It’s a celebration 50 years in the making — a full half century of Walt Disney World as of Oct. 1 — and while there’s not a grand marquee ride opening or spanking-new hotel to mark today’s occasion, the parks are planning to sprinkle some pixie dust over 18 months of happenings at “The World’s Most Magical Celebration.”
Of course, Disney World never saw the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown coming, and this hiccup may have crimped timelines. The Tron ride at Magic Kingdom and the overhaul of Splash Mountain into a “Princess and the Frog” theme are not on the calendar yet, and some projects, like the Reflections lakeside lodge, have been shelved. But there is a sense of hope and optimism for a return to normal operations.
“We deliver happiness,” Melissa Valiquette, general manager of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, told The Post. “Right now the world needs good news, so it feels special and magical to bring this happiness to people.”
Since its opening in 1971 in Orlando, Florida, Walt Disney World has become a rite of childhood, a trove of nostalgia, a beloved institution, a bucket list destination, or a wallet-emptying endurance trial, depending on your viewpoint. While purists point to California’s original Disneyland (opened in 1955) as the epitome of iconic Disney parks, it’s Disney World — by far the biggest of all of the five Disney properties worldwide — that holds the most sway for sheer size, immersion and recreation options, boasting EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, two water parks, two miniature golf courses, three 18-hole golf courses, major league sports grounds and Disney Springs’ 120 acres of shopping, dining and entertainment. You need many, many weeks (and deep pockets) to visit everything WDW has to offer, choosing from among the 40 hotels with more than 28,000 rooms within the golden gates for your stay “inside the magic.”
And while Walt Disney World has become the tourist homing beacon of Orlando, the so-called “Florida Project” that took 40 square miles of soggy-bottomed creeks and turned them into a goldmine 50 years ago almost didn’t end up in the Sunshine State.
Back in the early ’60s, the mouse almost built his second house outside New Orleans, Louisiana. (Obviously, swampland featured high on the real estate must-have list.) Dodgy local politics put an end to that idea, so West Palm Beach, Florida, was lined up, but a seemingly surefire deal based on a handshake fell apart.
In 1963, an aerial view of Orange and Osceola counties in the middle of Florida showed promising tracts of vacant land intersected by good highways and a nearby airport. Forming a bunch of shell companies to disguise the source of interest — you can see the names of some of those companies inscribed into the windows over the shops along Magic Kingdom’s Main Street — some 27,000 acres southwest of Orlando were subsequently snapped up. In 1965, plans were announced, and two years later, Walt Disney World broke ground.
Christopher Stewart, who has worked at the park for 30 years, recalls his south Floridian parents talking about their honeymoon which they spent at Disney World shortly after it opened.
“It was like nothing anyone had ever seen,” he said. “It was so mysterious. When the word came that they were building here, they built a preview center that opened in 1970, and over a million people went to see what was happening.”
On Oct. 1, 1971, when the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World opened, it would cost you $3.50 to enjoy 26 attractions. Today, it costs $109 for a one-day, one-park ticket with 34 things to stand in line for, including many of the iconic originals like It’s A Small World and the Haunted Mansion. (The shooting gallery had to go, though.)
So what’s next? While there’s not a blockbuster opening lineup for the actual birthday, there are several new rides nearing completion and some exotic experiences on the near horizon.
Here are the highlights:
Eat in orbit
Anyone who ever took their kids to the much maligned, yet fondly remembered, Mars 2112 restaurant in Times Square will recognize the premise of the newly opened Space 220 restaurant in EPCOT. Board your very long and superfast elevator into space and travel 220 miles to the Centauri Space Station, where you’ll have views of planet Earth from the wraparound window. The menu is prix fixe (two-course lunch: $55; three-course dinner: $79), and covers the gamut of Earth fare with a twist of whimsy (“X2 Duck” in a nod to the spacecraft from the Mission: Space ride next door.)
As you dine, astronauts and spacecraft will drift by the window. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the space dog, although I’m told his appearance is pretty rare.
“It’s a nod to space exploration and what can happen in our lifetime,” said Wendy Aguila, Disney Imagineering project coordinator.
If space travel is not in your future, you can still leave Earth for a while with a Big Tang cocktail made with tequila, Grand Marnier and Tang-infused agave nectar — a homage to the soft drink that was famously taken into orbit in the NASA space program. It also comes decorated with freeze-dried astronaut ice cream.
Special tip: When you pass the window to the rotating hydroponic space cabbages (not real), look to the far end without blinking. It will feel as if they have stopped spinning and you are rotating. (Or was that just the cocktails?)
Lights, lights, lights
The Cinderella castle’s popular nightly fireworks and video mapping show, “Happily Ever After,” has been retired and replaced by “Disney Enchantment.” People get very, very into these nighttime shows, so the stakes are high.
“This new fireworks spectacular is a first-of-its-kind show,” said Valiquette. “We’re not only projecting beautiful imagery onto Cinderella’s castle but also onto Main Street USA.”
This so-called “EARidescent décor” lights up the street in carnival colors, while Cinderella’s castle, newly decked out in royal blue and gold, becomes the backdrop for a montage of Disney characters and tunes in a show that aims to have guests “believe in the magic that lives within them.”
In case that’s not enough illumination, there are also “Beacons of Magic” light projections over the Hollywood Tower Hotel in Hollywood Studios, Spaceship Earth in EPCOT and at the Tree of Life in Animal Kingdom. Heck, even the monorail is lighting up at night.
EPCOT is busy transitioning to a new format of lands (World Showcase, World Celebration, World Nature and World Discovery) that will unveil over the next few years, but meanwhile, on Bay Lake at the hub of the park, huge mechanical barges and cranes sit ominously, all for the new nightly EPCOT show, “Harmonious.”
Gone is the spinning Earth, and in its place, shooting water, choreographed lights, lasers and fireworks erupt to a soundtrack of classic Disney tunes in over a dozen languages.
“It’s one of the largest shows Disney Parks has ever produced,” said Kris Bunnell, senior producer, Disney live entertainment. “We wanted to do something worthy of the EPCOT transformation, so we built an amazing toolkit with new technology to tell the story — a celebration of Disney music and how it brings you together.”
Join the rat race
Over in EPCOT, France has taken over some real estate behind the Eiffel Tower and created a realistic Parisian boulevard, housing the Ratatouille ride.
This version of the Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy that launched in Disneyland Paris in 2014 is a family friendly, trackless journey based on the Pixar movie, featuring a culinary adventure in Gusteau’s restaurant.
After boarding your mouse-faced car, you’ll scamper around giant hams and cheeses the size of cartwheels with Little Chef Remy — the stuff of Pizza Rat’s dreams. Afterwards, enjoy the new La Crêperie de Paris, where not only can you indulge in galettes and crepes, but also swig a French hard cider. You’ve earned it.
The much-anticipated Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser hotel will open on March 1, 2022. Set up like an interstellar cruise, guests will go on an immersive three-day, two-night trip to a galaxy far, far away, whisked into deep space on board the Halcyon spacecraft, ending up somewhere in orbit off the planet Batuu (i.e. Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios — an excursion there is part of the package).
You’ll have views of endless space from your cabin, while “Star Wars” characters and other space-y aliens make appearances, and light-saber training and role-playing adventures await. Heck, you can even cosplay if you want — and if you’re galactic-wear challenged, there’s a handy shop on board where you can purchase a whole new kit. (Genius!)
Start saving now, though, because prices start at $4,809 for an all-inclusive (lodging, entertainment, food and non-alcoholic drinks) package for two.
Coming in 2022, EPCOT will get an actual, real life, nuts-and-bolts rollercoaster in Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind. Guests will attend the Galaxarium before a rude interruption from Rocket raccoon and co., before being sent off on a wild ride. A sneak peek of the track shows plenty of dips, twists and turns, and ride cars that come suitably dinged up.
“It’s completely new technology, called an ‘Omnicoaster,’ ” said Ashley Levine, Disney senior project controller. “The cars will rotate 360 degrees in a thrilling ride combined with classic Disney Imagineering.”
Reps declined to comment on how fast the ride will be, but aside from the spinning and the drops, it features a reverse launch, so it’s a screamer.
Let’s go fly a kite
Animal Kingdom is limited in what it can do out of deference to the wildlife — no fireworks and loud noises — so their new offering, Kite Tails, is a more gentle show involving DIsney-themed kites flown from jet skis that zip along the park river. Some of the kites are pretty large — think balloonsicles from Macy’s Thanksgiving parade — and in a preview, sadly, Baloo from “The Jungle Book” failed to get airborne, face-planting into the stands.
Ah, well. They have 18 months to get it right.
WHERE TO STAY
The two original Walt Disney World hotels are sporting a refresh in time for the 50th. The Polynesian Village Resort has re-vamped its South Pacific-themed rooms into full-on Moana ambiance, with a tropical, beachy vibe. The Contemporary Resort (which, thanks to a rather dated futuristic architecture, is a much nicer hotel to look out from than at) is transitioning its rooms into a classy midcentury look based on “The Incredibles.” Thankfully, the theming isn’t cartoonish but high end, and doesn’t seem forced. While there, check out Steakhouse 71, a swish new eatery to mark the occasion, complete with an entrance showing old-timey photos of Roy Disney surveying the land and the beginnings of WDW.
Rooms at the Polynesian Village Resort start at $959, and start at $563 at the Contemporary Resort.