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A Walt Disney World Retrospective: Ten Magical Milestones of the 2000s

As the ball dropped in Times Square, everyone in America, perhaps even the world, held their breath. At Epcot, the final firework shot off into the sky, the smoke from the explosion gently blowing across World Showcase Lagoon. Over the next several minutes, millions waited to see if the words spoken by technological prophets would come to pass. As the clock reached 12:10 am on January 1, 2000, it became obvious: the Y2K disaster had been averted. The world, for all appearances, hadn’t changed when the clock struck midnight.

But one thing that the potential for a Y2K Bug did do was bring the world even more into the digital age, leading to the virtual world of the Internet, digital and technological achievements, advanced robotics and ride systems, and a more global awareness to become a part of humanity’s (and Disney park guests’) daily lives. Learn all about ten magical milestones in the 2000s below.


10 – Expedition Everest

The crowds milling throughout Times Square on February 15, 2006, stared upward in wonder. Huge billboards covered the sides of buildings depicting the snowy Himalayan Mountains. An out-of-control train was rushing down a shattered track into the claws of the monstrous yeti, who was emerging from behind a neighboring peak. Acrobats posing as mountain climbers hung suspended from guide ropes as they “climbed” the mountain peaks plastered to the side of the skyscrapers. However, the most fascinating part of the display was its interactivity: guests could use their cell phones to text “DISNEY” to the number “4YETI;” when the message was received, the eyes of the yeti glowed red. This opportunity to create an effect through the simple action of texting was something new that many had never experienced before. The first trainload of passengers to climb the side of Animal Kingdom’s Forbidden Mountain was dispatched on April 7. The ride itself was a feat of engineering. The attraction featured three separate and independent structures: the mountain itself, the ride track, and the animatronic yeti. This attraction was also architecturally designed digitally, using a four-dimensional “scheduling software” to draw the structure which would later inform machines how to bend the rebar for the mountain and engineers about how to construct it. The yeti, the guardian of Mount Everest, was one of the most advanced animatronics of its time: it stands twenty-five feet tall with 5’ by 18” movement that is controlled by nineteen actuators. The high thrills the roller coaster produced earned it a number of accolades: in 2011, The Guinness Book of World Records named it the most expensive roller coaster ever built, while it has also found itself on a number of lists as ranked among the world’s most popular roller coasters. Unfortunately, it seems that Imagineering’s plans for the attraction were too advanced for their time: after only a few months in operation, part of the yeti’s system failed, forcing it to be put into “B” Mode. This essentially means that the movement of the figure was stopped with strobe lights used to create the illusion of movement instead. Today, the yeti is affectionately known among Disney fans as, “Disco Yeti.”

Expedition Everest Construction – October 2004

9 – 100 Years of Magic

Coming off the popular success of the Millennium Celebration, Disney decided to host another year-long celebration: the 100 Years of Magic, which celebrated the 100th birthday of Walt Disney. Because it celebrated Hollywood, Disney-MGM Studios served as the headquarters of the celebration, with a 122-foot-tall Sorcerer Mickey hat in front of the Great Movie Ride as the centerpoint of the celebration. A number of new shows and parades were added to park offerings, including Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Disney’s Stars and Motor Cars Parade at Disney-MGM Studios, and the Share a Dream Come True Parade at the Magic Kingdom. Because of the immense popularity of the Tapestry of Nations Parade at Epcot during the Millennium Celebration, the show was slightly modified to fit the 100 Years of Magic and became known as the Tapestry of Dreams Parade. While this celebration tied the four distinct parks together into a cohesive whole, they also allowed for the company to recognize the legacy of its founder, Walt Disney. A new exhibit opened at Disney-MGM Studios, called Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream, which combined museum exhibits and a multimedia presentation to tell his story. Unfortunately, disaster struck on September 11, 2001 when terrorists attacked the United States. Domestic and international travel ground to a halt and the flow of guests to Walt Disney world all but dried up. The fear of travel, compounded by the extensive global media coverage, led many Americans to be wary of going on vacation. In an attempt to draw guests to the Disney parks, the 100 Years of Magic celebration would be extended until February 2003.

Spaceship Earth décor in 1999 for the millennium celebration at EPCOT. (Disney)

8 – Wishes

One of the Magic Kingdom’s most popular fireworks shows, Wishes: A Magical Gathering of Disney Dreams, debuted on October 9, 2003. This show featured a number of pyrotechnics that were synchronised with music and told a collective story about wishes and dreams. However, this show was special as it was modified into seven different shows across its fourteen-year-run. Special versions of the show were featured for the Halloween and Christmas seasons, while unique 4th of July and New Years Eve shows were featured as well. This performance was one of the first attractions that had been modified to fit the seasons, joining the Haunted Mansion Holiday at Disneyland and the Country Bear Jamboree in both Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom. However, the ease with which Imagineers and pyrotechnic programmers were able to modify the show to fit a particular theme or season was attributed to the ease that computer systems offered in creating a synchronised performance.

Wishes Fireworks

7 – Disney’s Pop Century Resort

With the passing of the new millennium, many Americans found themselves feeling nostalgia for their childhoods. A number of television programs were broadcast across the airwaves, discussing the fads, events, and pop culture of some of history’s most beloved decades, including I Love the ‘70s and I Love the ‘80s on VH1. With the introduction of Wikipedia, the internet encyclopedia site that launched in 2001, it became even easier for Americans to rediscover the past in easy, bite-sized reads complete with color pictures. As a result of the post-9/11 recession, additional resort offerings at Walt Disney World were necessary for families that had found themselves financially struggling. Playing off this interest in cultural memory, Disney opened their fourth “value resort” in 2003, Disney’s Pop Century Resort, which highlighted many of the fads of the last half of the twentieth century. The second half of the resort, which had been built at the same time, wouldn’t open for several years, however, as a result in the lag of guests in the wake of 9/11. What had initially been planned as Disney’s Pop Century Resort: The Legendary Years, which would have focused on the decades from 1900-1950, would end up being cancelled, ultimately turned into Disney’s Art of Animation Resort, which would open in 2012. 

6 – Disney’s PhotoPass

As the digital age continued to move forward, cameras with film began to be phased out of the consumer market. Disney parks saw this as an opportunity to capitalize on the digital photography trend, encouraging guests to leave their new and valuable digital cameras at home. Disney had been taking pictures of guests on some of their most popular attractions for years, including Splash Mountain and the newer Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith. Disney PhotoPass began in 2004 to create a photography package for guests, chronicling their experiences throughout the Walt Disney World property. As part of this new offering, not only would on-ride photos be included in this service, but cast members would also be stationed at popular photo opportunities throughout the park to take pictures of guests using a Disney-owned camera. These images could then be purchased from a printing location around property or uploaded to a CD which could be purchased by guests.


5 – Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge Resort

With the success of Disney’s Animal Kingdom came an opportunity for a new species of resort. Walt Disney World’s newest deluxe resort began welcoming guests on April 16, 2001, whisking them away on safari to a lodge in the midst of an African wildlife preserve, surrounded by the grasses of the savanna teeming with ostrich, water buffalo, zebras and giraffes. This resort is not only special and unique because it transports guests to another place due to its elaborate theming, but it also has the opportunity to educate guests through the use of authentic African artwork, ceremonial displays, animal guides, and griot storytellers that relate the myths and legends of West Africa.

4 – The Year of a Million Dreams

The 2000s quickly became the decade of promotional celebrations at Walt Disney World. On the heels of the 100 Years of Magic celebration came a new promotion: The Year of a Million Dreams, which began on October 1, 2006. This celebration, which coincided with Walt Disney World’s 35th anniversary, made magic real for guests through the tireless efforts of the Dream Squad. These cast members had the unique opportunity to wander the Disney parks and surprise guests with all numbers of special prizes, including Mickey ears, Dream FastPass lanyards (which gave immediate access to each attraction in the park that utilized FastPass), a Disney Cruise Line vacation, and the much-coveted overnight stay in the new Cinderella Castle Suite. Through the use of an algorithm that told members of the Dream Squad where and when to choose guests, this celebration made true a million dreams (well, actually two million: the celebration would continue a second year, lasting through 2008).

3 – Disneyland’s 50th Anniversary

Even though Disneyland was celebrating its 50th Anniversary on July 17, 2005, Walt Disney World was able to benefit from some gifts as well, through what became known as the Happiest Homecoming/Celebration on Earth. The spires of Cinderella Castle was bedecked in gold, with statues of characters in flight either flew or perched along the roofline. A large sign, which depicted each of the castles from the Disneyland-style parks from around the world hung above the castle’s drawbridge entrance, changing every few minutes. New attractions from around the world were brought to Walt Disney World, quickly becoming some of the resort’s most popular. The Magic Kingdom conducted major refurbishments of both It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean while adding a new castle stage show imported from Tokyo, Cinderellabration. Disney-MGM Studios, which had recently razed Residential Street that had been part of the Backlot Studio Tour, added Lights, Motors, Action!: Extreme Stunt Show which had found popularity at Disneyland Paris’ Walt Disney Studios park. However, it was Soarin’, which originated at California Adventure, which quickly became the most popular attraction at Epcot, resulting in hours-long lines. So while the celebration was meant to recognize Disneyland, it became a global opportunity to recognize the significance of the Disney parks.

2 – Pal Mickey

As the Internet and GPS- and infrared-enabled technology improved throughout the early 2000s, new experiences were added to the Walt Disney World theme parks. One of these was a merchandise opportunity known as Pal Mickey, which debuted in 2003. This plush character served as guests’ personal tour guide and provided up-to-the-minute information as they made their way through the parks. Embedded inside the toy was a microprocessor which, after receiving a signal from an infrared-receptor in the figure’s nose, would quote interesting facts, the locations of nearby character meet-and-greets, and current wait times. While sales of the Pal Mickey figure ended in 2008, it paved the way for location-based and RFID-enabled technology such as My Disney Experience and MagicBands which would emerge a decade later.

1 – The Living Character Initiative

One of the greatest and most magical things about a Walt Disney World vacation is not only seeing our favorite stories come to life but having the opportunity to become a part of those stories. Guests were able to see some of their favorite characters interact with them in real-time at Epcot’s Turtle Talk with Crush and Magic Kingdom’s Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor in 2004 and 2007, respectively. While remote-controlled electronic “puppets” had been used occasionally in the parks since Epcot’s early days, as well as Tomorrowland’s Push the Trash Can, Walt Disney Imagineering wanted to up the ante. In an effort to improve the guest experience, WDI developed what was known as the Living Character Initiative, which allowed for the use of full-size animatronic figures that were able to wander through the parks and interact with guests. This began in 2005, when Lucky the Dinosaur, an eight-foot-tall Segnosaurus, began to wander through Animal Kingdom’s Dinoland, USA, performing basic tricks for guests after prompting by his dinosaur handler. The next iteration of the project began in 2007 when Dr. Bunson Honeydew and his assistant, Beaker, began making their rounds in their Muppet Mobile Labs in Epcot’s Future World. Mounted atop a segway, this rocket-shaped vehicle held the two animatronic muppets as they conducted “experiments” (which often went awry) and interacted with guests. The delight these figures gave guests led to a number of additional experiments by Imagineering which would be developed into possible experiences in the 2010s, including a meet-and-greet with Baby Groot at Hollywood Studios and the Mater and Lightning McQueen characters that roll through Cars Land at Disney’s California Adventure.

More on our Walt Disney World Retrospective:

Click here for A Walt Disney World Retrospective: Ten Magical Milestones of the 1970s.

Click here for A Walt Disney World Retrospective: Ten Magical Milestones of the 1980s.

Click here for A Walt Disney World Retrospective: Ten Magical Milestones of the 1990s.

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Andrew Kiste

Andrew Kiste is a high school history teacher and author, whose popular books, A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World, Walt Disney and the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair, and The Early Life of Walt Disney examine the storied history of both the parks and the Walt Disney Company.
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