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Finding Disney in the Parks’ Anniversary Celebrations of the Past

Extraordinary Magic in Everyday Life


There’s a lot going on in Disney’s theme parks on both coasts, and two of the hottest current topics have something in common. Just announced last week, the sixtieth anniversary “Diamond Celebration” for Disneyland will begin May 22. It will include a jeweled makeover for Sleeping Beauty Castle and the Carthay Circle Theater, a new fireworks show entitled Disneyland Forever, a new version of World of Color entitled Celebrate!, and a new electrical parade, Paint the Night. Meanwhile in Florida, Disney’s Hollywood Studios is currently undergoing the process of dismantling its Sorcerer Hat icon. Though different in nature, both occasions’ beginnings share a common thread: the presence of an anniversary.

Disney enjoys commemorating special dates from time to time, and often themes an entire year’s marketing efforts toward the anniversary. These do an excellent job at generating extra promotional buzz for the destinations, thus extending a specific milestone beyond its exact calendar date and thereby allowing more of us to find Disney its its recognition throughout the year. We see the ads on television, we spot the promos, and we become more excited because we know, whether in person or in spirit, we get to be part of the celebration. Here are some of the parks’ most memorable birthday celebrations.

Cinderella Castle CakeTwenty-fifth Anniversary of Walt Disney World, 1996-1997: Two words: Castle Cake. No matter what your opinion on the matter is, you probably had a distinct reaction when you scrolled down to see this accompanying image of Cinderella Castle adorned like a birthday cake. It remained this way for the entire twenty-fifth birthday bash, cementing its place in Disney history. Along with the transformed icon, anchoring the celebration was a wonderfully catchy theme song, “Remember the Magic.” It served as the anthem for the twenty-fifth anniversary Magic Moments Parade (which extended beyond the birthday festivities to run through 2001) and was also played during a birthday tag of Fantasy in the Sky Fireworks. A pop version of the song was recorded by Brian McKnight.

100 Years of Magic, 2001-2002: To mark Walt Disney’s 100th birthday, all of Walt Disney World joined in. Disney-MGM Studios (as it was known at the time) served as the “host park,” per se, of the event with the construction of the giant Sorcerer Hat as the park’s new icon and the opening of Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream. Both additions served to honor the legacy of Walt Disney as a person: his biographical story and the symbol of imagination his memory inspires.

Disney Stars and Motor Cars Parade - DisneyAdditionally, all four parks received new parades. At Magic Kingdom, Share a Dream Come True Parade was a procession of giant snowglobes carrying Disney characters who shared a common theme. It underwent several iterations over the years and only just recently finished its run in early 2014. At EpcotTapestry of Dreams debuted as a revised version of Tapestry of Nations, which had premiered as part of the Millenium Celebration in 2000. It ran through 2003. For Disney-MGM Studios came Disney Stars and Motor Cars Parade, a favorite lineup of Disney characters riding in creative motor vehicles themed to their films’ colors, props, and settings. Its theme song, “Spotlight on a Dream,” is among the best. This parade was continually updated to reflect the newest animated releases, and was known for including rare characters like Miss Piggy and Hades, to name a few. It ran through 2008 before being sent to Walt Disney Studios Paris, where it still performs. Lastly, Disney’s Animal Kingdom received Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade, a mix of elaborate animal puppets with character-themed jeeps. It ran unaltered (except for its annual Christmas transformation) through June 2014.

Even McDonald’s got in on the fun with 100 collectible Disney character toys inside Happy Meals, each labeled with the character and the year he or she first debuted.

The Happiest Celebration on Earth, 2005-2006: The king dog daddy of Disney anniversaries, The Happiest Celebration on Earth is important in more ways than one. In commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Disneyland, it was decided to broaden the scope of the initiative to commemorate fifty years of Disney theme parks, thus allowing Walt Disney World to be included.  This made The Happiest Celebration on Earth the first year-long promotion to exist on both coasts. This marketing strategy continued after its conclusion, and every annual promotion since then has bundled both destinations together as the collective term “Disney Parks.” The upcoming sixtieth anniversary will actually be the first time since 2005 that California and Florida have not celebrated an annual celebration together.

Walt Disney's Parade of Dreams - DisneyOn the homefront, Disneyland looked its finest for its big, golden day. Sleeping Beauty Castle received a colorful paint job and was adorned with five crowns on its various spires, one for each Disney destination around the globe. The park’s opening-day attractions were each gifted with one golden ride vehicle. Throughout the park, giant portraits of Disney characters were created using an ensemble of guests’ family pictures taken in the park. Guests with keen eyes could hunt for fifty golden hidden Mickeys specially placed throughout the park. Several new attractions provided a wonderful education of the park’s history. Remember… Dreams Came True exploded in the night sky as a walkthrough of some of the park’s most memorable audio treats, past and present. Disneyland: The First 50 Magical Years temporarily replaced Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln as a fascinating short film starring Steve Martin (whose career began at Disneyland) and Donald Duck. This time, it was the California parks’ turn to go parade crazy. Walt Disney’s Parade of Dreams at Disneyland majestically recreated beloved environments from Disney animated classics while Block Party Bash at Disney California Adventure debuted as a high-energy street party with favorite Pixar pals. Several years after their west-coast premiere, both parades were slated to move to Florida, though for whatever reason only Block Party Bash made the cut. It ran 2008-2010 at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Happiest Celebration on Earth - DisneyWalt Disney World‘s participation in The Happiest Celebration on Earth focused on Disney’s international presence, importing new attractions to each of its four parks from other Disney resorts around the globe. Cinderella Castle received beautiful gold trimming, which became a picturesque backdrop for Cinderellabration, a stage show of Cinderella’s princess coronation from Tokyo Disneyland. The show required a makeover of the Castle Forecourt Stage. It was for its implementation that the stage was completely redesigned to include the arches, stairs, and lift that still exist today. Epcot got a new headliner when it imported Soarin’ from Disney California Adventure. Next door, Disney-MGM Studios welcomed Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show from Walt Disney Studios Paris. Lastly, Disney’s Animal Kingdom briefly entertained Lucky the Dinosaur, the first-ever free-roaming Audio-Animatronics figure, who previously mingled with guests at Disney’s California Adventure and later visited Hong Kong Disneyland. Lucky would become the innovative precursor to more advanced projects later, like the Muppet Mobile Lab and the Wall-E character.

A celebrity-studded simulcast from all of Disney’s global locations took place on May 5, 2005, to officially kick off The Happiest Celebration on Earth. Julie Andrews served as the celebration’s ambassador following a series of television commercials narrated by Kelsey Grammar.

As you can see, Disney often utilizes special occasions to develop entire, year-long events in its parks, harnessing an anniversary to its fullest potential as a means to introduce new attractions and entertainment. Over time as some of each celebration’s inclusions remain while others trickle away, it’s easy to forget they were part of a bigger theme. Come back in two weeks for the second half of this post, highlighting Disney’s other annual marketing strategies that weren’t attached to a specific anniversary, requiring a little extra creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.


 (Images © Disney.)

Blake studies Electronic Media and Film at Appalachian State University. He enjoys making his family of six watch the parade in Frontierland and then sprint to Main Street in time to see it again. You can find him on Twitter @olddirtyblake or at BlakeOnline.com.