Living seasonally in Disney World's backyard was surreal last year, and it's unexpectedly exhilarating now as the nation appears to be vaccinating its way out of the COVID-19 crisis. I've been fully inoculated for months, but walking through the turnstiles of Disney's (DIS -1.72%) EPCOT two weeks ago -- without a mask on for the first time in 15 months -- hit me harder than I thought it would.
Visiting Disney's Hollywood Studios on Monday afternoon also hit some pleasantly surprising nostalgic notes. Experiencing pre-shows on Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway as well as The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror -- and boarding ride vehicles with protective plexiglass removed -- made me realize how much I missed what I once took for granted.
Disney World has been taking baby steps toward normalcy for weeks as vaccination rates improve and new case counts decline across the country. Next week, nightly fireworks shows will resume at the Florida resort's two oldest theme parks. Everything is setting the stage for October, when Disney World will turn 50 and the world's leading theme park operator will kick off an 18-month celebration that will feature new rides, attractions, and experiences. On Tuesday, it unveiled some of the upgrades that will kick in come October, and it's fair to say that you'll want to start planning your visit now if you're even a marginal fan of Disney's gated attractions.
Reach for the sky
The return of fireworks to the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT next month is a pretty big deal -- especially if you're a shareholder. The parks' ability to keeping guests on site until the very end of the day translates into more opportunities to sell them meals and souvenirs. It also helps increase capacity by reducing the number of folks waiting in lines and at attractions as many of them take in those nighttime spectacles.
Both theme parks will be getting upgrades to their evening presentations come October. The debut of "Harmonious" at EPCOT isn't a surprise. Guests have been seeing huge barges getting ready for the new show in the World Showcase Lagoon that will feature projections, pyrotechnics, and choreographed fountains. The Magic Kingdom will also be getting an upgraded fireworks show, and this time, its projections will extend beyond the iconic Cinderella Castle to cover the buildings of Main Street U.S.A. as well. Animal Kingdom will get a daytime kite-themed show at the Discovery River Amphitheater.
There is no news yet about nighttime festivities at Disney's Hollywood Studios, but it's probably just a matter of time before something is unveiled. One 50th birthday celebration feature that will spread across the entire resort is a fleet of 50 golden sculptures. Disney's official theme park blog says visitors will be able to interact with those sculptures in "surprising ways" -- it will be interesting to see what tech tricks the House of Mouse has up the sleeve of its sorcerer's robe.
Most of the highly anticipated new rides going up won't be open by October. The two next-gen coasters in the works at EPCOT and Magic Kingdom aren't likely to open until closer to the end of the 18-month celebration. However, the combination of upgraded experiences and pent-up demand is going to have Central Florida chockablock with tourists in a few months. If Disney wasn't already near the top of your list of travel and tourism stocks to consider, you may want to sprinkle some pixie dust on your watch list and check it again.