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.
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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!
We go every few years, I was there the very first summer. I’ve been planning on going for the 50th for several years. My main considerations have been around crowds. Since I can remember very light days in December and the last time was like being there in the summer. My fingers are crossed.
Totally agree with all these points, Tom! My nostalgia list goes deep, but the only one in my top 5 that could ever actually be brought back would be Spectromagic. (Sadly, I see no possibilities for the return of the original Journey Into Imagination, Cranium Command, Kitchen Kabaret, or Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.). I have phenomenal memories of the 25th Anniversary celebration, which happens to be the first time I ever experienced Extra Magic Hours – we paid $10 per person for 3 hours more at the MK, but it was so empty that we stayed in the boat and just kept riding Splash Mountain 3x in a row – and I was the first to correctly answer a trivia question at Typhoon Lagoon’s rope drop, securing my “Mayor for the Day” status, which came with all kinds of fun perks. I think there are a lot of small touches that can make all the difference for fans.
Agree!!! I am afraid Disney is going to start losing their base and spiral downward from the incredible magic place it was if this continues. The castle projection shows are cool, but not nighttime parades, and EPCOT, especially is getting very tired. They need to take the risky approach.
As much as I am dreading turning 40, I am counting the days to celebrate it IN the parks, during the 50th Anniversary!!! As a teenager, I experienced the 25th Anniversary (Cake Castle and all!) And have The Best memories!!! While I’ve taken my son a few times, this will be extra special! And will be my husband’s first time to WDW. Everyday I pray for “normalcy” and a BIG 50th Celebration in Fall of 2021.
Happy Belated Anniversary! You two are the cutest! I love reading your stories and seeing your beautiful photography!
We are booked for the 50th. About Disney and the fans. With the higher prices + cut backs + too much focus on Star Wars + canceling projects + the money being spend on pandering they are weakening the appeal for the traditional fans. They better coming thru on the 50th or some of us may go away.
I enjoy reading your posts and seeing the great pictures! I am exciting about the 50th anniversary and hope to visit the parks during the celebration. I think 2021 is also the 30th anniversary of Beauty and the Beast. I love the live show at HS. I hope this show returns, (as well as other equity performer shows)and celebrate this beloved animated movie in a big way.
Keep up the good work keeping us informed! It is appreciated.
Happy Tenth Anniversary! We too honeymooned at Disney World, way back in 1998. Animal Kingdom was just opening! 🙂 and our table was next to Leonard Nimoy’s table in California Grill!
I agree –bring back the nostalgia for the 50th!
Now I have the Spectromagic theme on loop in my head, ah memories! Anyway, I agree with most except for the attraction overlays. The NBC overlay at Disneyland (we live in FL) was a major disappointment with my family on our once in a lifetime trip as it is not a favorite of ours. I remember the year of Limited Time Magic and I remember taking so much time off work to attend the special weeks, with the exception of LTM Villians at DHS (over crowded nightmare for cast and guests) These seemingly small experiences are were WDW shines. For example, during Summer Nightastic, there was a Passholder event for ToT on Friday the 13th. I remember checking in and there were lots of day guests around wondering what was happening. I even saw 2 different families pull out their wallets toi try and buy their way in and cast members shut them down. Those are the kind of things that make us Passholders happy and going all the time to the parks.
We honeymooned in Disney too. 30 years ago this year!! We’ve been bringing our kids every few years ever since, and this September will be bringing All of our adult kids and our granddaughter! Disney is not the same though. I understand and support progress, but in some ways I wish it could go back to the way it used to be.
I would love a holiday overlay for haunted mansion!! I hope they do it!
Agree entirely with everything you say. The fans are their own worst enemy though and will just keep paying and paying. You’re point over the last 10 years proves it. Disney will use this period to gauge just how much they can withdraw and upcharge for. They will be in full on “Test & Learn” mode.
Best example of this is fewer EMH and using that time to charge for events – and still they flock in. There must be Disney marketing exces. sitting in bars going “I can’t believe we got away with that!”
What keeps people coming back is new attractions and when they are as good as the most recent crop – this is where they will focus their efforts. I wouldn’t bet on seeing even keeping those regular firework shows. Once they learn they can still sell tickets and only have them a few times a week – bingo! They aren’t there just for fun. They are expressly designed to keep people in the parks and buying food/merchandise etc. Once they’ve crunched the numbers and worked out their minimum viable product – that’s what we’ll have. Sorry to be so negative but they will cut and cut and keep cutting until they know that answer. I predict all in-flight attractions will be delivered but other cuts to pay for them will be inevitable.
Happy (belated) TENTH anniversary to you and Sarah, Tom! Hope you got to celebrate! xo
These are all great ideas and I would love it if Disney World would implement these types of changes over the next year! I completely understand that they might have to postpone some of the construction or ride projects, but adding entertainment and parades is a much easier and cheaper way to entice guests back to WDW sooner. Especially when it comes to the 50th anniversary celebration. I know I would definitely think about visiting sooner if I knew there would be a good amount of entertainment such as parades and shows available. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights on this.
My favorite quote of this article: “a new finale for Carousel of Progress (done with integrity)” lololol – this is such a running joke in our family. 4 out of 5 of us are big Carousel of Progress fans, and the last scene is so bad we just love it!
Right. I’m still following all the Disney stuff but it has been quite disheartening. I need to see the light. Maybe it’s best to just not follow for a while.
Thank you for posting the Holiday Arch picture. Great shot with the reflection. Brings back some good memories of a trip.
We are planning a trip in late November 2021 for the 50th Celebration. Just waiting for hotel reservations to open so we can book our stay.
I’d love to see them finish up & open Guardians of the galaxy as the big 50th Anniversary jewel! But won’t hold my breath. I agree with your assessment. I used to love the Electrical Parade. They could bring that back.
Meanwhile, Happy Anniversary & many more for you & Sarah! I always look forward to your updates.
You make a lot of great points in this article, thank you as always Tom! I understand that Disney is going thru a lot right now w/ this pandemic & all, but I’m still holding out hope for a proper 50th anniversary celebration. They should have new parades in all 4 parks for WDW 50th imo, as long as it’s safe to do so. Festival of Fantasy can stay @ MK, but they really need a new nighttime parade. Like, brand new! Not just recycled floats from other parks. If Disney World can charge u nearly $100 a day to visit their parks, they can certainly put that $$$ towards improving their parks too.
At this point, w/ the pandemic, all the uncertainty, etc, I’m looking at summer or fall 2022 for my next trip to WDW. Sadly, this’ll be my first time going to Disney World on my own. My Mom passed away a few months ago & my Dad can’t travel w/ me anymore due to health issues. Mom & I were even talking about going to Disney World again right before this pandemic got bad & her health worsened. I’ll always cherish the memories I made w/ my parents at the Disney, just gutted that they won’t be w/ me for WDW 50th 🙁
Any advice or articles you have about traveling to Disney World on your own would be appreciated, thank you.
Jeff, so sorry for your loss. Tom has an article about solo trips here: https://www.disneytouristblog.com/disney-world-solo-tips/
I hope it’s alright to mention another website here, but DISboards has a great forum for solo travelers.
I have done months of solo travel internationally, but funny enough I’ve only spent a couple days on my own at Disney World (always during trips with others, though.) I think you’ll really enjoy yourself and be able to reflect on all your happy memories visiting with your parents.
I took my 2 boys and spent a whole week at pop century last week. We had a great time! Six days in the parks and rode resistance twice. Other than the occasional rain, we had a great time. Everyone was wearing masks, small wait times and easy to get into any of the open restaurants. The decreased hour’s didn’t bother us at all because we were able to spend more time together hanging in the room at night and in the morning. Waiting for the 50th anniversary to visit again sounds great, but with the enhanced safety protocols I felt safer than at my home grocery store. Just my opinion.
I do think they should finish up with Tron and Cosmic Rewind by 10-21. Those are both too far along to cancel so they might as well finish them.
Tron & Guardians are safe. No way Disney is cancelling them, especially w/ Universal opening a new roller coaster soon too