Artists shine amid copious crowds at Walt Disney World’s 40th birthday party

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Previous coverage: Disney World celebrates 40 years of mid-century magic
Related: Cocktails come of age at Epcot Food and Wine Festival | More on Disney World

Masses of mouse-minded fans flocked to the Magic Kingdom on Saturday, Oct. 1, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Walt Disney World. And while initial crowd forecasts were low, interest in the birthday bash quickly grew among the Disney faithful and resulted in a sometimes overwhelming throng even though actual celebratory festivities were modest.

The Magic Kingdom entrance and train station, as seen in December 1972 and Oct. 1, 2011. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

The Magic Kingdom entrance and train station, as seen in December 1972 and Oct. 1, 2011. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

The Oct. 1 opening date was selected in 1971 because it was considered the slow season, and it typically remains so today. But Disneyphiles came out of the woodwork for the anniversary party last week and took advantage of the late park hours at the Magic Kingdom (it was open from 9 a.m. until midnight).

My wife and I combined this event with a visit to the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival on Sunday, and it’s a good thing we did. The overflowing crowd on Saturday made for a hectic day and not much time to relax and enjoy the Disney experience. That’s not to say it wasn’t memorable. Here are the highlights (and some lowlights):

We stayed at the Caribbean Beach, one of Disney’s moderate resort hotels, and were pleasantly surprised. We had previously enjoyed Port Orleans Riverside, and this was on par with that experience.

The rooms were spacious and clean (with the great details that Disney is known for), the grounds (200 acres, including the 45-acre Barefoot Bay) were huge and full of amenities (be sure to take a walk around the lake) and the theming was spot-on. It was closed when we wandered by early Sunday, but I’ve heard the pool bar makes a great Piña Colada.

Guest rooms are divided into six villages representing Caribbean destinations. We were in Martinique, conveniently located between the resort’s main entrance and the Custom House, a tropical pavilion that includes restaurants, shops, pools and more. The resort appeared to be under-booked and we had no trouble parking in the front row, a short distance from our room. It was very relaxing and served as the perfect getaway from the mob scene at the Magic Kingdom. The only thing missing was a complimentary bottle of Martinique rum to make a traditional Mai Tai. Get to work on that, Disney.

Main Street is starting to fill up with 40th anniversary revelers. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward - Oct. 1, 2011)

Main Street is starting to fill up with 40th anniversary revelers. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward - Oct. 1, 2011)

The Caribbean Beach is very close to the parks, especially Hollywood Studios and Epcot (it’s considered an Epcot-area resort). It’s also just a short drive to the Magic Kingdom. We arrived around mid-afternoon, hoping to miss the madness of the morning rush. Festivities started early with speeches by Walt Disney World President Meg Crofton and Phil Holmes, vice president of Magic Kingdom. Holmes was a cast member who took tickets on opening day in 1971.

In honor of the 40th anniversary, we tried to make it a point to enjoy all the park’s classic and iconic elements. The first, of course, was the monorail, which gave us a scenic view of Seven Seas Lagoon and the Magic Kingdom’s original two resort hotels, the Polynesian and Contemporary.

Entry to the park was painless, and the traditional Disney-style hospitality came immediately in the form of complimentary commemorative 40th anniversary buttons handed out by cast members (the title given to all Disney World employees). It took a little more effort to find the special guidemap printed for the occasion. It was patterned after the old A-to-E ticket booklets and included a reproduction of the 1971 park map. Very cool, but there just weren’t enough to go around. I overheard one of the cast members with a half-empty box saying that he didn’t have any more.

The Magic Kingdom was decorated for Halloween, but anniversary banners were few. Taking one look down Main Street toward Cinderella Castle, however, it quickly became evident that this was not going to be a moderately crowded day (one blog has estimated 100,000 in attendance). Hoping to avoid slogging through the throngs in the mid-day heat, we decided to take the railroad (another classic element) to Frontierland.

Hurricane Hayward meets up with acclaimed artists Kevin Kidney (left) and Jody Daily (right) at a signing event during Walt Disney World's 40th birthday festitivies. (Photo by Susan Hayward - Oct. 1, 2011)

Hurricane Hayward meets up with acclaimed artists Kevin Kidney (left) and Jody Daily (right) at a signing event during Walt Disney World's 40th birthday festitivies. (Photo by Susan Hayward - Oct. 1, 2011)

We emerged close to our destination: Diamond Horseshoe, a defunct Wild West attraction that was being used as the main artist meet-and-greet area. Ominous lines stretched around the building, but luckily for us most of those waiting were queued up for limited edition and exclusive merchandise. After a short wait, we entered and were able to check out art and a selection of merchandise from Kevin Kidney and Jody Daily, Noah, and Dave Avanzino. Other artists showing their works throughout the day were Greg McCullough, Costa Alavezos, and Brent Reese (at Diamond Horseshoe); and Jim Shore, Robert Olszewski, and Gene Gonda (at Uptown Jewelers on Main Street).

It was great seeing Kevin and Jody again. We met them for the first time at The Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale in June, where they were doing a signing and I was organizing some of the events.

They signed our commemorative guidemap, but unfortunately there was a limited amount of merchandise available by late afternoon. Someone had just bought the last ceramic vase that Kevin and Jody had designed based on the iconic Mary Blair murals at the Contemporary Resort. But luckily we planned to head there on our way out of the park, and the artists told us that there should be plenty of their merchandise available in the Contemporary art shop. We hoped to meet up with them later, but for now we needed to grab a late lunch and hopefully find a less crowded area of the park.
* Related story: Disney World is still cool at 40 thanks to retro artists Shag, Kevin & Jody

Columbia Harbour House is perhaps Magic Kingdom’s best counter-service restaurant. Perched right on the edge of Frontierland and Liberty Square, it’s very spacious and offers a healthy, eclectic menu. After the lunch rush, there were plenty of empty tables upstairs that provided a cool respite from the crowds. My sloppy Lobster Roll was delicious and authentic (though not toasted). My wife had her usual, the Lighthouse Sandwich (hummus, tomato and broccoli slaw), a treat for vegetarians.

Not much has changed in 39 years, except Hurricane Hayward's hairline and, luckily, his choice of headgear. Top photo taken in December 1972. (Bottom photo by Susan Hayward - Oct. 1, 2011)

Not much has changed in 39 years, except Hurricane Hayward's hairline and, luckily, his choice of headgear. Top photo taken in December 1972. (Bottom photo by Susan Hayward - Oct. 1, 2011)

The smallest crowds seemed to be in Tomorrowland, so we spent some time there. It’s one of my favorite areas of the park with its 1960s-era “futuristic” theme and mid-century space-age design. We rode the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover, a relaxing ride through the second floor of Tomorrowland, including Space Mountain and other attractions. Most of Tomorroland, which also includes Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress (built for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York), qualifies as classic in my book.

Sensing a break in the crowds near the castle, we took advantage of the photo op. The skies were perfectly clear but the heat was oppressive, so after trying to duplicate a photo taken of me during my first Disney World visit in 1972 (see right), we headed straight for Adventureland in search of a Dole Whip and a dark, cool, indoor attraction.

But immediately we hit a road block. The lines at Pirates of the Caribbean and the Dole stand were both way too long. But like a welcome oasis in the desert stood one of the main classic attractions that I was hoping to visit: Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. It’s one of only two attractions (along with the Carousel of Progress) that bear Walt’s name because the company founder had a crucial role in their creation and design. The original Enchanted Tiki Room is in Disneyland, of course, but the Disney World version was recently returned to its original, 1970s-era show. See our past coverage of the renovations:
* Disney World’s updated Enchanted Tiki Room has retro feel

Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room offers a respite from the blazing mid-day sun. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward - Oct. 1, 2011)

Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room offers a respite from the blazing mid-day sun. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward - Oct. 1, 2011)

I’ll post a full review later, but to say I’m pleased with the “retro-vation” would be an understatement. Long gone are the cheesy songs and annoying voice of Gilbert Gottfried, though I do miss hearing the late Phil Hartman. The show is now very similar to Disneyland’s 1963 original, from the preshow fountain scene starring Clyde and Claude, to the traditional “Heigh-Ho” ending.

The crowds and blazing sun had taken their toll, so we went on a merchandise hunt before heading back to the Caribbean Beach for a rest. As advertised, Uptown Jewelers had a great selection of Shag merch. They also had some special Haunted Mansion items made for the Room for One More event that was held on Friday. I couldn’t pass up buying two double old-fashioned glasses and a set of coasters featuring classic Disney artwork by Shag (see photo).
* See all of Shag’s merchandise

After leaving the Magic Kingdom, it was a short monorail ride to the Contemporary, where I gained a new admiration for the classic design of this original Disney World hotel. It’s undergone several renovations over the past 40 years, resulting in an unfortunate mish-mash of styles (unlike the uber-classic Polynesian). But it still has some great touches (the huge murals, the inner atrium with the monorail running through it, the cozy lounges and restaurants).

Commemorative merchandise created for Disney World's 40th anniversary by artists Kevin Kidney and Jody Daily is on display at the Contemporary's Bay View Gifts shop. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward - Oct. 1, 2011)

Commemorative merchandise created for Disney World's 40th anniversary by artists Kevin Kidney and Jody Daily is on display at the Contemporary's Bay View Gifts shop. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward - Oct. 1, 2011)

It was a perfect venue to spotlight the artwork of Kevin and Jody, displayed prominently in the Bay View Gifts shop (see photo at right). It was a very tough choice, but I opted for the vintage Magic Kingdom paper coffee cup cast in ceramic (see photo), though it was hard to pass up the Mary Blair vase, the boxed dinnerware set and the mini-attraction posters silk-screened onto sheets of tin. My wife correctly pointed out that all my purchases had been drink-related. I say I might as well buy stuff that I can put to good use, right?
* See all of Kevin and Jody’s merchandise

We agree with some bloggers who have expressed disappointment with the anniversary festivities, arguing that not enough emphasis was placed on celebrating the past, present and future of the Magic Kingdom. Perhaps more mini-events could have been held throughout the park – and throughout the day – to help spread out the crowd.

Massive crowds descend upon Cinderella Castle for the evening's special light and fireworks shows. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward - Oct. 1, 2011)

Massive crowds descend upon Cinderella Castle for the evening's special light and fireworks shows. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward - Oct. 1, 2011)

We disagree, however, that too much emphasis was placed on the commemorative merchandise. For many of us, celebrating Disney World means celebrating all the great artists and imagineers without whom none of the magic would be possible. One of the highlights of the event was having the opportunity to see these artists alongside their art, and to have the chance to purchase their work.

After a much-needed break, we returned for the evening festivities that culminated with a special fireworks celebration at 9 p.m. The first bad sign was the monorail station, which was jammed. We quickly decided to take the ferry to the Magic Kingdom, a good decision that afforded us great views of the resorts and park entrance as we crossed Seven Seas Lagoon. Again, the entrance was deceptively uncrowded but Main Street was seemingly near capacity. We were too late for the 8 p.m. Main Street Electrical Parade, but it would have been difficult to see anyway due to the massive crowd. Unfortunate, since it’s the best Magic Kingdom parade.

Instead, we found a decent spot near the central hub at the end of Main Street to see the nighttime entertainment: The Magic, The Memories, and You! (a spectacular light show that uses Cinderella Castle as a high-tech canvas); and a special version of the dazzling Wishes fireworks show. But as the wait grew longer, the crowds grew larger, and we found ourselves packed so tight I might have confused it for a Metallica concert had there not been so many strollers around us (and no mosh pit to speak of).

Wishes is the largest fireworks display ever presented at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward - Oct. 1, 2011)

Wishes is the largest fireworks display ever presented at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward - Oct. 1, 2011)

The shows were enjoyable despite the wall-to-wall crowd. “Light show” and “fireworks” don’t do the elaborate, over-the-top effects justice. First, 16 digital projectors transformed the castle into a rocket, a crayon drawing, a blazing fire, and more. All perfectly synchronized to music. Then, fireworks enveloped the entire sky, featuring hundreds of brilliant pyrotechnic effects, music and narration. For the 40th anniversary, fireworks were set off around the park perimeter three times (including the finale), making your head spin 360 degrees.

After the shows, however, we were stuck – literally. Our great viewing spot was a dead-end and we had to patiently wait for the crowd to clear out. The Magic Kingdom was open until midnight, so we debated pushing our way back to Adventureland or Tomorrowland, but we quickly realized it would be futile if we couldn’t actually get on any attractions. Two of our favorite classics, Jungle Cruise and Haunted Mansion, are best experienced at this late hour, but we saw an opportunity to escape to the front of the park and went for it. At this point, it was more important (and much more comfortable) to visit the Polynesian Resort for a late dinner and drinks.

The monorail was jammed again, as expected, but the oft-overlooked resort ferry was just a short wait. After stopping briefly at the Grand Floridian (opened in 1988, the newest of the three Magic Kingdom resorts), the boat dropped us off at the beachside dock of the 40-year-old Polynesian, in all its tiki-torch glory. I could spend hours walking the grounds, boring my wife terribly, but we were famished and grabbed a quick bite in Captain Cook’s, another great counter-service restaurant. It’s open 24 hours and features a nice assortment of comfort food (our Adult Grilled Cheese sandwiches hit the spot) and a self-serve Dole Whip machine (the only place they’re available outside of Adventureland).

Hurricane Hayward savors every last drop of rum and pineapple juice from his Lapu Lapu in the Tambu Lounge at Disney's Polynesian Resort. (Photo by Susan Hayward - Oct. 1, 2011)

Hurricane Hayward savors every last drop of rum and pineapple juice from his Lapu Lapu in the Tambu Lounge at Disney's Polynesian Resort. (Photo by Susan Hayward - Oct. 1, 2011)

The Polynesian’s Great Ceremonial House offered the perfect ending to a long, chaotic day: A tropical-themed oasis and – upstairs in the Tambu Lounge – some of the best cocktails in Disney World. My wife opted for a creamy Piña Colada while I had to order one of the two vintage tropical drinks remaining on the menu, the Lapu Lapu. Served in a fresh pineapple and featuring both dark Jamaican and 151 rums, it hit the spot nicely.

We also ran into Kevin and Jody, who were staying at the Polynesian, and chatted about the day’s festivities as well as the future of the park and resorts. When I mentioned that we could really use a Trader Sam’s (the animatronic Tiki bar next to the Disneyland hotel that Kevin and Jody helped design), Kevin said that he thought the bigwigs already know that, and that the Polynesian would be the perfect spot to build it. Hey Disney, forget what I said about the Martinique rum and get to work on Trader Sam’s instead. Sometime well before the 50th anniversary would be nice.

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Walt Disney World 40th anniversary photos
(Click on thumbnails to see larger images or to view as slideshow)

More 40th anniversary reviews (most include photos and video)
WDW Magic | Inside the Magic | Your Highway in the Sky | Theme Park Insider
Disney Tourist Blog | Mice Chat | Jim Hill Media | Mouse Steps | The Miami Herald

Official Disney sites
Official Disney Parks blog | Walt Disney World | The Magic Kingdom
Caribbean Beach Resort | Contemporary Resort | Polynesian Resort

Related sites
Shag | Kevin and Jody | Mary Blair: Disney Legend

About Hurricane Hayward

A professional journalist and Florida resident for more than 30 years, Jim "Hurricane" Hayward shares his obsession with Polynesian Pop and other retro styles on his blog, The Atomic Grog. Jim's roots in mid-century and reto culture go back to his childhood in the 1960s, when he tagged along with his parents to Tiki restaurants and his father's custom car shows. His experience in journalism, mixology, and more than 20 years as an independent concert promoter make him a jack-of-all-trades in the South Florida scene. A graduate of the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications, Jim is a longtime web producer for The Palm Beach Post. In his spare time, he has promoted hundreds of rock, punk, and indie concerts under the Slammie Productions name since the early 1990s. In 2011, he launched The Atomic Grog to extensively cover events, music, art, cocktails, and culture with a retro slant. Jim earned his nickname by virtue of both his dangerous exotic drinks and his longtime position producing The Post's tropical weather website.
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