Walt Disney World celebrates 50th anniversary with new Remy’s Ratatouille ride, nighttime shows, higher prices – cleveland.com

A newly illuminated Spaceship Earth at Epcot is one of four Beacons of Light, part of the 50th anniversary celebration at Walt Disney World in Florida. The other three beacons are Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom, Tree of Life at Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Tower Hotel at Disney's Hollywood Studios.
ORLANDO, Florida – I was 10 the first time I visited Walt Disney World. The year was 1975, Space Mountain was brand new and I was enthralled.
Fast forward 46 years, and Disney World still enchants.
It took me nearly 30 years before I visited a second time, this time with my own two kids in tow. Since then, I’ve been back numerous times, for work and for play, and have never had a bad trip (a few bad meals, yes).
This month, Walt Disney World kicked off an 18-month celebration of its 50th anniversary. The Magic Kingdom opened on Oct. 1, 1971, four years before my inaugural visit.
Today, the sprawling resort, carved out of 25,000 acres of former Florida swampland, includes four theme parks, two waterparks and 27 hotels. It’s among the world’s biggest tourist draws, attracting more than 58 million visitors in a typical year.
Its keys to success? Some incredibly creative minds devising attraction after attraction that appeal to a diversity of ages and interests, a relentless expansion strategy that entices people to return year after year, and an unparalleled commitment to customer service.
As part of its anniversary celebration, the parks this month debuted numerous new attractions, including Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, a new dark ride at Epcot that brings to life the 2007 film, “Ratatouille;” several new shows, including Harmonious at Epcot, Enchantment at the Magic Kingdom and KiteTails at Animal Kingdom; plus new themed dining experiences, retail and more.
Entrance to Remy's Ratatouille Adventure, a new dark ride based on the 2007 film at Epcot.
A crowd gathers to see Enchantment, the new nighttime show at Disney's Magic Kingdom park.
Cinderella Castle under construction at Magic Kingdom Park in 1971 at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Disney)Disney
Earlier this month, I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of fellow Disney fans in front of Cinderella’s Castle at the Magic Kingdom during the Enchantment show, oohing and aahing as the structure came to life via favorite characters, elaborate lighting scenes, music, fireworks and more.
I was also, quite honestly, fretting about Florida’s latest COVID numbers, having not been so close to so many people in more than a year and a half. (Note: Face masks are required indoors on all Disney properties, but not outside.)
To be sure, the pandemic has put a damper on some aspects of Disney’s golden anniversary celebration, delaying or canceling previously announced activities and attractions, including new roller coasters at both Epcot and the Magic Kingdom.
As the amusement park industry continues to recover financially, however, many of those new attractions are under construction again, with projected opening dates in the next year or two – guaranteeing that the Disney faithful will continue to make the pilgrimage to central Florida for the next 50 years.
Not all of the anniversary additions are attracting universal praise, however.
There’s increasing concern among some fans that Disney park magic is coming with too high of a price tag. A one-day pass to the Magic Kingdom, for example, costs a minimum of $110, and usually more, depending on the day, up from $50 in 2002 and $28 in 1988. The parks’ most economical hotels run about $200 per night, even during slow seasons.
“Disney has priced out the middle class,” said Len Testa, president of TouringPlans.com, a Disney planning website, and co-author of “The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World.” And it’s not by accident, he added. “It’s an intentional strategy to take people fewer people who pay more.”
Just this week, the parks replaced their popular (and free) FastPass program with a new system that gives guests who pay more access to shorter lines for the parks’ most popular rides.
Despite these discouraging economic trends, I can’t help myself – I still adore this place, in part because it brings out the kid in me.
Cinderella Castle, celebrating its 50th birthday in 2021, is decked out in anniversary finery.
Harmonious is the new nighttime show at Epcot, part of Walt Disney World's 50th anniversary celebration. The show features massive floating set pieces, custom-built LED panels, choreographed moving fountains, lights, pyrotechnics, lasers and more. (David Roark, photographer)David Roark, photographer
Winnie the Pooh (and Piglet too), one of 50 golden statues decorating the parks at Walt Disney World, part of the 50th anniversary celebration.
What’s new for the 50th anniversary
While technically it’s the Magic Kingdom’s birthday, most of the celebratory activity is taking place 5 miles away at Epcot, including a new ride, a nighttime show and a spectacular new dining experience.
Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, initially expected to open in 2020, is part of a major expansion of the France Pavilion, part of Epcot’s World Showcase. The ride, all indoors, features six-passenger cars that race through Gusteau’s Restaurant, the Paris eatery featured in the film. Riders play the role of Chef Remy’s rodent friends, maneuvering in and out of the kitchen and restaurant, encountering extra-large props and fanciful 4D effects, including the spray of liquid from mop, heat from the oven and the smell of fresh baking bread. It’s creative, technologically advanced and most of all, great fun. Don’t miss it. (The ride, at least for now, is using a complicated virtual-queuing system to avoid long lines; see details below.)
Harmonious is Epcot’s new nighttime show, a replacement for IllumiNations, which ran for 20 years on World Showcase Lagoon. The new show is higher tech and more Disney-centric, featuring favorite characters and familiar music, performed in new ways. The 20-minute show features fireworks, giant water sprayers and large screens on barges in the lagoon projecting scenes both new and familiar, all set to a rollicking soundtrack. Highly recommend.
Also new at Epcot: Space 220, which may be Disney’s most dramatically themed restaurant yet. Guests are transported, via “stellarvator,” 220 miles above the Florida peninsula to the space station, where they’re treated to a gourmet meal featuring Big Bang Burrata, Blue Moon Cauliflower and Starry Calamari (and that’s just for starters). Meanwhile, 11 giant screens display the scene outside, including astronauts floating in space, spaceships traveling by and dramatic views of the planet. I spent 90 minutes here and didn’t want to return to Earth.
Note: Not unexpectedly, prices here are very high, $55 for a two-course lunch, $79 for a three-course dinner. But I guarantee that you’ll remember this meal for a long time.
Dining at Space 220, a new space-themed restaurant at Epcot.
Taking the "stellarvator" up to the space station for lunch, at Space 220, a new restaurant at Epcot.
In the queue for Remy's Ratatouille Adventure at Epcot.
Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure makes guests feel as if they've been shrunken to the size of Chef Remy as they scurry through Gusteau’s restaurant. (Matt Stroshane, photographer)Matt Stroshane, photographer
And much more is coming to Epcot, which is in the midst of a major, multi-year retheming project. Gone is Future World and in its place – World Celebration, World Nature, World Discovery, in addition to World Showcase. Unfortunately, much of Epcot still feels like a construction zone, with a labyrinth of walls shielding work on the Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind roller coaster and Journey of Water Inspired by Moana, among other upcoming attractions.
At the Magic Kingdom, Enchantment is also packing in huge crowds after dark. The new show features elaborate projections of favorite scenes and characters illuminated on the castle, supplemented by fireworks, music and a special appearance from Tinker Bell. New this year, the light show extends from the castle to the buildings along Main Street.
Other features of the 50th anniversary include:
* KiteTails, a daytime show inside Animal Kingdom’s Discovery River Theater, featuring extra-large kites and windcatchers of favorite characters from “Finding Nemo,” “The Lion King” and “The Jungle Book.” The kites perform both on land and are pulled across the water by jet skis.
* Beacons of Light, decorative nighttime light installations across four iconic Disney structures: Cinderella Castle, the Tree of Life at Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Tower Hotel at Hollywood Studios and Spaceship Earth at Epcot.
* 50 golden statues of Disney’s most beloved characters, old and new, spread across all four parks. Look for Olaf and Miguel at Epcot, Nemo and Bambi at Animal Kingdom, R2-D2 and Woody at Hollywood Studios, and Mickey, Minnie and Winnie the Pooh at the Magic Kingdom.
There’s plenty still to debut, too, over the next 18 months, including Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, the fully immersive overnight Star Wars experience debuting in March adjacent to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Tron Lightcycle Power Run, a new coaster under construction next to Space Mountain in the Magic Kingdom.
One addition, however, hasn’t been so eagerly anticipated — the new system replacing Disney’s popular FastPass program, which debuted this week.
The new Genie system wasn’t operational during my visit, so I wasn’t able to try it. I likely would have, though, in an effort to more easily access some of the parks’ most popular rides, including Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Hollywood Studios, which had wait times in excess of two hours for much of my stay.
I wouldn’t have been happy about it, though. Despite Disney talking points that the new system is designed to deliver better customer service, the Genie+ and Lightning Lane programs seem like little more a money grab to me, an opportunity for the Walt Disney Company to tease out a few more dollars for shareholders. In the process, they’re squeezing out middle-class consumers.
In 1971, a single-day general admission ticket to the Magic Kingdom cost $3.50, with rides available for an extra charge.
This month, I paid an eye-popping $170 for a single-day hopper pass, which gave me access to multiple parks in a single day, purchased in an effort to fully maximize my limited time in Orlando.
I didn’t make it onto Rise of the Resistance, but I did revisit many of my nostalgic Disney favorites: Haunted Mansion, Soarin’, Pirates of the Caribbean and, of course, Space Mountain.
Happy to report that the space-themed roller coaster still thrills, nearly 50 years later.
Main Street USA at the Magic Kingdom welcomed its first guests 50 years ago.
Mary Poppins and Aladdin during a cavalcade down Main Street at the Magic Kingdom.
Know before you go: Walt Disney World 50th anniversary
* Walt Disney World still requires reservations to visit all of its theme parks. While reservations are widely available most days, some days do fill up (Halloween, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, for example, are currently booked at the Magic Kingdom). Park officials advise visitors to both buy their tickets and make their park reservations in advance. Go to disneyworld.disney.go.com/availability-calendar/.
* Face masks are required inside all indoor spaces, including on rides, in lines, in retail shops and restaurants (except when eating). Compliance was excellent, at perhaps 90%.
* Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure at Epcot is currently using a virtual queuing system to eliminate long lines. To reserve a spot in line, visitors must use the My Disney Experience app at 7 a.m. (sharp!) and (hopefully) garner a boarding pass for later in the day. On the first full day of my visit, I woke early and used the app at the designated time and got a spot in Boarding Group 67. All spots were taken by a few minutes after 7. Our group was called at about 2 p.m., and we had an hour to make our way to the ride. When we arrived, the ride was down with a mechanical issue. We finally rode about 3:30 p.m. A second opportunity to access a spot in line is offered at 1 p.m. – but to access one of these later spots, guests must be inside Epcot. (For more about the virtual queuing system: disneyworld.disney.go.com/attractions/epcot/remys-ratatouille-adventure/.)
Also note: Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure is one of eight rides included in Disney’s new pay-to-ride Lightning Lane program. For information: disneyworld.disney.go.com/genie/lightning-lane/
* We stayed at Pop Century, one of Disney’s “value” resorts (read: budget conscious) and paid $216 a night, including tax. I chose this hotel not only because of its lower price point but because it’s located on the Disney Skyliner, the new gondola-style transportation system that debuted in 2019. The Skyliner provides easy, entertaining access to both Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios from numerous resorts. After staying along the Skyliner in early 2020, I decided I’d never stay anywhere else.
Olaf from "Frozen," one of 50 golden statues around Disney World's four parks.
Read more:
Disney World during a pandemic: There’s still plenty of magic under those face masks
Galaxy’s Edge brings your Star Wars fantasy to life at Disney World’s Hollywood Studios
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