Walt Disney World will celebrate its 50th Anniversary on October 1, 2021. This post covers everything we know about Magic Kingdom’s Golden Anniversary: new attractions, entertainment, start date, celebration length, merchandise, and food. We also discuss crowds and how health safety protocol will potentially put a damper on the festivities.
Let’s get that out of the way first, as the threshold question for many of you likely is When Will Walt Disney World Stop Requiring Face Masks? Although we don’t have a crystal ball, that attempts to predict a date when face masks will shift from a rule to a recommendation.
Along those same lines, there’s the issue of physical distancing and park attendance caps. These are intertwined, meaning that Walt Disney World is limiting attendance to roughly 35% of normal levels because of physical distancing requirements. That is the upper limit on park capacity while adhering to health guidance based on Disney’s industrial engineering estimates. This may not matter much to you–after all, a little extra “breathing room” in lines is nice. However, it matters a lot to Walt Disney World…
Physical distancing and attendance caps are Disney’s biggest impediment to profitability. Obviously, theme parks make less money when operating at 35% capacity as compared to 70%. On recent earnings calls, Disney has indicated that Walt Disney World is making a “positive net contribution” towards fixed costs. This doesn’t mean that Walt Disney World is profitable–it means the parks are losing less money by being open than they would lose by being closed.
This might seem tangential, but it’s extremely relevant to the topic of new attractions and entertainment debuting for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. Because of the limitations on attendance and, by extension, profitability, Disney has opted to operate with a reduced slate of offerings and delay the opening of new attractions.
Accordingly, while face masks are the threshold “issue” for many guests, it’s actually the relaxation of physically distancing rules that are the crux of the matter for Walt Disney World. It’s not addressed directly in the “When Will Walt Disney World Stop Requiring Face Masks?” article, but the analysis is almost entirely the same for physical distancing.
This actually provides a good segue into the next question, when will Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary celebration begin?
Last year at this time, we would’ve told you that there’s a reasonable chance that Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary would begin before October 2021. Past milestone anniversaries at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World have started in advance of the actual dates, often beginning in May to coincide with the start of the summer tourist season. A kick-off by Memorial Day 2021 was a realistic possibility as of early last year.
However, that’s now highly unlikely. Physical distancing and capacity caps are likely to remain in place throughout the summer season. Even if vaccine rollout accelerates and there’s ample availability ahead of schedule, there’s still uncertainty about when they’ll widely be available to the general public.
It’s not like Walt Disney World can receive new CDC guidance on physical distancing one day, announce the start date for the 50th Anniversary the following day, and have the event kick off the day after that. Think of Walt Disney World like an ocean liner: you turn the wheel slowly, and the big ship pivots gradually. Everything takes time from decision to fruition.
With that said, Walt Disney World has a couple of options: wait until there’s definitive health guidance before setting a start date and moving slowly from there or pick a more remote date in the future that seems likely to have the rules relaxed, plan around that, and hope for the best.
Realistically, both approaches are probably going to produce the same outcome: a start date for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary on or around October 1, 2021. It’s possible that the celebration itself could officially start a couple of weeks earlier during the off-season in September 2021. That’s literally the slowest time of the year at Walt Disney World, and it would be a good way to level off crowds.
It’s also possible that Walt Disney World will have a celebratory one-day event on October 1, 2021 but not begin the Golden Anniversary celebration until 2022. This might sound odd, but it’s not unprecedented–just two years ago, Magic Kingdom didn’t start its “Surprise Celebration” for Minnie and Mickey Mouse’s 90th anniversary until months after the actual date. Instead, Disney opted to start the festivities during the January off-season, because that’s what was advantageous.
Nevertheless, we think it’s highly unlikely that Walt Disney World would opt for a similar approach with its 50th Anniversary. “Surprise Celebration” was an afterthought to boost off-season attendance and Disney used Mickey Mouse’s 90th Anniversary as a convenient excuse for it. Most guests didn’t question it, because few know the actual date of the character’s creation.
By contrast, the October 1, 1971 grand opening date of Magic Kingdom is widely known, and the actual anniversary is going to garner a lot of media attention and free publicity. It would be uncharacteristic of Disney to squander the free buzz by having the actual event start months later.
As such, the most likely scenario is an October 1, 2021 start date. What’s entirely possible–if not probable–is that Walt Disney World will use the ‘current uncertainty’ as an excuse to stagger debut dates within the celebration, and also extend the festivities beyond just one calendar year.
Which brings us to the next frequently asked question: when will Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary celebration end?
Let’s start with some past precedent. On October 1, 1996, Walt Disney World kicked-off the 25th Anniversary celebration, which ended on January 31, 1998 after 15 months of festivities. Granted, that was 25 years ago and a lot has changed since then. So let’s look at more recent events.
Disneyland celebrated its 50th Anniversary from May 5, 2005 until September 30, 2006. This 18-month event was known as the “Happiest Homecoming on Earth” beginning a couple of months before the actual event and being celebrated around the world–including at Walt Disney World. Similarly, Disneyland’s 60th Anniversary Diamond Celebration began on May 22, 2015 and ended on September 5, 2016.
The most recent blockbuster event at Walt Disney World was the Year of a Million Dreams. This began immediately after the “Happiest Homecoming on Earth,” on October 1, 2006. It was originally scheduled to run for one year, but was extended until December 31, 2008 by “popular demand.”
We think Disney is likely to use a “hybrid playbook” for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary celebration. A possible scenario is an initial announcement of a 12 to 18-month event, with a “surprise” extension announced around halfway through that results in a 2-year or longer event. With the current travel trepidations and protracted economic slowdown, Walt Disney World will have ample incentive for milking the celebration.
Having a somewhat bifurcated 50th Anniversary celebration also makes sense from a practical perspective. It gives Walt Disney World the chance to do something of a soft reset about halfway through, “amping up” the festivities with new attractions and entertainment. This will incentivize visitors who already experienced the first half of the celebration to come back, and will also lure new guests.
It may seem like we’re entering highly speculative territory, but Walt Disney World is already laying the groundwork for this exact approach. Which brings us to the next question: what new attractions and entertainment will debut during Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary?
At the last two D23 Expos, Disney announced a number of new attractions that would debut “in time for the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World Resort in 2021.” Keep in mind, these Expos were 2 and 4 years ago–long before things went bonkers and theme parks closed for several months.
Suffice to say, many of the planned 2021 opening dates are entirely off the table. Although Walt Disney World has not officially confirmed as much, Guardians of the Galaxy Cosmic Rewind at EPCOT and TRON Lightcycle Run at Magic Kingdom will not open in 2021.
There’s also uncertainty around other upcoming additions. The Play Pavilion at EPCOT was previously announced for 2021, but Disney has been silent as to its status for a while. The Play Pavilion could debut this year, but its interactivity casts doubt on that. Ditto the DuckTales World Showcase Adventure.
The same goes for a duo of restaurants, Space 220 at EPCOT and Toy Story Roundup BBQ in Hollywood Studios. Both could open this year or be pushed into 2022 as circumstances dictate. There are also a lot of other additions on the horizon that won’t be part of the celebration. See our What’s New & Next at Walt Disney World for a full rundown.
At this point, there are only two big additions that will debut this year “in time for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary.” First, there’s Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, a family-friendly trackless dark ride in EPCOT’s France pavilion. (See our Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure Opening & Info post for thoughts as to when it’ll debut.)
There’s also Harmonious, the new nighttime spectacular currently being installed in World Showcase Lagoon at EPCOT. Although all fireworks shows and most entertainment is on hiatus right now due to physical distancing, Disney has indicated this will debut in 2021. Of course, all things are subject to change, but we expect to see Harmonious this year.
Speaking of entertainment, that’s what most of the Walt Disney World 50th Anniversary rumors concern. This is reasonable, as Disney has leaned heavily on new and imported parades, fireworks, dance parties, and stage shows to commemorate anniversaries.
At this point, it’s highly unlikely that Walt Disney World will get any major brand-new entertainment for the 50th Anniversary (aside from Harmonious). What’s possible is that Walt Disney World will bring back extinct entertainment or port a parade from California.
The same strategy has also been leveraged at times when travel is depressed–like with Summer Nightastic during the Great Recession. During that event, Main Street Electrical Parade came to Magic Kingdom from DCA, special event fireworks were repurposed, minor entertainment was added, and rides received enhancements.
All of that was plausible. In fact, at one point, “50 Magical Enhancements” were rumored for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. While that number is totally implausible now, a handful of minor “plussings” to classic attractions (like the one announced for Jungle Cruise) are possible.
There have been persistent rumors from credible sources that Paint the Night will be brought to Florida from California. This parade debuted during the Diamond Celebration, but hasn’t seen much use since. Walt Disney World has previously had the option of running Paint the Night and passed on it due to maintenance and operating expenses.
We can’t speak to the veracity of these rumors, but they make sense and comport with past precedent of Disney shuffling parades from coast to coast. As such, there’s probably about a 50/50 chance Paint the Night runs during Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. That night parade rolling out on October 1, 2021 now seems like a long shot, but it’s entirely plausible for it to debut during the second push of the Golden Anniversary in 2022.
Beyond that, there are some “known quantities” for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. The Royal Makeover of Cinderella Castle already started and concluded and the similar Entrance Enhancements are also almost finished.
Additionally, Walt Disney World has stated that the celebration will extend to all four theme parks with “amazing attraction openings, new entertainment, food and beverage, merchandise and more.” Concept art was teased at the last D23 Expo showcasing balloons, MagicBands, merchandise, banners, and cupcakes–all with an iridescent, rainbow-looking color scheme. (Disney has not posted this online, suggesting those were working and not final designs.)
Finally, there’s the question of crowds. This is already a long, highly speculative post, so we’re not going to fixate on this too much. For more in-depth crowd analysis, see our 2021 Best & Worst Months to Visit Walt Disney World and 2021 Crowd Calendars for Walt Disney World.
One thing we already know is that the Anniversary itself will be busy. Disney Park Pass reservations are already unavailable across all three buckets of guests for October 1, 2021. That’s somewhat meaningless right now, as more reservations will almost certainly be released in the coming months–and it’s also entirely possible that the Park Pass system is retired before October. Nevertheless, expect heavier attendance in late 2021 through 2022.
That will partly be due to the anniversary celebration, partly due to the relaxation of health protocol, and partly due to the pent-up demand and phenomenon of “revenge travel” at Walt Disney World. All of that could create a perfect storm for big crowds. Here’s hoping there’s plenty of new entertainment, attractions, and other offerings to help offset those crowds and make Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary a momentous and memorable event!
Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!
Are you considering a trip for the start of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary, or will you wait until 2022? What are your expectations in terms of new attractions, entertainment, merchandise, food, and other aspects of the celebration? Think Disney has any surprises for the anniversary up its sleeves? When do you think the ideal time to visit during the 50th Anniversary will be? Expect large crowds for Fall 2021 and beyond? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment and predictions for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary celebration? 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!