How Disney parks have celebrated Halloween over the years
Over the past 60 years, Disney has learned a thing or two about throwing a party. But the early days of Halloween at Disney were nothing like what you can experience at its parks around the world, though this year’s celebrations have been modified due to the pandemic.
“Holiday Magic at Disney Parks: Celebrations Around the World from Fall to Winter,” a new book from Disney Editions, includes photos of Disney’s past and present Halloween festivities along with historical resources from the Walt Disney Archives.
Insider spoke with the book’s coauthor, Graham Allan, whose day job is in studio operations for Walt Disney Studios, to learn more about Halloween through the years at Disney parks.
Disneyland’s first Halloween celebration took place in 1959, four years after the California park opened.
Even before Disneyland opened in 1955, Disney characters, performers, and themed floats had a presence in the annual Anaheim Halloween Parade. It wasn’t until 1959, however, that Disneyland brought Halloween inside the park with a Parade of Pumpkins. This event is one of the few in Disney history that Walt Disney had a hand in planning.
On the Saturday before Halloween, Disney piled up 1,000 pumpkins outside the gates of Holidayland, a picnic and event area that once sat near Disneyland’s main entrance. Guests who wanted to participate in the parade and pumpkin-carving contest took home a pumpkin and returned on Halloween with a costume and their carved pumpkin to parade in front of the judges.
At the time, 1,000 was an ambitious number even by Disney standards.
“The park wasn’t attracting tens of thousands of people a day. They couldn’t fit in the park at that time,” Allan told Insider. “Giving away the pumpkins was guaranteeing people would come. If you put out 1,000 pumpkins, you’re hoping 500 people will come back the next week with their carved pumpkins.”
After the judging, kids took their creations to Fantasyland’s Mickey Mouse Club Theater to receive their prizes. When the festivities were done, the contestants and their chaperone received free admission to Disneyland for the day.
Halloween celebrations at Disney were minimal through the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s.
Despite the inaugural event’s success, Disneyland didn’t host another Halloween celebration inside the park until 1968 and even then it was only a Halloween day parade.
In the 1970s, Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Florida hosted Halloween weekend parties with themed activities and entertainment, but, as Allan put it, “on a very modest scale compared to what you would see today.” According to Disney Parks Blog, these were often after-hours events with live music, magic shows, and parades geared toward adults.
“I think there was this notion that Halloween was not a ‘Disney’ holiday,” Allan said. “Halloween was for older kids because it had this scary or even gory angle to it and if there was going to be a family-friendly Halloween it was going to be on your street.”
Disney Parks Blog reported the Disney parks started to get more ambitious with their Halloween celebrations through the 1980s, with themed merchandise and Halloween events.
In the mid-’90s, Disney brought family-friendly Halloween celebrations to its parks on both coasts.
Disneyland’s Halloween revival got off to a rocky start in 1994 when it offered free admission to anyone who showed up in costume between 6 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. The park quickly reached capacity and an influx of guests caused a four-hour freeway traffic jam. Though it didn’t go quite as planned, it was obvious people were excited for Disney’s “not-so-scary” version of Halloween.
Disney stepped it up the following year with official Halloween parties at Disney World and Disneyland.
The first Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party was held at Disney World in 1995. The soiree was a one-night event that Disney cast members held after the park closed to regular guests. As the event’s popularity has grown over the years, so has the size of the party with additional dates added to accomodate demand.
At Disneyland, the event was dubbed Mickey’s Halloween Treat. There were horse-drawn hayrides, Halloween decor on Main Street, U.S.A., and even live actors in the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean rides.
Disney brought its friendly version of Halloween to Tokyo and Paris in the late 1990s.
Halloween was not widely celebrated in Japan outside of American military bases in the 1970s, according to a 2004 press release from the Walt Disney Company.
Similar to the US parks, Halloween was a one-day event at Tokyo Disneyland when it debuted in 1998. By 2004, it had grown to a two-month-long party with a parade, trick-or-treating, and specialty merchandise.
Similarly in France, Halloween was considered an American tradition until the park held its first Soirée Halloween Disney in 1997, according to Disney Parks Blog.
By the 2000s and 2010s, Halloween at Disney was getting bigger than the giant Mickey pumpkin at the front gates.
At Disney World, Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party spanned 36 nights from August through November 2019. Allan said the early kickoff is due in part to the party’s popularity, but also to give European visitors the Disney Halloween experience before summer vacation ends.
There are themed treats and merchandise, stage shows and fireworks, ride overlays, and Magic Kingdom is decorated. One detail to look out for are the “Town Square-crows” on Main Street, U.S.A.
“The ‘square-crows’ in Town Square are all dressed like some kind of character in the Magic Kingdom,” Allan said. There’s a band leader from the Main Street Marching Band, a candy maker from the Main Street Confectionery, and Casey from Casey’s Corner in his baseball uniform, to name a few.
Disneyland introduced its Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay to the Haunted Mansion in October 2001, but Big Thunder Ranch’s Halloween Carnival Roundup was the hub of Halloween when it debuted in 2010. There were professional pumpkin carvers, Disney villain meet-and-greets, crafts, and carnival games. Some years, guests could even meet the presidentially pardoned turkeys who came to live their lives at Big Thunder Ranch after appearing in Disneyland’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Today, Disneyland gets the same full Halloween overhaul as its counterpart in Florida, but there are a few touches you can only find at Disneyland.
Halloween at Disney’s international parks has grown as well. In addition to jolly pumpkins, fall decor, and costumed characters, Disneyland Paris pays homage to the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos with lively skeletons and the Haunted Mansion at Tokyo Disneyland received a Haunted Mansion Holiday Nightmare overlay similar to the Disneyland parks in California and Shanghai.
Shanghai Disneyland joined the Halloween game in 2017 with a villain’s cavalcade, ghostly pirates inspired by “Pirates of the Caribbean” and a DJ-led Guardians of the Galaxy dance party.
Some of Disney’s Halloween parties have gotten darker as they’ve grown.
Most of Hong Kong Disneyland’s look similar to other Disney parks, but certain experiences take a much darker turn.
“If you just walk you walk down Main Street, it’s a Main Street of fun pumpkins and fun decor. It’s everything you would expect from Magic Kingdom,” Allan said of Hong Kong Disneyland, adding that there’s an area with a haunted house guests can walk through.
In 2019, Disneyland dove a bit deeper into the scary side of Halloween with the inaugural Oogie Boogie Bash. The star of the show is “Nightmare Before Christmas” villain, Oogie Boogie — a literal bag of bugs — and the trick-or-treat trails feature other Disney baddies in dark, eerie settings.
While still appropriate for the family, Allan pointed out that it does skew a little older and “there’s just a little hint of darkness to it. It’s a little bit more serious with a little less comedy, but it’s still a Disney Halloween experience.”
Halloween at Disney looks very different this year in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Disney World canceled Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Disneyland has yet to reopen at the time of writing.
Most parks have found ways to add touches of Halloween this fall, including spontaneous mini parades that allow guests to see characters without encouraging large crowds, pared-down decor, and plenty of pumpkin-spice treats.
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