Theme Park News: Disney World’s mega-celebration is about to begin. Here’s what’s in store.

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Theme Park News: Disney World’s mega-celebration is about to begin. Here’s what’s in store.

Seasons greetings! Your steward of the previous week’s news has returned from Disneyland Paris and arrived at Walt Disney World for the park's 50th anniversary, which officially kicks off later this week. I'm burning the midnight oil and watching Epcot test its new fireworks show as I write this, so we'll similarly waste no time getting into the festivities. Let's do this!:

WELCOME TO WDW’S 50TH

It’s the calm before the storm here in Florida, where, like the day after Thanksgiving when Christmas decor just magically appears, things are readying to shift. Come Friday, Oct. 1, Walt Disney World will be in full anniversary mode, swapping its old shows for new experiences and sprinkling the kingdom in the event’s purple-blue iridescent hue.

We’ll get into the major entries — fireworks, nighttime shows, that new Ratatouille ride — in next week’s drop, but for now, we’re diving deep into everything else, because there is plenty more on the horizon worth discussing.

Space 220 Restaurant at EPCOT

WHAT'S NEW?

Park hours will differ as of Friday, when Early Entry — the replacement for Disney’s pre-pandemic Extra Magic Hours benefit — debuts at all four parks simultaneously, allowing Disney and other select hotel guests to enter thirty minutes prior to park opening, giving them the edge on Disney’s most popular rides, like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Avatar: Flight of Passage. 

Planning to ride Disney's kick-ass Star Wars ride? Scrap that 7 a.m. alarm, because Rise of the Resistance at Disney’s Hollywood Studios has halted its early morning boarding pass system in favor of a traditional standby queue which seems to be working exceptionally well. Wait times peak each morning, which is to be expected, but have similarly plummeted at day’s end, reaching “walk on” wait times of only five minutes earlier this week. Keep an eye on the times in Disney's app to beat the queue and ridethis stand-out attraction over and over again.

Creations Shop EPCOT

There's plenty of new stuff to eat, tooSpace 220 has opened, the free-flowing soda samples at Club Cool have at long last returned, and if that wasn’t enough, there’s going to be — hold my Duffy the Disney Bear-shaped purse — 150 new food and drink items to celebrate WDW’s 50th!? Good golly! Not sure what the "Mission to Mars" burger will taste like, but that's one journey I plan on taking.

New merchandise is already out in the parks (if you can get your hands on items before resellers, that is), but beyond the commemorative castle wares and in-demand mini backpacks, there's also the brand new Creations Shop at Epcot and an entire store off Magic Kingdom's Main Street, USA that's readying itself to carry the new Vault Collection, filled with throwback merch like vintage dishes the original, old-school Minnie Ears headband.

WHAT'S DIFFERENT?

Disney's Contemporary Resort debuted its lobby retheme and, reader, it's great! The mid-century inspiration honoring the Monorail and Mary Blair, the artist behind It's a Small World and the hotel's central mural, is a perfect fit for the structure, and ties into the new Incredibles rooms well without being overly themed. Next up? The debut of Steakhouse 71, the artist formerly known as The Wave...of American Flavors, offers a tip of the cap to retro Disney World as well as some really delicious-looking mac n' cheese.

The new version of Epcot officially kicks off on Friday, too, as those new “neighborhoods” — remember them from D23 Expo 2019? — become official park jargon. Bye-bye, Future World!

Main Street Confectionery, the go-to sweets shop at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, reopened this week following a remodel, and with it comes a menu that doubles as a candy hellscape. Some new items — particularly the loads of chocolate-dunked marshmallows — sound nothing short of delicious, but the updated lineup of bakery treats, long considered a fan favorite, are upsettingly questionable. Candy apples... with gummy Lifesavers? Rainbow fudge... with Skittles? It’s clear from one glance down this odd menu that Smuckers, the site’s former sponsor, is long gone in place of a Mars-Wrigley sponsorship. We’ll be mourning the loss of Reese's Cups and Pieces scattered atop desserts as fudge treats are topped with... Twix and Snickers and sugar cookies embedded with... baked Skittles?! Pass.

WDW 50th Celebration Cinderella's Castle

WHAT DO WE STILL NOT HAVE A CLUE ABOUT?

Disney Genie+'s launch, which at this rate, could happen any time. Signs have been replaced and with incoming crowds for the 50th Anniversary, it feels like the time is nigh for an announcement, particularly since its slated to debut "this fall." When it lands, it'll forever change the way you visit Disney World, while simultaneously introducing loads of lingo we recommend you brush up on prior to planning your future vacations.

Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser's launch date, which is set to arrive in Spring 2020. Reservations have not yet opened, but considering the experience is being billed as a kind of "cruise on land", the booking windows should open pretty far in advance. I'd be shocked if we don't get an update on full pricing, when reservations will open, the hotel's opening date or all three in the coming week.

Live entertainment. Not nighttime entertainment, of which Disney's 50th has plenty, but stage shows, stunt shows and the like, which have been offline since Disney World temporarily shuttered back in March 2020. The list of currently unavailable experiences is l-o-n-g — long!! — and with the company confirming Finding Nemo: The Musical will be retooled for a 2022 debut, it's quizzical that popular attractions like Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular and Fantasmic! have not yet returned. (Same for parades — the quick answer would be to avoid parades due to COVID safety, but if crowds are gathering tightly for nighttime entertainment in front of Cinderella Castle, a parade route that snakes through much more land of the park can't be worse!)

WANT TO GET IN ON THE ANNIVERSARY ACTION?

Disney will be hosting two live streams this week of its new nighttime entertainment as it debuts. Click here to watch Harmonious, the new Epcot evening show, when it kicks off at 9 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, and click here to see Disney Enchantment, the new Cinderella Castle nighttime show, on Thursday at 10:15 p.m. Eastern. I'll be there, so it's almost like we're on a Disney trip together! Ah, the reader and writer relationship, vacation bliss!

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