Disney's Anniversary Bash

We go behind the scenes at the media preview and private party that kicked off Disneyland’s “Greatest Homecoming on Earth.”

By: Kenneth Shapiro

On May 5, Disneyland began an 18-month-long 50th anniversary celebration that will include special events, programs and attractions at Disney’s themeparks all over the world and even at sea. Disney Cruise Line is repositioning one of its ships on the West Coast for the first time ever.

On May 4, however, many people in the media and a few thousand of Disney’s closest friends were invited to preview the festivities firsthand and to witness the launch of some of the new attractions. One thing is undeniable, when Disney throws a party, people go.

From the moment the ticket taker said, “Welcome home,” (a phrase visitors will hear often in the next year and a half), the “Happiest Homecoming on Earth,” as it is being called, reminded guests that this will be a grand celebration of an American icon.

The preview day started on Main Street with the new Parade of Dreams. It includes elaborate floats featuring characters from Disney hits such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Pinocchio” and others, including a float based on “The Lion King,” complete with lions Simba and Nala, and an assortment of other jungle animals.

After the parade, there was time for the media to sample other developments at the park, including a project Disney is calling The Happiest Faces on Earth project, which includes 34 photo collages made up of thousands of family vacation photos sent in by guests. Each collage is themed to match a “land” in the park. (For instance, in Fantasyland there’s a collage made to resemble Alice in Wonderland, and near the Haunted Mansion is one that shows that ride’s famous Hitchhiking Ghosts.)

Be sure to tell clients visiting the park to check out the largest collage Mickey Mouse on Main Street. That one represents “a collage within a collage” that needs to be seen to be truly appreciated.

Next, we had lunch at the Napa Rose restaurant in Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel. The food was great as usual, but on this day it was the company that really stood out: Disney CEO Michael Eisner dropped by to greet the journalists.

Not surprisingly, Eisner was peppered with questions, mostly about the progress of Disney’s latest venture, Hong Kong Disneyland, scheduled to open in September. Eisner also talked about Disney’s future plans including the possibility of Disneyland India, at least 10 years away, and the creation of a “Finding Nemo” ride in the former submarine lagoon in Disneyland. (“Just a rumor,” he added, with a smile.)

Matt Ouimet, Disneyland Resorts president, also stopped by to say hello.

After lunch, it was back to the park for the premiere of the film “Disneyland: The First 50 Magical Years,” a retrospective looking back on the creation and evolution of the park. The film is narrated by Donald Duck and actor Steve Martin, and both were on hand for the first screening. Martin, a native of Garden Grove, Calif., is a former Disneyland employee, having worked in the former magic shop on Main Street.

For the most part, the film is entertaining, especially because of the always likable Martin and visitors will love those early shots of Martin as a young man working his magic, literally, on Main Street.

The next premiere was for the new Tomorrowland ride, Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. Actor Tim Allen, the voice of animated space ranger Buzz Lightyear of the hugely popular “Toy Story” films, hosted the ceremony. Also in attendance were Eisner and John Lasseter, executive vice president of Pixar, and a major figure behind that company’s “Toy Story” and other films.

The ride is described in Disney press materials as “an interactive experience in which guests pilot their own Space Cruisers and twist, turn and fire personal laser cannons in order to hit targets and gain points.” It is further being billed as Disney’s most “interactive” ride, as guests on the ride can be randomly paired with online players via Web-cam. The online players can help increase the scores of riders on the attraction by raising the value of targets along the way.

Unfortunately, the main attraction in Tomorrowland, Space Mountain, is still closed. Disney officials say the “re-Imagineered” ride should be open in mid-July, with a new Space Port, redesigned rockets and other new effects

When evening fell, we left the park as construction workers and party planners came out to set up for an exclusive, invitation-only party in the park. As guests re-entered the park, they were lead down a gold carpet that ran the entire length of Main Street while Disney “cast members” (employees) flanked the carpet and welcomed everyone home.

Real celebs such as Kelsey Grammer and Jim Belushi were interviewed for TV, while other guests were guided into New Orleans Square for a night of dinner, martinis and a concert by the rock band The Goo Goo Dolls. This certainly was the not-to-be-missed party for Disney fans.

Finally, it was back to Main Street one last time as the lights dimmed for Disney’s new fireworks spectacular, “Remember & Dreams Come True.” These fireworks were worth staying up for as it truly was an elaborate and surprising production complete with a new musical score, an appearance by a high-flying Tinker Bell and something the press materials are calling “close-proximity pyrotechnics.”

Overall, the day was an educational preview of what is to come at Disneyland over the next 18 months. And there seems to be enough new attractions as well as enough Disney-generated buzz that those clients interested in “coming home” to be a part of the celebration, will not be disappointed.