Arguably one of, if not the most famous animation studio in the world, Disney celebrates a milestone birthday this year.

Originally founded in the October of 1923 by brothers Walt and Roy O Disney, the studio has gone on to be not only a global leader in the animation field, but also in the theme park industry across its 100-year history.

Its journey began when the brothers created the widely popular character of Mickey Mouse, who soon became the company’s mascot and subsequently the star of Disney’s animated films. The studio’s success was rapid with it reaching major success in the early 1940s delving into live-action films, as well as television.

Disney historical images

It wasn’t until the 1950s that the company turned its attention to theme parks, as founder Walt wanted somewhere that, in his own words “should be some kind of amusement enterprise built where the parents and the children could have fun together.”

The name was changed several times before Walt stuck on the memorable ‘Disneyland’ for his first ever branch of the amusement park. Work began on Disneyland in 1954 on a plot of land in Anaheim – where it still sits now – with a view to be finished in the following year, with storytelling areas and family-friendly amusements.

The design of Disney theme parks has always been the same, to resemble small American towns of the early 20th century that lead guests down a path to the iconic main attraction of the Sleeping Beauty Castle, which was originally inspired by Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle and sits at the centre of Disneyland.

The four original alternative themed lands of the park consisted of Frontierland, themed to the American Frontier of the 19th century; Adventureland, resembling a wild tropical jungle; Fantasyland, based on Disney’s animated fairy tale films; and Tomorrowland, depicting views of the future, especially that of the Space Age. By the time the park opened, it had cost the company $17m to construct.

It wasn’t until 1971 that Disney opened its second large scale amusement park, Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Still considered to be the company’s largest and most well-known amusement park, it was designed to supplement the original Disneyland in Anaheim. 

What set it apart from Disneyland, was Walt’s vision for more of a community-led attraction in Orlando, that formed a testbed for new city-living innovations, combining the real with the utopian idealism Disney proposed. Walt passed away during the build process, leaving his brother to make sure his dream was made a reality.

Work began on the park in 1967 and The Magic Kingdom was the first theme park to open in the complex, in 1971, followed by EPCOT (1982), Disney’s Hollywood Studios (1989), and Disney’s Animal Kingdom (1998). It was Walt’s brother Roy who insisted the name of the entire complex be changed from Disney World to Walt Disney World, ensuring that people would remember that the project was Walt’s dream.

Looking at each individual park in Walt Disney World closer, starting with Magic Kingdom, this park features classic attractions, enchanting fireworks, musical parades and Disney characters. Secondly, EPCOT has been designed to inspire curiosity, imagination and wonder through its international festivals, innovative attractions, and cultural experiences. 

Home to four unified neighbourhoods – World Celebration, World Nature, World Discovery and World Showcase – EPCOT continues to evolve with the biggest transformation in its history underway. As Walt Disney once said, EPCOT will “always be in a state of becoming,” and the park is set to enter its next 40 years with new ways for guests to experience the magic of possibility.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios debuted on 1 May 1989 and quickly immersed guests in the glamour of show business 365 days a year with thrilling attractions, Broadway-style shows and world-class entertainment. The 135-acre park is divided into seven themed lands of attractions based on films, which originated with Walt Disney at a time when studio backlot tours were limited to a privileged few.

The fourth Walt Disney World theme park celebrates one amazing adventure after another with wild animals, exciting attractions, lavish stage shows and familiar characters. Highlights include a flight on a banshee, a runaway train adventure, a journey through a bioluminescent rainforest, an authentic African safari, a whirling white-water raft ride, a thrilling race back in time to prehistoric worlds, and two Broadway-style musical stage shows based on hit Disney films.

In 2018, it was reported that Walt Disney World was the most visited holiday resort in the world with an average attendance of 58 million people per year. The property covers nearly 25,000 acres comprising four theme parks, two water parks (Disney’s Blizzard Beach and Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon), 31 themed resort hotels, nine non-Disney hotels, several golf courses, a camping resort, and other entertainment venues, including the outdoor shopping centre Disney Springs.

It was Walt Disney World that set the benchmark for other parks to follow suit. As it stands, the Disney corporation currently owns six other theme parks across the globe in Paris, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Florida, Anaheim, and Tokyo.

Tokyo Disneyland was the very first park to be opened outside of the US, in 1983. The park was constructed by WED Enterprises in the same style as Magic Kingdom in Florida and Disneyland in California. It is owned by The Oriental Land Company, which licences property from The Walt Disney Company. Tokyo Disneyland and its companion park, Tokyo DisneySea, are the only Disney parks in the world not owned or operated by The Walt Disney Company in any capacity.

The park has seven themed areas: the World Bazaar; the four traditional Disney lands, Adventureland, Westernland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland; and two mini-lands, Critter Country and Toontown. 

Many of these areas mirror those in the original Disneyland as they are based on American Disney films and fantasies. The park is noted for its extensive open spaces to accommodate the large crowds that visit. As of 2019, Tokyo Disneyland was the most visited theme park in Japan and the third-most visited theme park in the world behind Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World and Disneyland Park at the Disneyland Resort.

In 1992, Disney magic headed to Europe with the opening of Euro Disney, a theme park that would grow to become today’s Disneyland Paris. The last 30 years have seen more than 250 million visitors step through the gates of Disneyland Park, which still offers guests the magic it started with in the early 90s. 

It encompasses two theme parks, resort hotels, Disney Nature Resorts, a shopping, dining and entertainment complex, and a golf course. Disneyland Park is the original theme park of the complex, opening in 1992. A second theme park, Walt Disney Studios Park, opened in 2002. Disneyland Paris celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2017, by then 320 million people had visited, making it the most visited theme park in Europe.

Hong Kong Disneyland was next to open its doors in 2005, located on reclaimed land beside Penny’s Bay at the north-eastern tip of Lantau Island. Officially opened on 12 September, the resort contains the Hong Kong Disneyland theme park, the Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel, Disney’s Hollywood Hotel, Disney Explorers Lodge and several retail, dining and entertainment facilities covering 320 acres of the island.

Lastly, Disney’s most recent theme park was built in Shanghai back in 2016. The park currently has seven themed areas: Mickey Avenue, Gardens of Imagination, Fantasyland, Treasure Cove, Adventure Isle, Tomorrowland, and Toy Story Land. It is co-owned and operated by Disney Parks, Experiences and Products and Shanghai Shendi Group, through a joint venture between The Walt Disney Company and Shendi.

It goes without saying that Disney’s theme parks and attractions will undoubtedly be at the centre of the 100 anniversary celebrations this year, with each complex putting its own unique spin on the party. The main tribute will however take place at the original Disneyland resort in Anaheim with brand-new attractions, night-time spectaculars and more.

Firstly, a brand-new attraction ‘Mickey’s Toontown’ will open at the park, with the first ride ‘Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway’ set to open as InterPark went to print. The family-friendly attraction is similar to what you’ll find in Disney World’s Hollywood Studios, and, on the ride, visitors jump aboard a train driven by Disney star Goofy to get transported to the world of Mickey Mouse. 

One of the most significant changes to the Disneyland version of the attraction will be the queue – instead of highlighting different Mickey Mouse cartoons, it will be a tribute to the famous mouse with props and other memorabilia from his illustrious career.  

The rest of Mickey’s Toontown will reopen on 8 March 2023. The reimagined space will be a great area of the park, serving as a spot for families with younger children to play together. One major addition will be CenTOONial Park, where there will be two interactive play experiences, one of which is a water table for sensory experiences and the other is the dreaming tree where kids can crawl and explore.

Ending the night with a spellbinding fireworks display is something synonymous with Disneyland, and guests can expect to be given just that as part of this year’s 100 anniversary celebrations. Two new night-time spectacles will take place this year, one when Disney100 kicks off called ‘Wondrous Journeys’, which will feature nods to every Walt Disney Animation Studios film to date, and a heart-warming new song, “It’s Wondrous.”

No matter where visitors stand, they will be surrounded by projections and music, as well as fireworks on selected evenings. Just a stone’s throw away at Disney California Adventure, ‘World of Color—One’ will highlight the storytelling legacy of Walt Disney. The show will tell an entirely new story that will show off Disney characters, with the show’s concept art displaying characters like Mirabel from Encanto, Mufasa and Simba from The Lion King, and Miguel from Coco. With the new show comes a new original song, “Start a Wave.” 

On Jan. 27, 2023, “World of Color – ONE”

Later in Spring, a huge parade will take to the streets of Main Street USA once again. ‘Magic Happens’ will see Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, and all their pals don new platinum-inspired costumes in a tribute to 100 years of Disney, and huge crowds are expected to turn out after the last parade was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

With Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle being central to the park’s popularity, that too will receive makeover for this year’s anniversary. It will get brand-new shimmering decor, as well as platinum banners and bunting. On either side of the castle moat, there will be fountains, and at the very top of the centre spire, there will be a golden wishing star. Guests will also find the new platinum decor throughout the resort, including the Downtown Disney District and the three Disneyland hotels. 

Aside from the new attractions, firework shows and merchandise at Disney land, Orlando’s Disney World’s EPCOT will also get a new fireworks show, whereas at Magic Kingdom, an enhanced version of the fan-favourite Happily Ever After, will return. Plus, a long-awaited ride zooms in during spring 2023. The TRON Lightcycle Power Run coaster is set to open at Magic Kingdom Park.

Disney World is currently still celebrating its own 50th anniversary, which runs until March 31, 2023, but more updates on the Disney 100 Years of Wonder celebration at the Walt Disney World Resort are expected soon. Internationally, Hong Kong Disneyland will unveil a new statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse.

Aside from the 100th anniversary, Disney has announced that its Splash Mountain attraction will permanently close at Walt Disney World Resort on January 23 to make way for ‘Tiana’s Bayou Adventure’, a new attraction inspired by the story and characters from the film The Princess and the Frog. 

The ride will take guests on a musical adventure inspired by the beloved story and characters from the fan-favourite film. Picking up where the film left off, guests will join Princess Tiana, Naveen and jazz-loving alligator Louis on an adventure through the bayou as they prepare to host a one-of-a-kind Mardi Gras celebration where everyone is welcome. Along the way, guests will encounter familiar faces, make new friends and travel through the bayou to original music inspired by songs from the film as they are brought into the next chapter of Tiana’s story.

The log flume ride originally opened in Disneyland in July 1989 before versions also opened at Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland in October 1992. The original ride incorporated audio and animatronics from a then-defunct attraction, “America Sings.” Tiana’s Bayou Adventure will open in Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando and Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California in 2024.

2022 also saw the return of Fantasmic! at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World Resort. The legendary night-time spectacular invited guests into Mickey’s imagination for a larger-than-life show painted on a grand canvas of dancing water overflowing with suspenseful surprises.

The elaborate 29-minute night-time spectacular takes place nightly – a kaleidoscope of entertainment featuring thrilling stunts, dazzling special effects and a rousing score based on classic Disney animated films. Fantasmic! is just one of many new and returning live-entertainment experiences guests can enjoy during the Walt Disney World 50th Anniversary celebration.

“Fantasmic! is a show that will take you on a journey to see so many characters, so many villains and heroes,” explained Melanie Gagne, entertainment proprietor for Disney’s Hollywood Studios. “It’s one of our biggest shows, and many guests will plan their day or their entire vacation around Fantasmic!”

The return of Fantasmic! includes the debut of an all-new sequence that will bring to life heroic moments from Disney stories such as Moana, Mulan, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Frozen 2.

“In bringing Fantasmic! back, we have a brand-new scene that we’re calling our Disney Heroes scene,” continued Matthew Hamel, show director for Disney Live Entertainment. “We get to see some new characters introduced to Fantasmic! and we get to show their stories in a new, unique way utilising a combination of projections, lasers and new lighting.”

Across the years, Disney has continued to be a leading force in the world of theme parks and attractions, with many of its venues coming under the most visited in the world. What began as a side project for Walt Disney has arguably become something that the company is most renowned for, alongside its incredible animation career spanning both TV and film. 

Although the parks themselves are not celebrating 100 years this year, the legacy of Disney lives on through each complex, and Walt’s vision of a place “where the parents and the children could have fun together” has been truly and undeniably met. 

This article was first published in the Jan/Feb edition of InterPark magazine, for more features or in-depth news take a look at the hard copy or digital edition.