The next day, unsurprisingly, was an early morning for us. This day was the whole reason we took a Walt Disney World vacation this October. This was the first day we actually planned on being up early, and even set three alarms to ensure that we would be to the park early. It was that important to us. (For our bare-bones recap of the Walt Disney World 40th anniversary events, click here.)
I had heard the day before that some people were planning on arriving at the Magic Kingdom as early as 7 am (for the 9 am opening), so I thought I’d check Twitter to see if there was any “news.” Much to my surprise, many people were already there, and were reporting that plenty of others were already there, as well. This was at 6:45 am. It looked like a large crowd would form early. We quickly got ready, making no detours to Old Port Royale or anything of the sort. We were out of our room within an hour of getting up, which has to be some sort of record for us.
As we headed for the bus stop, I continued to monitor Twitter, seeing more reports of crowds forming at the entrance area. I was beginning to worry that we may not make it through the turnstiles before the Magic Kingdom Opening Ceremony, which would be really disappointing, as we expected something special. We arrived at the Magic Kingdom at 8:20 am, and as we raced towards the turnstiles, I could already see the sea of people. I originally expected about 5% of Guests that day to even be aware of the 40th anniversary prior to the day itself. Given the size of the crowd, I was beginning to rethink the prediction.
Our original goal was to arrive before 8:45 am, so I guess we met our goal, but it probably would have been wise for us to arrive earlier. We barely made it through the turnstiles before the Opening Ceremony. Luckily, about 5 minutes after we entered, Cast Members began urging everyone to stand up and make more space (as, by then, people were not making it through the turnstiles). When this happened, it was like the seas parted, as a huge gap opened in front of us as people moved. We still didn’t have a great spot, but at least had a better spot.
I looked around, recognizing fans from all corners of the community, and seeing more cameras than you can shake a stick at. This was probably one of the most well-documented days in the history of Walt Disney World.
The day started off in typical fashion, with the Magic Kingdom Opening Ceremony, albeit in modified form to give a few nods to forty years of the Magic Kingdom. We probably see this Ceremony about once or twice per year (we normally run late as opposed to early, so we frequently end up at the park 20 minutes or so after opening). As always, it was a fun show to watch, especially seeing it play to a packed and excited crowd. You could already tell that the excitement level of the fans was high.
Once the show ended, we inched our way inside, where we were handed commemorative retro-inspired park maps and 40th anniversary buttons. We took 5 maps each to save, which at the time we thought might have been a tad greedy. That is, until we saw others grabbing huge stacks of maps. I guess it’s all relative.
The park maps were really, really cool, and paid homage to the exaggerated conceptual-style artwork of early maps by Paul Hartley and others (I don’t knew who created this one, specifically). The team behind that map really deserves some kudos, as it was beautifully done, all around. Icing on the cake would have been if the team convinced Kodak to re-run one of its old “photo tips” ads on the back, but that’s really expecting too much.
Once inside the park, we scurried to the Emporium. I knew there were going to be limited edition t-shirts, and I figured they would sell quickly. It was already nuts in there, and the racks had just emptied. As more came out, I took one look at the shirts, and decided to get one of each. The black one looked cooler, and since I didn’t know what size I’d need, I decided to get both small and medium.
Since I wanted a good spot for the 10 am Cinderella Castle Ceremony, Sarah bought both of the special shirts offered that day, while I headed towards the Castle. In retrospect, both shirts are really lacking. Worse yet, I didn’t discover until a few days later that the white shirt I had Sarah purchase was actually a women’s shirt! I later commented to others how I thought it was odd that they’d put Tinkerbell on a men’s shirt, and no one really agreed with me, or responded at all. Now I know why! I guess that just goes to show you how much of a hurry I was in.
As many Guests had elected to stop at the Emporium to get shirts and other collectibles, I was still relatively early in getting a spot in front of the Castle for the 10 am ceremony. I found some other photographers a fairly close distance to the stage, and set up shop next to them.
Then, I started to think. And scheme. This sort of thing always gets me in trouble. Scheming about “better locations” has lost me many a good Illuminations spot at Epcot. I’ll find a decent location, but then, thinking I might be able to find better, I go looking. Upon realizing that all the better spots are taken, I head back to the original spot, which is then gone, too. If insanity is repeating the same action and expecting different results, then have me committed, because I constantly do this at Epcot, and constantly suffer negative consequences.
For Illuminations, this isn’t such a big deal. If I don’t get good shots one night, I can always shoot it another. On October 1, 2011 at the Magic Kingdom, it was an entirely different ballgame. I couldn’t pick a bad location or the wrong lens and hope for a do-over later. The safe move would have been to hedge my bets by using the 18-200mm lens in that centered location.
I rarely take the safe or the smart bet. I’m a risk taker by nature, and I think even to you readers who weren’t there on this particular day, it’s probably a foregone conclusion already that I didn’t stay in that location. Instead, as went over how the ceremony would likely go in my head and looked around, I noticed some “parade” ropes up towards the side of the Castle. I knew there was going to be a character cavalcade down Main Street to Cinderella Castle, and it made sense that the characters would pass by these ropes.
Most people were dead center in front of the Castle, so I had no trouble getting a good spot right against the rope near the very front of the stage. If I was going to live and die by the sword, I figured I might as well switch to the fisheye lens, too, as I could get some pretty interesting closeup shots of characters as they passed with it. That is, assuming they did pass. If they didn’t pass, I’d be stuck with an okay view of the stage and a poor lens for photographing it.
Now, to say I didn’t hedge my bets a little would be disingenuous. As I headed all the way against the rope, Sarah stood 10 feet to my right, with the 18-200mm lens on her camera, which would enable her to get good shots of the ceremony. If I failed miserably, at least we’d have those photos!
As we stood in the throngs of crowds awaiting the 10 am ceremony, the excitement from the crowd was palpable. Not necessarily for what Disney had planned, but for the memories made by so many in the crowd, and the integral role these theme parks had played in so many of our lives. Walt Disney World undeniably has a lot of nostalgic value for a lot of people, and this day was probably one of the ultimate days for fans to wax nostalgic about the resort’s past. As we stood packed like sardines near the Cinderella Castle stage, we heard other Guests reminiscing about attractions of the past. I heard mention of favorites like If You Had Wings, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Alien Encounter, and even some long-gone favorites such as the Swan Boats.
While I appreciate Disney doing something to honor the day, make no mistake, the ones who made it special, for us at least, were the fans. Everywhere you looked you could see Guests who grinning from ear to ear, sometimes teary-eyed, and often wearing shirts sold during past anniversaries. At times, you would see a few Guests in these “retro” shirts as the music from past celebrations played (great touch, Disney). For that exact moment, you were transported back to 1996, 1991, or some other year. It made me think back to a Walt Disney World vacation I took with my parents back in 1996…but for some reason the things I remember about that Disney trip are getting sick from eating too much butter at Fulton’s, and buying a watch at the World of Disney. For some reason, those seemingly insignificant details are more poignant than bigger things, like the Cinderella Castle Cake.
Seeing this out-pouring of support made us happy, as if this insane level of attendance demonstrated to us that many fans really care about these parks, it should clearly demonstrate the same to Disney, which arguably did not expect this type of turnout at the Magic Kingdom on an off-season morning the first weekend of Food & Wine Festival at Epcot. Based upon the type of fans we saw (on days like this, you can easily spot a fellow super-fan), my 5% prediction was completely wrong. Probably over 50% of the Guests in the Magic Kingdom on October 1, 2011 were there to celebrate the 40th anniversary, not just for standard Walt Disney World vacations.
There are multiple pages in this Walt Disney World trip report installment. Navigate to the next page below!