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Was the 50th Anniversary Celebration Successful?

Was the 50th Anniversary Celebration Successful?

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Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary celebration is coming to an end at the end of this month. Was it a successful celebration?

A Celebration of the Origins of Walt Disney World

Credit: Susan

Walt Disney World opened to the public on October 1, 1971, now over 51 years ago. This opening was fraught with complications. From the smaller than anticipated crowds (less than 10,000 total people attended Magic Kingdom’s opening day), to the incomplete sections of the park, to the chaos and scrambling throughout the resort to finish hotel spaces and prime areas prior to the later dedication on October 25, the opening of Walt Disney World was in no way smooth. Couple this with the death of Walt himself prior to the project’s full start and Roy’s death just two months after the opening of the park and you have a recipe for chaos.

Over 50 years ago, however, the Walt Disney World Company was united under one common mission and ideal: to bring to life the dream of Walt Disney. As all Disney die-hard fans know, the Florida Project was Walt’s mission and dream just before his passing.

Top executives from both Imagineering and Operations worked hand in hand to achieve this dream. Though internal conflicts and disagreements existed, the overall goal was to simply persist in a way to allow Walt’s legacy to live on.

October 1, 2021: The Official Start of the Celebration

Credit: KtP Writer

It is hard to ignore some of the parallels that exist between the fateful opening in 1971 and the 50th celebration on October 1, 2021. The months leading up to the anniversary celebration were filled with changes and uncertainty. From the passing of the baton from Bob Iger to Bob Chapek, which, as we know now, was explosive for the Walt Disney Company, to the world of the pandemic, nothing necessarily went to plan.

Thinking back to the months leading to the kickoff on October 1, 2021, the park was very different than it was pre-pandemic (or even than it is now!) After the parks reopened on July 11, 2020, many changes had been implemented for the phased reopening. In the months to come, Disney World experiences meant wearing masks at all locations indoors and outdoors, no character meet and greets, limited dining availability, and the disappearance of some fan-favorite systems, such as Fastpass+ and the Disney Dining Plan. On the days leading up to and during the celebration, most COVID protocols were still in place including masking, distanced character sightings, limited capacity in restaurants, and more.

Credit: Maggie

But still, the October 1, 2021 date was impending. The Disney Company knew they had to put together a celebration for the 50th Anniversary, but that it might look different than what was originally planned.

On October 1, the celebration included a new cavalcade with Mickey and Friends in 50th Anniversary attire, a large amount of themed merchandise, and specialty food. The reveal of new shows and attractions such as Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, Harmonious, Enchantment, and KiteTails also occurred on this date.

Everything You Need to know about Disney's New Kite Tails Shows
Credit: Susan

I (Jaelyn) was in attendance at both Magic Kingdom and EPCOT on October 1, 2021. I remember that ride lines were virtually non-existent. We basically walked onto any and all of the attractions at the Magic Kingdom. Food and merchandise, however, was a totally different story. We waited over an hour and a half for a mobile order at Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe. Getting into merchandise areas in the Magic Kingdom was next to impossible, but we did get great exclusive merchandise to the official 50th Anniversary at Creations in EPCOT.

People lined Main Street for the entirety of the morning, sitting in the hub grass and really waiting expectantly for something big to happen. The energy in the air was exciting and fun, yet nothing big truly came that day. Read more about Monica’s experience HERE.

The celebration was slated to last for nearly 18 months, from October 1, 2021 to March 31, 2023.

Successes of the 50th Anniversary Celebration

Credit: Jamie F

While there is a lot to be said about the failures of this celebration, there are certainly some successes born out of the 50th Anniversary that can be celebrated. Through the lens of the company, the sale of merchandise was highly successful. People were incredibly interested in exclusive spirit jerseys, Loungefly backpacks, pins, and more.

Even with the COVID supply chain struggle, the popularity of the merchandise for the 50th Anniversary can be celebrated as likely the biggest win for the company, along with the overall impacts of rebound travel and increased park attendance.

For guests, successes are small, but still should be celebrated. The additions of the Beacons of Magic light effects on Spaceship Earth at EPCOT is possibly my favorite thing to come out of the entire celebration. Cinderella Castle received a facelift with beautiful adornments that most fans have come to love.

Credit: Monica

The additions of Early Theme Park Entry and Extended Evening Hours for Deluxe Resort Guests were great options for on-site guests who want to maximize their time in the parks. The Fab 50 statues added some fun and interesting decor throughout the parks.

During the 50th, we also saw the opening of several rides and restaurants, all of which can be celebrated as “wins” for the celebration, even though they technically are not at all connected to the anniversary.

Restaurants include La Creperie de Paris, Space 220, Steakhouse 71 and attractions include those such as Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, and Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind.

Failures of the 50th Anniversary Celebration

Credit: Susan

Of course, the World’s Most Magical Celebration also brought along its own share of massive failures. First, the new nighttime spectaculars and other entertainment shows were simply a swing and a miss by Disney. Disney Enchantment at the Magic Kingdom, the 50th Anniversary Fireworks show replacement for Happily Ever After, came up very lukewarm for guests. It lacked the heart and emotion found within Happily Ever After and the history, passion, and nostalgia that could have been capitalized on for the 50th Anniversary.

It wasn’t until the new intro featuring Walt and Roy Disney debuted in August of 2022, almost a year after the celebration’s beginning, that the show really had anything to do at all with the history of the Magic Kingdom and the anniversary. As we all know, the show is coming to an end very soon as the beloved Happily Ever After fireworks will be returning.

Another failed show is Harmonious at EPCOT. This show, with its large, permanent, expensive barges blocking World Showcase, was never really loved by anyone. It fell flat and truly failed to really pick up much traction with guests. This show is also ending with the celebration. Of course, Disney KiteTails, a 50th Anniversary show at Animal Kingdom, failed before it even really got started.

Credit: Maggie

The 50th Anniversary also brought with it the end of many perks that brought value for guests like Disney’s Magical Express, the FastPass+ system, unbridled park hopping, and the dining plan. Whether a mark of the pandemic or simply coincidental decision-making, these unpopular decisions feel grouped into the 50th celebration due to timeline.

The truth is that the 50th Anniversary celebration lacked all substance. It missed the nostalgia and celebration of the history of the Florida Project. It missed the emotional appeal for fans. In a time where Disney could have capitalized on people’s abilities to travel again and to finally “come home” to celebrate, Disney instead opted to focus on commercialization and merchandise sales.

The celebration also went on for far too long, dragging out the feeling that the heart of Disney and of the history of the property was being cut off at the knees. Whether it was Chapek’s management style, the effects of the pandemic, or just general poor planning, the 50th truly felt less like a celebration and more like a marketing ploy that didn’t even truly work.

Company Values vs. Fan Desires

Credit: KtP

What did the World’s Most Magical Celebration teach us about the Disney Company values and about fan desires? This is a complex question. At face value, it appears the 50th demonstrated the lack of heart and soul in the previous CEO’s operation. The financial focus and profit-maximizing but fan-alienating strategies along with lack of nostalgia and heart demonstrate those holding the reins in this planning process misunderstood the desire of consumers.

With recent pivots, however, it appears as though the team under Iger is willing to listen to the desires of guests and to make decisions to add back some of the heart and humanity into the company. Easy moves like the return of free parking and the addition of free PhotoPass downloads for rides purchased with Genie+ are simple ways to put a little money back into the pockets of guests and demonstrate bigger gestures of potential goodwill.

Credit: Kate

And, in all of this, what has the 50th Anniversary shown that fans want? Fans want to come home to a Walt Disney World that feels familiar to pre-pandemic experiences. They want nostalgia in a time of already tumultuous change and general unrest in the outside world. They want to escape to the Disney they remember with characters they love and entertainment they enjoy, like Happily Ever After and Fantasmic.

They want to feel valued as visitors to the parks. They want to celebrate the history, the moments, the experiences that make up 50 years of iconic memories for millions of people. They want to remember the magic that Disney has brought them and their families the last half century with glimpses of what may be to come over the next 50 years. Disney fans wanted heart and soul, and instead received sterility.

Overall Thoughts Going Forward

Credit: Disney

Overall, the World’s Most Magic Celebration was a miss for the company. However, I do not think it is a course that can’t be corrected. I believe with new (old?) leadership with Bob Iger and the return of things like Happily Ever After and Fantasmic we are headed in the right direction.

The end of the 50th Anniversary celebration is welcomed. Maybe we can finally close the tumultuous chapter of Disney (and world) history of the last three years and move on. As Walt said, “Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

What are your thoughts about the 50th Anniversary Celebration at Walt Disney World? Was it a hit or a miss? Comment below and be sure to share this with a friend to continue the conversation!

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Ella Harmeyer

Monday 20th of March 2023

Interesting read... good points... but I'm reminded that each person looks at one situation and sees very different things. I don't believe the celebration went nearly as well as many of those in my past 30 years coming to WDW. However for me one of the biggest fails was merchandise... or at least finding the T-shirt or special something I wanted to mark the 50th... could not find it... I'm not into spirit jerseys and since they have taken off I struggle to find that T-shirt I want for this trip. Maybe it was that the pandemic changed a lot for a lot of folks outside of Disney and then inside of Disney... I miss most the luggage handling and magical express, (I would have paid for the service if they just kept the service.) I miss the simplicity of fastpass+, Picking a couple ahead of time and getting to pick morning or afternoon or whatever rather than being required to reboot if I want to try for a different time. Having to plan for park hopping... I come to Disney to get away from my cell phone etc... and now genie+ requires one to have it glued to your hand. I come to Disney to sleep in if I want or get up early if I want... but if I want genie+ I have to be up by 7 am! So for me lots of the issues are things that make my time at Disney not the escape it was pre-covid.

Disney Boy

Sunday 19th of March 2023

I think you should also add that it was a time for recovering as even with Chapek in charge things did start to come back slowly and more has come back since Iger took charge again.

Disney Boy

Sunday 19th of March 2023

If I heard right thr pandemic also three a monkey wrench into things.

Ian Lamble

Sunday 19th of March 2023

I seriously despair at the oh so righteous woke brigade these days.


Sunday 19th of March 2023

Well said!

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