Last week, The Hollywood Reporter, well, Hollywood Reported that Disney is developing a franchise of streaming TV series set in its Magic Kingdom theme park. The first of these, The Society of Explorers and Adventurers, will be “set in a world where all the themed lands and characters of the Disney parks and classic films actually exist in another reality.” But more important than that plot summary was the note that the series will be helmed by Ronald D. Moore. Moore, to the uninitiated, is the luxuriantly coiffed writer and producer behind some of the most beloved sci-fi and fantasy shows of the past 25 years: Outlander, the Battlestar Galactica reboot, various Star Trek shows and films, and the Apple TV+ alt-history space drama For All Mankind, which has inspired near-cultish devotion in certain corners of the Ringer newsroom.
Needless to say, there’s a lot to unpack in this announcement, so here are nine questions about the potential of a Disney theme park cinematic universe, with Moore wearing Mickey Mouse’s white gloves.
1. Who asked for this?
The elevator pitch for The Society of Explorers and Adventurers conjures up images of a Ready Player One–style fandom validation machine, but the précis itself reveals little. “The themed lands and characters of the Disney parks and classic films” is such a sufficiently broad set of ideas that it could include a Gulliver’s Travels–style romp from the Pride Lands of The Lion King to the fairy tale realm of Cinderella to the medieval England of Robin Hood. Or it could pit the various Epcot nations against each other in a geopolitical thriller. We won’t know how Moore will tackle this topic until more details emerge.
Whatever the approach, Disney is trying to make Disney+ a foundational tree in the forest of streaming networks. And with the company up to its elbows in loot from the Marvel and Star Wars money-printing machines, it has cash to invest in original programming. But if one were to pluck a concept from the Disney vault, why pick a theme park most people have only a passing familiarity with?
Well, in the world of consumerism as personality trait, Disney holds a special place on the podium. There are online message boards devoted to the inner workings of the Disney World parks, YouTube walkthroughs of the various theme parks, and travel agencies that offer bespoke Disney experiences. People have Disney-themed weddings. Cards on the table: I think it’s kinda weird! But everyone who had a wedding cake with mouse ears would probably think it’s weird that I have a Philadelphia Eagles tattoo and have spent years perfecting a theory about how Gilmore Girls actually takes place in a mental hospital and Michel is the only character not suffering from a mass delusion. We all have our hobbies, and at least the Disney superfans are stanning a multinational conglomerate and not something embarrassing like a politician.
The point is, if we went around asking “Who is this for?” about every TV show made in the past 20 years, 99 percent of them would struggle to produce such a large, devoted audience from the first press release. As a purely economic proposition, the logic is beyond obvious.
2. Is this just some form of intellectual property maintenance?
Far be it from me to accuse Disney, a copyright-lobbying firm that sometimes branches out into film production and merchandising, of scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to original ideas. However, it does seem like a lot less work to rehash existing ideas than come up with new ones. Sometimes, creating a new movie or TV show has less to do with creative necessity than re-entrenching a claim on contested intellectual property (IP). This is why Sony kept rebooting the Spider-Man series before the rights to the character reverted to Marvel and Disney, and why there was an NBC show about Hannibal Lecter that couldn’t mention Clarice Starling, and a CBS show about Clarice Starling that can’t mention Hannibal Lecter.
More than that, big media companies like to wring every last dime out of IP they already own rather than pay to acquire or create new stories or characters. But between the dozens of classic animated Disney films, the Muppets, Star Wars, the MCU, and Pirates of the Caribbean, there are only so many new sandboxes for the Mouse to play in. There’s even a new Mighty Ducks TV series in the works. Alexander the Great wept when there were no more worlds left to conquer, and that’s why he never got to run the Walt Disney Company. As Disney is in no danger of losing the copyright to its own theme park, there’s no urgency to turn it into a TV show, but doing so substantially reduces world-building costs.
Besides, we all laughed when they turned the Pirates of the Caribbean theme park ride into a movie franchise, and look how that turned out: five feature films, at least one and a half of which were good; somewhere in the neighborhood of $4.5 billion in global box office receipts; and a score that provided the framework for 40 percent of all high school marching band shows in the mid-2000s. We mock Johnny Depp and the Ray Harryhausen–inspired undead pirate army now, but in every way that counts (i.e., in terms of money) Pirates was an absolute smash. If Moore’s theme park show is even half as successful, Disney will build him his own castle in central Florida.
3. Wouldn’t it have been a better idea to adapt “Kingdom in the Sky,” the iconic 2000 jam by comedy a cappella group Da Vinci’s Notebook? You know, the one that compares Disney World to a religious festival and features the line “They will ride that holy monorail into sweet providence / When they know that their redeemer is a mouse in short red pants.”
Yes. Call me, Ronald D. Moore, if you want to talk about the second show in the Magic Kingdom Cinematic Universe.
4. How about a Disney+ show devoted to No Doubt’s seminal 1995 album Tragic Kingdom?
How could they afford not to?
5. If The Society of Explorers and Adventurers brings characters from the theme parks to life, should we expect a giant anthropomorphic fried turkey leg?
If there’s not a giant anthropomorphic fried turkey leg in the first episode, I’m going to drive down to Florida and picket Spaceship Earth.
6. Let’s say you’re not the kind of person who spends two weeks a year in the Happiest Place On Earth™. There’s, like, a zero percent chance this show’s going to be worth watching, right?
No, I actually think there’s a nontrivial chance it turns out to be pretty good.
7. You just spent the first two-thirds of this column mocking the premise. Is this a bit? What makes you think The Society of Explorers and Adventurers is going to even be watchable?
It would be one thing if this program were a straightforward promo video for a theme park, but going back to the premise, and the person in charge of it, it seems like it’s going to be some kind of sci-fi or fantasy show whose characters just so happen to be drawn from a particular bucket. That can make for good TV even if the biggest draw is the familiar characters. Once Upon a Time wouldn’t have run for seven seasons if nobody liked it, after all.
Moreover, a clever writer can figure out ways to use studio-satisfying IP as a Trojan horse for concepts that go beyond the premise. If The Guns of Navarone or Saving Private Ryan had come along today, they wouldn’t have had nine-figure budgets and huge international marketing campaigns. But dress that basic premise up in the costume of the MCU or Star Wars or The Hunger Games and all of a sudden you’ve got a blockbuster again.
That doesn’t mean every IP maintenance vehicle that winks at a more prestigious storytelling convention actually turns out to be good. (The next time I hear someone say Captain America: The Winter Soldier is essentially Three Days of the Condor I’m going to tear off my own arm and beat them with it, then replace said arm with a Soviet-made prosthetic.) But my limited optimism for The Society of Explorers and Adventurers is based almost entirely on Moore’s track record.
Since the 1990s, Moore has made pretty much nothing but awesome upper-middlebrow sci-fi/fantasy TV. The kind of shows that are thought-provoking without being pretentious or taxing, accessible without being condescending, and fun without being silly. It’s a tough needle to thread, but he’s done it over and over within the constraints of the PG-to-PG-13 lane that one imagines Disney will require him to stay in.
8. Excuse me, Outlander is definitely not PG.
OK, fine, but it’s not like you have to hide For All Mankind, Battlestar Galactica, or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine from your kids. I don’t know if, say, Benioff and Weiss could work in that space. The other thing to remember is that any show whose premise panders this hard to Disney fans is going to be heavy on fan service. Moore has extensive experience making TV for fans whose more radical elements—Trekkies, BSG nuts, NASA know-it-alls—make Mouseheads look positively chill. And in all cases his shows give the die-hards all the Easter eggs they care to look for without being inscrutable to people who aren’t intimately familiar with the source material. I’m very much not the target audience for this premise, but Moore’s track record makes him one of the very few producers whose involvement could get me to watch it anyway.
9. So will you?
I don’t know. We’ll talk again when they release a trailer.