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TIMEKEEPING 1996: It’s Time to Remember the Magic with the 25th Anniversary of Walt Disney World

“It’s Time to Remember the Magic!”

As Walt Disney World approached its 25th anniversary, that was the tagline the company used for its marketing. Looking back at 1996, it seems more apt now than it did then. Most remembered for its controversial Cinderella Castle decoration, 1996 saw quite few changes to the rest of the resort as well. Opening day attractions would face refurbishments at every theme park, and two resorts that would never meet their promised potential were born.

Magic Kingdom

Town Square on Main Street U.S.A. saw a few changes in 1996. The former home of The Walt Disney Story became the 25th Anniversary Welcome Center. The Welcome Center featured exhibits and videos with Walt Disney World history, and guests would receive a commemorative lithograph featuring Mickey walking a child toward Cinderella Castle, adhesive cardboard badges signifying either the year of their first visit or that it was their first visit, and a brochure highlighting the resort, all for free.

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The exhibit’s exit featured a giant model of the upcoming Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park.

Most famously, the end of Main Street was dominated by the redecorated Cinderella Castle. The castle had become a large pink cake covered in frosting and candy décor, with the spires replaced with candles. There were fittingly 26 of them, one for each year of the park’s existence and one to grow on.

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This is also the year that the Crystal Palace introduced character dining, joining the Liberty Tree Tavern, which had added characters sometime in 1994 or 1995. The Crystal Palace featured “Winnie the Pooh” characters for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, while Liberty Tree Tavern featured Minnie, Pluto, Goofy, Chip, and Dale in colonial garb.

Adventureland added an interactive scavenger hunt game, the Adventureland Challenge. Unlike later games, this was a scheduled event. A Cast Member would hand out a map with clues, and the guests would hunt for a golden idol hidden in the land. The game also offered real prizes, such as free drinks or ice cream.

In Liberty Square, several stores changed, with Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe replacing Old World Antiques and the Silversmith on February 5. Ichabod’s Landing closed permanently to become a storage room. The Liberty Belle riverboat replaced the Richard F. Irvine on the Rivers of America after an extensive refurbishment.

Fantasyland also saw shops consolidated as Sir Mickey’s replaced AristoCats and Mickey’s Christmas Carol in March. Having been shuttered in 1994, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage was officially closed permanently as well. October saw part of the old 20,000 League’s space used for Ariel’s Grotto. This was a meet and greet with Ariel in her mermaid form, taking place in a cave with a waterfall looking over a King Triton statue that was added to the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea lagoon. The ride’s queue was turned into the Fantasyland Character Festival featuring rotating characters.

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On June 29, Mickey’s Toontown Fair replaced Mickey’s Starland as a vacation area for the Disney characters who now resided in Disneyland’s Toontown. The new version of the land featured both Mickey’s and Minnie’s Country Houses. Here, guests would walk through the country homes of the famous mice. While Minnie’s allowed guests into the rooms to explore, Mickey’s was mostly roped off. Mickey now met in the Judge’s Tent behind his house, while other characters would meet in the Toontown Hall of Fame. Donald’s Boat was across the way and was a simple play area. The major addition was The Barnstormer at Goofy’s Wiseacre Farm, an airplane-themed kiddie roller coaster. The area also featured the County Bounty shop, and the Farmers Market, which sold strawberry shortcakes and other snacks.

Tomorrowland also saw some changes as the Tomorrowland Grand Prix was renamed the Tomorrowland Speedway. On January 6, Dreamflight dropped the Delta branding and featured minor updates to remove any references to the old sponsor. The ride was again renamed as Take Flight on June 5.

As part of the 25th Anniversary celebration, the Remember the Magic Parade debuted on September 27.

The parade started with the “Remember the Magic” song playing and the mirror castle float containing the fab five characters, Cinderella and Prince Charming, and Chip and Dale. The Fairy Godmother and the prince’s court walked with the float. This parade also featured show stops where the walking characters would take guests out of the crowd to dance with them on the parade route before returning to a moving parade. Next came a “Little Mermaid” unit, with mermaid Ariel in a clamshell surrounded by dancing fish figures, a Sebastian animatronic, and dancers from “Under the Sea.” After that, a “Beauty and the Beast” float featured the title characters as well as lots of enchanted objects. “Be Our Guest” dancers, some pushing serving carts, accompanied the float. The large inflatable Genie float from Aladdin’s Royal Caravan was next, with cars shaped like treasure and camel dancers. A “Lion King” float with Simba, Timon, Pumba, and Zazu then passed, surrounded by animal dancers and stilt walkers. The Seven Dwarfs led a large garden-themed float with Snow White, Alice and the White Rabbit, Mary Poppins, Pocahontas, and characters from “Winnie the Pooh” and “The Jungle Book.” 

Epcot

Over at what was now simply named Epcot, the year started off with closures. World of Motion closed on January 2, and the Universe of Energy on January 21. While World of Motion’s replacement, Test Track, was scheduled to open in May of 1997, the updated Universe of Energy opened on September 15.

Actually, a temporary version of the original ride ran from June 14 through September 2 since most of that side of Future World was closed. This version of the ride had the original narration over scenes with the original effects removed, and the Radok blocks in the pre-show had been removed. Some of the dinosaurs in the diorama area had been reprogrammed to interact with show elements that were being kept hidden by faux rock walls. The command center had been removed, as had the mirrors in the final scene. This stripped-down show was seen as a necessity as Horizons wasn’t running consistently, leaving only Wonders of Life in that half of the park during the busy summer season.

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While the pavilion would keep its name, it would feature a new show entitled Ellen’s Energy Crisis, quickly renamed to Ellen’s Energy Adventure. The ride began with a pre-show film replacing the kinetic mosaic. Guests were treated to a fourth-wall-breaking film introducing the concept of the ride. Ellen DeGeneres fell asleep watching her old roommate “Stupid” Judy Peterson, portrayed by Jamie Lee Curtis, playing Jeopardy. She’s then taken back in time by her neighbor Bill Nye to learn about energy. After the first film, guests are ushered into the moving theater cars, where a second film explains the big bang and takes Ellen to the age of the dinosaurs. The theater cars then ride through the primeval diorama area. The diorama featured an addition of an Ellen animatronic fight with an Elasmosaurus, and one of the sauropods sneezing at guests. The second theater began with guests being taken through 65 million years of history by KNRG radio station before seeing a film where Bill Nye takes Ellen through the modern world of energy. The theater cars moved back into the original theater, where Ellen beat Judy in Final Jeopardy. The ride also featured Alex Trebek, Michael Richards from “Seinfeld,” and the voices of Willard Scott and Johnny Gilbert.

Innoventions saw a few changes. Aladdin’s Magic Carpet VR Adventure and a VR presentation by Enel/Infobyte opened in Innoventions West. Innoventions East saw a Disney Interactive Exhibit in the spring. The Art of Disney store opened in the Innoventions building.

Back in World Showcase, The Crown and Crest replaced Lords and Ladies in the UK pavilion.

Illuminations was updated for the anniversary to Illuminations 25 on September 21. The new show differed greatly from what came before it. A version of the “Remember the Magic” song played as international voices representing the pavilions welcomed guests. The fireworks began with “A Worldwide Celebration,” which had a calypso sound. Lasers and lights danced and projected onto a globe in the center of the lagoon. The projections continued during a “celebration of world cultures,” featuring Asian, African, South American, British, Flamenco, Eastern European, Middle Eastern, and Polka music in rapid succession before switching back to the calypso theme. Fireworks resumed. Then the Discovery Suite played, highlighting the Epcot theme remixed to match the pavilions of Future World. The show then broke into a version of “Circle of Life” set to fountains and fireworks for its finale.

Disney-MGM Studios

The park’s signature attraction saw changes as the Backstage Studio Tour became the Disney-MGM Studios Backlot Tour and moved its entrance from the Animation Courtyard to the back of the park, where the walking part of the tour loaded. The water tank area now became the tram tour pre-show, right before guests would walk through prop storage to the tram loading area. The tram tour went through parking lots before turning around and passing costuming, all before hitting Catastrophe Canyon and Residential Street. These changes were made to accommodate an expansion of the animation and office buildings for actual production. Sometime in the second half of the year, the walking segment of the tour, Inside the Magic, had its entrance moved to one of its show scenes, and the newly christened version, Backstage Pass, focused more on props from then-current productions such as “101 Dalmatians.” Post-production and the finale were removed from the tour. The final theater had already started rotating “Making of” attractions starting with “Toy Story” in late 1995 and then “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in the summer of 1996.

The Spirit of Pocahontas closed on February 24 to be replaced by Hunchback of Notre Dame—a Musical Adventure on June 21. This new show opened with “The Bells of Notre Dame,” featuring a puppet show of the story using dancers as a living, moving proscenium for the puppets. Frollo entered on a horse carrying the young Quasimodo. The audience was introduced to Quasimodo and the gargoyles portrayed by costumed actors. Quasimodo then sang “Out There.” Next was a quick version of “Topsy Turvy,” introducing Esmeralda and Phoebus, and beginning the conflict between Esmeralda and Frollo. Then Esmeralda sang “God Help the Outcasts.” “Heaven’s Light/Hellfire” played as Frollo set fire to a model city attempting to find Esmeralda. The gargoyles sang “A Guy Like You.” The final confrontation and siege of the cathedral took place. Frollo fell and was carried away by the false proscenium actors before a reprise of “The Bells of Notre Dame.”

At some point prior to the end of 1995, Mouse About Town and Sunset Club Couture were sectioned off from Once Upon a Time on Sunset Boulevard. Mickey Avenue was temporarily renamed Dalmatian Avenue, and some buildings, including the Earffel Tower, received Dalmatian paint schemes to promote the “101 Dalmatians” live-action movie released November 27.

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The Resorts 

July 6 would see the opening of two resorts in one. Disney’s Boardwalk Inn and Boardwalk Villas opened together, a 378-room hotel and 530-room DVC resort, respectively. Designed by architect Robert A.M. Stern, the two shared most common areas built along a recreation of a New Jersey boardwalk. The main lobby was decorated with a carousel and opened out to a large courtyard. The original restaurants included Spoodles and The Big River Grille & Brewing Works. The resort’s signature seafood restaurant, Flying Fish Café, opened on October 3. Nightclubs and bars at the resort included Atlantic Dance Hall, the ESPN Club, the Belle Vue Lounge, and Jelly Rolls. The resort’s main pool was the Luna Park pool and featured the Keister Coaster, a waterslide that exited a clown’s mouth.

The villas that comprised The Disney Village Resort were integrated into The Disney Institute on February 9. The Institute was the brainchild of Michael Eisner after he spent a vacation at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. Taking the model of incorporating learning into a family vacation, the institute offered various courses in subjects such as film, cooking, design, broadcasting, and animation, at its peak offering 60 courses. Due to a lack of interest, the focus began to switch to group conferences and corporate retreats before the end of the year. The facilities included significant spa and athletic space, a movie theater, an amphitheater, the store, Dabblers, and the restaurant, Seasons Dining Room.

Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort began another round of room refurbishments at the Oahu, Pago Pago, and Hawaii longhouses. The Snack Isle also closed and was absorbed into the arcade. Over at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Kingdom Jewelers, Contemporary Man, and Contemporary Woman were combined into Bayview Gifts, or BVG.

1996 was also a big year for sports at Walt Disney World. After being dedicated on November 28, 1995, the Walt Disney World Speedway hosted its inaugural race, the Formula Ford 2000, on January 26, followed by the Indy 200 the next day. The track was built just south of the Transportation and Ticket Center parking lot and featured a large Mickey head-shaped lake. These auto races joined the existing Walt Disney World Marathon that began in 1994. In February, the Harlem Globetrotters announced they would use the upcoming Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex as their headquarters, and the Atlanta Braves signed a 20-year deal to use the facility as their spring training complex.

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Fantasia Gardens Miniature Golf and Garden Pavilion opened May 20, next to the Swan and Dolphin hotels. The mini-golf area featured two courses: The Gardens and The Fairways. The Gardens is a more traditional mini-golf course consisting of elaborate obstacles. The holes were themed to “Fantasia” sequences such as Toccata and Fugue, The Nutcracker Suite, the Pastoral, the Dance of the Hours, and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The holes on the Fairways course were more like miniature versions of a real golf course, and the course is often cited as being one of the most challenging miniature golf courses in the country.

Back at the Disney Village Marketplace, the Rainforest Café opened on August 6 in the space that previously housed Chef Mickey’s. The chain restaurant featured animatronic animals and scenes depicting jungle life. Fulton’s Crab House took over the former Empress Lilly on March 10. The World of Disney, the world’s largest Disney store, opened on October 3 and took over Mickey’s Character Shop.

There’s a lot to remember in 1996. There was a new hotel, a modified park icon, and new shows and attractions. There is also a lot Disney would ask us to forget: a failed new vacation concept, project delays, and the closure and modifications of classic attractions. But while they were encouraging guests to hold on to the past, Disney was still looking to the future, with more new hotels, an expanded shopping district, and a whole new theme park just over the horizon.