead of the same Mickey Mouse merch that has been around in some form or another for decades, the company has pushed beyond the conventional and easily marketed souvenirs to include niche products in their gift shops. Such items are a sign that, if fans have a passion for something in the parks, the parks themselves want to find a way to celebrate it with them. Who could ask for more than that?
Before Disney found a way to mine the community for all it’s worth, these fans were making their own parks-related merchandise that Disney wouldn’t dream to produce. With a closet full of Horizons-themed t-shirts, they see Disney’s “new fan merch” as simply reworked (and often times poorly done) versions of things that had already been created online ages ago. A Dole Whip shirt? What is is this? Redbubble circa 2008? Of course Disney has always owned the rights, but they never took the time or effort to make anything until they were certain there was profit to be had.
But this crew isn’t just made up of gen-Xers, who founded the online community back in the Internet’s wild west days. They stand next to a new generation, who found comfort in shared hashtag-related experiences. They made that purple wall popular, and now Disney is hellbent on “plussing away” everything they like about it. It was their open secret and now the park claims it as its own, to do with as it pleases, and then thinks it can sell it back to them.
A Symbiotic Cycle
The ideologies of both of these groups won’t find common ground – one likes the company’s attention, while the other prefers the underground approach. But in any case we can’t go back before the days of social media. Oddly enough, for both groups to benefit, they need each other.
The DISgruntled will find their new photospot and make their new t-shirt and, for a time, it will be theirs alone, but Disney will catch on and the Happy Consumers will enjoy this experience that is new to them. It is a cycle that keeps the one group seeking artistic uniqueness, while not allowing the other to get stuck in one trend too long. In the end, the purple wall will one day find itself in a different coat of paint, but the relationship between Disney parks and the fans will always be a dance between commerce and passion.
Read more from Nathan Hartman.