Nothing about Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary seems to be a celebration of Walt Disney World. Instead, nearly every “new” thing – from rides to shows to statues – seems to outright ignore nostalgia entirely and instead focus the 50th Anniversary of a place on the IPs controlled by its parent company. That may disappoint you… but does it really surprise you? Probably not. And to our thinking, there are a few reasons why Disney World decided to make its historic celebration about something other than itself… 

1. Disney World’s origin story is messy

Image: Disney

Let’s get one thing straight: part of what makes Walt Disney World so unique is that its story is significantly less concise than Disneyland’s. Unlike the California park – whose origin resides among the great American fables, and who stayed pretty much unchanged for its first fifty years aside from a new neighbor 46 years in – Disney World’s history is… well… messy.

It probably begins with that construction-wall-ready quote: “Here in Florida we have something special we never enjoyed at Disneyland – the blessing of size. There's enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine.” Indeed, you can't really tell the story of Disney World's Disney World-ness without starting at Walt's dissatisfaction with Disneyland, which is kind of a rough start... 

I know, I know – there are great pictures of Walt pointing to maps of Central Florida, and to blueprints and ideas about his "Florida Project"! Likewise, Disney does like to tell the story of how the company cleverly came to own so much land near Orlando through some eyebrow-raising business dealings, and will occasionally even boast that the company has government-like control over itself... But it's a much more "corporate" story than Disneyland's, isn't it?

Image: Disney

And from that starting point comes Walt’s relative (and largely unacknowledged) reluctance to build a Disneyland East at all… Even today, fans are apt to ask “What would Walt do?" about any given addition to the parks, but those who study Walt’s life recognize that by the mid-’60s, he’d largely moved on from theme parks altogether! By then, he fancied himself an urban planner whose E.P.C.O.T. would change modern society forever – something much more consequential than rides. Of course, E.P.C.O.T. never happened, and to make matters worse, Walt passed away in 1966 – five years before the opening of the property that bears his name. That’s… kind of a tough sell, too. 

His brother, Roy – truly the stabilizing force that saw Disney World through to completion – is surely acknowledged, but rarely heralded as the project’s savior as he should be. Probably in part because Roy pressed forward with the project at a time often called the “Disney Dark Ages” – an era of major financial loss that nearly ended the company altogether, and the kind of critical self-assessment Disney doesn't often make... all part of a "messy" origin story.

2. The rest of Disney World’s history is messy, too

Image: Disney

Despite being younger than Disneyland, Walt Disney World arguably has more history. Quite unlike the protected, historic status of Disneyland, Walt Disney World was (and remains) an entertainment laboratory! Dissimilar parts from the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, 2000s, 2010s, and 2020s that – depending on whom you ask – either coexist, clash, or come together in beautifully random ways. 

Each of the resort’s four theme parks and dozens of resort hotels represents entirely different eras of design and the whims of entirely different executives at the helm. Every park outside of Magic Kingdom has gone through fairly significant identity crises that they haven't necessarily emerged from yet – the accumulated horrors of California Adventure without the foundational rewrite or happy ending. That makes it hard to tell the story of EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, or even Animal Kingdom without some admission of waywardness or reconciliation, so instead, they just... don't tell the story. Because... it's messy.

Image: Disney

Similarly, without the built-in reverence and protection of Walt's presence, Disney World has contributed far, far too many very good attractions to our Lost Legends collection, often in very regrettable ways. Among those who do know Disney World history, there are plenty of open wounds and decisions that – in hindsight – were very obviously not good. Celebrating the past opens those wounds and acknowledges those decisions that are easier to leave forgotten, which can be... messy.

Monorails, buses, Skyliners, boats, and taxis reveal the often piecemeal process of building the world’s foremost entertainment destination. But as anyone will tell you, it’s not always pretty! Doctoral theses could be written about the resort’s many (sometimes painful) growth spurts; how new grafts onto old; how the behemoth property tries to smooth over its seams and disguise its history… because... it's messy.

Image: Iwerks

About the only really fitting medium for telling the story of Walt Disney World is something like the Iwerks’ Imagineering Story docu-series, which can tell the warts-and-all story of the parks within the context of the shifting Walt Disney Company around them. Without that context, nothing about Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Disney's Animal Kingdom really seem to go together or make a cohesive whole, and the outright messy history of Disney World’s ebbs and flows just doesn’t translate well to a nice, clean, nostalgic history as Disneyland’s does.

3. Disney World thinks more globally, less locally

If you ask any Disney Parks aficionado what makes Disneyland and Walt Disney World different, their first answer will definitely be “size.” But somewhere in the top three, they’ll almost certainly hit on the idea of “audience.” Even today, Disneyland retains that regional audience it started with. Especially thanks to its intensely loyal local base, Disneyland’s culture is that of a “locals park.” Seasonal overlays, cultural celebrations, and nods to the past are ever-present, keeping generations of locals engaged with the park like a tradition.

Image: Disney

Walt Disney World is a tradition for families, too, but on a much different scale. Disney World actively avoids seasonal overlays precisely because its audience in general visits much less regularly (think, every four years) and tracks changes at the parks much less closely. Disney World’s audience is continuously refreshed versus the regional crowd in California. It’s filled with guests from around the country and world, who – on the whole – have less stalwart allegiance to the parks’ histories or past rides. 

Ask a stranger at Disneyland what used to be on those tracks in Tomorrowland and nine out of ten could probably tell you; ask a stranger at Disney World what used to be where The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is now and you’re likely to get a lot of confused stares. Disney World has a different audience, and while the resort has its brilliant historians, loyal fans, and very practiced locals who hold its history in the same high regard as Disneyland’s equivalent, they are – on the whole – a much smaller subset of visitors. Which means… 

4. Walt Disney World doesn’t think people care about its history

Image: Disney

The vicious cycle of downplaying Walt Disney World’s history has, of course, led its visitors to not know Walt Disney World’s history. What other outcome could there be? Whereas Disneyland puts its history in the front window, then encourages its audience to care about it through nostalgic celebrations, odes to the past, and reminders of the park’s importance, Walt Disney World largely buries its history, then shrugs and says “I guess people don't care.” 

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Walt Disney World’s leadership believes that their audience just doesn’t care about the resort’s history, so why bother celebrating it? We’ll counter with this: if the resort celebrated its history more, then its audience would care about it. Whether its a golden statue of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride outside of the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh or a fireworks show with segments themed to Magic Kingdom’s lands...

Image: Disney

Of course young people today don't know Dreamfinder and don't like Figment... because they don't know them! A nostalgic Walt Disney World would send walkarounds of Dreamfinder “re-introducing himself” to a new generation, and have “One Little Spark” serve as the central song and message of a nighttime spectacular; new Monorails dressed in ‘70s style; highlighting 1971 original resorts; throwback park maps; turning the Main Street Opera House into an ode to Walt and Roy; building a recreation of the Walt Disney World Preview Center at Disney Springs, complete with ‘70s decor… 

After so many years of burying it, of course, people don’t understand or care about Walt Disney World’s history… until you show them why they should. It’s a shame that Disney can’t (or won’t) figure out the chicken-or-egg here.

5. Disney in 2021 isn’t Disney in 2005

Image: Disney

It’s easy to rationalize why Disney celebrated the same anniversary so differently between Disneyland and Walt Disney World, which we’ve now spent a whole page doing. It’s definitely true that Walt Disney World’s origin story and history since isn’t as “concise” or “tidy” as Disneyland’s; it’s also definitely true that Disney World’s stuck in a chicken-or-egg situation with nostalgia and whether or not its unique audience cares.

But frankly, the biggest reason for Walt Disney World's nostalgia-free 50th might just be that 2021 Disney is gonna 2021 Disney, you know?

In 2005, the Wizarding World was barely a glimmer in the eyes of Warner Bros. and Universal; Iron Man hadn’t gone into production yet, and Disney wouldn’t buy Marvel for four years or Star Wars for seven. Pixar was an independent studio with Cars on the docket, Netflix was still two years away from streaming, and the iPhone didn’t exist. In 2005, Disney's biggest brands were their own – the classics of Walt's time and the movies of the Disney Renaissance. In other words, 2005 was quite literally a lifetime ago; far, far removed from the “IP Wars” we’re in now, long before corporate acquisitions and streaming and content catalogs mattered to companies or their general public.

Image: Disney

Disneyland’s 50th Anniversary was the overture to Bob Iger’s tenure. Walt Disney World’s is the opening act of Bob Chapek’s. Chapek oversees a very different Disney with a very different structure, very different priorities, and a very, very different plan. So while we can wax poetic on how nostalgic and historic and fan-friendly Disneyland’s anniversary was, there’s every chance that if it were to take place today, Californians would be looking at golden statues of Groot and singalong nighttime shows, too. We can hope and think and wish and believe that Disneyland is still different – and indeed, it may be – but ultimately, Bob Chapek and Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro appear to see the parks not as content themselves, rich and ready for activation, but as content delivery methods – literally, a place to bring Disney’s IPs to life.

Magic Once More

Image: Disney

It’s a shame that Walt Disney World went the way it did with its 50th. Arguably, it’s true that for most guests to the Florida resort, the whole point of visiting Walt Disney World is to see characters come to life. Period. But think again of the chicken and egg… The rich, nostalgic, memory-filled history of Disney World isn’t presented to them because they don’t care about it… and they don’t care about it because it’s not presented to them! 

It really feels like the 50th Anniversary would’ve been the perfect time and place to make a shift; to lean into Disney World’s wacky ‘70s origin and its many eras of growth and change. This would’ve been the year to celebrate that original “Vacation Kingdom” core by highlighting it separately on maps; to offer “throwback” meals; golden statues commemorating long-lost rides; nighttime shows reflecting on the role of these parks in pop culture and the families who’ve been changed by them; “Year of a Million Dreams” style stays in 1971 resorts; a year for Imagineer-made-IP to shine bright with Dreamfinder and Figment as the resort’s hosts; a celebration of the past and its role in the resort’s future. 

Let’s face it: if it didn’t happen during the 50th, it’s not going to. It looks like, for the foreseeable future, Walt Disney World’s four parks will continue their march toward sameness, diligently covering up their pasts and instead highlighting Disney, Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars, history be damned.



Excellent, well written article!!

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