Today is the 50th Anniversary of Walt Disney World

The Disney Park Bench
The Disney Park Bench
Published on October 1, 2021

…and I don’t know what to say about it. 🤷🏻‍♂️

Cinderella Castle as seen recently with its new color scheme and 50th Anniversary decorations.
(More photos on our Instagram)

When I visited Walt Disney World in 1997 during their 25th Anniversary Celebration, I never imagined I’d be using the Internet to share my views and opinions about the parks, movies, and company with fellow Disney-philes around the world. Even though AT&T’s Spaceship Earth predicted a “Global Neighborhood” as far back as 1994, what it became is beyond incredible.

In the years between my first visit in 1989 and my second in 1992, I scoured the local public library system and my brother’s bookshelves for everything I could find about the parks, resort, and attractions. I was so obsessed with The Haunted Mansion in particular that by the time I finally got to ride it again, I knew most of it by memory, having read, listened to, and watched (thanks to some well-worn VHS recordings of various Disney TV specials) an unfathomable amount of content regarding it.

I mentioned in our first episode of The Disney Park Bench Podcast that my earliest exposure to the Disney Parks was in the form of Disneyland’s 30th Anniversary Celebration, a two-hour TV special that aired on NBC when I was only three years old. I still remember seeing Marie Osmond dance and lip-sync to I’m Walking Right Down the Middle of Main Street U.S.A. on the 32-inch RCA color TV in our family room. My family had the auspicious foresight to record this event on VHS that night — in SP, no less (look it up, youngsters) — preserving it for many, many future viewings over the next couple of decades.

Print ad for Disneyland’s 30th Anniversary Celebration on NBC
image source: RetroNewsNow on Twitter

It was that event that inspired Michael Eisner to make a celebration out of everything. The following year, ABC would broadcast a similar (and inferior) two-hour, star-studded, nighttime event, Walt Disney World’s 15th Anniversary Celebration. I never even knew this program existed until at least five years ago, but I do recall 1990’s one-hour Disneyland’s 35th Anniversary Celebration with the Cheers introduction (I rewatched Woody Boyd’s Haunted Mansion story countless times, as it provided some of the best footage from inside the Mansion I could find anywhere).

Walt Disney World’s 20th Anniversary was celebrated with an hour-long ABC special titled “The Dream Is Alive” that I never saw until recently. Just as well. It was a pretty forgettable variety show starring Michael Eisner as he meets with several celebrities in the hopes of hiring one of them to host the special, interspersed with musical performances from all around the Walt Disney World Resort. We also got one of the best parades ever during the anniversary: the Magic Kingdom’s nighttime festival of music and lights, SpectroMagic!

Although Disneyland’s 40th Anniversary would come and go with little-to-no fanfare, one of the most memorable anniversary celebrations for me was Walt Disney World’s 25th Anniversary Celebration the following year. This was the big one. There were two hour-long TV specials, plus a special hour-long episode of The Disney Channel’s Walt Disney World Inside Out. In addition, the Magic Kingdom debuted the Remember the Magic Parade and Mickey’s Toontown Fair. Epcot introduced a new nighttime spectacular, IllumiNations 25 (followed a few months later with what has come to be known as IllumiNations 25B), as well as Ellen’s Energy Adventure.

The infamous Cinderella Castle cake for Walt Disney World’s 25th Anniversary
image source: Jeremiah Good on Flickr

But perhaps the part of Walt Disney World’s 25th Anniversary most people remember was the transforming of Cinderella Castle into a giant, pink, frosting and decor-covered birthday cake. This nauseating display became the icon of the 16-month celebration, and perhaps a benchmark for what could be considered going too far. For what it’s worth, it was a bold decision, if a mostly unpopular one; and least it was only temporary — as opposed to the 2000 wand that hovered over Spaceship Earth for seven years (with “2000” being replaced with “Epcot” following the millennium celebration), or the Sorcerer Mickey hat that loomed at the end of the Studios’ Hollywood Blvd. for twelve years, both of which were only meant to be there for a year or two.

After Disney World’s 25th (and perhaps because of it), there wasn’t a major celebration for any of the parks or resorts for several years. Disneyland’s 45th got a TV special mostly promoting the new Indiana Jones ride, and Walt Disney World’s 30th was buried by the 100 Years of Magic celebration commemorating what would have been Walt Disney’s one-hundredth birthday. It wasn’t until 2005, and Disneyland’s 50th Anniversary that we saw another, and this one was the biggest celebration ever.

Cinderella Castle featuring The Happiest Celebration on Earth’s Magic Window
image source: Yesterland

All five resorts in California, Florida, Tokyo, Paris, and the newly opened Hong Kong took part, though Walt Disney World’s part would be the biggest, by the sheer nature of it being the biggest resort. The castle was decorated (more subtly and tastefully this time) with gold accents, and a huge “Magic Window” icon was affixed to the front, covering the clock and part of the balcony. This icon would change every minute to display a different castle, sparkling as it turned.

Disneyland’s 50th Anniversary was the last anniversary the Florida property celebrated in any meaningful way.

I started my first College Program during the 100 Years of Magic, and my second during Disneyland’s 50th, known in Disney World as The Happiest Celebration on Earth. I also visited Epcot for its 25th anniversary, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom for its 10th, although those, like many other anniversary celebrations since, were just one-day events. Having visited Disney World as a teen during the 25th Anniversary, that makes five major Disney World anniversary celebrations I’ve taken part in.

I am not in the Magic Kingdom today for the 50th. I’m not in Walt Disney World, or even Florida. I am at my home in Upstate New York, working and watching old Disney World celebration specials on YouTube. Although many years ago I swore I would be there for the 50th, I should have known life would pull me in another direction.

But I’m not complaining, because this coming January, I will be celebrating my own 40th at Disney World, during their 15-month-long 50th Anniversary Celebration with my family, who gratefully have indulged and occasionally participated in my Disney Park obsession for nearly seven years.

And at least I know that no matter how many times I have to leave Walt Disney World, or for however long, in the words of The Great Gonzo:

image source: The Muppet Movie ©Disney
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