After an 18-month run beginning in October 2021, Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary is finally over. This milestone celebration had been anxiously awaited by fans, with many fondly recalling the 25th Anniversary and hoping for something similar. Others planned multi-generation homecoming trips years in advance, excited for how the company would pay tribute to 50 years of the Florida Project coming to fruition.
For us, the excitement started building after Walt Disney World’s 40th Anniversary in 2011. Frankly, there was no good reason for our anticipation. Although we had a blast on October 1 with friends and fellow fans, very little was done by the company to celebrate 40 years of the Vacation Kingdom.
Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary wasn’t really front of mind again until 2017, when rumors started trickling out about plans for the celebration. Many of those were confirmed by the company itself at the D23 Expo with a formidable slate of additions debuting “in time for the start of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary celebration.” Between that and experiences with recent anniversaries in California, Paris, and Tokyo, our hype reached a fever pitch. Then came Spring 2020.
What happened then is well-documented, but I’m not so sure the fandom’s collective appraisal of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary accounts for it. Just as a (probably unnecessary) reminder, all construction projects were paused for months, tens of thousands of Cast Members were furloughed, the parks closed for a few months and reopened to record-low crowds, and Wall Street analysts predicted that the travel industry would take at least 5 years to recover. Planning and preparations for the Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary occurred against that bleak backdrop.
Hindsight is 20/20, and it’s easy to conclude that poor decisions were made at the time. But that was the environment then, and it no doubt impacted plans for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. It probably also didn’t help that the company put a consumer products dude with an affinity for synergy and umbrellas in charge.
To be clear, we are not making excuses for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. Rather, we’re attempting to add context that can be easy to forget. We were incredibly disappointed by the World’s Most Magical Celebration as a whole. As I’ve written before, its key offerings felt like salute to all things Disney…but mostly intellectual property that’s popular on the Disney+ streaming service.
It wasn’t just the substance of the celebration that missed the mark, but its tone. Too much emphasis was placed on synergy and characters from the last few years, and not nearly enough on the man (and other people) who made the magic possible or Walt Disney World’s rich history and legacy. The tone missing the mark is not the fault of COVID-19, time crunches, staffing shortages, or anything else. It was purposeful. There’s no good excuse for that.
However, there are other complaints and critiques that could be attributable to Spring 2020. It has come out since that the teams working on Disney Enchantment and Harmonious faced considerable challenges, having to navigate an unprecedented environment and tight timelines. Other initiatives were likewise similarly impacted or cut completely.
Then there’s the fandom and our expectations. As noted above, we had been building expectations for the 50th for a decade. Post-reopening, it became a “finish line” of sorts; the light at the end of the tunnel after a long and difficult year-plus. Then the delta variant arrived in late summer, being the veritable poop in the party’s punch bowl. (Apologies for the vivid imagery and rehashing that tough time, but it’s all apt and relevant!)
The bottom line, and point of all that, is that Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary was fundamentally flawed in its focus; but also, extenuating circumstances, fan expectations, and a bunch of other baggage weighed on the celebration. It’s still too early for an earnest appraisal of the festivities, but we’ll be curious to see how history eventually judges the event. Like so many things Disney-related, we suspect that impressions will warm over time.
In the meantime, there are several things (ten of them!) that we think were great about Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary…
New Attractions – They didn’t all arrive in time for the start of the 50th as promised when announced, but at least some of that is understandable. And what Walt Disney World did get, in general, was a slate of worthwhile additions that will be assets to their respective parks for years to come.
Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure is far from my favorite modern ride, and it’s disappointing that the clone didn’t fix identified issues from the version at Walt Disney Studios Park in France. However, the movie Ratatouille is a love letter to Paris and the attraction is about as good as it gets in terms of IP integrations in World Showcase. It also adds a much-needed family-friend ride to this corner of EPCOT.
Against all odds, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind ended up being an exceptional enhancement to the front of EPCOT, and one that fits thematically better than it has any right to. As for the attraction itself, it’s an absolute blast–melding storytelling, wow-inducing effects, music, humor, and thrills. Cosmic Rewind is now the blueprint for a “Disneyfied” roller coaster.
TRON Lightcycle Run is not that, but it also doesn’t need to be. Magic Kingdom has no shortage of fully-fledged attractions, making a more lightly-themed roller coaster (without lengthy pre-shows) a good fit. Its unique style of seating, flashy aesthetics, and distinct music makes it a winner. The Upload Conduit canopy also adds something special to the Magic Kingdom skyline, and a punctuation mark to Tomorrowland.
The Music – We’ve taken a lot of really pleasant early morning and late night walks through Downtown Disney over the last few months. That may seem off-topic or maybe that I’m using woefully outdated naming convention, but it’s neither. Disneyland Resort has a new background music for Disney100, and it leans heavily on songs from Walt Disney World–including the 50th Anniversary.
Among other songs, this excellent loop contains “The Magic is Calling,” “You Are the Magic,” and “Awakening.” One thing that has struck me is how much I enjoy this music when divorced from its original context. It calls to mind fond memories and experiences during Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary–and we did have many–like a quick shot of sentimentality.
For me, this is how most Disney music works. I wouldn’t say that “Remember the Magic” is one of the greatest songs of all time, but I get goosebumps every time I hear it due to the nostalgia attached. No songs in the trio above will ever live up to that for me, but I expect my fondness for the 50th music to grow over time. You may deny it now, but the same will happen to you in due time–two of those songs are undeniable earworms!
On a tangentially related note, you should make a point of visiting Disneyland during the 100 Years of Wonder if you’re a fan of Disney music. Not just for that glorious Esplanade and Downtown Disney BGM, but also for “Start a Wave,” “It’s Wondrous,” and really the entire soundtrack for Wondrous Journeys. Seeing that new nighttime spectacular should also be a priority–it’s on par with Happily Ever After.
Parts of Harmonious – We were vocal critics of Harmonious, and this is one instance of “we” really meaning both of us. Sarah liked Harmonious even less, and had no desire to see it one last time to say goodbye. I did opt to see it a final time, and one thought that stuck with me was, “this had so much potential for greatness.”
If its infrastructure had been mobile, Harmonious would’ve primed its audience for a warmer reception. If the show were arranged differently, it would’ve been better. If it harnessed the energy from the Coco scene and took that through to an optimistic and uplifting finale, it would’ve brought down the house. Instead, perplexing decision after perplexing decision was made that led directly to its premature demise.
Harmonious was destined to be hated by a certain segment of old school EPCOT Center fans simply be virtue of not being IllumiNations. That much was foregone. However, plenty of fans and every infrequent visitor went in with more of an open mind. Personally, I liked the Moana, Lion King, and Mulan scenes and think that was a clever way to integrate IP into World Showcase. Then there was Coco into Princess and the Frog, which was genuinely good and made it a spectacular. Harmonious earned fans thanks to these scenes and others, and it’s easy to see why this show was loved by some, “warts and all.”
I’ll take this a step further, and predict that Harmonious develops a fond fan-following in the years to come. That’ll be especially true if the excellently-produced Harmonious Live on Disney+ doesn’t get pulled now that it’s over. This is how nostalgia for the past works; our memories are seen through rose-colored glasses, highlighting the good and forgetting the bad.
With Harmonious, there’s actually a decent amount of good. Equally as important, anyone who watches the nighttime spectacular on Disney+ or YouTube will not be subject to the visual blight during the day. New Harmonious fans will be forged in the years to come, blissfully ignorant to its baggage.
Beacons of Magic on Spaceship Earth – Originally hyped up by Good Morning America and Walt Disney World, the Beacons of Magic will go down as one of the biggest duds of the 50th Anniversary. Actually, I take that back, no one will remember the ones on Cinderella Castle, Tree of Life, or Tower of Terror because they were so utterly underwhelming.
Spaceship Earth is a totally different story. In fact, it feels like the Beacons of Magic were designed for the EPCOT icon, and then someone in marketing had the idea to extend it to the other three parks, but there was no there there at the rest. At EPCOT, the Beacons of Magic take the already awe-inspiring icon and make it even more breathtaking.
The light display elevates the grandiosity of Spaceship Earth, and truly caps off the EPCOT entrance transformation, a project that has enhanced the mood, atmosphere, and aesthetics of this area. This new Spaceship Earth lighting really punctuates that, making the front entrance of Epcot a place where you’ll want to linger and soak up the ambiance.
Somehow, this is something that has only gotten better since the 50th Anniversary started. Each subsequent festival has added its own Beacons of Magic show, as has EPCOT’s 40th Anniversary (far and away my favorite of the bunch). Make a point of standing around up here for 30 minutes or so to really soak up the atmosphere and see all three of the shows. Bonus points for arriving at night via monorail, which is the most wow-inducing entry of all!
A Portrait of Walt Disney World: 50 Years of The Most Magical Place on Earth – This flew under the radar a bit because it was difficult to acquire for the first 3 months of the 50th Anniversary; most orders were delayed, cancelled, or arrived damaged (almost all of the 1-star reviews on Amazon are due to this, not the book’s substance). By the time it was readily available, the “hype window” had already closed.
That’s unfortunate, as this book was a highlight of the 50th and is the best Walt Disney World-specific coffee table book ever. In style, structure, and quality, this is more like a Disneyland deep-dive than one of the past Walt Disney World souvenir books. From Florida history pre-Disney and the Preview Center to the development and history of the Vacation Kingdom, there is a wealth of knowledge thoughtfully presented here in a way that is engaging, informative, and entertaining. There are also tons of photos and concept art I’ve never seen–a rarity for Walt Disney World books, which often recycle not just information–but images.
It reads like a love letter to Walt Disney World (or many love letters, as the authors have cleverly inserted essays from key figures in Walt Disney World’s history, bringing other interesting voices and perspectives to the mix) that is for fans–by fans. This is one of the best things to come out of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary, and not just in terms of merchandise. You can read our full review if you want, but the bottom line is that this is the best book about Walt Disney World.
Food & Beverage Program – It’s easy to forget just how scaled back the culinary scene was at Walt Disney World for the first year after the parks reopened. Menus were shadows of their former selves, with a handful of ordinary items replacing robust and unique options. Things still aren’t back to 100%, but they’re much closer.
Without question, the pivotal moment was the introduction of items for the 50th Anniversary. This introduced over 150 new items, and instantly reinvigorated restaurants that had become boring. Not only that, but the inventiveness and attentiveness to Walt Disney World history was on full display, with dishes that had been ‘extinct’ for decades making their return, with others that were clever and cool. (I’ll never get over the Mr. Toad Burger or Uncle Orville Bathtub Sundae.)
While I wouldn’t include new restaurants as part of this, an exception should be made for Steakhouse 71; that probably wouldn’t have happened like it did but for the 50th. This restaurant gets its name from the resort’s opening year, and pays tribute to the rich history of the Vacation Kingdom of the World. Our initial lunch and dinner reviews were positive, but our fondness for Steakhouse 71 has only grown over time (except breakfast). We’ve dined here more than anywhere else at Walt Disney World in the last 2 years.
KiteTails – This one was incredibly polarizing. We liked KiteTails. Not as much as some of its diehard fans, but enough to defend it from its detractors. To me, KiteTails felt like an odd concoction cooked up late one night while raiding the fridge. It repurposed jet skis and kites leftover from Epcot Forever, and then added some gigantic lion, bear, ape, and bird kites. Boom, KiteTails was born.
KiteTails felt natural and pure, hitting the right notes in terms of tone, atmosphere, and energy. The performers gave it their all, and the end result was cute and charming. Then there was the chaos of KiteTails, resulting from the epic crash landings. It was pretty fun to watch the “KiteFails” and cheer for Simba to nose-dive into the cheap seats.
More than anything else, I loved what KiteTails represented. I want fans to give Walt Disney World permission to be weird and quirky, and not demand that everything be a polished production that achieves “perfection” in paint-by-numbers fashion. I’d rather Disney’s creative teams try new things, take risks, you know…actually be creative. I want to see more like this–projects with heart and passion. Even if that means failure!
Vault Merchandise – I loved the Vault Collection, which paid tribute to 50 years of Walt Disney World with retro-themed designs from the Walt Disney Archives. There were some truly deep cuts, and items just kept coming and coming. It was honestly a bit overwhelming, but in a good way. (If I purchased everything I wanted, my closet would be overflowing right now.)
Instead, I bought almost nothing at all. A big factor was that I’ve become increasingly jaded about Walt Disney World monetizing nostalgia with merchandise, but not doing anything substantive to honor that history. In a nutshell, that’s my key criticism with Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary.
I know various teams have their own agendas, one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing, and the merchandise designers are mostly just passionate fans. So there’s a part of me that wants to reward their hard work and reinforce to the company as a whole that it’s value. But the other part thinks that if Disney as a whole doesn’t care about honoring its history, why should I? And that’s the part that won out when it came to buying (or not) the 50th Anniversary merchandise.
With that said, I did buy all of the new Country Bear Jamboree items. (I’m not a monster!) That includes an awkwardly-shaped Big Al tiki mug that I’m now afraid to use for fear of dropping it. Instead, Big Al stares at me with a confused look every time I open our cabinet, as nature intended.
Tomorrowland Updates – One of the earliest rumors about Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary came about 5 years in advance, and suggested that the event would revolve around 50 Magical Enhancements to Walt Disney World, and would include things like updates and notable TLC to iconic attractions.
This entry and the next would certainly qualify, but not much else. Tomorrowland’s updates started during construction of TRON Lightcycle Run, with many debuting years before the 50th Anniversary. For the most part, this consisted of peeling back the 90s New Tomorrowland ornamentation and restoring the original mid-century aesthetic. Whether that was good or bad is in the eye of the beholder, and likely determined in large part by the era of Tomorrowland during which you came of age.
The same is probably true of the two main updates during the 50th, a new script for the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover and refreshed finale for Carousel of Progress. In the grand scheme of things, these were two small changes that probably wouldn’t make a list of anniversary highlights for most people, but they do for us. These are two of our favorite attractions in the world, and it’s fantastic to see them receiving TLC. Our only wish is that more of this would’ve happened for the 50th.
Electrical Water Pageant – This vestige of the original “Vacation Kingdom of the World” feels like something from a bygone era, but it absolutely holds up and is a great way to end a night at one of the Magic Kingdom area resorts. For years, we’ve joked that the only reason Electrical Water Pageant still exists is because the “team” behind it is a dude named Earl who management forgot was on the payroll 3 decades ago. He hauls the EWP floats around behind his 1970 Sears fishing boat every night, hoping none of the hotshots wise up.
Well, Earl put his stimulus money to good use, upgrading the circa-1971 Electrical Water Pageant for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. The new segment featured Cinderella Castle lighting and swirling pixie dust along with the celebration anthem, “The Magic is Calling,” recorded in the iconic electro-synthe-magnetic sound of the show.
This was an excellent enhancement to a fan-favorite piece of nighttime entertainment at Walt Disney World. It became a fitting 50th finale following a long day in the parks, helping to wash away the bitter aftertaste of Disney Enchantment and its salute to streaming. Sweet and simple, this was the perfect tribute to Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. It’s too bad the other entertainment and offerings weren’t developed from a similar perspective, as our appraisal of the World’s Most Magical Celebration might’ve differed dramatically had they been.
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Thoughts on Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary? What were the highlights or lowlights for you? Agree about Enchantment, Harmonious, or anything else discussed here? Think fans were too hard on the World’s Most Magical Celebration, or was the disappointment fair and appropriate? Do you agree or disagree with our assessments? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!