Despite sinking billions of pounds into the production of blockbuster movies and hit TV shows over the years, Disney decided it was best to let companies like Apple, Netflix, Amazon and Sky handle the online distribution of its content. This has meant that every few years, the company sits down with streaming providers to agree on a licence, allowing you and I to log into our favourite service and access a selection of Disney content. It's led to fragmentation, where Netflix carries something Amazon doesn't (and vice-versa), and the only way to access everything is to buy it, one movie, TV series or soundtrack at a time.
This year, however, Disney decided enough was enough. The house that Walt built has finally dipped its toe into the enchanted world of streaming. DisneyLife is a UK-only subscription service designed to appeal to cord-cutters or, more specifically, their children. At £10 ($15) a month, it's a little costlier than Netflix or Amazon (but on par with Sky Now TV), despite the fact it only offers Disney content. But there's a reason for that. DisneyLife isn't just for streaming video; it also hosts soundtracks, e-books and a selection of official Disney-branded apps. I can admit to being a Disney fan, but I know that DisneyLife isn't really aimed at people like me. Fortunately, I played a part in creating two mini versions of myself (aged four and five) who fit perfectly within Disney's target demographic.
Signing up to DisneyLife is like any other streaming service: Enter a few personal details and fill in your card number to redeem a free month of service. For some reason, Disney sends a lot of emails once you've signed up, mostly to remind you how to use the service and the various ways to stream. Currently, DisneyLife can be accessed via the browser (which relies on Silverlight) and on iOS or Android devices. That means by proxy, it works with Apple TVs and Chromecasts too. You can associate your account with up to 10 devices and have four concurrent streams running at any one time.
Once registered, you will be asked to set up a master profile, which lets you manage your subscription, set parental controls and add new devices. It'll also ask you to add up to five additional profiles, which Disney says "give each member of the family their own way to explore." Being able to assign each profile a unique Disney character is a nice touch, especially if your child is the world's biggest Frozen/Cars/Finding Nemo fan.
To properly gauge my sons' usage, I covertly installed the DisneyLife app on their Android tablets and placed the app icon alongside their favourites: Minecraft and YouTube. I didn't want to get in the way of their experience, just learn from it. When allowed to spend time on their devices (I try to be a responsible parent), they quickly recognised the Disney logo and dove straight in.
All Disney, all of the time
Disney knows its aesthetics. When the DisneyLife homescreen loads, you're immediately met with a number of banners that highlight collections like Disney villains, Pixar films and Disney classics. Directly below that is a section called "Character Worlds," which immediately drew my sons' eyes (one chose Frozen and the other Incredibles). It's here that we ran into our first minor disappointment.
Upon seeing Elsa, my eldest son immediately assumed he could stream Frozen. The Elsa section certainly contains a lot of Frozen content -- including a Frozen Fever mini movie, Frozen as told by emoji, Elsa fun facts, three separate soundtracks and eight e-books -- but the full movie won't appear on DisneyLife until the spring. That's down to streaming agreements the company has with its UK partners, but my child was unable to understand the complexities of second-window streaming rights. It didn't stop him from enjoying the other Frozen content, though, with one sing-a-long book becoming a firm favourite.
While Netflix and Amazon's menus are relatively dull, Disney's interstitials are vibrant and colorful, enticing the user to get interacting. Pull up The Lion King and you'll see Pride Rock, click into Monsters Inc. and you'll see Boo's bedroom. Subtle animations guide you through each part of a character's page. In short, Disney nailed the user experience.
While the apps are pretty good, I found they would log me out occasionally, usually after suffering minor performance issues. On the web, loading times are prompt, but you may run into some difficulties nonetheless. Using Chrome on a Mac running the latest version of OS X El Capitan, I was unable to get any movies to stream using the Silverlight plug-in. Google announced last year that it would phase out Silverlight support, so you'll need a browser that still plays nice with Microsoft's multimedia plug-in.
Disney knows that its apps are where the majority of streaming will happen, so it's included features that make it easier for parents and children to enjoy its range of content. One of the best is an offline mode, which lets you download anything to your device to keep the kids entertained when you're out of cellular or WiFi range. It'll tell you how much storage space the movie or soundtrack will take up, too, just in case you need to make room.
DisneyLife also provides access to a selection of official Disney apps, with one free download each month. Selections include a number of themed storybooks, featuring The Good Dinosaur, Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph, but your little ones can also grab interactive titles like Disney Princess: Story Theatre and a Sofia colouring app.
With Netflix, Amazon and Sky's Now TV already offering Disney content, is DisneyLife unique enough to justify another subscription? Looking at the numbers, DisneyLife offered 304 titles; Sky, 158; Amazon, 77; and Netflix, just 48. A wide selection of on-demand TV shows, or box sets, are also available and include programmes from the Disney TV, Disney Junior and Disney XD channels.
While Sky's buying power has allowed it to negotiate access to newer Disney movies like Frozen and Maleficent, DisneyLife excels because it goes well beyond movies, offering behind-the-scenes clips, making-ofs, featurettes and, of course, all the related soundtracks, mini movies and books. Netflix and Amazon have smaller catalogues, with a smattering of classics and newer films, that can't hold a candle to what DisneyLife and Now TV offer.
If you already have a streaming subscription, it becomes a question of how often you think you or your family will use DisneyLife. Disney hasn't yet made it easy to stream its content on the big screen, as you will always need a smartphone or tablet to hand to mirror movies on an Apple TV or Chromecast.
It worked out that DisneyLife was my kids' flavour of the month for way less than a month, and towards the end of the free trial my sons rarely launched the app. Both prefer the variety that YouTube offers, whether it be illegal uploads of Peppa Pig episodes or Let's Play Minecraft videos from Stampylongnose. This isn't to say that DisneyLife isn't good: It really is. It also bodes well for Disney's streaming expansion in China next year and major markets like the US after that.
So, is a DisneyLife subscription worth a tenner each month? My answer is simple: It's not about the quality -- Disney left no stone unturned there (except maybe for Frozen). It's about whether your little ones are mad enough about Disney that having access to nearly everything the company has ever put out will make you the best parent ever.