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Disney World's low-key milestone

By Michelle Wright, CNN
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Tue October 25, 2011
A band performs in front of Cinderella Castle during Walt Disney World's 40th anniversary celebration on October 1.
A band performs in front of Cinderella Castle during Walt Disney World's 40th anniversary celebration on October 1.
  • Walt Disney World marks 40th anniversary with little hype
  • In contrast, celebrations of the park's 25th birthday lasted more than a year
  • Observers say the company is focusing on "making a generic Disney park experience"

(CNN) -- Earlier this month, Walt Disney World celebrated its 40th anniversary. The Magic Kingdom opened its doors to the public for the first time on October 1, 1971, and not only did the landscape of Central Florida change, the landscape of the family vacation did as well.

Many non-Disneyphiles had no clue about the milestone.

There wasn't a big marketing push or makeover of the iconic Cinderella Castle as there was for the 25th anniversary in 1996, a celebration that lasted more than a year.

For the anniversary this year, all the "Mouse House" did was hold a special parade and a brief ceremony, along with a tweak to the nightly "Wishes" fireworks display. Guests who came to the park that day also received a commemorative pin.

The lack of hype for the anniversary can be tied to a recent change made by Disney executives, says Chad Emerson, who just edited a book of essays on the Magic Kingdom's 40 years in business, titled "Four Decades of Magic." Disney is cutting costs by streamlining operations at its domestic parks, located in Anaheim, California, and Orlando.

Several industry experts, however, are questioning Disney's newest plan of not only streamlining the behind-the-scenes aspects of its domestic parks, like human resources, but also the entire Disney experience -- down to attractions and merchandise.

Brent Young, co-host of the theme park-focused podcast "Season Pass" and managing director for Super 78 studios, said Disney fans wanted the hoopla of a 40th anniversary bash.

"Frankly, the fans would love for them to celebrate the 40th. The fans of Walt Disney World understand the impact that Walt Disney World has made not only on the United States, as a destination park for the United States, but the world as well," he said.

Emerson believes Disney is taking the wrong path when it comes to its latest plan.

"That synthesizing and making a generic Disney park experience for merchandise, for attractions, for food and beverage for these other guest interaction pieces has been one of the most unfortunate decisions that the parks and resorts division has ever made," Emerson said.

Disney spokesman Rick Sylvain said marketing this year does incorporate all parks.

"Our focus during this 'Let the Memories Begin' year in Disney parks remains on our guests and the memories they have made, are making and will make in our parks," he said.

The Central Florida parks of course remain a popular destination for families like the Hickmans, from Atlanta. Jeff and Kristi Hickman opted to take their two girls to Walt Disney World for the very first time this summer, and it was a hit.

"There's a first time for everything, and that first time was great! And I want to (go) again when I'm older, or in a couple of months because it was really ... enjoyable and I had a great time," said 8-year-old Hannah Hickman.

That's despite the Central Florida summer heat. Hannah's mother, Kristi, said she was prepared not to have a good time and was making the sacrifice for her children.

"We were going in July. I set my mind that I know it's fun, I had a blast when I was little, but I'm an adult now and it may not be as fun. I'm going to wait in lines, it's going to be hot, I'm going to be thirsty," Kristi Hickman said.

"You know, it was amazing, all that didn't even bother me. It was like, you know, I was just their age again. I loved it just as much."

Jeff Hickman was focused on the finances of bringing his family to Walt Disney World, but enjoyed the trip.

"We saved up for it. We spent every penny that we saved. We're still trying to recover. But I would go again in a heartbeat. I would have to save up again ... but I think it was definitely worth it. It was a great family memory," he said.

According to Emerson, other families might not opt to go to Walt Disney World, but would just look for a "Disney experience" elsewhere -- and that should have the Orlando Convention and Visitors Bureau concerned.

"If I was the Orlando CVB, I would be a little bit concerned about this strategy, because it's basically telling guests go to a Disney park, it doesn't matter which one," Emerson said.