It’s been a long day in the most magical place on earth. As special as this acreage is, you’re ready to hit the hay. You’re pretty tired. Your feet probably hurt. And yet, something is still keeping you here. You know that, despite the memories you’ve made throughout the day, the best is yet to come. Despite your desperate need for a soft pillow and a massage, you choose to neglect rest to stay for what you know will be the best part of your Disney experience. The conclusion; the happy ending. Perhaps you’re alone, perhaps you’re with family. Whomever you’re near, you’re quite near, because the Hub is sardined with bodies, all waiting, all anticipating. Then, just as you rethink your decision to stay, you hear a murmur of strings. Is it your imagination? They get louder… yes, they’re clearly audible now. And then, as the strings reach their maximum volume, as if with a flick of Tinker Bell’s wand, a trumpet blasts and the lights are silenced. At last, it’s time for Wishes, Disney’s signature fireworks spectacular, to begin.
This has been the ritual of nearly every evening in Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World since 2003. Upon its debut, Disney guidemaps hailed Wishes as “the grandest finale to ever fill the Magic Kingdom sky.” And now, it’s a tradition whose days are numbered, taking its final bow in May 2017 to make way for a new fireworks show, Happily Ever After. Today we take a look back at Wishes, look ahead to what the future holds, ask a lot of hard questions that must be answered, and celebrate all the wishes made everywhere in between.
The full title of this nightly spectacular is Wishes: A Magical Gathering of Disney Dreams presented by Pandora Jewelry (phew). Its subtitle stems from a promotion native to its premiere date. In 2003, Disney pushed a yearlong “Magical Gatherings” theme, encouraging families to vacation in parties of eight or more, offering discounts and incentives for doing so. Wishes was an anchor of this promotion, as was Mickey’s PhilharMagic, opening at the same time and sharing a similar tone and purpose as Wishes to encompass the emotions of Disney’s legacy in a singular production (a daunting task, certainly, and one we’ll touch more on later).
This was part of an ongoing marketing strategy from Disney Parks that would continue over the next decade or so. Approximately every two years, Disney’s domestic resorts rolled out a bi-annual theme, toward which its vacation packages and promotional pieces were geared. Typically, new attractions (especially entertainment offerings) would debut at the beginning of each promotion’s cycle. Sometimes these productions were clearly strategized to match the established theme; other times, one could argue their introductions were coincidental, and attached to the theme extraneously after-the-fact. (One such attraction in support of the latter theory is Mission: SPACE at Epcot, which opened in the same month as Wishes and PhilarhMagic and was also advertised as part of “Magical Gatherings,” but clearly is the outlier from those other two productions in connection, or lack thereof.) Sometimes the attractions’ engagements would be limited to the length of the promotion in which they debuted (like Cinderellabration, a castle stage show tied to “The Happiest Celebration on Earth” in 2005), while other times the attractions stayed far longer (like Wishes), supporting the argument that the attraction/promotion connection was coincidental rather than strategic. As it so happens, the most recent instance of this marketing approach was 2012’s “Let the Memories Begin!,” which saw the opening of The Magic, The Memories, and You!, the first generation castle-projection spectacular, whose technology evolution led to the looming closure of Wishes. (Shout-out to the obnoxious “Memories Begin” banner at the front of Magic Kingdom, which long overstayed its welcome and is more of a sin to me than the castle cake.)
Pictured here in a screencap from the now-extinct Disney Magazine, Julie Andrews was onhand for the premiere performance of Wishes on October 8, 2003. She was escorted by Mickey Mouse himself, donning his sorcerer’s cap paired with a maestro’s tuxedo, the same ensemble he adorns in PhilharMagic (and which would make an excellent photo-op costume, just sayin’).
At the time of its premiere, Wishes was accompanied nightly by SpectroMagic, a nighttime parade that initially debuted in 1990 and which would share an evening menu with Wishes until closing in 2010. The two productions smartly mirrored one another in more ways than one. On the outset, it can be no coincidence that both productions are narrated by Jiminy Cricket, a clever move on Disney’s part that links together two signatures of the park. Wishes and SpectroMagic did not necessarily tell two parts of the same story (if each of them even tells a cohesive story at all), but they inarguably shared the same tone and style, both having a beautiful orchestral score and both highlighting the hallmarks of what gives Disney a special place in its guests’ hearts, expertly magnifying that placement in a way that either comes across blatantly hokey or wonderfully poetic, depending on your relationship with the brand and your Feeling/Sensing meter on the Myers Briggs scale.
Disney significantly amped appeal for its seasonal, after-hours parties in 2005 by introducing exclusive fireworks shows that only performed during the events. For Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party came Happy HalloWishes and for Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party came Holiday Wishes. Both are completely different shows from Wishes, not add-ons or altered versions of the original. They are each their own, separate production. Holiday Wishes retains Jiminy Cricket as its narrator, very much feeling in sync with the original Wishes, while HalloWishes seems to only be named such so as to keep in uniform with the other two, having the Haunted Mansion‘s Ghost Host as its emcee and Jiminy being completely absent. (Interestingly, when 2007 introduced the short-lived Pirate & Princess Party, its fireworks show did not carry the word “wishes” in its title, instead being called Magic, Music, and Mayhem, and narrated by the three good fairies from Sleeping Beauty and the Fairy Godmother from Cinderella. Since Pirate & Princess was a failure, is the word “wishes” a good luck charm, then?) As this article is posted, there are no announced plans for HalloWishes or Holiday Wishes to change in content or name once Wishes closes.
In 2005, much of the music from Wishes was recycled for the fireworks show developed for Disneyland‘s fiftieth anniversary, Remember… Dreams Come True. The first few minutes’ soundtracks are identical, save for swapping out Jiminy Cricket and the Blue Fairy speaking about the power of wishes for Julie Andrews sharing a brief history of Disneyland. Then, the shows divert in very different directions, but ultimately steer back around to share the same finale. Remember was performed 2005-2014, had a brief pause for Disneyland‘s sixtieth anniversary, and recently returned in February 2017.
This isn’t just any theme park. This is Magic Kingdom (don’t you dare put “the” in front of it, or else its newly christened entrance sign will smite you). This is not only the world’s most visited theme park, but its most important. This means that whatever fireworks show is in place can’t be just fireworks. They must be great. They must be special. They must elicit some sort of emotional response. Its tone must carry weight; if it doesn’t… BAM! It just doesn’t work. Its content must be as classic as classic can get, pooling from only the most esteemed Disney stories and songs.
For its part in this, Wishes is an interesting reflection of what the 2003 Disney felt would hold up across the long years it knew this show would be performed during. Some inclusions were time-tested safe bets, like having narration by Jiminy Cricket or dialogue spoken by the Evil Queen. Others weren’t necessarily gambles, but were still banking on relatively new films withstanding in the years to come, like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, both of which have. The riskiest real estate the show bestowed, and the one that is admittedly off-sync today, is an instrumental of “Go the Distance” from 1997’s Hercules. By 2003, the film had already had six years to prove itself and perhaps hint at its long-term longevity (or in this case, lack thereof, if only judged by the standards of its Disney siblings). By 2003, Hercules was considered a success, but not in the same ballpark as other Disney films, which is why it’s odd that it would be included in Wishes. Did Disney think Hercules would have a second wind post-2003? Did it merely feel the need to include a recent film, and Hercules had a soundtrack most in line with Wishes? Did Disney think Hercules embodied the same spirit of Magic Kingdom echoed in other movies it included in the proceedings? Perhaps we’ll never know. No doubt, “Go the Distance” and its rousing orchestral arrangement is inspiring and beautiful, though not quite as recognizable to the general public as the rest of the show’s songs. Nonetheless, it’s wonderful to hear an overlooked film in the same breath as the studio’s films that gained a bit more long-term traction.
For Wishes, the park utilized its geography in an unprecedented way. Its press release from summer 2003 hails it as the first Magic Kingdom fireworks show with multiple launch points, using the rooftops of Fantasyland and the surrounding ground around Cinderella Castle to its advantage. Some of its pyrotechnic motions (such as the show opening with the star making its rounded, aerial trip over the castle, a real-life representation of the Disney logo shown before all of the company’s films) were, at the time, revolutionary in a way that is easy to forget today.
The only changes ever made to Wishes come in its finale. HalloWishes and Holidays Wishes both include perimeter fireworks at their end. They are unlike anything you will ever experience the rest of your life. The original Wishes didn’t have perimeter fireworks, save for three occasions. When Wishes was performed on nights that the park hosted Halloween and Christmas parties before the parties had their own specialty fireworks, Wishes had perimeter pyro as a bonus for party guests. The same was done for one day, October 1, 2011, to celebrate Magic Kingdom‘s fortieth anniversary.
Additionally, the only other change might have come before the show ever debuted. On the Wishes soundtrack sold as compact disc, the final line of dialogue from Jiminy Cricket just before the last blast of fireworks is a slight chuckle, followed by “What they can’t do these days.” In the show as it stands today, Jiminy instead leaves us by saying, “See what a little wishin’ can do?” A YouTube search for home movies filmed in fall 2003 have the “new” line, leading me to believe the first line was scrapped before the show premiered. Good thing, too. The initial line acknowledges that this is a fabricated production, and asks us to marvel at its own sophistication. That’s not only rude, but it completely takes us out of the fantasy the rest of the show does such a stellar job at building up. The new line instead keeps us in the world of its story and leaves a parting challenge to us: See what can be done when we wish? Shouldn’t we continue to do so even when we leave this place? That’s a much better message, and one that needed to be retained.
The Road to Replacement
Aside from the alterations listed in the above paragraphs, Wishes never changed throughout its 13.5-year run. Even as projection mapping became prominent in the theme park industry (and as international Disney parks began to introduce shows that merged fireworks and projections into one), different iterations of a nightly projection show onto Cinderella Castle remained separate from Wishes. This is curious… what is the logic behind it? Let’s dissect this by asking two essential questions and providing respective, theorized answers.
1.) If projection mapping has been part of Disney’s resume since at least 2012, why not slap some visuals onto the castle to complement the existing Wishes show? (Probable) answer: It would be a waste of resources to update a show that is so old when you could just make a new show. Disney has expanded its library of characters quite extensively since 2003, and they deserve to have a spotlight just as much as the then-new roster of characters and songs did when Wishes premiered. Also, newer characters are arguably more marketable to the generation who is attached to them (and throwing their money toward them) in the here and now. But then, this begs another question…
2.) If the end game is creating a merged fireworks/projection show, and it’s the consensus is that Wishes needs replacing, why not make that merged show in 2012 instead of continuing to create new projection-only shows and leaving Wishes as-is all this time? (Probable) answer: The fireworks show at Magic Kingdom is such an honored tradition that, out of respect for the weight its product would hold, Disney wanted to get its feet wet with projections before committing to either adding projections to Wishes or creating a merged fireworks/projection show. If the park only changes fireworks shows every decade-and-a-half, then the show should be great. If this is indeed the perspective Disney has, then I applaud it. Caring for the eventual attraction so much that you create multiple trial runs for the sole purpose of getting it right when the time comes for that final product? That’s incredible.
Granted, Disney can at times have a reputation for being a money-grabber, and the thread that led to Wishes taking its final bow may be laced with a completely different, business-oriented story. However, Magic Kingdom as a whole has had a major entertainment makeover over the last several years, and a new fireworks spectacular as its pinnacle would be a genius move if there has been a master plan at work all this time. Since 2013, the park has effectively replaced its daytime parade, daytime castle show, Halloween castle show, Christmas castle show, trolley show, projection show (twice), street party, and welcome show; closed its nighttime parade; and opened a seemingly permanent home for the Muppets to perform in Liberty Square. Nearly every major venue of Magic Kingdom is different from what it was four years ago.
Here we teeter on that “Is it coincidental or is it strategic?” balance again, though I’d like to believe the latter… and there’s certainly evidence for it. For one, the daytime parade (Festival of Fantasy) and daytime castle show (Mickey’s Royal Friendship Faire) share a narrator, an offstage royal crier, who doesn’t play a significant part in the story but is present nonetheless. Additionally, the most recent iteration of the projection-mapping show (Once Upon a Time) and the fireworks replacement for Wishes (Happily Ever After) blatantly complement each other in title. The park’s two biggest daytime productions and its two biggest nighttime spectacles are connected, harking back to when Wishes and SpectroMagic worked in tandem with one another. Even if the entire park wasn’t intentionally integrated over the last half-decade, these four projects inarguably were. This speaks to the credibility of its brass and could even ease some tension concerning the current questionable decisions and subsequent vocalized worry of other parks (such as Epcot or Disney California Adventure) in wondering if a master plan is at play, or if attractions are being introduced on an individual-decision basis that could hurt the big-picture impression of each park’s purpose. Whether the guest realizes the connections between FOF and MRFF, and between OUAT and HEE, the link builds into the significance behind the story the park works as a whole to tell throughout a day spent here, and that’s commendable.
Here we are. On May 11, 2017, after over 13 years and thousands of performances, Wishes: A Magical Gathering of Disney Dreams presented by Pandora Jewelry (c’mon, I have to say the full thing while I still can) will have its final show. On May 12, an all-new nighttime spectacular, Happily Ever After, will take its place. As stated earlier, HEE will combine fireworks with projection mapping into one mega-show, and interestingly Once Upon a Time, the (mostly) projection-only show which debuted November 2016, will stay as somewhat of an appetizer. (Even though it’s great, this is still a puzzling decision. If the new show combines fireworks and projections, why is there a need for a projection-only show?)
Happily Ever After will spotlight an assortment of Disney classics old and new, as it should. Of particular note among the announced inclusions are Toy Story (the first Pixar film to be included in a Magic Kingdom fireworks show), Aladdin (which, if it includes dialogue from Genie, could be a fun nod to Wishes), and Moana (an extremely recent film that apparently Disney thinks quite highly of). (Side note: Now you’ll get your chance to scream “I AM MOANA” in the Hub on a nightly basis… don’t tell me you haven’t wanted to do that since the day you heard that soundtrack.) The show promises “contemporary versions of popular Disney songs,” which definitely raises concerns with the preference many will have for HEE to at the very least match the timeless feel Wishes has. Of course it won’t and shouldn’t be the same show verbatim, but if HEE is too contemporary, it’s missed the mark.
The theme song of Happily Ever After will be performed by country singer Angie Keilhauer and Disney Channel alum Jordan Fisher, who has since recorded on the Moana soundtrack and now stars in Hamilton on Broadway. While celebrity appearances are relatively common in Disney theme park attractions, they are more rare with recordings like this that serve as the anthem to a parade or show. That’s usually left to a Disney chorus, which, if absent in HEE, would be a major departure of form. (A sampling of the new song can be heard here.) If the new song sounds like a product of 2017, that’s not necessarily a bad thing as long as the majority of the soundtrack retains a timeless style. Wishes certainly didn’t shy away from shouting to the world that it was proud of the post-show, pop version of its main theme, which might as well have been recorded by Peabo Bryson (and actually later was) and slapped in the end credits of a ’90s Disney movie. Since it is so distinctly 2003, there is no room for complaint if this new song sounds distinctly 2017. It is unknown if the new song will be performed by Keilhauer and Fisher during the actual show, or if, like the pop version of the Wishes theme, it will play afterward as guests exit the park, though its publicity hints to the former.
It’s worth noting that the predecessor to Wishes, Fantasy in the Sky, is still performed annually the week of New Year’s Eve for a two-night engagement. This opens the possibility of Wishes perhaps having encore performances on special occasions in the future (though this is pure theory and has not been hinted officially in any way).
When taken into consideration that Magic Kingdom has existed for 45 years and Wishes has had a nightly presence in the park for nearly 14 of those years, the production is as much a part of the park’s DNA as fireworks itself. As such, its departure is sentimental for many, which is appropriate considering the heartstrings the show aims to tug on in the first place. This is a show whose success thrives on emotion, so its goodbye is naturally emotional.
As such, countless people have fond, strong memories associated with this show. Despite any stress or chaos of the hot, Florida, FP+ induced day, all complications, arguments, or worries of the vacation seem to melt away when those fireworks burst. We are reminded why we wanted to come here. We are encouraged to “always believe in our wishes, for they are the magic in the world.” I’ve experienced Wishes many times in many circumstances, whether winding down by myself in the Hub, waiting squished among the masses prior to the final Main Street Electrical Parade, frantically scouring the Emporium to find a gift for my mom before the crowds inevitably bombarded the shop after the show’s conclusion, enjoying the company of my best friend while enjoying a Pineapple Dole Whip and a turkey leg in an empty Frontierland… the list could go on, and I’m sure you have your own special memories, too.
Magic Kingdom is a theme park that seeks to absolutely define Disney, and Wishes is a show that seeks to absolutely define Magic Kingdom. Therefore, it has much on its shoulders. It is tasked with the assignment of translating the Disney brand from a corporate juggernaut to a cultivator of tentpole life experiences for families. Not only that, but being the last thing guests experience, Wishes is the final impression of a day in the park, and possibly the final impression of an entire Disney vacation.
These are not expectations that are exclusive to Wishes. The same task is directed toward Happily Ever After, and it will be fascinating to see how Disney approaches 2003’s same goals while leveraging 2017’s technology, storytelling, and marketing sensibility. As we inevitably wait in the shadow of the world’s most famous castle for showtime to begin, we’ll see what new dreams usher in the start of what will be a new staple for the most important theme park on the planet.
(Images © Disney.)
To learn more about Blake and read his recent posts for WDW Radio, please visit his author page by clicking the link on his name at the top of this post!