As a year-end post, we thought it would be interesting to recap and review the 10 most popular Walt Disney World news of the year. Technically, most of these are the least popular stories if judged by reader reactions and prevailing sentiment, but they were the most read.
It was a big bounceback year for Walt Disney World, and one of transition. The year started out slowly enough, with 2021 having a pronounced winter off-season before things quickly kicked into high gear as pent-up demand resulted in a scorching spring and summer for the parks. That cycle then repeated itself for fall and the holiday season, with the kickoff month of the 50th Anniversary being quieter than anticipated.
The news likewise had its ups and downs, with Walt Disney World working to restore normalcy and bring back closed resorts, restaurants, entertainment, and more. The unpredictable environment posed challenges to that, as did the company’s delays in aggressively returning regular aspects of the experience. Almost none of this is reflected in the “top” 10 headlines below. While ‘return announcements’ were popular, they were overshadowed by the more seismic shifts to the guest experience…
Disney’s Magical Express Ends – This bombshell announcement that Disney’s Magical Express would be retired in 2022 was the first big news of this year. At the time, it seemed so implausible, so perplexing, so misguided that it wasn’t possibly the full story. Certainly, there would be a replacement or follow-up. There was not.
Fans are still grappling with the end of Disney’s Magical Express, trying to make sense of this short sighted decision. One of Walt Disney World’s greatest strengths was its bubble, and the company has voluntarily punctured that–at a time when it’s biggest competitor is only getting stronger. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, Walt Disney World revealed that Extra Magic Hours would be replaced by 30 minute early entry in this same announcement.
Good Morning America 50th Reveal – About a month later, ABC’s Good Morning America teased the first major sneak peek of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary, revealing that it would be an 18-month celebration featuring the Beacons of Magic, new character costumes, and more.
The reaction to this was mixed. Most fans realized this was a purposefully vague preview, and Disney was still operating in a highly uncertain environment. Subsequent news about fireworks and other entertainment generated more buzz, while news (or lack thereof) about previously planned and rumored additions not arriving by October 1 led to disappointment. Then there was the daily trickle of statue announcements and flooring updates, which were…something else.
MagicMobile Service – This new contactless way to use features like theme park entry through iPhones, Apple Watches, and other smart devices was another big story early on. The ‘angle’ for most Walt Disney World fans, already weary of losing free MagicBands, was whether this meant that beloved wearable was being phased out.
Even though Walt Disney World directly addressed that–and said this wasn’t replacing MagicBands–fans were skeptical. In retrospect, this probably turned out to be the biggest non-story of 2021. MagicMobile doesn’t work reliably, its uptake has been relatively low, and subsequent news about MagicBands put that speculation to rest.
After Hours Boo Bash Announced – The first of two hard ticket events to replace Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, this news blindsided a lot of fans. Some were pleased just to have some form of parties back, while others were cautiously optimistic details would be fleshed out later. Most were disappointed by the lack of entertainment, later hours, and it being an After Hours event instead of MNSSHP. (Note that this was before pricing was released.)
My analysis struck a more conciliatory tone, for lack of a better term, due to practical operational realities at Magic Kingdom during the kickoff of the 50th Anniversary and unknowns about entertainment and what would be possible by fall. Perhaps foolishly, I stand by that. The way Very Merriest After Hours morphed post-announcement into a hybrid event suggests to me that this isn’t a permanent replacement for Mickey’s parties. But perhaps I’m just naively optimistic!
Space 220 No Longer Stuck in Orbit – After years of delays, Space 220 Restaurant finally launched at Epcot in Fall 2021. This news occurred in phases, with job postings followed by a quiet update to the opening year, then an official month, and finally, an official date. The release of menus is when it finally felt “real” to me.
Space 220 made our list of the Best New Things of 2021 for being the most “EPCOT Center” addition to the park since Festival of the Arts. The execution isn’t flawless and some will contend the price is too high, but it’s better and more convincing than anticipated while offering something serene and understated rather than cartoonish and exaggerated.
Free FastPass Ends – After years of rumors, Walt Disney World permanently retired free FastPass and replaced it with the paid alternatives of Genie+ and Individual Lightning Lanes for select individual attractions. This news would’ve been poorly received regardless, but negative fan response was exacerbated by confusing messaging. A rocky rollout hasn’t improved things, as the free itinerary builder is useless and the system has been plagued by glitches and technical difficulties.
Both free FastPass ending and fans being outraged by it were inevitabilities. We’re honestly surprised that this day didn’t come earlier. Yet, it didn’t have to play out this badly. ‘MaxPass Comes to Walt Disney World’ would’ve been a story met with angst, but also enough Disneyland visitors to “vouch” for the upcharge that maybe it would’ve gone over better–or at least improved over time. But the company couldn’t resist monetizing even more, so that’s not what we got or how things played out.
Annual Passes Return – Unlike Disneyland, the AP program at Walt Disney World never truly went away. Many passholders proactively cancelled their APs and requested refunds during the closure, and brand new sales were paused post-reopening, but those who kept their Annual Passes were allowed to renew the entire time.
This news garnered a lot of excitement from new Florida transplants who were finally able to buy APs for the first time. From longtime past AP holders, it was another more mixed story. Many Walt Disney World fans were upset about the price increases, removal of perks, reservation requirements, and more.
Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance Virtual Queue Ends – The dominant story and source of frustration for Walt Disney World fans early last year, this had been a continued cause of headaches and guest complaints in the year-plus after reopening–it was just overshadowed by bigger problems. Nevertheless, the news of the virtual queue for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance ending was greeted by a mixed response.
Many were skeptical of the timing, believing the move was made to sell more Individual Lightning Lane selections. (With the benefit of hindsight, we can safely say that’s not the case–it would sell out almost instantaneously at 7 am daily, regardless.) Also with the benefit of hindsight, my opinion on this change is more mixed. It improves guest satisfaction and reduces complaints on low to moderate crowd days, but during peak season, a virtual queue probably should still be used. Triple digit waits coupled with the likelihood of queue-clearing breakdowns form their own recipe for disappointment and anger.
New Lounge at Epcot – I have no clue how this made the list, but it did. The Florida Blue Lounge was located in Norway’s Akershus Royal Banquet Hall during the Epcot Food & Wine Festival and was the hidden gem of that event. It offered free snacks and drinks, and was delightfully uncrowded.
Despite our article about the lounge being popular, it didn’t really move the needle on lounge attendance. I’m not sure whether I should be disappointed that you all don’t listen to my advice, or happy that I was still able to enjoy a blissfully uncrowded Akershus and so much Babybel cheese. For the sake of my fragile ego, I’ll go with the latter!
MagicBand+ Revealed – Ending on an unequivocally positive note came the news that MagicBand+ was coming to Walt Disney World. Sure, there were a few complaints that it would probably be expensive and that lights are distracting, but even the closure of Stitch’s Great Escape resulted in some disappointed fans. It’s impossible to please everyone.
There’s a lot to like about this news, from Disney making MagicBands more interactive to essentially reinventing the failed Glow with the Show concept. It’s definitely not the thing coming to Walt Disney World in 2022 about which I’m most excited, but I’m optimistic about the potential and that Disney is iterating on this idea to maintain its relevance–and further enhance MagicBands. It feels like Disney is laying the groundwork here for something that could prove to be pretty cool.
Beyond just this, I’m generally optimistic for 2022 at Walt Disney World. The last couple of years were undeniably rough for the parks, with a lot of negative changes. There’s not really any denying that without putting your head in the sand. However, a lot of this was inevitable–perhaps not in the manner of clumsy execution, but in idea.
I feel like with a lot of these growing pains in the rearview mirror, things can turn a corner and start to improve–even when it comes to changes that were originally poorly-received. I’m also optimistic that as everything starts to settle down, more operational normalcy will resume, and a lot of problems will resolve themselves. Perhaps I’m foolish and 2022 will say “hold my beer” to this and last year, but I’m pretty confident that when doing this recap a year from today, the top news stories will be much more upbeat and positive. I guess we shall see!
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If you were making a list of the biggest news of 2021 at Walt Disney World, which stories would top it? Think it’s been a mostly good or bad year? Where do the various changes/additions rank for you? Do you agree or disagree with our assessments? Think there’s any stories we snubbed? 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!