The D23 Expo got off to an exciting start this morning, when Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Tom Staggs took to the stage in the D23 Arena to welcome the packed audience of fans who came out to celebrate this years Disney Legends, 12 men and women who have left their indelible marks on the company. “Disney is about its people… people who contribute their dedication and creativity to build and maintain what is the greatest entertainment company in the world,” he said to the excited capacity crowd.
Tom then handed the stage over to Emmy Award®-winning television personality and host of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars and America’s Funniest Home Videos, Tom Bergeron, who would, for the next nearly two hours, act as master of ceremonies. “I’m sitting backstage talking with Regis and Kermit the Frog–does it get any better than that?” the television veteran laughed.
To kick things off, Tom introduced five women who have something very rare in common: They have each lent their voices, whether speaking or singing, to a Disney Princess and in doing so helped create some of the most beloved characters in modern day animation. Among them, actress and singer Anika Noni Rose, who fulfilled her lifelong ambition to work for Disney when she became the unforgettable voice of Tiana in The Princess and the Frog. “I need to thank my mom, for telling me from the very beginning that I was part of Disney,” the effusive star said. “She had me convinced I was a dancing mushroom.”
Celebrated actress Linda Larkin, who gave us the voice of Princess Jasmine in Aladdin was next to grace the stage. Tony® Award-winning actress and singer Lea Salonga, who provided both Jasmine and Fa Mulan in Mulan with their singing voices, thanked composers Alan Menken and Tim Rice and her co-recipient for the honor. “I also have to thank Linda Larkin for not knowing how to sing,” the diminutive singer joked.
Broadway actress and singer Paige O’Hara, whose turn as Belle helped make history when Beauty and the Beast became the first animated feature film to receive an Academy Award® nomination for Best Picture, was next to be honored. Jodi Benson was the fifth and final Princess to be recognized for her many contributions to Disney. Not only has the actress and singer been the voice of Ariel from The Little Mermaid for more than 20 years, she’s the voice behind Barbie in Disney•Pixar’s Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3. “It’s 11 o’clock in the morning and I’m in a ball gown,” Jodi quipped before pulling out a Disney ID badge and flashing it to the audience. “I’m a proud cast member of Disney!” she announced to the roar of the 4,000 Disney fans on hand. “This card is 26 years old. It does not swipe anymore,” she joked. “I could not get my discount yesterday.”
After each of the leading ladies accepted their statuettes, they performed a stirring musical medley of classic songs from their respective films that brought the capacity crowd to its feet. The show-stopping repertoire included “Be Our Guest,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Almost There,” “Reflection” and “Part of Your World.” For the finale, the four singing Princesses took the stage together and sang “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.”
Next Tom introduced real estate development visionary and former Walt Disney Productions Chairman of the Board Ray Watson, who saw the Company through the opening of its first water park, River Country, and the opening of EPCOT Center, and former Chairman of Disney Consumer Products Barton “Bo” Boyd, who over the course of his 33 years with the Company played an integral role in merchandise, licensing, and the opening of the first Disney Store in 1987.
Actor Guy Williams was the next inductee to be honored. The acclaimed actor left an unmistakable mark on television history as the famous masked man in Walt Disney’s Zorro. Guy passed away in 1989, but his son, Steve Catalano, proudly accepted the distinguished honor on his father’s behalf. “I’d like to thank Uncle Walt for selecting the right guy for the role,” he said. Then, wielding Guy’s Zorro sword, he saluted the crowd.
When Jack and Bonita Wrather struck a deal with their friend Walt Disney in 1954 to build a luxury family hotel on property adjacent to Disneyland, new ground was broken and soon after the couple had left their indelible handprint on the development of tourism in Southern California. Tom introduced the husband and wife team and shared a video with photos from the Disneyland Hotel’s construction before welcoming the couple’s children to the stage.
Television personality and cultural icon Regis Philbin added Disney Legend to his long list of accomplishments today. “What can I say about our next Legend that he hasn’t already said about himself?” Tom quipped during the Emmy Award-winning host’s introduction. Kelly Ripa, Live! With Regis and Kelly co-host, also helped pay tribute to “Reeg” with a very humorous and heartfelt video message.
The final honoree of the day was Muppets creator Jim Henson. The Emmy Award winning television producer’s daughter Lisa Henson came on stage to describe what it was like growing up with the creative genius. The honoree’s son Brian Henson delighted the audience with a performance of one of his father’s earliest acts to the tune of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face.” Then in a fitting tribute to Jim, and an incredible close the exciting ceremony, Kermit the Frog and Rowlf the Dog sang a duet of “Rainbow Connection.”
By D23′s Marina Draskovic
Click here for more images from the 2011 Disney Legends ceremony.