Inside the year-long celebrations for Disney World’s 50th anniversary

From the multigenerational families in custom matching shirts to the smitten Mickeys and Minnies wearing their honeymoon ears, guests seemed in the mood to celebrate Disney’s landmark and their own.
November 25, 2021, 2:00 PM UTC

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Take it from anyone who has organized a micro-wedding, drive-by-birthday, or contactless bake sale in the last 18 months: The pandemic can bedevil even the most Type-A event planner.

Except maybe Darlene Papalini. As the vice president of marketing strategy for Walt Disney World, Papalini led the team responsible for planning the momentous 50th anniversary celebration for the Orlando resort and entertainment juggernaut, a festival for millions of guests that kicked off on October 1 and runs through the end of 2022.

Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, “having our 50th happening at this time could not be better,” Papalini says. “People are craving being together with family. They’re wanting to celebrate milestones.”

Cinderella Castle under construction at the Magic Kingdom Park in 1971 at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Courtesy of Disney

When I joined this jubilee late last month for Fortune, the kingdom was busy not unnervingly so—the capacity restrictions and park reservations enacted for the pandemic are still in place—and Papalini’s point held. From the multigenerational families in custom matching shirts to the smitten Mickeys and Minnies wearing their honeymoon ears, guests seemed in the mood to celebrate Disney’s landmark and their own.

The anniversary overlay is omnipresent, from the ads on the terminal shuttles at Orlando International Airport to the Disney app to food-and-beverage programming. As ever, your eyeline on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom goes directly to Cinderella’s Castle, now decorated with a giant “50” emblem and an iridescent (sorry, that’s EARidescent) skin that shimmers and shifts like a cotton candy mirage in ferocious Florida sun.

It’s impossible to arrive here thinking it’s just another day at the Happiest Place on Earth, and that’s by design, according to Papalini. “Whether you see our TV spots or you come into our parks, you see the EARidescence sprinkled everywhere,” she says. (Sometimes literally in the case of a special EPCOT croissant donut dipped in blue icing and paved in lustrous sprinkles.) “That was foundational, to get that look and feel so that when you came into the resort, you knew this is a special time at Walt Disney World.”

Cinderella castle at Disneyworld
Disney CEO Bob Chapek (left) and Executive Chairman Bob Iger (right) re-dedicate Walt Disney World Resort in front of Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom Park in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Sept. 30, 2021, on the eve of the vacation destination’s 50th anniversary.
David Roark—Courtesy of Disney

In physical form, Walt Disney World is 50, but its inception goes back another 16 years under a different name: Project Future. In 1955, Walt Disney built a castle among the orange groves of Anaheim. While Disneyland was a financial success by the end of its first year, Disney—both a shrewd businessman and devoted aesthete—was already thinking bigger and better. Project Future would be conjured from the swampy navel of Central Florida, 27,000 acres to accommodate ancillary moneymakers like hotels and restaurants as well as the creative fruits of the relentless innovation that would come to define Disney World.

The parks division of the company was thick in relentless innovation when Papalini and her team began planning the anniversary celebration in 2017. A luminous recreation of Avatar’s Pandora debuted at Animal Kingdom that year, followed by Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, the largest park expansion in Disney history, and its ground-breaking marquee attraction, Rise of the Resistance, in 2019.

The Millennium Falcom at Disneyworld
The Millennium Falcon inside Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, which opened in 2019 at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Courtesy of Disney

On March 1, 2020, nearly six months after Galaxy’s Edge opened in Orlando, the state of Florida reported its first two cases of COVID-19. On March 16, Disney World decided to temporarily close, as Papalini’s team continued planning, undeterred as the Resistance, for a magical celebration in a hopefully safer future.

We are in that future, and it is meaningfully—if far from perfectly—safer. Disney reopened the Orlando parks in July 2020, so they’ve had more than a year of practice hosting guests in the context of the pandemic. Resort-wide, I found masks requirement signs as ubiquitous as 50th anniversary swag. Outside of actively eating or drinking at a restaurant table, you must wear a mask indoors anywhere on property, from a hotel lobby to the Monorail to a haunted freight elevator plummeting into the Twilight Zone.

The famously cheery Cast Members—who are required to wear face coverings and be vaccinated—don’t play around, making mask noncompliance borderline zero. (Those who would rather not wear masks should head to Universal’s theme parks, which I also visited last month; there are no indoor mask requirements there, and as such, very few guests wore them, even in crowded indoor attractions.)

a restaurant with a view of Earth
The Space 220 Restaurant offers the ‘height of dining’ at EPCOT at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The first-of-its-kind concept opened Sept. 27, 2021, inviting guests to feel as if they travel 220 miles above Earth to the Centauri Space Station for lunch or dinner.
Todd Anderson—Courtesy of Disney

Personally, Disney’s protocols made it easier to enjoy the celebration and the new toys rolled out to coincide with the 50th, including Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, a delightfully screwy mouse-chase that operates on the same nonlinear trackless system as Rise of the Resistance.

A ten-minute walk from Remy and EPCOT’s expanded France pavilion, I boarded a simulated cosmic elevator to dinner at Space 220. Realistic screens in the floor and ceiling show Earth disappearing and the Centauri Space Station appearing as diners “travel” 220 miles to a restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows that will look familiar to anyone who’s ridden Rise. What’s for dinner in space? No freeze-astronaut pouches, just cashew hummus, glossy braised short ribs over mashed potatoes, and spicy Stargaritas.

“Expectations were very high because this is a milestone anniversary,” Papalini says. “[Guests] felt it was going to be big. They wanted to see new and special things.”

A Disney rendering
A rendering of the ‘Princess and the Frog’ overlay for the new Splash Mountain.
Courtesy of Disney

And there are plenty that will open throughout 2022, including a new Princess and the Frog overlay for Splash Mountain; Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, the centerpiece of EPCOT’s revitalized Future World; and the Tron roller coaster in Magic Kingdom.

There are no firm dates for those upcoming additions, but the maiden voyage of the Galactic Starcruiser, the ultra-immersive and interactive Star Wars hotel experience, has been confirmed. The inaugural two-night “sailing” will take place on March 1, two years to the day of the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Florida. How many of us have wanted to board a one-way spaceship and escape to another world, real or imagined, in the last 18 months? Disney is betting a lot.