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Disney World is celebrating its 50th year - will Covid rain on the parade?

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A new crest honoring the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World Resort adorns Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom Park in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Photo: David Roark/Disney

A new crest honoring the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World Resort adorns Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom Park in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Photo: David Roark/Disney

A new crest honoring the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World Resort adorns Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom Park in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Photo: David Roark/Disney

Walt Disney World's 50th anniversary was supposed to be an epic blowout, a multi-month celebration that would attract millions of visitors to Florida from around the globe.

On the agenda: a slate of new reasons to visit, including two big-ticket rides that were scheduled to open "in time for the big 5-0," official Disney fan club D23 said back in 2017.

That's when executives started hyping the anniversary event with the announcement of attractions based on the Tron and Guardians of the Galaxy movie franchises.

"For a milestone that big, it's never too early to start planning," the D23 announcement said.

The celebration is still happening - it began on the actual anniversary, October 1, and will stretch for 18 months - but the pandemic has forced the party to downsize.

While new coronavirus cases and deaths are down in Florida from the recent peak, the state was hit hard by the summer delta surge. Disney reinstated indoor mask rules for all guests in late July - an approach not shared by the state.

"Going to Florida used to be part of the draw of visiting Walt Disney World," Robert Niles, founder and editor of Theme Park Insider, said in an email. "But now that's a liability for many fans who are putting off trips because of Florida's recent status as Ground Zero for the Delta variant."

The Florida parks saw smaller crowds about a month before the anniversary - which coincided both with the delta surge and a return to school. Some visitors were able to walk onto rides that normally command hours-long waits.

"You will never see wait times like this again in a non-pandemic time," said Len Testa, co-author of the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World and president of TouringPlans.com, a trip planning site and travel agency.

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The pandemic's impact goes beyond lower visitor counts. Those major rides that were teased four years ago? Still not open, after construction projects were temporarily paused and revenue plummeted because of park closures. International visitors are mostly not allowed to visit until U.S. borders reopen to vaccinated travellers in early November. Some hotels at the sprawling resort complex are not yet operating at full capacity. And a hallmark event of most Disney extravaganzas - an actual parade - is not part of the lineup.

"Usually these anniversaries do come with a big new parade," said Carissa Baker, an assistant professor of theme park and attraction management at the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management. Baker worked at Disneyland in California during its 50th in 2005, and has visited Disney's parks for other big birthdays.

Disney is still offering plenty of new things to see, do and taste. Highlights include a ride based on the rat-as-chef movie "Ratatouille" at Epcot, one of the resort's four theme parks. Epcot and Magic Kingdom are also both introducing new nighttime shows.

"I worried they wouldn't get this much stuff done, but they did," Baker said. "I'm pretty excited for them that they were able to do that. It's certainly not the scale they probably would have anticipated pre-pandemic."

The iconic Cinderella Castle got a glow-up for the occasion, and centrepiece structures at all the parks will have special lighting features. New restaurants have been added, too. One comes with space-station views; another serves crepes. Throughout the resort, there are more than 150 new menu items, some of which pay tribute to pieces of Disney World history.

Testa said those additions are great - but not showstoppers. "But it's basically like, what are the small things we can do knowing we don't have anything big to open?"

Niles said he is not seeing the level of enthusiasm for this anniversary that he has for past celebrations among theme park fans.

"The new attractions are nice but not the blockbusters that Disney needs to get people traveling again," he said. "I am sure that a lot of Disney fans will visit the resort during the celebration, but I suspect that most of them would have gone anyway. Casual fans might wait instead to see how Covid plays out before committing to visit at some point later, perhaps when the new Guardians of the Galaxy and Tron roller coasters open."

Still, the party is going on - and is likely to pick up steam moving forward. The company says that the Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind ride will open sometime in 2022, though there's still no update on the Tron coaster. And Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, a role-playing Star Wars hotel experience that starts at $5,300 (€4,560) for a family of three, takes off March 1.

The company plans to have all hotels open by the end of the year, aside from one that is being renovated. And chief financial officer Christine McCarthy said during an earnings call this summer that Disney expects to have its domestic parks fully staffed by the end of the year.

Despite the challenges, photos on social media have showed people crowded at the entrance of the Magic Kingdom.

Scott Schweiger, 47, of St. Louis, visited all four parks with his wife and three friends just before the anniversary and found things to enjoy - but also some cause for complaint. Fans have bemoaned the loss of perks including the complimentary airport shuttle service for resort guests, which is ending January 1, and the replacement of the free FastPass line-skipping option with a new system that charges a fee for faster access to popular rides.

"It seems to be a way of rewarding the people who can afford to pay for it with a better park experience," Schweiger, who uses the name Buzz Bradley for his Disney trivia podcast called the Dis 10, said in an email.

He praised the staff, Epcot's nighttime show and the new lighting that decks out the park's Spaceship Earth. But he said he was disappointed with the cost and quality of food and drinks; a dearth of charging stations; upkeep and maintenance; and what he views as the company's emphasis on rolling out features that will make money rather than give all visitors more to enjoy.

"As for the 50th, I would love to come back to fully experience it, but the dramatic increase in cost, along with the removal of many longtime perks, has really turned myself, and others like me, off," said Schweiger, who owns a business selling produce at a farmer's market.

Many of the people interviewed for this story had visited the Florida parks to preview the offerings; some spoke to The Washington Post while on-site.

"We have a princess cavalcade going by," Greg Antonelle, co-owner of the travel agency MickeyTravels, said during an interview from the Magic Kingdom earlier this month. Cavalcades, or shorter appearances by characters, have taken the place of parades for now.

Antonelle said his agency has had clients locked in for this week for a long time, and bookings - both for the near term and into next year - have been ticking up recently after a modest early September.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said. "Sure, the celebration is 18 months long. There's only one 50th anniversary date: October 1. People wanted to be here."

© Washington Post


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