Walt Disney World began it’s 50th Anniversary Celebration last week, offering a slew of new additions across the parks. If you were following along with us, you probably know by now that we found most of those additions lackluster with no real standout. While there’s still more to come over the course of this 18 month party and it’s hard to judge too harshly because of the role COVID played in all of this, the new shows were another step toward a very synergy driven Disney. But there’s been one positive from the anniversary that we haven’t touched on yet and it’s in direct contrast to the new additions. The fans.
I think most hardcore Disney Parks fans, even the most optimistic, would have an issue or two with the Disney leadership over the last few years. There was Bob Iger’s misguided quote that certainly seemed to be a knock on Expedition Everest and original theme park stories. Frozen Ever After was added to World Showcase. Bob Chapek, whose spell as head of Parks & Resorts didn’t inspire much in the way of confidence, was promoted to CEO. That doesn’t even take into account the constant price hikes, add-on events and interesting merchandise decisions.
That’s not to say that it’s all been bad. I’m generally one of those optimistic fans and there are certainly things to be praised. Prior to the shutdowns, Disney was investing in the parks at a higher rate than we’ve seen in the 2000’s. Galaxy’s Edge was, in our eyes, a huge success. There have been other excellent additions that fans have and will continue to enjoy for years to come.
The problem with the 50th anniversary additions is they seemed to embody many of the negatives that I’d mentioned. A lack of originality or plotline was a problem for the two nighttime spectaculars, instead playing as mini previews for Disney movies. Many of the folks we talked to throughout the weekend came to the general consensus that both shows lacked heart. That’s a striking contrast to the shows that came before them but not all that surprising when factoring in the current direction of Disney. It’s hard to remain optimistic about upcoming additions, especially as Epcot is transforming to a completely different park.
For the glass half empty crowd, Epcot’s Harmonious adds a glimpse of what might be the current and future problem with Disney’s leadership in advancing the parks. The show has great scenes and is fun when looking at individual aspects. Unfortunately, it falls apart as a whole with clunky transitions and a lack of identity. There’s also probably a parallel to draw from leaving the giant alien spaceship-like barges in the lagoon all day. Disney seems set on adding things, which is great! But there seems to be a lack of understanding on how it all works as a whole. We’ve seen it on a small scale with examples like Toy Story Land transitioning into Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios or Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! taking up California Adventure’s skyline while not fitting there at all. Now we’re seeing it on a bigger scale where shows don’t quite work to the level that the company was hoping for and Epcot, among other parks, having an identity crisis. I’m afraid that aspect might get worse before it gets better.
But I do believe that it will get better and that’s because the fans aren’t going anywhere. Being at Magic Kingdom on the 50th anniversary was a strange and beautiful experience. It was like a park full of the biggest fans had all come together and were happy to just be there, not worried about rides. Despite the park being at current capacity (I don’t know how full that actually is because this is 2021 and things are strange), wait times were constantly low. Instead, crowds packed in for the Country Bears or to buy specialty merchandise. Throughout the day the PeopleMover had the longest line and everyone wanted that special snack. Before sunset, Main Street was completely full for a 9 PM show.
Before I get too romantic about this, part of the reason is because the park was filled with people who get to go on the rides more often than most. But, for many, this was a hallowed day that was spent just embodied in the atmosphere. A larger crowd gathered to watch the original ragtime piano player at Casey’s Corner than we saw in the entire queue for Space Mountain. It was refreshing. The streets were packed and it was hard to move at times but I heard more compliments directed at Cast Members than I’ve ever heard in Magic Kingdom. Those that weren’t there, probably saw the ugly videos of people fighting for merchandise while those that were enjoyed a gleeful setting.
Allow me a brief sports story. My favorite baseball team, the Seattle Mariners, are a terribly run franchise. Despite being in a big market with what should be a large fanbase, they haven’t tasted the playoffs in 20 years. It’s the longest playoff drought, not only in baseball, but in any of the big North American sports. For all intents and purposes, this should have depleted the fanbase. Why be a fan of something that routinely sucks for 20 years? Well, because you care about it.
This year, the Mariners had an unexpectedly good season and almost made the playoffs. On the last weekend, while being eliminated from contention, the stadium was sold out and the crowd was raucous. It was all for not, the drought continues but the people still cared because that’s what fans do and, ultimately, that’s who entertainment is for.
I don’t love the current direction of the Disney Parks. Seeing some original stories and less IP would be a dream come true for me, at this point. I’m not sure that Iger or Chapek truly understand theme parks, although there is some hope in the ranks below them. But while watching the new, and somewhat disappointing, shows I actually ended up encouraged. Not by what I saw, but by those around me. A full Country Bear Theater made me excited. People actually discussing the shows they’d just seen and not simply buying in without a second thought made me feel at home. Watching a piano player while packed in like sardines made me feel gratified.
Theme parks are going to change. Management that is good and bad for the parks will come and go but the people that frequent and care about them will outlast all of it. After leaving Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary, I remained concerned about the immediate future of the parks. But the parks are going to live on well past those concerns because too many people care about them to let their artistry fall.
What do you think of the current state of the parks and the role of fans? Let us know your thoughts, as well as any questions you might have, in the comments below! If you are planning a trip to Disney World, then check out our planning guide. If you enjoy what you are reading here on Wandering in Disney please share this post with your friends, as well as like our social media pages. You can also subscribe to the blog via WordPress or email. You can do all of that on the right side of this page. Thank you for reading, we really appreciate it!