Why Walt Disney World Resort Is Beyond Fabulous at 50

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As 18 months of celebrations kick off in Florida parks, Damon Smith enjoys reestablished meet-and-greets, parades and late-night shows

A modest plate full of scrambled eggs, slow-roasted beef brisket, and mouse-shaped waffles drizzled with gooey maple syrup lies untouched before me as white-gloved hands knead the knots of tension in my neck, then have fun crackling along my shoulders.

Massages aren’t on Chef Mickey’s breakfast buffet menu, but Goofy, fresh from the kitchen in a chunky white hat and sleek cyan scarf, relishes a recent relaxation of social distancing protocols at Walt Disney World, which allows characters to interact directly with unmasked guests for the first time since March 2020.

Goofy’s sweetness instantly reminds me how much I took those moments of personal connection with childhood totems for granted. Subsequent encounters — including extended hugs from Mickey and Minnie — send saltwater trickles of gratitude down my sun-reddened cheeks. The return of one-on-one matches to the Orlando resort is the icing on the cake for the ongoing 50th anniversary celebrations.

Shows that draw large crowds have also been reinstated. The Festival Of Fantasy Parade’s seven elaborate floats, led by the pageantry and glitz of Disney Princesses, descend Main Street twice a day.

An enhanced 50th anniversary version of the musical Mickey’s Magical Friendship Faire, played up to five times a day on the Cinderella Castle forecourt stage in Magic Kingdom, incorporates scenes inspired by Frozen, The Princess And The Frog and Tangled , and a new finale filled with Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, and Goofy in iridescent party attire.

After dark, four landmarks in the park – Cinderella’s Castle, Hollywood Tower Hotel, Spaceship Earth, and the Tree of Life – transform into glowing beacons of magic thanks to lighting effects. The nighttime spectacular Disney Enchantment choreographs fireworks and map projections along Main Street to a stirring soundtrack, replete with a gravity-defying cameo on fairy wings.

At Epcot, the World Showcase Lagoon hosts Harmonious, a 21-minute celebration of the power of song reinterpreted by 240 culturally diverse artists from around the world, brought to life on giant floating screens with moving water fountains, pyrotechnics and lasers.

Guardians Of The Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, the longest fully enclosed roller coaster at any Disney theme park, is a centerpiece of anniversary celebrations and I’m one of the first British travelers to feel the rush of the the station’s first omnicoaster, which performed controlled rotations of five passenger vehicles as they moved along a hilly track.

One of six groovy tracks from the 1970s and 1980s, including a personal favorite, Miami Sound Machine’s Conga, plays randomly as Starjumper escape shuttles travel back in time.

The reverse launch isn’t a punch like Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which accelerates from 0-57 mph in just under three seconds, but still fuels the need for speed.

Motion sickness could be an issue for some guests. After my first ride, I walk out with a heady mix of euphoria and dizzying disorientation, akin to Crush’s Coaster at Disneyland Paris. A second run through the starry darkness in fast session leaves me feeling a little nauseous.

A calm circuit of Tomorrowland PeopleMover offers generous recovery time and stunning views of the construction of the jaw-dropping Tron Lightcycle Run, a recreation of a breathtaking roller coaster at Shanghai Disney Resort.

The lighted canopy, which protects the high-speed ride from the elements, has been completed, confirming that the white joint experience will take off before the end of the 50th anniversary celebrations in March 2023.

The 18-month joy began with the opening of Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure at Epcot’s expanded France pavilion, a replica of the magnificent trackless 4D dark ride at Disneyland Paris.

The Florida version is almost identical – take a big whiff of oranges from the pantry – but the onboard multi-sensory experience offers more cooling water effects to counter the heat. Outside, the exclusive restaurant with table service La Crêperie de Paris offers a menu of sweet and savory crepes created by the famous chef Jérôme Bocuse.

Cinderella’s Castle shines brighter with a timely makeover of the majestic facade in dusty pink, navy blue and shimmering gold, including a 50th anniversary crest. Nearby, a golden sculpture of Chip ‘n’ Dale – one of the so-called Fab 50 – lends an Aurelian luster to the festivities.

The collection of 36 statues representing 50 characters are spread across the parks (more than half are in Magic Kingdom) and demand an eagle-eyed cleaning. Stitch’s high perch on a purple wall is typically sneaky from the mischievous alien.

At Disney Springs, Cirque du Soleil defies gravity with Drawn To Life in a custom-built structure designed to mimic the architectural lines of a marquee.

This very first collaboration between the Quebec performance troupe, Walt Disney Animation Studios and Walt Disney Imagineering reinterprets classic Disney films with death-defying acrobatic brilliance on a stage resembling a giant animation table.

Jungle Cruise, one of the park’s original rides, recently removed outdated and potentially offensive depictions of indigenous people. The groanworthy puns in the effusive comments are – thankfully – intact. To echo the feelings of our skipper. Do not hesitate to take pictures of the bathing elephants, they all have their trunks.

Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railroad, which opened at Disney’s Hollywood Studios less than three weeks before the first UK lockdown, is still new to many international visitors, including me. The first park ride featuring Mickey Mouse and friends conjures up an animated world saturated with color using trackless vehicles and ingenious video projections.

I have the chance to road test MagicBand+, the next generation of portable hands-free technology, which will be launched this summer. The updated rechargeable device expands existing functionality (room and park entry, retail and restaurant payments, PhotoPass activation) with gesture recognition, color-changing lights on the dial, and haptic vibrations.

Waving a bandaged hand towards a golden Fab 50 sculpture elicits a cheerful response (Mickey chirps, “Gosh, it’s a beautiful day!”) While pressing MagicBand+ on the keystones in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge allows me to collect galactic credits and complete secret missions on behalf of the Batuu Bounty Hunters’ Guild. The new devices will light up during the nightly Disney Enchantment and Harmonious shows.

This deepening of immersive storytelling coincides with the launch of Hey Disney! in select Disney Resort hotel rooms later this year. The digital voice assistant sprinkles pixie dust on existing Alexa technology and facilitates over 1,000 voice interactions with 25 characters, including Frozen’s Mickey Mouse and Olaf.

No amount of dazzling high-tech magic indelibly tied to childhood nostalgia can diminish the invigorating power of touch: link arms with a stubborn mermaid, accept a comforting hug from a Wookiee, or savor a spontaneous rub of the shoulder of an unusually large dog.

How to plan your trip

Virgin Atlantic Holidays (virginholidays.co.uk; 0344 557 3859) is offering seven nights in Orlando from £2,846 for two adults sharing a standard room at Disney’s All-Star Music Resort, including Virgin Atlantic flights direct from London Heathrow in Orlando and park tickets. Pricing based on September 7, 2022 departure.

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