WALT DISNEY WORLD — Disney characters are the stars in Disney World's 15-month celebration to honor the man who made it all happen.

"100 Years of Magic," which began Oct. 1, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Walt Disney. All four Disney theme parks will participate in the celebration, which includes four new parades, two new stage shows, a new icon for Disney-MGM Studios and a special exhibit and movie that traces the life of Disney and his impact on the world. The shows will run through 2002 and may be extended beyond that date.

"Our guests expect Disney characters," said the theme park's vice president for entertainment, Rich Taylor, "and they'll be all over the park." More than 100 — from Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck to Cinderella and Captain Hook — will appear in this biggest introduction of new live entertainment ever at the Orlando park.

Fittingly, the celebration is centered at Disney-MGM Studios, the movie-oriented theme park, which showcases the industry where Walt Disney made his mark.

There, a new icon built especially for the celebration now dominates the main plaza. It's a 12-story-high Sorcerer's Hat, a many-times-magnified version of the star-spangled headgear Mickey Mouse wore as the sorcerer's apprentice in Disney's 1930s avant-garde animated film, "Fantasia." The enormous, peaked headgear (hat size 605- 7/8) will be the site of an 18-minute light show that tells the story of animation. During the show, innovative "light ribbons" will dart from layered lenses embedded in the huge mouse ears that hold up the pointed hat.

That's one of the two new production shows. The other takes place in front of Cinderella's castle in the Magic Kingdom seven times a day. It features more than 24 characters, who will step out to greet guests after the performance.

But the main tribute to Disney comes in a new Disney-MGM attraction called "Walt Disney: One Man's Dream." A multiroom gallery traces Disney's life and career from his boyhood years in Marceline, Mo., whose downtown became the model for the theme park's Main Street, to a model of Disney Sea, Tokyo Disneyland's second gated park, which opened in August.

Early sketches will be on view, as well as the animation table Disney built to create his first cartoon successes, "Steamboat Willie" and "Plane Crazy," and the Oscar he won for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." All told, more than 400 artifacts will be on display, along with storyboards, photos, props and narration by Walt himself, put together from audio clips.

The cream of One Man's Dream, though, is an excellent film that explores Disney's life, also related in his own words. Gathered from many sources, the film and audio interviews — many of them never heard publicly before — trace the ups and downs of his career in an especially meaningful way.

"This tells the story of Walt the man, and we hope guests will be moved by what he accomplished and what he inspired," said Roger Holzberg, Disney's senior show producer. Research has found that many of the park's guests under the age of 15 did not know Walt Disney was a real person, he said. "They thought it was just a company name."

The most visible tributes to Disney are the four new parades, one in each theme park. Two years in the making, the lively parades feature Disney characters marching or riding on imaginative floats. Recreated snow globes encase characters in the Magic Kingdom parade, with Mickey leading the way on a float that depicts the mighty mouse in a number of his roles. He's followed by floats carrying such characters as Aladdin, Winnie the Pooh, Dumbo, Donald Duck, Goofy and a trio of princesses. One even bears a collection of Disney villains. The parade pauses every now and then to allow interaction between guests and the characters; at one such instance, visitors see the evil Queen of "Snow White" transform herself into a hag.

To create the 8- 1/2-foot globes, Disney engineers had to go to the manufacturers of fighter airplane canopies; no other companies could produce such large transparent bubbles.

Animal Kingdom's parade is the three-year-old park's first, and it's a hoot. The premise is that Disney characters are going on safari, so they've loaded all the belongings they think they'll need onto their vehicles. In Goofy's car we see a set of golf clubs, a barbecue grill and a literal kitchen sink. Donald Duck appears in a dolled-up Jeep (featuring a duck-bill grill) towing a sailboat, with the indomitable fowl quacking and splashing water on spectators. A preening Minnie has loaded her polka-dotted Jeep with her makeup mirror, hat boxes, loads of luggage, a bird cage and bathtub.

Disney-MGM Studios re-creates a Hollywood parade, with stars riding in open cars from an earlier age. The stars, of course, are movie characters, including Mary Poppins, Miss Piggy and Buzz Lightyear. One classic car has the head of Aladdin's genie blossoming out from its nose, another has Luke Skywalker riding in a replicated "Star Wars" rover, followed by an R2D2 replica clanking along behind. Mickey and Minnie bring up the rear in a luxurious 1928 Cadillac Phaeton convertible.

Epcot's parade is the only one that is not completely new. There, new characters called Dream Seekers have been added to highly popular Tapestry of Nations parade that feature outsized puppets. All the parades will be interactive, and a lucky few guests will be chosen to ride in each one.

Since this is a celebration of the man who created the park, Disney people aren't making much ado about it, but Oct. 1 also marked another important anniversary: It's the day Walt Disney World opened exactly 30 years ago.