100 Years of Magic at Disney World

The Event that Honored Walt Disney

Walt Disney in the Enchanted Tiki Room

Disney. Used with permission.

Perhaps you 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 paid tribute to the man who started it all. It also served to put a human face on the corporate Disney juggernaut, especially for young adults and 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 presented a series of 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. 100 Years of Magic followed the Millennium event.

In more recent years, Disney World has not held similar resort-wide events. While there have not been any official announcements, it is highly likely that a huge celebration and multi-month event will be staged for the 50th anniversary of Disney World, which will occur on October 1, 2021.

A 122-foot sorcerer's hat, modeled after Mickey's famous Fantasia chapeau, was erected at the Studios park and served as a visual beacon for the 100 Years celebration. The hat remained at the park in its perch in front of the Chinese Theater for many years after the event, although it has since been removed.

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 Disney: One Man's Dream remains at the Studios park along with many of its original exhibits and artifacts.

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, Sklar was one of the few remaining employees who worked alongside Disney when the 100 Years of Magic event took place. He has since passed away. "It's particularly appropriate that we honor him at Walt Disney World," Sklar added.

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) that was in Town Square. The Disney-MGM Studios gallery, film, and the entire 100 Years celebration humanized and paid homage to the man whose name had 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.

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