Nearly a year after the pandemic forced massive closures and destroyed the U.S. economy, there’s little hope in a return to normalcy anytime soon. For Disney, this has put a huge wrinkle in plans for the biggest celebration in Walt Disney World’s history. The 50th Anniversary celebration was meant to feature dozens of new and updated attractions in a bid to fill every hotel room for the entire 18-month-long celebration.
The plans have been scaled back
, and the celebration, which was expected to launch this spring, has been postponed until the official anniversary in October. By that time, it’s believed many of the current pandemic-related safety measures will be relaxed. Still, with the unemployment rate nearly double what it was less than a year ago, the economy likely won’t have recovered in time for Disney to achieve the record crowds it dreamed of.
Simultaneously, many of the updates planned for the 50th corresponded with much-needed maintenance for attractions. With purse strings tightened over the summer, much of that work has been postponed indefinitely. But unlike the plans for more hotel rooms, the maintenance and attraction upgrades will still eventually be needed. That reality and the hope to claw back some of the billions invested across Walt Disney World ahead of the now truncated 50th Anniversary celebration has fueled a push to go all-out on another upcoming anniversary.
On Oct. 16, 1923, the Walt Disney Company was founded, then known as the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio. In a day where multibillion-dollar companies can flame out in a matter of months — I’m looking at you, Quibi and MoviePass — Disney is believed to be planning a huge company-wide celebration to honor its century of entertainment.
In February, when Chapek took the reins as CEO at Disney, the parks were booming, with most of them on a multi-year investment course that would continue to ensure they remain the most visited theme parks on earth. Under his leadership as the Chairman of the Disney Parks and Resorts, he merged the division with Consumer Products, which he had previously led. This was to come in handy
in his new role as CEO. With the parks set up for success and the studios coming off a spate of major acquisitions, the focus in the decade ahead
was to be on Disney’s new streaming service and creative endeavors. Then COVID-19 struck.
Old CEO Bob Iger stuck around to help right the ship during the pandemic, and many of the plans for the parks were put on hold as tens of thousands of employees across the company were furloughed, with many later laid off
. By late summer, it was clear this wasn’t going to be a "two weeks to stop the spread" situation.
In late September, the upcoming D23 Expo, Disney’s in-house version of Comic-Con, was postponed
from 2021 to September of 2022. Two weeks later, the company laid out a major reorganization plan
, with the focus on streaming. Those plans were later explained during a virtual Investor Day presentation in December. Notably, the Parks and Consumer Products division of the company was not mentioned during this four-hour presentation. A few smaller Disney World projects had been confirmed in November during two tourism-focused live streams.
The projects discussed in November
, all related to the Orlando resort, were smaller ones that are slated to open in the coming months with no indication of what the company has planned post-2021.
Now we’re starting to understand what those plans call for. The 100th Anniversary would likely be announced during the 2022 D23 event, with most projects launching ahead of or during the anniversary a year later. The delay in projects until 2023 or 2024 could allow the company to use the new offerings to attract larger crowds, as travel is expected to not return to pre-pandemic numbers
until around that point
Photo via Disney
The Guardians of the Galaxy ride at Epcot
For Disney-owned parks in the U.S. and France, this anniversary celebration will entail at least one major new addition to almost every park. Epcot’s Guardians coaster and Magic Kingdom’s Tron coaster, now both potentially delayed until 2022, may see major marketing pushes during the 100th Anniversary despite opening a year or more prior. Other new additions to Epcot, including previously announced ones, will begin to open during the 2023-2024 celebration.
Chapek, known for his heavy-handed approach to cross-promotion, is rumored to be pushing more characters in the Orlando parks linked to Disney+ programs.
According to industry insider Jim Hill
, who shared numerous details on the upcoming projects via his weekly Disney Dish podcast
, this will include major new additions to Animal Kingdom and significant alterations to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. A new nighttime show may debut in Animal Kingdom during the 100th Anniversary. Brayden Holness of Mickey Views
previously mentioned Disney might use the kites previously used in the Epcot Forever nighttime show in the rumored Animal Kingdom show.
Many of Animal Kingdom’s biggest updates won’t open during the 100th Anniversary celebration. Instead, this period will be used to announce the new additions that are to include a Zootopia land
similar to the one now under construction at Shanghai Disneyland.
Image via Disney
Shanghai Disneyland's upcoming Zootopia themed mini-land
A similar plan will happen at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, with the next major additions being announced during or just before the centennial celebration. It’s unclear if these include previously rumored Pixar
and Indiana Jones additions
or are completely new concepts.
Epcot's Moana-themed walkthrough attraction
, originally slated to open this year, should open during or just prior to the celebration. Other new additions will be heavily marketed during it.
Concept art via Disney / D23 Twitter
Epcot's new Moana-inspired water trail
Magic Kingdom, likely home to the most postponed plans, is also believed to be receiving entertainment. A nighttime parade was rumored for the 50th but now may be pushed back
to the 100th anniversary. The canceled indoor theater may also be revived, as may the long-anticipated update
to the Tomorrowland Speedway.
With Tron having then been open for a year or more, the much-needed refurbishment of Space Mountain
should take place during or just after the celebration ends in 2024. This will likely result in the longest closure of the attraction since its opening in 1974. Across the park, the reimagined Splash Mountain
is expected to open during the celebration after a more than year-long closure believed to begin in 2022.
Chapek’s promotional push will also likely see changes to the Jungle Cruise, with the addition of new animatronics based on the upcoming live-action movie of the same name. There are strong rumors Disney may add an animatronic Dwayne Johnson, who stars in the upcoming film. Smaller additions, many holdovers from the 50th Anniversary plans, are also expected on nearly every major attraction throughout the Magic Kingdom.
The plans aren’t limited to Disney World. In California, the Disneyland version of Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway is now scheduled to open in 2023
, and California Adventure will likely see the now delayed third Marvel attraction revived. Other California updates include its Splash Mountain redo and smaller additions throughout the resort.
Paris will see aspects of the previously announced $2.5 billion overhaul
to the Walt Disney Studios Paris open during the celebration. However, it’s unclear how those plans may have now been altered due to guest demand and financial restraints.
Image via Disney
A scene on the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser
If the multi-day Star Wars experience, Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, set to open during the 50th anniversary, is a success, we may also see similar projects announced ahead of or during the 100th Anniversary. Previous rumors included an Indiana Jones themed experience
that used parts of Animal Kingdom and other versions of the Star Wars hotel concept opening in Tokyo and Paris.
Hotel demand at Walt Disney World may not be recovered by 2023, so new hotels, including the previously announced Reflections timeshare resort, are likely not to be included in the 2022 D23 announcements. Previous rumors
, based on leaked questionnaires
Disney had sent some guests, stated the company was looking at potentially opening a second standalone timeshare resort, with the strongest candidates being a ski lodge type of offering. If this is still in the works, it will likely be announced as part of this celebration, though it is unclear if Disney is still moving forward with these plans. More details on Disney Cruise Line’s multiple new ships and second private port of call
, Lighthouse Point, should also be shared during the 100th Anniversary-focused D23.
Image via Disney Parks Blog / YouTube
An early concept of Disney's plans for Lighthouse Point on the island of Eleuthera, Bahamas
We are still months away
from herd immunity and mass vaccinations allowing the economy to reopen in any significant way, but Disney, like others, is looking ahead to better times. The pandemic may have permanently altered some aspects of the economy. Still, experts expect a Roaring ’20s
on the other side, filled with consumers looking to check off bucket list vacation plans. For Disney’s parks, that’s just what is needed. In the meantime, there’s always Disney+