The World’s Most Magical Celebration: Walt Disney World at 50

Tracey Teo

When Walt Disney World opened near Orlando, Florida, on October 1, 1971, only about 10,000 visitors showed up to the park that had been widely-hyped as one of the most ambitious entertainment destinations ever, even bigger and better than California’s Disneyland. Some guests had slept in their cars hoping to be among the first admitted to the new 100-acre theme park that included only Magic Kingdom Park, Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort and Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground, but even so, the crowd was much smaller than anticipated. Had Disney made a $425 million blunder?

It seems laughable now that the press and other skeptics ever thought so.  Fast forward 50 years, and Walt Disney World is the most visited theme park in the world, drawing more than 20 million visitors annually. What started with the Magic Kingdom has grown to encompass three additional parks - Disney’s Hollywood Studios, EPCOT, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park - each with a pantheon of new characters designed to appeal to new generations of Disney fans.

 But it’s a couple of Disney’s most iconic characters, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, that will host “The World’s Most Magical Celebration,” which kicks off October 1 to mark Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary. If you can’t get there this fall, no worries; the party lasts 18 months. 

Liberty DeWig can’t wait. The co-host of “MY Morning Show,” broadcast on 105.3 WJLT radio in Evansville, Indiana, is a hardcore Disney fan from way back. Her house is so loaded with Disney memorabilia, it’s practically a museum to Walt Disney World.

She missed her trip last year due to COVID-19, but she hopes to spend Christmas there this year with her equally Disney-crazy husband, Doug (he’s always online following Disney YouTubers through the park), and their 13-year-old son, Chase.

 “We wouldn’t spend our vacation anywhere else, “DeWig said. “I know it sounds cheesy, but it really is magical.”

And that magic is about to get amped up big time for the celebration. At night, all four theme parks will be transformed into Beacons of Magic through special projections Disney calls “EARidescence.”

Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom Park will be covered in sparkling pixie dust. Enchanted fireflies will glow brightly in the Tree of Life at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park. The Hollywood Tower Hotel at Disney’s Hollywood Studios will shine more brilliantly than ever. EPCOT’s Spaceship Earth, the iconic geodesic sphere that houses a dark ride, is getting permanent new lighting that makes the exterior appear to be covered in a constellation of stars.

EPCOT Transformation

Spaceship Earth is not the only EPCOT attraction getting a makeover. The park is undergoing a multi-year revamp Disney has dubbed, the “EPCOT Transformation.”

 The grand opening of Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, which coincides with the launch of the October 1 anniversary celebration, is among the most exciting additions. The 4D attraction is based on “Ratatouille,” the award-winning 2007 Disney-Pixar film. When guests board the trackless, dark ride modeled on an attraction in Disneyland Paris, they seem to shrink to the size of Remy, a rat and aspiring chef. They are chased through Chef Auguste Gusteau’s Paris kitchen that, thanks to Disney’s cutting-edge technology, is filled with the enticing aroma of classic French dishes.  

If the experience leaves you with a craving for French cuisine, have a snack at Le Creperie de Paris, part of the newly expanded section of the France pavilion.

“I love the way Disney Imagineers (Disney’s research and design team) bring our favorite movies to life,” DeWig said.  “I saw a preview on YouTube. These types of attractions make you feel like you are actually immersed in the movie.”

On DeWig’s last visit in 2019, she got a bird’s-eye view of construction on the attraction from the new Disney Skyliner lift.  This year, she and her family are excited to try out the ride and go on a zany adventure with Remy.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios

DeWig says she’s also looking forward to hopping aboard Mickie and Minnie’s Runaway Railway (opened March 2020) in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, her favorite of the four parks.  Guests board the ride at the Chinese Theatre, former home to the Great Movie Ride, and set off on a crazy journey that always has the little ones wide-eyed with wonder.

DeWig’s “little one,” Chase, is a teenager now, but it doesn’t matter. This Disney-obsessed guest is not passing up a new ride.

Chase is more of a “Star Wars” fan. On the family’s last visit, he had a super-cool interaction with a Storm Trooper, but he didn’t get to ride Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, which opened December, 2019.  This year, that ride is on his Christmas list.

The action-packed attraction at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge puts visitors in the front lines in the battle against the First Order. Upon boarding Rise of the Resistance, riders become Resistance fighters and are launched into space on a transport shuttle, only to be captured by a Star Destroyer where they face a hostile brigade of First Order Storm Troopers. They are relentlessly pursued by the powerful villain Kylo Ren. The action takes place against mammoth sets, providing the illusion guests are characters in a “Star Wars” film. State-of-the-art technology makes slashing light sabers and explosions seem all too real.

DeWig says on the family’s next visit, they won’t miss a thing.

“During the pandemic, it was sad to think about all the stuff we said we would do next time.” DeWig said. “From now on, I want to make sure we live in the ‘now’ and not ‘next time’.”

COVID-19 restrictions at Disney properties are fluid, so check the website before your visit. To organize your vacation, download the My Disney Experience app.

Then and Now

  • In 1971, family vacation packages for two nights and three days, including park admission and lodging, cost $175.00 for a family of four. Today, a standard ticket for one day admission is, starting as low as, $109 (ages 10 and up). That’s $436 for a family of four without lodging and other expenses.
  • In the ‘70s, visitors took photos with Disney characters using cameras with film, and they couldn’t see them until they got home and had them developed – unless they were lucky enough to own one of those fancy Instant Polaroid cameras. There was no instant sharing of photos on social media. There weren’t even mobile phones. Technology has come a long way. Disney just announced that Mickie Mouse and Minnie Mouse Snapchat Lenses are available to Snapchat users visiting Walt Disney World during the anniversary celebration. More augmented reality Lenses are expected.
  • When the park first opened, guests had to purchase a book of ride tickets and hope it didn’t end up 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (a popular ride that is now closed). The book had an A-to-E system with A being the smaller rides and E the biggest attractions. Now guests wear a MagicBand on their wrist that provides access to all rides. It’s used to enter the park, unlock your Disney Resort hotel room and make purchases. It also connects you to the choices made with My Disney Experience, an app designed to help guests organize their trip.
  • At the time is printing, all park visitors must make park reservations before their visit.

Disney’s Riviera Resort

Those planning to stay at Disney’s Hollywood Studios now have a new lodging option. Disney’s Riviera Resort, the company’s 15th Vacation Club property, embodies Old World elegance reminiscent of the sun-drenched Mediterranean coastline.

  The 300-unit property features accommodations that range from compact rooms designed for two in Tower Studios to spacious three-bedroom villas that sleep up to 12.

It’s the first stand-alone Disney Vacation Club property to open at Walt Disney World since Saratoga Springs debuted in 2004.