Disney gurus mix movies, electronics to create new toys

GLENDALE, Calif. -- You can't get any more inside Disney than this.

On the walls of a hush-hush conference room deep inside the Disney Consumer Products headquarters are sketches of toys-to-be for a year from now, the start of the 2009 holiday season. A team of eight Disney big thinkers gathers to brainstorm about toys that mix technology and play.

This is Disney's new toys-of-the-future swat team: Toymorrow.

Toymorrow has been top secret, and it's a first for a reporter to sit in on a toy-planning meeting. This isn't just any brainstorming. It could be the future of toys for Disney — and everyone else.

"We used to sit down and ask ourselves, 'Is this a toy or a consumer electronic?' " says Chris Heatherly, the Disney vice president who heads the Toymorrow team. "But that was a super-silly thing to ask. You can't draw those neat and tidy lines any more."

Disney's toy gurus are trying to toss some serious pixie dust in the face of the economic meltdown. Even before the current crisis, the $22 billion toy industry had been flat for years. To pump some oxygen into the market, the Mouse House is trying to magically erase the already fuzzy lines between toys and tech products.

It has to. While 2008 may not be a terrific holiday for pricey toys, electronic toys are the toy industry's new heartbeat, says Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of TimetoPlayMag.com, a website with toy-buying advice. Ten years ago, fewer than two in 10 educational toys involved electronics, he says. Now, nearly 80% do.

This is even though electronic toy sales fell 3% last year after jumping 26% in 2006, according to researcher NPD Group. That said, sales of Internet-connected toys continue to surge — more than tripling — in the past year, NPD says.

"If you don't want to be left behind, you have to embrace technology," says Vince Klaseus, senior vice president of Disney's global toy division.

Andy Mooney, chairman of Disney Consumer Products, says he sees that even with his 2-year-old daughter, Rose. "She's equally at home playing with wooden blocks as she is fussing with my iPhone or my wife's BlackBerry."

Much as Disney uses its Imagineers to bring buzz to its parks and films, it wants similar over-the-top ideas for toys from this Toymorrow group of designers and engineers.

But big ideas can come with big price tags. One of the first efforts from this formerly secret development project emerges this week: its $249.99 Ultimate Wall-E robot, which can follow the sound of a human voice and even detect someone entering a room. Also rolling out, however, for a whole lot less, is a $29.99 Clickables Fairy Charms starter set. Aimed at 7-year-olds, it has a necklace, three charms and a USB-connected jewelry box for Internet play.

"There is a virtual toy revolution," says Laurie Schacht, co-publisher of The Toy Insider, a toy-buying guide, "and Disney is at the front of it."

Taking toys to next level

Disney was on the leading edge earlier in creating kid-friendly TVs, DVDs and MP3 players, but the competition lapped it in taking such items as digital cameras to the preschool level. "We were unsure if parents would let kids that young have a digital camera," says Heatherly.

Disney had to play catch-up, and the 18-month-old Toymorrow team is charged with making sure that never happens again.

During this 90-minute session, the group brainstorms toy ideas for the October 2009 re-release of Toy Story in 3D and February 2010 re-release of Toy Story 2 in 3D. On the table: how to "plus-up" two Toy Story toy concepts on the drawing board — a dancing alien robot and a Buzz Lightyear robot. "Plus-up" was founder Walt Disney's term for taking a Disney product to the next level. It's the mantra for the Toymorrow team.

Leading the session is Ken Ong, a robotics expert, who acts as emcee and idea guru. Ong, head of research and development for Toymorrow, stands at an easel with a felt pen and scribbles down the ideas that come flying.

He had opened by showing the group a shelf of robotic toys already on the market. The group's task is to move well beyond them.

First up: the dancing alien.

On the table is a prototype toy based on Toy Story's three-eyed alien-with-attitude. This one is programmed to dance to tunes downloaded to it, in this case, Elvis Presley's Viva Las Vegas.

"What can we do that makes this better?" Ong asks. He looks at his watch, then gives the group 15 minutes to brainstorm.

Asks Brian Godlewski, a senior designer at Disney Toys who works on toys inspired by Disney-Pixar movies, "Does it have to do the same dance to all music?"

That leads Len Mazzocco, senior vice president of global creative at Disney Consumer Products, to propose online dance contests and online voting.

Jieun Kim, manager of interactive design, offers, "What if the robot could mime whatever dance you do?'

That leads Heatherly to suggest a way for the toy to "remember" the dance done by its owner. Or, Kim suggests, what if it could remember your voice and perform any dance you named?

Or maybe, says Heatherly, there could be a series of collectable aliens, with each doing a different dance. Better yet, he says, the alien mimics, via interactive gloves for its owner, whatever dance the owner does.

Just a few years ago, all this would have been pie-in-the-sky. But this think-tank's engineers and designers know every one of these suggestions is doable now. The only question: At what price?

For this toy, they want it to be less than $50.

Visualizing aliens and robots

Time's up. The group spends the next 15 minutes brainstorming a $100 Buzz Lightyear robot for 2009. Then Ong divides the group into two, and sends one to another room. Each group has 10 minutes to sketch an image of the toys they've been discussing to bring an idea to life visually.

Dominique Brown, the manager of global creative, is given the job of sketching the Dancing Alien for his group. He creates an alien whose eyes shift and knees bend, and that comes with interactive gloves for its owner.

When the groups reassemble, Randal Ouye, a product design senior manager, is asked to pitch and explain the "Show Me Moves Alien" his group has created and named. He dances the way he suggests the alien should dance, and the room breaks into applause.

But the applause could be for naught. A year from now, the wacky alien toy on the sketch pad could be a best-selling toy — or may never have gotten off the pad. The next step in the process is for members of Disney's research and development department to consider the toy's plausibility. Then, Disney's top toy executives must sign off. Finally, they need to find a licensee who can actually make the thing.

From brainstorm to store shelf

That was the path followed by this year's big hope: Ultimate Wall-E.

It was before Disney formally created and named its Toymorrow think tank, but a similar meeting about two years ago came up with the Wall-E robot concept. Disney toy dreamers wanted the robot to show all kinds of emotions: happy, excited, scared, even sad. Emotions had to show on his face so he appeared alive.

"What makes him special is all the movement in his face," says Heatherly. "Even his eyebrows go up and down." The robot comes with a remote control on which each button shows a picture of an emotion or movement. Press the button, and Wall-E responds. Disney licensee Thinkway Toys was able to accomplish this by stuffing 10 motors into the robot.

But in addition to the licensee, Ultimate Wall-E was "touched" by 50 folks at Disney at one time or another before it made it onto the shelf.

"We want our toys to be as special as a Disney movie or a Disney theme park," says Heatherly, which is why Toymorrow was formed. "Before, when we'd do brainstorms, and someone would ask 'How do we do it?' " says Heatherly, "the answer was always, 'We don't know.' "

Solution: Boost the brainstorm mix to include engineers, computer geeks and designers.

With that mandate, the Toymorrow team was created 18 months ago during a meeting of 100 Disney executives at the Bel Age hotel just off Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard. The group came up with 75 big ideas in two days.

The Toymorrow team now is made up of eight experts who meet monthly. It dreams up products to roll out within a year to 18 months. It looks for ways to extend brands such as the Disney Princess line. And it tosses around long-term R&D concepts.

For example, says Heatherly, what if Disney toys could sense your feelings and respond to your brain waves?

What if?

In a hallway at Disney Consumer Products, a video screen flashes a photo of founder Walt by this quote: "I look at the world with uncontaminated wonder."

Could be Toymorrow's motto.