100 Years of Magic at Disney World

What Was the Event that Honored Walt Disney?

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••• Walt Disney in the Enchanted Tiki Room. Disney. Used with permission.

Perhaps you have heard about the 100 Years of Magic event and wondered what it was. "Surely, Disney World can't be 100 years old," you may have thought. You would be correct. The Florida resort opened in 1971.

100 Years of Magic was a resort-wide celebration at Walt Disney World that honored the 100th anniversary of Walt Disney's birth. It kicked off on October 1, 2001 and continued through the end of 2002.

Most of the activities were based at Disney-MGM Studios (now known as Disney's Hollywood Studios), but all four parks debuted new parades to mark the occasion. The event offered a good opportunity to pay tribute to the man who started it all. It also served to put a human face on the corporate Disney juggernaut, especially for young children who may not have known that Walt Disney was an actual person. 

Since most people had already taken at least one ride on most of its popular attractions such as "it's a small world" (and had the infernal song permanently etched into their brains), Disney World used to pack 15-month, resort-wide events to lure them back. In 1996, the property celebrated its 25th anniversary with a huge event and placed the spotlight on its Magic Kingdom park. For the Millennium celebration, Epcot was the center of attention.

Befitting the time Walt Disney spent heading his studio near Hollywood, Disney-MGM Studios was the focal park for the 100 Years event.

A 122-foot sorcerer's hat, modeled after Mickey's famous Fantasia chapeau, served as a visual beacon for the celebration. It remained at the park for many years after the event.

The centerpiece attraction was Walt Disney: One Man's Dream. A gallery showcased artifacts such as the animation camera table that Disney used to create his earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons, the special set of Oscars he received for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and a facsimile of the office from which he broadcast the opening segments of his "Wonderful World of Disney" television show.

The theme parks were also well represented. For example, on display was a 19th-century mechanical bird that Disney picked up and which inspired him to develop the park's signature audio-animatronic robotic characters.

Walt Who? 

In the last years of his life, Disney obsessed over Project X -- what later became Walt Disney World. The One Man's Dream exhibit included a master plan he sketched of the property. "It's one of the few things Walt actually drew since he stopped drawing Mickey Mouse in the 1920s," said Marty Sklar, then the creative head of Walt Disney Imagineering, a veteran of the company, and one of the few remaining employees who worked alongside Disney. "It's particularly appropriate that we honor him at Walt Disney World."

The gallery lead to a theater that showed a short film about Walt Disney. As a highly public figure, Disney left reams of audio interviews and documentary footage. Through the archived material, he served as the narrator for his own life story.

Although Walt Disney may be a patron saint for baby boomers, younger generations didn't spend their Sunday evenings perched in front of the electronic hearth, hanging on his every word. "Kids don't realize there really was a man named Walt Disney," Sklar said.

Magic Kingdom guests used to have the opportunity to learn about the iconic founder until the company closed The Walt Disney Story attraction (amid an outcry from Disney loyalists). The Disney-MGM Studios gallery, film, and the entire 100 Years celebration humanized and paid homage to the man whose name has become synonymous with the vast media corporation.

Walt Loved a Parade 

New parades at all four parks joined in the fun for the event. Disney-MGM Studios hosted a retro Hollywood-style cavalcade of open-air cars and Disney stars. The characters got a safari makeover for Mickey's Jammin' Jungle parade at Disney's Animal Kingdom. The Share a Dream Come True parade at the Magic Kingdom used life-size snow globes as its theme. Epcot's Tapestry of Nations procession, which debuted during the Millennium event, had morphed into the Tapestry of Dreams.

(Sadly, after the Tapestry of Dreams ended, Epcot has never presented another parade.)

Although Disney never lived to see the Florida resort open, his imprint is everywhere. According to Sklar, Disney was devoted to quality, fun and, above all else, great storytelling -- company hallmarks that endure. "He loved nostalgia, but he loved technology. By blending the two, he developed highly unique ways to tell stories."

So what would Disney think about the resort that bears his name? "He always looked forward to the next challenge. He would probably be pleased -- and astounded," Sklar said. As to the 100 Years of Magic event celebrating his life, "Walt would probably say, 'What took you so long,' " Sklar said with a laugh.