Walt Disney World's 50th Anniversary Celebration (aka "The Most Magical Celebration on Earth") is ending on March 31. If it seems like the celebration has been happening for a long time, it's because it is. As I've said before, no one loves a celebration like Disney, and they managed to take an event that happened on October 1, 2021 stretch out for the next eighteen months. Not that I blame them - this gave everyone a chance to join in, as they were able, over that extended timeframe.
Since we're finally nearing that end date, I thought it would be nice to take a quick look back and (more importantly) a longer look forward to what's beyond this celebration. Since Disney World is a year round operation, there is no such thing as "down time" or "the off season" (as crowd levels will generally attest), so "what's next" is always a question the company is examining.
Now that it's almost over, I think we can safely say that the 50th Anniversary Celebration was a bit ... underwhelming. It's not that the parks were any less enjoyable to visit during this time. It's just that there wasn't as much of a "wow" factor as one might have expected, given the magnitude of the anniversary. There were some nice decorations, some limited food items and a few new attraction debuts. But even that last part left a little to be desired - Remy's Ratatouille Adventure opened right at the start of the anniversary, and the only major attraction to open since then was Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind.
The major thing that signaled a change of eras for Disney during the celebration was the introduction of two new nighttime spectaculars - Enchantment at Magic Kingdom and Harmonious at Epcot. Unfortunately, in retrospect, these didn't pan out the way Disney had hoped, as they are both being replaced as soon as the celebration is over. I've talked a lot about my feelings on these shows so I won't go through all that again. In a nutshell, my opinion of Enchantment didn't really change much, though my opinion of Harmonious improved with time. I'll be sad to see it go, but not sad to see the eyesore structures in the lagoon removed. Depending on what replaces it, we are likely to end up with a net positive effect.
So what is the legacy of these two shows? I suppose they'll forever be remembered as the shows that took place during the 50th anniversary, even if (certainly in the case of Harmonious, if not both) that wasn't the original intention. And just as these shows signaled the start of the celebration, replacing them with Happily Ever After and (temporarily) Epcot Forever signals that this era is over - on to the next one. Technically, these shows return on April 3, a Monday, so I guess there's a little wiggle room on the 50th end date. Close enough for me, though.
As we move into the post-50th era, the thing that strikes me as most interesting is the timing of the opening of Tron Lightcycle Run at Magic Kingdom. This attraction gets its official opening on April 4 - a little while ago, I wrote about this, and was a little confused on the timing. I thought it should either open before or after Spring Break, not smack dab in the middle. Disney will have been doing various previews for the ride for almost a month by the time of its official opening.
The more I think about it, the more I believe that was by choice as another way to "turn the page" on the 50th anniversary. Tron certainly could (and should) have been finished earlier. It was indeed one of the things promised for the 50th. But once it got to this point, I think Disney decided to hold it back as something to promote in this next phase, whatever it may be called (much like celebrations, Disney loves naming periods or promotions in their parks). I suspect a full-blown marketing blitz to be based around Tron (with perhaps a brief nod to Happily Ever After thrown in there).
As this new era kicks off, we can look ahead and see what is to come. Outside of the completion of the Epcot renovation (time still to be determined) and the new DVC tower at the Polynesian, there aren't a whole lot of projects in the works. That can be a worrisome sign, though both Bob Iger and Josh D'Amaro have expressed recently that they have big plans for park expansions in the future (I didn't write about this specifically, but the always great Tom Bricker sums it up here).
There can be a lot of wishful thinking when it comes to our beloved parks, and I understand why the cynic would be skeptical that anything of substance will come to fruition. But I think there are some extenuating circumstances here. First, you may remember the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time, any projects there weren't already far along got shelved or delayed. We've seeing the fruit of that now, as there probably would have been more projects happening now had that not occured.
There was also a company-wide focus on Disney+, almost to the exclusion of all else. I'm no Wall Street expert, but the sense I have from reading about it is that investors were very interested in streaming, and that was where resources were going. We're starting to see a downturn there, meaning that Disney has to pivot to other areas to make up for losses in streaming. The most robust of those is in the parks, where Disney continues to outperform their projections.
Given that information, it would only make sense for Disney to invest more in their parks. The best way to make more money while not making the parks a miserable experience for guests is to expand their attraction capacity. Bob Iger seemed to hint at this recently, as he tried to distance himself from Bob Chapek's policy of simply raising prices in order to make a higher profit.
There is also the matter of Universal Orlando preparing to open their third park, Epic Universe. While Disney has always said that Universal isn't "competition" for their parks, it's hard not to see the similarities there. In the past, Universal having a single park complex lent itself to being the "add on" to a Disney vacation. Having more capacity (and the shiny new park) might be enough to make Universal a destination all to itself.
I don't think Disney is necessarily worried about losing guests (despite what the internet will tell you) but it is always true that more competition leads to a better experience for everyone. Regardless of how you feel about Universal, this is a good thing for Disney. They will need to step it up and have something new to show guests as well.
Any big project starting now - even if it were announced today - would take years to complete. So it might be a while before we see anything substantive come out of Iger and D'Amaro's comments. But I think it is coming. Everything is cyclical, and Tron opening at Magic Kingdom makes me think back to the opening of New Fantasyland, the last major change to that park. That was more than ten years ago now, but it began a cycle of new projects in all of the parks. Tron might be the catalyst for that to happen again.
The next park that's due for a major change is Animal Kingdom. The last major addition to that park was in 2017, with the opening of Pandora. This one requires less speculation, as Disney has opening talked about replacing and/or expanding the area around Dinoland (we talked about this last year - I still think my suggestions are relevant).
From there came the major changes to Hollywood Studios with Toy Story Land and Star Wars Galaxy's Edge opening in 2018 and 2019 respectively. I don't know what the next change or addition to that park would be but it is usually the most crowded park with the smallest footprint, so anything would be welcome there. And finally came the Epcot changes. It's too early to speculate what could come next there, as the current changes aren't even completed yet. But give it six or seven years, and we'll probably be wondering when it will get some overdue love. And that doesn't even mention the speculation about what's "beyond Big Thunder" at Magic Kingdom, which could be a whole new land expansion there as well.
The future for the parks is bright. I just hope Disney follows through on the stuff they've hinted at, as they can't afford to let things get stagnant. The parks division helps the entire company and should hopefully be a focus going forward. We don't need a 50th anniversary in order to celebrate what's coming in the future.