The COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound effect on how the Walt Disney Company is delivering the goods for fans of what they do. Everything is being affected, thanks to what is an apparent judgment by Disney that the pandemic isn’t going away any time soon.

To help compensate for the general public’s inability to gather together in public places to enjoy the entertainment they have to offer, changes are being made to how they offer it.

GroupWatch on Disney+

Disney+ is jumping on the co-viewing bandwagon with a new feature called GroupWatch.

The function launches today in the U.S. after a test run in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, it allows up to seven people to watch the same Disney+ title together, even if they are in separate places. This is similar to Amazon Prime Video’s watch party function, and addresses the need for fans to get together to watch movies with their friends – something not currently possible for most of us.

Few co-viewing experiences have been available on television sets, but GroupWatch works across a number of platforms, including web browsers, mobile devices, connected TV boxes and smart TVs. “If we had launched this as a [browser] extension, out of our 60 million subscribers, it would have been a drop in the bucket that would ever use the product,” says Jerrell Jimerson, senior vp product management for Disney+. “The vast majority of our viewing happens on televisions.”

Jimerson adds that GroupWatch has been in the works for some time, but the engineering team at Disney Streaming Services waited to roll the out the feature widely until they knew it would work as intended. In particular, they focused on making sure that all the video streams would sync up.

Disney+ subscribers in the U.S. should now see an icon that allows them to initiate GroupWatch. They can then invite friends to join them. (Invitations can only be sent via mobile or web, but streams can be watched on any supported device.) While they watch, users can react in-app by sharing emojis.

The feature is expected to roll out in Europe later this fall.

For comparison, Amazon Watch Party sessions can support up to 100 participants — as long as those participants also have a US Prime membership. Netflix Party synchronizes video playback and adds group chat for Netflix subscribers, but is only on Chrome browsers. Netflix was first out of the gate with this feature, and supports 10-20 participants. Metastream is a free alternative for co-viewing + chat.

What Can’t Be Tweaked Has to Be Moved; D23 Delayed a Year to 2022.

D23 Expo is a biennial fan convention for all things Disney with attendance at about 100,000. The event has been delayed by a year to 2022. It had originally been penciled in for summer 2021, but it will now take place Sept. 9-11, 2022 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Calif. The delay is due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since 2009 D23 has become a go-to place for Disney to bring together stars, major news and exclusive footage of its upcoming projects.

The most recent D23 occurred in August 2019 and was a star-studded affair, with Disney trotting out talent such as Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jamie Foxx, Tom Holland, Chris Pratt and the cast of Eternals to screaming fans. Disney also used the convention to officially confirm that Ewan McGregor was back as Obi-Wan Kenobi for a Disney+ series (also 2022?), as well as to lay out plans for Marvel Studios’ Disney+ shows.

The next installment will come as Disney prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding, and the company is promising a first look at how it plans to celebrate that milestone. The date is October 16, 1923, when Walt Disney founded his studio, 4 years before Mickey Mouse.

Disney has another big 2022 convention, August’s Star Wars Celebration, slated for less than one month before its new D23 date.

Careful Optimism

Disney’s being hit hard by the pandemic, with their theme parks in the United States having to lay off thousands of workers. The virus is no joke, and it’s costing them hundreds of millions of dollars. None the less, they’re convinced they’re going to be weathering the crisis. The changes in their streaming service and their plans for their fan conventions are evidence of that.

Disney+ going to shared streaming experiences, and pushing D23 back an entire year demonstrates that the Walt Disney Company has done its homework and realizes that a long term pandemic business strategy is important enough that they are willing to dedicate technology development resources to making it happen. Disney is convinced that 2021 will be much like 2020 with respect to how the pandemic is affecting entertainment consumerism.

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