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Theme Park News: Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary is soon. Here’s what to expect.

By Carlye Wisel
Walt Disney World 50 Character Fashions

Welcome to Theme Park News! This week, we’re finally getting a glimpse at what the next two-ish years at America’s biggest theme park resort will look like and, like a glimmering castle-shaped invitation, are ready to share every detail with you. So! With news about hotels, rides, and entertainment that’ll stretch well into 2023, here’s everything that went down this past week at the Mouse House.


Oct. 1, 2021, is inching closer and closer, and in anticipation, last week Good Morning America revealed more details about Disney World’s banner birthday. We knew Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure will debut within Epcot’s recently expanded France Pavilion, but with entertainment returning, hotels turning incredible, and new nightly displays at all four parks, the scope of this semicentennial is now coming into focus.

With less than 100 days 'til the 18-month-long celebration, here's what the festivities will feature — and what else could be on the way:

Walt Disney World Harmonious 2

The return of nighttime entertainment is here in a big way.

Harmonious, the all-new nighttime show at Epcot’s World Showcase, will debut along with the festivities on Oct. 1, 2021. First announced at D23 Expo 2019, the display honoring global music and song was slated to open in 2020 but will now debut on the 39th anniversary of Epcot itself. (How nice!) Featuring reimagined Disney songs in over a dozen languages, the large-scale show will replace Illuminations, which ran for nearly two decades at the Florida theme park. Visiting before then? Don't worry — you’ll enjoy the interim show, Epcot Foreverstarting later this week.

Walt Disney World Enchantment

The biggest display after sundown, however, is always over at Magic Kingdom. While their bombastic fireworks display Happily Ever After returns this week for the first time since the park's pandemic closure in March 2020, a new nighttime show, Disney Enchantment, will bring fireworks, lighting, and "immersive projection effects" that extend down Main Street, USA, starting on Oct. 1. It's still unclear what exactly this new show will contain, but I wouldn't be surprised if we get more pixie-dusted details in the coming weeks. Still, all four parks will see their emblematic structures — Cinderella Castle, Spaceship Earth, Hollywood Tower of Terror, and The Tree of Life — glow nightly, bathed with light. 

Walt Disney World Character Sculptures

Decorations, decor, and more.

Cinderella Castle is already donning decorative bits, but given the color palette of iridescent purple and silvery-blues, prepare to see some shine come through elsewhere, particularly by way of the fifty golden character sculptures appearing throughout Disney's four theme parks. Characters like Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and more will don celebratory costumes as well, leaning into the festivities.

There's big daytime entertainment news over at Disney's Animal Kingdom, too, where Disney KiteTails is set to debut for the 50th anniversary with a daily waterfront show of windcatchers and kites shaped to Disney animal characters.

Disney's Contemporary Resort reimagined rooms

As one door opens, another be repainted. 

With Disney World’s epic birthday party lasting through Spring 2023, any refurbishments currently or soon underway will likely debut during its lengthy tenure.

The most noteworthy, at the moment, comes from Disney’s Contemporary Resort. The famed A-frame structure is bringing the characters and styling of The Incredibles into their hotel rooms, with a first look at the superhero-referencing interiors shared early last week. That's synergy, baby!

Walt Disney World Hotel

For those who aren’t as tapped into the emotions of theme park fans, this stuff always tends to get the community in a tizzy, but the way I see it, you just gotta embrace it. We’re in the era of Disney+, after all, and I for one can’t praise Loki’s rotating costumes at Avengers Campus but lament the inclusion of franchise films on the opposite coast. Do I wish the room design leaned more heavily into the mid-century modern stylings of the 2018 sequel’s brilliantly retro residence? Of course, but hey, even if an in-room moat is unlikely, I’ll take anything that'll replace those old birdbath sinks. There are rumors of other spaces around the hotel converting to similar themes — and a few closures that surely line up with that timeline — but I’ll keep my lips zipped ‘til we hear more.

This is the second major Magic Kingdom hotel to recently infuse characters into its rooms. Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, which reopens on July 19, added Moana touches as part of a resort-wide refurbishment.

Walt Disney World Minnie

And with a grand celebration comes a return to form.

With Disney clearly ramping up towards normalcy in line with the 50th Anniversary, changes may be afoot for the guest experience.

Due to pandemic-era procedures, Walt Disney World has existed in this somewhat suspended time where, yes, you still need a theme park reservation, park hopping isn’t as flexible as it once was and boarding Rise of the Resistance is its own situation, but once you arrive? It’s easy-breezy. Guests have grown accustomed to life without FastPass+, a benefit that used to see folks (including myself) wake up as early as 4 a.m. sixty days prior to their trip to secure FastPasses and avoid waiting in hours upon hours of lines for select attractions. 

Spontaneity has returned to Disney vacations over the past year, which is why the steadily increasing chatter about FastPass’s potential return by way of uncovered kiosks and digital glitches could signal things may return to normal in the near future.

We always knew FastPass+ was likely to return around the 50th, not only because a forthcoming product, Disney Genie, seems to leverage it, but because the celebration itself is a grand return to form with new rides, experiences, and entertainment coaxing families back to the Most Magical Place on Earth after time away. 

As for visiting in general? Well, just when we thought we might be able to talk about these parks without the mention of airborne pathogens...the Delta variant enters the equation. The highly contagious COVID-19 variant has arrived in America, and is said to be both easier to transmit and capable of causing more severe illness than previous strains.

Orange County, Florida, where Walt Disney World is located, has seen an increase in cases that health officer Dr. Raul Pino has likened to the “tip of an iceberg.” Orlando Sentinel reported that at least 23 positive cases had the Delta strain, and because "only a tiny fraction of all cases are tested for mutations, Pino said the real number is likely much higher." The 14-day positivity rate in Orange County has increased, but not past the 5 percent threshold, rising to 4.1 percent from 3.7 percent last week. (For reference, there is not currently a mask mandate in Orange County, as per its positivity rate. Both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort are allowing vaccinated guests to remove masks indoors, deeming the properties effectively mask-free.)

Still, the party cat is out of the proverbial pandemic bag. Nighttime entertainment — which, naturally, encourages gathering — kicks off a few days from now, and people are genuinely excited about it. Capacity is increasing, park hours are expanding, and even a Halloween-themed nighttime event intended to serve smaller crowds has curiously replenished tickets. We’re not sure what comes next, but are still hoping to safely celebrate Disney World's 50th Anniversary.