Why Disney World’s 50th Anniversary Should Be Big

On the first night of our Walt Disney World honeymoon, we raced to Disney’s Hollywood Studios to catch the final evening of Star Wars Weekends. We met Darth Goofy, Jedi Mickey, R2D2, and Princess Lei Minnie before stopping at the Star Tours stage to see the final showing of Hyperspace Hoopla.

Following that, we headed to the Polynesian for dinner at Kona Cafe where we took advantage of a superior and cheaper version of the Disney Dining Plan and had some of the best steak at Walt Disney World. Following that exceptional meal, we were off to Magic Kingdom for one of the most memorable evenings of our lives.

We raced into the park just in time for the Summer Nightastic fireworks, one of the best spectaculars Magic Kingdom has ever produced. We then caught the second performance of Main Street Electrical Parade–a downgrade from SpectroMagic but better than nothing. Magic Kingdom closed at midnight that night, but had 3 hours of evening Extra Magic Hours, giving us run of the park and time to do about a dozen more rides. We finally left Magic Kingdom and boarded a bus back to BoardWalk at 4:10 am…

There’s a lot to unpack in those three paragraphs. The least of which for us being that we once stayed up past 10 pm, rather than falling asleep on the couch watching reruns we’ve seen dozens of times (but I digress…). Adding even more context, our Walt Disney World honeymoon was a decade ago last month, occurring in the aftermath of the Great Recession at a time when the travel industry was just starting to recover from significant losses.

Even before Walt Disney World closed temporarily in March, a lot had changed for the worse in the intervening 10 years. Prices and attendance had both skyrocketed. In the case of the former, some costs had roughly doubled during that time. With regard to the latter, attendance was up about 3 to 6 million annual guests per park. (So much for Disney increasing prices to reduce crowds, a falsity that way too many fans eagerly parroted.)

That’s to say nothing of the other changes, which have been a mixed bag. Park hours have been significantly shorter the last several years while perks and entertainment has been cut. On the other hand, big additions like Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Toy Story Land, Pandora – World of Avatar, etc. have debuted. The point of this is not to debate whether Walt Disney World’s parks are better or worse than they were a decade ago.

Rather, it’s to offer an illustrative example and assert that Disney needs to suppress its worst impulses to cut cut cut in the face of decreased attendance. Instead, the company should adopt a similar strategy of Summer Nightastic for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. Add smaller scale enhancements, bring crowd-pleasing entertainment to Florida, and lean into nostalgic fan-favorites. In short, give passionate and longtime Disney fans a reason to visit Walt Disney World, and help fuel a recovery beginning in October 2021.

At this point, there’s mostly uncertainty about Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. Over the last couple of years, a lot of announcements have come with the line that they’re opening “in time for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary.” At various times, this has included Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, Tron Lightcycle Run, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, Harmonious, and the Play Pavilion.

We anticipate all of those additions still coming at some point, but now the only one that’s a sure thing before October 1, 2021 is Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure. Some of the rest might still arrive in time, but most will likely be delayed. So what does that leave? A color trend, spirit jerseys, and cupcakes are not going to cut it if Disney is looking to rebound.

Disney has always leaned heavily on nostalgia, and that has been doubly true for milestone anniversaries. They did for Walt Disney World’s 25th Anniversary, when it was “time to remember the magic,” and they did for both Disneyland’s 50th Anniversary and the Diamond Celebration.

Previously, rumors suggested that Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary would celebrate “50 Magical Enhancements” that would be promoted as part of an 18-month celebration beginning on October 1, 2021. That probably sounds more impressive than it would’ve been, with a variety of overlays, enhancements, special offers, and small stuff counting towards the tally in addition to the half-dozen headliner additions.

Some of those 50 enhancements would have focused on plussing or restoring fan favorite attractions. Think of this as a cross between “Project Sparkle” that Disneyland Paris rolled out ahead of its 25th Anniversary and the Diamond Celebration for Disneyland’s 60th Anniversary–a mix of character-driven things to appeal to new guests, and nostalgia-fueled fun for old-timers.

Note that most of this is past tense. Those rumors seemed less credible when nothing substantive was announced at last year’s D23 Expo. Their potential has slipped even further following the 4-month closure of Walt Disney World’s theme parks and ensuing economic uncertainties. As we cover in Will Walt Disney World’s Low Crowds Continue? the parks are in for a rough rest of the year, which will undoubtedly bleed over into 2021. In fact, a full recover for Walt Disney World is likely years away–we’re talking 2023 at the earliest.

However, I’d argue that the recent rockiness makes the case even strong for going big on entertainment, overlays, and nostalgia-fueled enhancements for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. Not only are these the easiest additions with a quicker turnaround time, but they’re comparatively inexpensive and are necessarily the type of ‘limited time’ offerings to entice guests to visit the parks at a time when attendance is depressed.

Disney has employed this strategy to great success time and time again, especially at Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland; how “nostalgia sells” among Disney fans probably does not need further elucidation. (Although we will offer plenty more in our conclusion.) Instead, let’s turn to some potential options…

At the top of my original wishlist would’ve been SpectroMagic 2.0. The reality is that since we haven’t heard anything about that yet, it’s not happening. Moreover, Disney can’t really start development on new fireworks or parades until it’s certain that they’ll be safe to run by next October. (For the sake of this post, we’re going to assume that’s the case.)

The good news here is that there are a lot of nighttime parade floats sitting around in California, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and maybe Paris (I’m not sure what’s up with Fantillusion–it has probably been destroyed or repurposed by now). A “new” parade could either be cobbled together from those floats or ported over directly. Walt Disney World has previously had the option of running Paint the Night and passed on it due to maintenance and operating expenses. It’s time to rethink that decision.

Next, a return of the Tapestry of Nations parade or something drawing from its spirit at Epcot. This was vaguely evoked (hinted at would be too strong) at D23 Expo ago, and it would be a good option for drawing back longtime fans. It would also be a good counterpart to Harmonious, which is going to skew towards new guests.

Recently, congestion and crowd flow have been a logistical impediment to both a Magic Kingdom nighttime parade and Epcot daytime parade. That shouldn’t be the case anytime in the next few years.

Continuing on, the revitalization of Tomorrowland is a project that’s underway and could offer a boost if it ends up being more than just a quick place-making project stripping back the Tomorrowland ’94 ornamentation.

Obvious choices here are substantive updates for the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover (something’s gotta happen there regardless) and a new finale for Carousel of Progress (done with integrity). Ironically, there are a lot of other options for appealing to nostalgia while updating Magic Kingdom’s futuristic land.

Elsewhere at Walt Disney World, bringing back past offerings for limited engagements where possible would also be savvy and encourage return visits. Limited Time Magic at Disneyland would provide a great blueprint for this, where things like “A Salute to the Golden Horseshoe Revue” and “Long-Lost Friends Week” helped fuel local turnout and interest.

In general, Walt Disney World should be borrowing Disneyland’s playbook for the next couple of years. The Florida parks are going to be much more reliant on locals, Annual Passholders, Disney Vacation Club members, and return visitors than normal. First-timers are obviously still vital to Walt Disney World’s business, but fans are the lower hanging fruit for the foreseeable future.

Finally, some new and returning attraction overlays. Walt Disney World has long been concerned that bringing back Country Bear Christmas would crash their servers with people booking hotel rooms and buying tickets, but maybe it’s time to finally take that risk. The go.com infrastructure is pretty resilient.

Joking aside, there are probably more viable options here. Perhaps it’d be possible to negotiate ‘borrowing’ the Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay from OLC, using that for a ‘second push’ beginning around September 2022. (Remember, it’s likely an 18-month celebration.)

This is hardly an exhaustive list of ideas. Again, it’s the type of things that Walt Disney World could realistically offer on a relatively short turnaround time and limited budget that would incentivize visits by fans, locals, etc.

Our fear is that Walt Disney World is going to engage in further belt-tightening and austerity measures while going into survival mode, and all substantive plans and budget for the 50th Anniversary will be a casualty of that. Some such budget cuts are no doubt necessary and appropriate, but there’s a golden opportunity to leverage the upcoming anniversary to Disney’s advantage. Timing-wise, it couldn’t be more perfect–starting almost exactly when a bounce-back could be feasible in light of real world constraints.

Over the last several years, we’ve cautioned against short-term thinking for a business unit that should be more fixated on long-term health. In fact, we repeatedly harped on the dangers of Walt Disney World making deep cuts during times of record prosperity; those have significant long-term ramifications and provide little room for maneuvering when times actually got tough.

These points were best made in our Is Disney Eroding Fan Goodwill? editorial, which expressed concern about a variety of topics (still relevant today). As was the case then, the problem is if you trim too much fat, you start to hit bone. Now, attendance woes could become a self-fulfilling property when coupled with cuts that are supposedly to help stem the bleeding. Those reductions alienate long-time fans while also making first-timers less likely to fall in love with the place, and thus become lifelong fans.

Ultimately, this is not a new problem, and it’s long past time for Disney to address this. Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary would be the perfect time. There’s still over a year to develop new entertainment, ship nighttime parade floats over from California or Japan, bring back some fan-favorite entertainment from years past, and really play up the nostalgia.

Many lifelong fans–even ones who have become more jaded and cynical about Disney in recent years–are just looking for an excuse to come back in 2021. Walt Disney World could give them one, winning back old fans, making new lifelong enthusiasts, recapturing lost attendance, and undoing several years of damage in the process.

It’s not the cheapest or safest course of action, but it is the smartest. Unfortunately, it’s also unquestionably the riskier approach, and Walt Disney World leadership has become increasingly risk-averse. Cost-cutting seems the more likely path, and we will no doubt see that play out in terms of capital expenditures over the course of the next several years irrespective of what’s done for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary.

However, such moves also entail their own long-term risks and pitfalls. Cutting costs does not occur in a vacuum–even if that’s what Disney leadership might believe since their product has been so popular during the economic boom of the last decade that they’ve been able to make cuts and increase prices with impunity. (That’s no longer economic reality, and won’t be for at least a few years.) Those cuts also send a signal to guests, and there’s a negative behavioral feedback loop that results. Walt Disney World has the perfect opportunity to hit reset here at a time when year over year metrics to which they’re beholden have been obliterated and rendered meaningless. It’s time to break the cycle, going big for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary in a way that excites and reignites the magic for lifelong fans, old and new.

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!

Your Thoughts

Are you considering a trip for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary? What would ‘entice’ you to visit during the celebration? Think any of the ideas here are viable ways to lure back longtime fans? Should Disney instead focus on cutting operating costs and the planned big budget additions? Do you agree or disagree with our advice/assessment? 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!

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