Disney set for a branding sneak peek

D23 Expo expecting 10,000 fans from around the world

Die-hard fans of Walt Disney gather this week in California for the company's first fan exposition and what Disney hopes will be a show of the durability of its brands in a tough time.

Disney executives are likely to face fan queries about what the planned acquisition of Marvel Entertainment, announced last week, would mean for its movie, theme park, toy and TV offerings in coming years.

The event at the Anaheim Convention Center, adjacent to Disneyland, is one of the few put on by a corporation, rather than its fans, to celebrate its history and products.

The event, which runs Thursday-Sunday and is called D23 Expo in a nod to the year Walt Disney founded his animation company, is expected to draw about 10,000 fans from all over the world for what Disney billed as unprecedented access to its archives as well as glimpses of upcoming films, TV shows, park rides and toys.

The Expo has been more than a year in the making, spurred by repeated pleas by Disney fans to CEO Bob Iger -- often at the company's annual meetings.

"When Bob became CEO (in 2005) we almost immediately started getting feedback ... that they wanted to know why there wasn't an official fan club in our 85-year history," Steven Clark, head of D23 Expo, said in an interview. "It made sense to him and he said: 'What can we do?' "

Iger unveiled the Expo and a new Web site featuring news and a blog about the company, retrospectives and a collectibles store at this year's annual meeting in Oakland, Calif.

Top Disney executives, including Iger and the heads of the company's four main divisions, are taking the event seriously and plan glitzy presentations with celebrity guest stars.

"Every business unit at this company jumped on the bandwagon immediately. They saw the value in it," Clark said.

Disney wants the Expo to be "the ultimate fan experience" -- at $37 per day. "Our fans are our biggest evangelists," Clark said. "They have made Disney a part of their lives. They live it, they breathe it and they tell people about it."

In addition to meet-and-greets with casts of Disney Channel and ABC television shows and Disney film stars, the company is making its Imagineers and other behind-the-scenes creative talent, and even a Disney family member, available at panel discussions and signings.

Among the celebs slated to attend are "Cougar Town" star Courteney Cox, "Aladdin" actor Robin Williams, "Hank" star Kelsey Grammer and "FlashForward" star Joseph Fiennes.

With its trademark showmanship, Disney is keeping the lid on some big surprises that will "boggle the mind," Clark said.

Disney will screen chunks of upcoming films, including "The Princess and the Frog," "Prince of Persia," Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" and 3D versions of the "Toy Story" films. The studio will also show oldies like "Sleeping Beauty," "Darby O'Gill and the Little People" and "The Shaggy Dog."

Fans also get up-close looks, too, at fall TV shows from Disney's ABC network such as "Modern Family" and "Eastwick," as well as casts of Disney Channel hits "Wizards of Waverly Place" and "Hannah Montana."

Salted among Hollywood glamour will be pitches for Disney products: "A Day in the Life of an Adventures By Disney Guide" and "Sailing to New Horizons: Disney Cruise Lines" and the Baby Einstein World of Discovery.

Key to many Disneyana collectors will be a temporary "museum" of archival treasures -- many of which have not been seen since they appeared in classic Disney films.

"What we hope they take away from it is a greater love of all things Disney," Clark said. "They love what Disney stands for: the quality of the creative content, the escapism."