Anniversaries and birthdays are sometimes awkward. They are, in a way, celebrations of survival – a marker that we’ve marked a count of years off on the calendar. Yet, as great as that may be, it doesn’t seem enough. We tack on “and many more” on our renditions of Happy Birthday; we write about the happy years to come in Anniversary cards. Those celebrations need to be about the future as well as the past. They should, to plagiarize Disney, be about letting the memories begin, or at least letting them grow.
It was that balance between honoring the past and celebrating the future that Disney couldn’t quite seem to find at Walt Disney World’s 40th Anniversary celebration this weekend. Guests and media alike were a bit disappointed in the acknowledgement of the milestone. Guests visiting October 1 were given special buttons and maps and treated to a character parade and ceremony, but there seemed to be little celebrating going on, either for the 40 years of memories that Walt Disney World has given or for the years of memories it has yet to give. Instead, much of the “celebration” of the anniversary seemed to revolve around the sale of special merchandise, from the collectibles offered for sale at the $280-per-ticket Room for One More Haunted Mansion 40th celebration to the 40th Anniversary items for which guests were issued wristbands and allowed to queue at 6 am outside the Magic Kingdom to the 40th Anniversary cupcakes which elicited their own long line.
Disney is, first and foremost, a powerful international company with shareholders to appease and stock prices to worry about. Merchandising and marketing are important parts of their identity, and most guests recognize and welcome that truth about Disney – we want our souvenirs and mementos. But merchandise should be sold because of emotional connections and memories. Limited edition items are great for re-sale on Ebay, but when it comes to people buying items to celebrate something they love – something that really means something to them – there’s a bit more work to be done. And, on its 40th anniversary, Disney didn’t do that work.
Instead of showcasing past anniversaries and trotting out a series of Disney dignitaries to talk about past milestones and point to the construction walls around Fantasyland, Disney needed to celebrate the strange, anomalous miracle represented by the Magic Kingdom. After 40 years, a tract of Florida swampland continues to welcome almost 17 million visitors a year. After 40 years, the Magic Kingdom is still the signature park of Walt Disney World, and it is still able to deliver magic, not just through technology and technical innovation, but by creating precious memories and landmark experiences for thousands of people every day. And after 40 years, the park is not winding down; it remains at the top of the attendance pile among the Disney parks, and it has plenty to offer as it cruises toward its half-century mark.
Somehow, that message got lost in limited edition collectors pins and in logos from past anniversaries. Walt Disney World’s 40th Anniversary celebration became more its 40th anniversary acknowledgement, and magic and memories gave way to market share. Even news outlets gave the milestone little more than a nod, and everyone, including Disney, has moved on.
…those who know Disney history will remember that the Magic Kingdom’s opening on October 1 was underwhelming. Hype by news media projected crushing crowds, traffic jams, and logistical nightmares at the opening of Florida’s new attraction, and most guests stayed away. The park was open, but it wasn’t until weeks later that it began to blossom.
In the tradition of that slow opening, the 40th Anniversary of Walt Disney World isn’t done yet. There are still stories to be told, memories to be shared…and hopes for the magic of the future. And even if Disney did not strike the right balance in its Anniversary Celebration, its online community has the memories, the magic, and the hope blow out 40 years of magic, and sing heartily “and many more.”
Do you think the 40th Anniversary Celebration was great, or could it have been better? Have you celebrated your memories of Walt Disney World and the Magic Kingdom? What’s your favorite memory or your deepest hope for the Magic Kingdom’s future?