Would You Travel for Disneyland's Disney100 Promotion? A Look at What's On
Disney's U.S. parks are launching a new promotional period, Disney100, which marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of Walt Disney's empire—and you're going to hear a lot about it.
After Disney bought the ABC network and its associated channels in 1996, the newly giant-size company began relying upon the blunt instrument of corporate synergy to promote its vacation destinations. Looking back at the history of Disneyland and Walt Disney World, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that the woes of overcrowding and outrageous pricing at the Disney parks date to that corporate acquisition.
Once Disney began blasting advertisements of its resorts using the broad reach of its many media megaphones, its theme parks began attracting many more Americans than they were designed to comfortably handle, sending prices higher and locking the brand into a cycle of endless nationwide promotion to keep the whole corporation fed with revenue.
It often feels that as soon as one multi-month Disney promotion ends, another begins. Regard with nostalgia such marathon events as The Happiest Celebration/Homecoming on Earth (2005), The Year of a Million Dreams (2006), Disneyland's 60th Anniversary (2015), Walt Disney World's 50th (2021)—and now, Disney100.
The Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, is calling the current campaign a "celebration," but that's what it calls all its big promotional pushes. Although most of its features (like the decorations on Sleeping Beauty Castle, pictured above) will only last for the duration of 2023, a few additions will be around for longer.
The principal addition to Disneyland for Disney100 will be around long after the promotional period ends. That's Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway, a new ride in the park's kid-centric Toontown section, which is also being refurbished. This frenetically colorful indoor attraction, already operating ahead of Toontown's wider reopening in March, is geared to families.
Peppy, tuneful, and starring Mickey and Minnie Mouse (the first ride to do that, Disney points out, which is hard to believe, but true), the 5-minute journey is giddy, pleasing, and always surprising. It can also be hard to follow, but the bright colors of the incessant projected animation make up for some of that.
The ride isn't exactly brand new. It's a virtual clone, with some operational improvements, of a version that opened three years ago at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida. This iteration's vehicle movements seem a little jerkier than the original (they're still tame enough for toddlers), and the front cars still enjoy much better audio than the rear ones.
But Disneyland's new version has a much cooler queue area than Orlando's, riffing on Disney animation history with a pre-ride museum of "real" props used in past Mickey cartoons, like the airplane (pictured above) Minnie was thrown out of for not kissing Mickey back in "Plane Crazy" (1928), a desk from Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983), and the actual robe and hat His Mouseness wore as the Sorcerer's Apprentice in Fantasia (1940).
Displaying artifacts from animated movies is a funny gag worthy of the similarly wacky Roger Rabbit-themed ride that already exists next door, and it's beautifully done. Waiting in line for this ride in Florida can be a chore, but the silly retrospective they built in California is almost as good as the ride itself.
If you want to see the exhibition, don't pay for Individual Lightning Lane, because that entrance skips most of the good stuff.
Despite the obvious improvements to the form of Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway, it's still something that big Disney fans have already done elsewhere.
And that's a distinction worth knowing. Over the next months, Disney is going to hit you with the synergy mallet harder than a cartoon pie in the face. The company's breathless promotions make no distinction between what's truly a landmark addition—like this genial, multimillion-dollar attraction that earns a place among Disneyland's world-class collection of rides—and what's a a minor tweak.
With Disney100, Disney is attempting to court two audiences at once: casual fans who only go once in a while, and die-hard Mouseheads who want to be there for even the tiniest tweaks to menus and fireworks shows.
Which one are you? A rundown of some of the other Disney100 features will settle that.
Most casual theme park fans would agree that checking out a major new ride is a great reason to travel. Are you such a Disney die-hard that you feel the same way about shows? Disney has also introduced a brand new nighttime spectacular, Wondrous Journeys.
We've long since passed the point of calling Disney's popular after-dark presentations mere "fireworks." Now the almost-nightly shows include digital projection mapping on building facades throughout the park, lights, flames, and even characters flying on wires. Wondrous Journeys, which was designed to honor a century of Disney animation, deploys trick after trick to wow the crowd, and it succeeds.
During a a frenzy of color and light, you'll hear bits of 18 songs that include some inspired musical sleight of hand—at one point, Belle, Hercules, Moana, and Quasimodo simultaneously perform their signature songs in a deftly arranged quartet—building in crescendo after crescendo. Midway through, an aerial appearance by Baymax of 2014's Big Hero Six sent the crowd I was with into rhapsodic screams. It's easily the best nighttime show at Disneyland in a decade, if not longer.
Walt Disney World's 50th anniversary, which wraps up this year in Florida, was widely panned for virtually ignoring the rich history of Disney parks, and the two major evening spectaculars created for it have already been cancelled by the company.
Wondrous Journeys, though, proves either that Disneyland simply does these things better or that the company has learned a painful lesson. The cornucopia of heritage referenced in Wondrous Journeys takes fans to the opposite extreme as WDW50, packing in a little something from every single film ever released by Walt Disney Animation Studios—yes, even 2003's Brother Bear and 2007's Meet the Robinsons. (To identify as many clips as you can, watch the show from Rivers of America, where they read the clearest.)
But even considering its strengths, would you get on an airplane and fly to Disneyland just to catch it? That depends on how much you love the Mouse.
Some of the other offerings during Disney100 sit on the dividing line between "I'd fly to see that" and "for Mouseheads."
At Disney California Adventure, Disneyland Resort's second theme park, the lavish nighttime lagoon show World of Color has received a fresh version, World of Color—ONE, which despite the name is not a prequel. Rather, like all previous World of Color shows, it's a beautifully impressionistic 24-minute spectacle of fountains, geysers, lights, lasers, fog, and Disney clips projected onto water screens.
This one is a clear technological step up from prior editions, with more lights, clearer colors, and more of a willingness by its creators to be be artful, tonally varied, and mellow. Some earlier World of Color shows lost themselves in their own capabilities, pelting audiences with nonstop bombast. But this one has moments of sustained visual grace, such as the field of lavender bubble-ups that give kinetic form to jazz improvisations in the Soul segment and the twin geysers evoking Jedi and Dark Side light sabers that herald the Star Wars section.
World of Color shows, pretty as they are, don't seem to stick in the memory as well as the pyro shows at Disneyland park, so it's probably something that will tempt Mouseheads more than casual fans. You'll want to catch it if you're there, but by itself, it probably won't be enough to make you want to buy a plane ticket.
Another attraction being touted for Disney100 is, like the Runaway Railway ride, not new at all.
But it will probably be new to you.
Magic Happens, one of the catchiest and most colorful parades ever put on by Disney, and one of the most contemporary, first premiered in early 2020, but it enjoyed a run of less than two weeks before Covid-19 shut the fun down. Disneyland sat padlocked and silent for 412 days, and when it returned, the parade was not brought back.
Fans and talent were justifiably crestfallen, and behind the scenes, as dancers were laid off and the floats languished in warehouses, Disney creatives began wistfully calling their aborted achievement "Magic Happened."
Now Disney is making a virtue out of that forced error, reviving the parade on Disneyland's streets in late February and saying it's part of Disney100, although it was technically made for the Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge era.
To see Magic Happens banished to the history books after just 13 days would have been a terrible injustice, so it's an encouraging sign that the company invested in re-hiring a performance team to give the show the airing it deserves.
Now, when will Disney's entertainment masters bring back the live swing dancing band on Saturday nights, a beloved Disneyland tradition from 1958 until the pandemic?
Beyond the big-ticket stuff, promotions like Disney100 are padded with lots of little tidbits about special menu items and souvenirs.
This is where Disney100 separates the occasional long-distance vacationers from the Mickey-obsessed locals.
Many people wrongly assume that California's Disneyland is the same as Florida' Walt Disney World, but in fact, their audiences are essentially different. Disneyland is a Southern California creation with a crowd that strongly reflects Southern California demographics. Go there on a weekend, and you'll lots of first-generation children of immigrants whose own experiences with the American Dream resonate with the Disney brand of wish fulfillment and personal strength.
In Florida, though, Disney's guests are more likely to arrive from long distances every now and then, and because their visits are relatively infrequent, they want their parks to be the same year after year. (Except Epcot, that is, which abandoned its original purpose and now seems to exist for nothing but seasonal food-and-drink festivals.) Because both of Disneyland Resort's parks feed off high usage by locals, it needs to constantly embellish itself with little tweaks to keep guests driving back—seasonal food, new character meet-and-greets, themed overlays to rides, and so on.
A fair bit of the Disney100 folderol has to do with temporary additions in those categories.
Plenty of special merchandise is being sold during Disney100, particularly in the campaign's chosen colors of silver and purple—they call it the Disney100 Platinum Celebration Collection. The traditional beanie mouse ears cap from yesteryear has mostly been supplanted by the easier-to-wear headband (both pictured above), so it's nice to see them both represented in the lineup (cap $30, headband $40).
Most of it is purple-colored or festooned with silver sprinkles—you're looking at a Mr. Banks Shortbread Tart from the Jolly Holiday Bakery Cafe ($6.50)—but opinions of their requirement for your visit will vary.
During any Disney promotion, decorations abound. It's like a second Christmas; look for special shimmery character costumes, a new livery for the monorail, new shop windows, new banners on the lampposts, and more more. Even the churros turn lavender.
Each food counter sells slightly different items, and it's part of the fun to hunt around and find what's being offered around the parks.
Unlike the cap and headband, which are also sold by Disney online, these speciality food-related items are usually only available inside the theme parks.
Which could be counted as another reason, albeit a minor one, to travel for Disney100.
But don't get too excited. These major Disney promotions come along as regularly as buses these days. We'll probably end up doing something similar again in 2028, when Mickey Mouse turns 100.
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