At 50 Years Young, Walt Disney World Resort Celebrates in Style

Over the last two years, there are almost too many examples to count of special celebrations that the COVID pandemic interrupted or outright cancelled. Birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and so many others were amongst the event casualties affected. The large park industry certainly was not immune from these effects. In fact, one of the most significant large park celebrations in half a century experienced the pandemic head on.

A son celebrates the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World Resort, Oct. 1, 2021, with his mother, who visited Magic Kingdom Park in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., during its opening year in 1971. (Matt Stroshane, photographer)

In this issue, The Large Park Report examines how the Walt Disney World Resort faced unknown challenges and constant changes as it prepared to celebrate their 50th Anniversary. On a recent visit, we discovered first-hand how the House of the Mouse pulled off the massive celebration in solid gold fashion. Let’s explore…
On Monday, October 25, 1971, at 2 p.m., Roy Disney officially dedicated Disney’s new Florida resort with the memorable commendation “May Walt Disney World bring joy and inspiration and New Knowledge to all who come to this happy place.” Throngs of guests journeyed to Central Florida since the park’s first day on October 1 as one of the most highly anticipated destinations had finally opened in just under five years since Walt Disney’s passing.

And Then a Pandemic Happened
No one could have imagined that 50 years later, multitudes of guests would return for Disney World’s golden anniversary (though Disney is generally using the term “EARidescent” rather than “golden”—more on that later). Not only was this a monumental celebration but it occurred in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. In fact, several industry observers we visited with reasonably wondered in the Spring of 2020 whether there would even be an anniversary celebration. As one Disney veteran mentioned, “everything appeared set for an amazing celebration…and then a pandemic happened.”
Simply stated, the challenges were monumental and unprecedented. Disney World successfully weathered oil embargoes in the 1970s, the aftermath of 9/11 and several hurricane direct hits so it was clear that the resort and its Cast Members (Disney’s term for its employees) were resilient. A worldwide pandemic, featuring worldwide travel restrictions and supply chain constrictions, was something entirely new.

The Walt Disney World Resort anniversary celebration was different than most, but still a success. Shown are guests enjoying their visit holding souvenirs popcorn buckets. Photo by Matt Stroshane provided by Disney.

The first challenge was that the entire resort essentially closed in March 2020. Guests, cast members, and contractors were all sent home leaving only a skeleton crew to maintain the massive resort. Worse still, no one knew how long the closure would last since the effects of COVID were still unknown.
With Disney World’s 50th Anniversary just 18 months away and planning deep underway, it quickly became clear that initial plans would have to be modified. For instance, nearly all construction on new rides at Disney World was indefinitely postponed in March 2020. This included several major attractions that were anticipated to debut during the anniversary celebration. These type “E-Ticket” rides often serve as the backbone for major celebrations at Disney parks. And, while a Ratatouille-themed dark ride in Epcot did open in time for the celebration (with others, including a Guardians of the Galaxy hybrid coaster, opening later this year), Disney clearly had to be flexible in promoting major new attractions leading into the 50th.
Several industry observers reasonably wondered, “What if Disney World’s 50th Anniversary didn’t include major new attractions?” Would guests still visit even if the parks were re-opened by then?
This forced Disney leadership to essentially scrap many of the existing plans and return to the drawing board (literally) in order to re-imagine what a massive resort-wide celebration might look like during an ongoing pandemic. Planning one of the company’s most significant celebrations while facing so many unknowns would be an unprecedented challenge.
Yet, during our recent visit to Disney World for this story, one thing quickly became clear: while the anniversary celebration was different than most before, Disney officials successfully “landed the plane” in a near perfect storm. Considering all of the havoc wreaked by the pandemic, the 50th Anniversary of the Walt Disney World Resort is a tribute to the creativity and resilience of the Disney team. And, while Disney World is the largest of the large parks, there are still many lessons that amusement facilities of all sizes can learn from how Disney adapted to these challenges.

The Details Matter More than Ever
Once the decision was made to proceed with the 50th celebration, an early task became how to create meaningful guest experiences so that the celebration is more than simply a marketing campaign. With guests unlikely to be able to ride all of the major attractions originally planned, Disney still had to develop unique experiences that could be designed and implemented within shorter time frames—all the while knowing that continued flexibility would be necessary leading up to the event since so many unknowns about the pandemic remained.
Part of Disney’s secret to success is an unwavering attention to details, especially as they relate to the guest experience. As one Disney observer noted, “in an unpredictable situation like a virus pandemic, the details matter more than ever.”
Disney’s attention to detail in a pandemic-affected celebration leans into several of the things that often make a resort vacation memorable: sights, sounds, and tastes.
A 50th celebration is often especially significant because it can be experienced by multiple generations. The guests who were children in 1971 now may be parents and grandparents. This means that nostalgia is likely to be a major component of the celebration. Without a doubt, Disney leaned heavily into this.
For instance, Disney culinary experts created (and sometimes “re-created”) over 150 new food and beverage offerings for the celebration. To enhance the nostalgia and authenticity, many of these new offerings included items featured all the way back to the park’s 1971 opening and, in some cases, even further as Disney culinarians actually dug into the Disney archives to re-discover some of Walt Disney’s own favorite recipes (did you know that one of Walt’s favorite dishes was roast beef hash topped with a fried egg?).
While we weren’t able to try all 150 during our visit, we nevertheless tried many of the most historically inspired dishes and our taste buds definitely experienced the nostalgia. The recipes themselves were important but, just as important, was the diversity of offerings and their clever presentation. These are lessons that any amusement facility can embrace. After all, cleverly naming new food and beverage offerings typically requires more creativity than monetary investment. Rather than just adding a description of the food to the menu, Disney embraced culinary names with a clever nod to the past like “Uncle Orville Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow Sundae,” “The Toad Burger” and “Senegal Sal’s Short Rib”—each based on an iconic Disney World ride (can you guess which ones?).

Details mattered more than ever during the planning and execution of The Walt Disney World Resort’s 50th anniversary. Shown are guests photographed on October 1, 2021. Photo by Matt Stroshane provided by Disney.

In addition to unique tastes, Disney also leaned into the sensory experiences of sights and sounds for the big anniversary. Though 50th anniversaries are typically associated with Golden, Disney opted for an original color palette for their fifth decade celebration, “EARidescent”. The concept is to overlay everything from apparel to merchandise to dining options with a “spectacularly shimmering” effect.
The idea to theme the celebration around an “otherworldly glow” rather than a specific color, offers a clever way to make the celebration and the guest experience, more unique and dynamic. By going EARidescent, Disney is able to create memorable visuals by adding a shimmer and shine while also enjoying the wordplay of Mickey Mouse’s iconic ears.
In addition to EARidescence, Disney used new lighting effects to enhance existing icons in each of their four Orlando parks. Known as Beacons of Magic, the concept is both simple and eye-catching and certainly an idea that amusement facilities of all sizes could implement on some scale. Disney selected four of the most popular icons (Cinderella’s Castle, the Tree of Life, Spaceship Earth, and The Hollywood Tower Hotel) and overlayed unique, custom lighting effects on each one.
For example, Spaceship Earth at Epcot was covered with hundreds of programable lights that transition through a variety of colors throughout the evening. The effect is the appearance of a starry night shimmering on the exterior of the park’s iconic geosphere. Meanwhile, the signature Tree of Life at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is transformed into a glimmering experience with projections of fireflies and other evening-inspired lighting effects.
As Disney has shown with their 50th Anniversary celebration, even in the uncertainty of a pandemic, amusement facilities can still create unique experiences to celebrate with their guests. You may not be able to create these experiences on the scale of Walt Disney World but, even when scaled down, your facility can creatively implement food, beverage, and visual effects that enhance the sights, sounds, and tastes of your celebration.

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