By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/5/2010 1:31:56 PM ET 2010-11-05T17:31:56

In one video, a little boy dances during a parade at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. In another, a young girl dressed as a princess embraces her father. And in a third, two women explore Cinderella Castle.

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All are part of Disney’s new campaign called “Let the Memories Begin” — a promotion that relies on what the company refers to as “guest-generated” content.

"Let the Memories Begin is about real guests making real memories in our parks,” said Leslie Ferraro, executive vice president of global marketing for Disney Destinations. “Disney guests have always loved sharing their vacation memories with us and each other. New technologies like YouTube and Facebook have made it easier and faster for our guests to share their memories, for Disney Parks to spotlight those memories on a larger scale, and for us to reinforce to our guests how important we think their memories are.”

Disney isn’t alone. The travel industry — which for years considered videos as byproducts of a happy vacation, if not liabilities that occasionally found their way on to the Internet — has also had a change of heart.

Newsweek: The business of the Disney empire

User-generated videos aren’t exactly new. They’ve been popular for years and have big audience online. According to ComScore, 178 million U.S. Internet users watched online video content in August, the latest month available. That’s an average of 14.3 hours per viewer. Many of the clips online are produced on the cheap, using a cell phone and rudimentary editing software on a PC.

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But Disney’s campaign marks a turning point. The grainy videos with the tinny sound that occasionally went viral are now being accepted and even celebrated as authentic representations of a vacation experience.

“They’re real,” said Jason Stein, a writer, producer and director for Laundry Service Media. “No script, no actors. I understand why the travel industry wants to employ more user-generated videos: It’s a real person documenting a real experience.”

It's about more than lowering production standards and handing over some of the creative control to a customer, said Hawk Thompson, the content director at the marketing firm Springbox. “It's more like a convergence,” he said. “Consumers and smart brands like Disney interact with each other and share similar aesthetic values because digital media has leveled the playing field.”

Slideshow: Disney magic (on this page)

Travel companies could get a boost from that trend, in terms of improved sales and visibility. But travelers might be the real beneficiaries, in the long run, because they’ll gain power.

“This is all about curating the content that helps sell the virtues of Disney through the experience of its consumers,” said Frank Sinton, CEO of MeFeedia. “This appears to be an attempt to better harness the user-generated content movement with hand-picked selections to help the company put its best face forward.”

The potential downside
But letting the user-generated content genie out of the bottle could also backfire. While Disney’s experiment is carefully orchestrated, other initiatives haven’t gone as smoothly. An often-cited case is TripAdvisor, which is best known for its written user-generated hotel reviews. Hoteliers have long complained that the reviews are false or inaccurate, and now several hundred have reportedly banded together and are considering filing a defamation suit against the company .

“The pitfalls are the same,” said Kaleel Sakakeeny, the chief executive of New Media Travel. The content, he added, reflects the experience of the traveler and not necessarily the interest of the company or destination in the video.

Related: Legal action threatened over TripAdvisor reviews

For example, a customer with a video camera in the wrong place at the wrong time could easily create a clip that negates all of the positive effects of a hundred user-generated videos. And since video can be more influential than a written review or a posted photo, the risks are greater.

Industry-watchers warn that encouraging users to document their vacations with their video cameras and post them online may, in fact, lead to more headaches than heartwarming moments.

“Individuals may have an axe to grind either because they are getting incentivized by the resort or they received bad service,” said Johnny Boston, the president and chief creative officer of Raw Digital. “In other words, people who post videos may have motives of their own.”

Not the end of professional video
Social media professionals say the move toward user-generated video content doesn’t mean the professionals should pack it up and go home.

“I definitely think we live in an online world where professional and user-produced content can not only live in harmony, but embrace and benefit from each other in a way that’s not competitive,” said Dana Detrick-Clark, the founder and producer of Serious Vanity Music Entertainment Resource Group. “I believe Disney will take this raw footage they're collecting from travelers and frame it in a professional way that makes it more engaging to view and learn from.”

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But Andy Newman, whose public relations firm represents the Florida Keys and who has been an early adopter of video to promote travel, said viewers still prefer to watch professionally shot and edited footage. For example, the Keys runs a weekly video on its website on subjects ranging from how to make key lime pie to a tour of Dry Tortugas National Park. Many of these productions have tens of thousands of views.

“There’s still a place for good, news-style video production,” he said.

Disney agrees. Ferraro, the Disney executive, said the company notes the new campaign includes some professional video, “the combination of which takes our campaign to a new level of creativity.”

Still, Disney’s acceptance of user-generated content is an important milestone in the evolution of online video. It shifts some power to travelers — power that they never imaged they’d have. And there’s more to come.

“Digital media is evolving constantly,” Thompson said. “Today's smart phones shoot HD video. Tomorrow they’ll shoot 3-D footage.”

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org .

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Photos: Disney around the World

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  1. Feast for a Beast

    The Beast welcomes guests to his castle in the Magic Kingdom, where Be Our Guest Restaurant will serve French-inspired cuisine for quick-service lunch and table-service dinner. Part of the newly-revamped Fantasyland, the stylish restaurant will have its grand opening on Dec. 6, 2012 at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Matt Stroshane / Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Dumbo's pre-flight deck

    Waiting in line for Dumbo the Flying Elephant is as much of an event as the ride itself. As guests arrive, they'll receive a circus ticket pager that will virtually hold their place in line and notify them when it's their turn to board the attraction, leaving them free to explore the interactive wonders inside the big top while they wait to take to the skies. Dumbo the Flying Elephant is part of the expansion project which nearly doubles the size of Fantasyland, a multiyear project that will have its grand opening on Dec. 6, 2012 at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Ali Nasser / Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Luxurious cuisine

    French-inspired cuisine will be highlighted when Be Our Guest Restaurant opens in the New Fantasyland. Furthermore, select wines and beers will be offered to complement the elegantly-themed meals. (Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Fit for a princess

    Visitors to Disneyland can walk through Sleeping Beauty Castle and see 3-D scenes from the classic film, originally released in 1959. (Paul Hiffmeyer / Disneyland) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Birthday girl

    Singer Miley Cyrus performs at the "Miley's Sweet 16 Share the Celebration" party at Disneyland in October 2008. (Mario Anzuoni / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Boo!

    The Haunted Mansion, a New Orleans Square attraction, opened Aug. 9, 1969, and is the home of 999 happy haunts. As Disney's website suggests, "Enter...if you dare!" (Disneyland) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Time for supper

    Ghosts dine inside Disneyland's Haunted Mansion. Disney classifies the ride as gentle but warns that younger children could be frightened by its special effects. (Disneyland) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 50 and fabulous

    Fireworks explode over The Sleeping Beauty Castle as part of "Remember ... Dreams Come True," the biggest fireworks display in Disneyland's history. The display took place during the Disneyland 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2005. (Frazer Harrison / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Shiver me timbers!

    Villainous pirate Barbossa is hot on the trail of the eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow in Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride. The classic attraction re-opened following an extensive three-month enhancement and featuring new characters and elements from Walt Disney Pictures' "Pirates of the Caribbean" films. (Scott Brinegar / Disneyland) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Around the world

    Walt Disney World's It's a Small World ride is a great option for youngsters. Visitors can sing along to the famous tune while visiting countries around the world. Hong Kong Disneyland opened the classic boat ride in 2008 in an attempt to boost sluggish attendance at the theme park. (Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. My, what big ears you have

    Dumbo the Flying Elephant takes riders over Fantasyland, and lever controls let them fly at their desired altitude. (Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Eating under the sea

    Larger-than-life replicas of prehistoric sea creatures combine with giant aquariums of exotic fish in the lounge area of T-Rex: A Prehistoric Family Adventure, at the Downtown Disney area in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The 600-seat restaurant, operated by Landry's Restaurants, combines table-service dining and retail in an interactive prehistoric environment built around water, fire and ice. (Gene Duncan / Disneyland) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Mickey hops the pond

    Roy E. Disney, nephew of Walt Disney, poses with Mickey, Minnie and Pluto, in front of the Sleeping Beauty castle during a press preview of Euro Disneyland, now called Disneyland Paris, in Marne La Vallee, France. The site opened in 1992. (Eric Feferberg / AFP - Getty Images file) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Dive! Dive!

    The original submarines from the Disneyland Submarine Voyage, a popular attraction for many years at the California theme park, have been extensively refitted for the 21st Century adventure of Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. The attraction now takes explorers on an undersea voyage where they'll have close encounters with the fish characters from the Disney-Pixar movie, "Finding Nemo." (Paul Hiffmeyer / Disneyland) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Fun after dark

    Downtown Disney is a promenade that offers shopping, dining and other activities. The avenue shown here leads to both Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure. (Disneyland) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Should've seen it in color

    Crowds are seen walking around the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, Calif., circa 1955. (Archive Photos / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A visionary's vision

    Walt Disney unveils his plans for Disneyland to a national television audience during the premiere of "Disneyland," the television show, on October 27, 1954. (Disneyland) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Blank canvas

    Walt Disney purchased 160 acres in Anaheim, originally covered with orange groves, to build his dream of a place where parents and children could have fun -- together. (Disneyland) Back to slideshow navigation
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