Theme Park News: Epcot lights, KiteTails, and other unexpected highlights of Disney World's 50th anniversary

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Theme Park News: Epcot lights, KiteTails, and other unexpected highlights of Disney World's 50th anniversary

Walt Disney World 50th Photos

I spent the past week at Walt Disney World, and if you're familiar with the concept of "Disney time," you know that equals out to what feels like a month of rides, fireworks, complex carbohydrates, and not enough Goofy sightings. (It's never enough.)

There's a lot to discuss following Walt Disney World's 50th anniversary, which kicked off an 18-month celebration on Oct. 1, but possibly more to focus on in terms of what it all means for the famed theme park resort's future, so let's get into this week's jam-packed slate of theme park news.

Walt Disney World 50th Photos

DISNEY WORLD TURNS 50, AND BOY, IS IT A PARTY

At long last, I returned to Florida not to report on COVID-19 safety protocols for their reopening, but to cover everything new and exciting on the horizon for the next 18 months. Disney World's 50th Anniversary kickoff celebration was trotted out on the back of the seemingly unbreakable pillars of nighttime entertainment, but they happened to contain the only flaws I experienced while at the resort.

I expected to return raving about fireworks and evening shows but instead found myself enamored by wind-powered Lion King fabrications, colorful paper wrappings, and a big golf ball with flashing lights. Here, for Walt Disney World's 50th, it's not evening performances that drew me in — it was everything I didn't know I needed.

Walt Disney World 50th Photos

We start, of course, with Disney's KiteTails, a whimsical display of character-shaped kites transported by an energetic crew of Jet Ski drivers (aka Mobius of Loki's dream) at Disney's Animal Kingdom . It sounds fine, sure, until you realize that these kites in the likeness of Baloo and Simba are intended to crash land, and when they do, it's unbelievably joy-inducing.

As my colleague Brooke keeps saying, we're not laughing at the show, we're laughing with it, as it's easily one of the greatest, strangest, and most entertaining things I've seen Disney do in recent memory. Whimsical and unexpected in all the right ways, it's already bubbling up toward becoming a cult favorite, and I cannot wait to bask in its majesty (and the boiling hot Orlando sun) once again.

Walt Disney World 50th Photos

Along the lines of debuts that have excelled on all levels, Disney's Contemporary Resort has nearly finalized its embrace of The Incredibles and its mid-century stylings, and despite fans questioning the hallowed hotel's Pixar overlay, I am pleased to report it is phenomenally well done. The renovated lobby hits the mark, the new Steakhouse 71 has the best burger on property, and while the hotel's new Incredibles-themed rooms honor the hotel's iconic monorail alongside references from the film, it provides something for both kids who aren't enamored by retro transportation and adults who prefer to retire each evening in a room more upscale than a living dedication to an animated film. The rooms photograph somewhat small, but I found them to be quite spacious and smartly designed, and possibly the best take on the new Disney hotel bedroom aesthetic that I've seen to date, allowing you to bask in the glory of sleeping in that A-Frame structure without feeling overwhelmed by references to Jack-Jack and Edna Mode.

All said and done, it's an excellent fit for its hallowed home, and the correct blend of honoring its past while embracing its future, a pattern I also experienced while in the parks. Epcot claimed some of the most revelatory changes we've seen of late, a sign that Disney changing with the times has the potential to exceed expectations. You have to understand: Epcot fans are cut from a different nostalgic cloth and were rightfully panicked over the widespread changes in store for Epcot when details were rolled out at D23 Expo 2019. They had their reasons, absolutely — plenty of forthcoming projects have no public timeline two years later and the center of the park is still undergoing a very public gut renovation — but walking away from a full week spent on property, I'm stunned at how well most everything there has been executed so far.

Disney fans have been somewhat quiet on the opening of Remy's Ratatouille Adventure, the new attraction brought over to Epcot from Paris' Walt Disney Studios park, but it's extraordinary, a perfect example of how to modernize a theme park as unique as this one. Inserting Disney intellectual property (or IP) into all corners of this formerly edutainment expanse was inevitable, given what The Walt Disney Company is these days, but this extension of Epcot's France Pavilion is a picture-perfect example of how well that corporate goal can be executed.

Here, Disney Imagineers added onto an already-beloved section of the park with a ride that marries a beloved film with the authenticity of the region it's based in, framed beautifully within the new area, which I'll say, I preferred to that of France's own version. La Creperie de Paris, a new restaurant serving, you guessed it, crepes, offers a solid menu of them (and galettes) while the Parisian expanse, sitting somewhat behind its predecessor, adds a gloriously scenic goodbye for guests departing Epcot from the Disney Skyliner overhead.

Club Cool reared its Coca-Cola-sponsored head in a new, superior format, with different sodas on offer that are a vast improvement upon those in its earlier iteration that shuttered in 2019 — something I, who loudly mourned its closure, never thought I'd say. (Now, though? Royal Wattamelon for life!) Even Creations Shop, the park's new flagship merchandise location, reads a bit clinical upon first glance with its white backlit displays and open floor plan, but remains inviting and superior to its Mouse Gear predecessor, which routinely felt as frantic as an airport on Christmas Day. We even got a sneak peek inside the new Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind roller coaster, due sometime in 2022, and it, too, looks exceptional. (I can't properly opine on Space 220, as the so-so meal I had appears to have been a rare misstep, but the space spa-like vibe and otherworldly displays bode well for Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser's windows out into space, so long as they too don't add space dogs.)

And then there's the star of the show: Spaceship Earth's evening glow. No one, myself included, expected the new lighting package on Florida's famed geodesic polyhedron to garner universal appeal and jaw-dropping reactions but it's an absolute stunner, blowing Disney's other three Beacons of Magic out of the water while wowing fans old and new alike.

It's a weenie, if there ever was one. I experienced Spaceship Earth's new look the first night it debuted as fans rejoiced, cheered and gasped — so loudly, apparently, that you could hear it on Disney's live stream of the new nighttime show Harmonious — upon seeing it illuminated, marking it as the celebration's leading achievement.

Similar to Cinderella Castle in the daytime, you just want to be near it for as long as possible, basking in its glow. I even spent a few nights at the Walt Disney World Swan Hotel, and was stunned to see its performance from my very own room, turning a distant theme park view into a joyful evening redition of live entertainment. It's beyond excellent, but more importantly marries the park's long-lasting legacy with new and exciting improvements, precisely what Walt Disney World is aiming to achieve in this modern era. Building upon the accomplishments of the past with the technology of the future for a show-stopping result is its sweet spot, and nothing takes the crown like this new display.

Walt Disney World 50th Photos

A similar sentiment remains for other surprisingly whimsical highlights, including the 50th updates to Disney's Electrical Water Pageant, a relic from the past that, thankfully, still runs nightly, the awe-inspiring paper wrappings Mickey-shaped pretzels are now served in and even that Mr. Toad burger up top, but at the end of the day — every day, really — it's all about the people, particularly Disney's hard-working employees.

Seeing cast members gather guests together for a "family photo" of everyone who was in the park that day, play glorious renditions of Main Street, U.S.A. favorites outside Casey's Corner as guests patiently wait for their food to be ready, witnessing a child actually pull Fantasyland's sword out of the stone as their parent looked on in shock; it felt like a return to pre-pandemic form, even if the pandemic is still ongoing. Mask compliance indoors was impressive on both the guest and employee ends, and despite my concerns about traveling to a event in the middle of a seemingly never-ending global health crisis, I was pleasantly surprised by how wonderful of a time I had, and will absolutely be returning sooner than later.

I focus on the good because, well, I don't want to dwell on the bad. Simply put, Disney's two new shows — Harmonious at Epcot and Disney Enchantment at Magic Kingdom — are not up to snuff. I've said all I want to say about Harmonious and stand behind my critique, even if the soundtrack is downright incredible, but I won't lie, I'm still processing my feelings about Disney Enchantment. People noticed when myself and other reporters tweeted a whole bunch of nothing following the show's debut for media last Thursday, and it's because we were all discussing what we saw, trying to work through our feelings.

Walt Disney World 50th Photos

I've been doing this job for six years, and I pride myself on the fact that I have no nostalgia for these locales. I visited a bit when I was younger — OK fine, I have a spot in my heart reserved for Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa where I stayed as a wee child — but beyond that, I'm dead inside. It's advantageous in this line of work to embrace the new and move past the old, but I hadn't quite realized since I saw Happily Ever After's final performance on Tuesday and its replacement on Thursday and Friday how much I already miss it. How much I truly loved it. How much that show resonated with me and was adored by so many others, and why it feels like a small part of why I love to do this job broke off and floated away with it ending.

The new Magic Kingdom show is... fine. It photographs well and plenty of families on a casual visit will enjoy the pretty lights and booming fireworks and trudge back to their hotels sleepy and questionably satisfied. But for those of us who care, who keep coming back, who put heaps of money toward our passion and love for these places… I just don't know how lukewarm the temperature will be among those repeat guests in the coming months.

Happily Ever After had such a shockingly stunted run — four years, compared with its predecessor's 13 — for how beloved it was among fans, and while we've previously eulogized it here, I'm stunned to find myself back home, days after traveling back from Disney World, still genuinely and truthfully upset it's no longer on display. Prior to this past week, if you went to Magic Kingdom and you didn't see the fireworks, you did it wrong. I don't know if I necessarily feel that way anymore.

The visuals are uninspiring, the projections are inferior, and the soundtrack is a confounding mix of lengthy instrumental sections with duplicated vocal performances. (Don't even get me started on the gilded artistic rendering it led with, which seemingly never appears.) I understand that, particularly at this time, new additions to these parks require financial reasons for why they're needed, and though I wholeheartely get why Disney Enchantment must do double-duty as a showcase for Disney+'s legitimately robust film library, bringing an endless rotating door of characters like those from Onward into a rousing, danger-filled section set to "Night on Bald Mountain" just doesn't make storytelling sense, something Disney is uniquely known to excel at.

I'm thrilled to celebrate such a hallowed, historic place's 50th anniversary, and genuinely want to encourage people to travel there to see so much of it first hand, but that show going away for an inferior facsimile to take its place feels like an asterisk on the celebration, a footnote worth mentioning to friends, family, fans, and followers to gauge their expectations.

Disney's 50th anniversary is supposed to be a time to look back at the past while experiencing all that the future has to offer, and there are oodles of examples to point to throughout the parks and Walt Disney World Resort as a whole that exceed and achieve that goal. There is so much to celebrate here as this genre-pushing resort clocks another historic birthday, but I wish the biggest, brightest forms of it weren't the ones hindering that celebration.

LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!

- Booking for Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser officially opens on Oct. 28, but for select groups, it starts as early as tomorrow.

- OK, California Grill's new menu looks very appealing.

- I think of all the announcements in the past week, the one I'm most excited about is the souped-up wearable MagicBand+.

- Looks like Disney's new Deluxe Hotel evening benefit, which allows for extra time in the parks, is worth it.

- Please don't make me talk about the cursed Magic Kingdom popcorn bar!!

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