Walt Disney had an inspiring quote about his first park when it opened. “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” He wasn’t lying, but his own imagination transcended this classic quote as he expanded to new parks all over the world. The first of those expansions, however, landed on the opposite side of the country in the former swamps of Central Florida.
While Walt didn’t survive to see Walt Disney World through to the end, his brother, Roy and a whole host of dedicated workers, including those who we now know as Imagineers, helped bring Walt’s dream to life with Magic Kingdom, the first resort in this enormous complex. The park opened on October 1, 1971. After 50 years, Walt Disney World has held to Walt’s original quote, having expanded to four parks, two water parks, over thirty themed hotels, golf courses and entertainment complexes and, after my recent visit to the park, I can tell you with certainty that they are nowhere near finished living up to that promise.
CGM was invited last month to attend media coverage of the parks in celebration of its 50th Anniversary as well as its latest ride, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, that is now open. During this trip—the first event for international press since before the pandemic—we had the opportunity to talk to members of Walt Disney’s Imagineering team and other Disney Cast Members who have all been hard at work with a number of big changes that have recently been completed as well as many that are still underway.
“After 50 years, Walt Disney World has held to Walt’s original quote, having expanded to four parks, two water parks, over thirty themed hotels, golf courses and entertainment complexes…”
The thing about Walt Disney World is that new attractions, updates and renovations come often. My last visit to the parks prior to this trip was in 2015, when I brought my four-year-old daughter to Disney for the first time. Since that visit (and excluding the one that we had to cancel two years ago), Walt Disney World has introduced park expansions like Toy Story Land, Pandora: The World of Avatar and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
New attractions, such as Frozen Ever After and Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway have opened, not to mention all the rides in the aforementioned park expansions. A few years away from the resort leads to a completely unique experience when you return.
Across the parks, you will be able to eat a bit of the 50th Anniversary Celebration. Disney’s Chefs came up with a bevy of new items meant to pay tribute to the legacy of Walt Disney World. Chef Katie from Magic Kingdom’s Cinderella’s Royal Table gave me a grand tour of the new items introduced to the parks.
Among them is the Veranda Fried Rice Dish, inspired by the Veranda Restaurant, which opened with the park in 1971. The 50th Anniversary Churro has cinnamon and strawberry sugar with a marshmallow drizzle and hazelnut dip. Celebrating Disney’s Hall of Presidents, the cherry-flavoured “I Cannot Tell a Lie” Shake.
The Sun Bonnet Trio Salad is derived from the trio of sisters from Country Bear Jamboree. The Haunted Mansion inspired Chilling Chamber Pops and the Happy Haunts Milkshake (a blackberry milkshake with a donut topping and a straw modelled after the mansion’s wallpaper).
Coming back from the opening days of Magic Kingdom is a Monte Cristo sandwich that Chef Katie points out has been a popular addition since its return. Playing off of the Monte Cristo is their 50th Anniversary Hot Dog, topped with Funnel Cake and strawberry bacon jam on top and inspired by the animated movie Tangled is the “When Will My Life Begin” Chicken Dish, complete with long, golden pasta and served in a frying pan. All this is a mere sampling of the new dishes you can try this year.
But the biggest changes are happening to the parks themselves, starting with Epcot, where arguably the most active changes are currently underway. It also featured a major debut on the exact 50th Anniversary of opening day, when the France Pavilion opened Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure.
The ride itself was part of a new evolution in attractions with its trackless car system, allowing cars to move independently of each other and opening up a whole new world of ride possibilities. The same system is in place for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance and Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, three completely different experiences all using the same new technology.
Also new to Epcot are some locations in the newly designated World Discovery Area (where you will find attractions like Test Track and Mission: Space). Among them are the new restaurant, Space 220, which simulates a dining experience in Earth’s Orbit and Epcot’s newest ride, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, which made its debut on May 27. If that trip to space isn’t enough for you, then you can also dine in Earth’s orbit when you go to Space 220, a restaurant whose “windows” all look out into the expanse of space, with a pretty spectacular view of the earth below.
You can end the night with a brand new nighttime spectacular, Harmonious, featuring songs from the movies you love representing many of the countries of World Showcase and beyond. The experience, located at the centre of the lagoon in World Showcase, features a wonderful harmony (get it?) of video, water and fireworks that literally envelops you.
The area surrounding Spaceship Earth is also in the midst of a massive upgrade. Recently opened are Connections, the café and quick-service eatery which is but a preview of the area known as World Celebration’s new, modern look, and Creations Shop, a large central shopping facility. The largest transformation in the park is one that is still underway.
The new central hub that will be the heart of Epcot’s World Celebration is in progress and Disney’s blog released renderings of the updated area, and it looks like a serene buffer between the other areas, World Discovery, World Nature and World Showcase. It is a series of unique gardens with features that will give it a drastically different look when the sun goes down.
I spoke to Imagineer Zach Ridley, the person overseeing this project, and he said, “One of the unique elements is that we are doing this in phases, so we get to see new elements come in different waves. But, at the very highest level, one of the goals we have for Epcot is to take the unique legacy that people know and love, people who’ve been here and grew up with this park and bring that forward for guests who have may never been here.”
Ridley also said of the park, “It’s a park that represents possibility and the possibility is in us. This is a park about people, for people and that’s a consistent throughline in any experience that you have at Epcot.”
Moving onto the flagship park—and the reason that they are celebrating their 50th Anniversary—Magic Kingdom, where right now you can experience their latest nighttime spectacular, Enchantment, a new light and fireworks event to end your night. It features songs from films like Raya and The Last Dragon, Moana and Soul as well as an original song by Grammy Winning Songwriter Philip Lawrence.
Another change was to one of the OG attractions, Jungle Cruise, where some of the more antiquated imagery was replaced, and the focus put more on the humour and heart of the cruise. Upcoming changes to the park include an update to Splash Mountain, changing it to a ride themed after The Princess and the Frog and the addition of Tron Lightcycle Run next to Space Mountain in Tomorrowland.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios has completed all of its latest projects. The most notable of them is the addition of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, which I got the chance to visit at a special event during my recent trip. People who are not fans of the franchise will still enjoy the immersive experience for what it is; pure Disney magic.
For Star Wars fans, though, this will be an emotional experience. It is exciting to walk around in a galaxy far, far away on its own, but when you stand at the foot of the Millennium Falcon, you can’t help but be overwhelmed. Rise of the Resistance is one of the most impressive attractions I have ever seen, and I am not going to tell you if I teared up when I sat in the pilot’s seat of the Falcon, but I can tell you that I successfully got us to the end despite a strange impediment to my vision.
Also at Hollywood Studios is the replacement for The Great Movie Ride, and Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, which adopts the impressive trackless technology you can experience in Rise of the Resistance and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure. More importantly, it is the first ride in the 50-year history of Walt Disney World that is about Mickey Mouse.
At Animal Kingdom, I had my first opportunity to visit Pandora. While it is not as new as something like Galaxy’s Edge, I have not been able to visit it thanks to some unknown force that kept me from travelling to the US in the last couple of years. The expansion immerses you in Pandora in amazing ways, from the floating rock landscapes that blew moviegoers’ minds to the attractions Na’vi River Journey and Avatar: Flight of Passage.
A trip to Disney Springs will bring you to Cirque du Soleil’s latest Show for Disney, Drawn To Life. A perfect mixture of Disney Animation and Cirque’s performances that are second to none (I’ve seen five Cirque du Soleil shows, and they never fail to inspire).
The show is about a young girl connecting to her recently passed animator father through his final gift to her: a few seconds of animation that she needs to finish. The story is heartbreaking and beautiful and, combined with the astounding acrobatics and the uniquely funny clown work, Drawn to Life takes you on a journey.
Beyond the updates to the parks are a ton of new features that should help you enjoy your park and resort experience even more.
First among them is the recent change to the Fast Pass, now called Genie+. It is a paid addition to your ticket that gives you access to Lightning Lane, the new ride reservation system that is now same-day for anyone who buys Genie+, whether they stay at the resort or not and even if they are in the park or not. It’s one of the few updates that I haven’t seen as an improvement over the original, but a lot of that has to do with the advantage that Fast Pass had for resort guests, which I always am. Annual passholders, people staying off site and in the resorts are all on an even playing field, which I get.
An exciting update is the update to the MagicBands with MagicBand+. It carries with it all the functionality of the original with a ton of added features. The interactivity is off the charts with gesture recognition that allows you to interact with the 50 golden character statues scattered through the parks. You can pick up bounties on Galaxy’s Edge where you can search Black Spire Outpost with a combination of the MagicBand+ and Augmented Reality on your phone. Your nighttime will also take a new turn when your MagicBand+ lights up in sync with the parks’ nighttime spectaculars.
For those who stay in the resorts, you’ll be treated to more new technology. Partnering with Amazon, Walt Disney World presents Hey Disney, an interactive virtual assistant that works with Amazon Alexa, only with a Disney Twist. You can do anything you can do with the current Amazon Echo Show, but you can also interact with Disney Characters, keep tabs on their itinerary, order hotel amenities and so much more. Guests can even come back to voicemails left by some of their favourite characters.
“There is no better time to visit Walt Disney World than now.”
Progress has always been a keystone in Walt Disney World’s success. Celebrating their 50th Anniversary with a myriad of updates and a long list of new things to come is about the most Disney thing they could have done.
I would like to say that when I first visited the parks when I was young, I left a piece of my heart behind and every time I return, I visit that piece and feel what I felt during my first trip. My heart feels full. The best part of each return visit, though, is this constant with Disney that is its progress. Whenever you go back, there is a new thing to see, a new attraction to visit, a new way to do something that already existed.
There is no better time to visit Walt Disney World than now. Actually, let me amend that. There is no better time to visit Walt Disney World than now, except when you get back. Then there is no better time to visit than the next time.