There is nothing to be taken lightly about a new Disney fireworks show, least of all in Magic Kingdom. As the original and flagship park of Walt Disney World, Magic Kingdom has only debuted three major pyrotechnics displays in its 46-year history. Yes, there have been the occasional updates to an existing framework and seasonal productions linked to holiday events, but in terms of regular, nightly, long-term fireworks, Happily Ever After, the fireworks spectacle that debuted in May 2017, is only the third to ever exist. That means it is a very big deal. Since the premiere of its predecessor, Wishes, in 2003, tremendous advances have been made in technology across Disney property and at competitor destinations. What’s more, park guests of 2017 are being raised differently than the generation before them. Upon the announcement of a new show’s arrival, standards were high. Happily Ever After, heavily tasked with being the finale to a day spent in the “most magical place on earth”, had to adapt to hold the same significance to a modern audience, yet unwaveringly retain a classic tone.
I stood waiting for showtime, cautiously excited in a jam-packed Main Street, U.S.A. As the show began—its first moments utilizing an impressive new infrastructure of tech and a rousing orchestral score—I shouted the first of many “Woah!”s out loud, felt the stirrings of emotion I hoped would come, and knew that however different this would be from the production that has made this sacred space its home for so long, Happily Ever After is proud of what it is and leverages everything it has to be the most riveting Disney nighttime spectacular ever… to a certain audience.
Ready to Begin
Let’s say this upfront: Strictly concerning pyro, Happily Ever After is easily the best fireworks show you’ve ever seen. Borrowing the impressiveness of Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular but with a venue as grand as Cinderella Castle and content as treasured as Disney’s animated films, Happily Ever After is both a visual and thematic achievement. The show is essentially two productions in one, being a fully produced fireworks spectacle accompanied by state-of-the-art projections onto the castle that could easily merit their own incredible show by themselves. This isn’t even to mention the new installation of a fleet of spotlights (thanks, Diamond Celebration!), wow-worthy lasers, and an incredible new lighting technology that makes shapes appear on the castle’s surface using fiber-optic-esque lights that are somehow invisibly part of the castle’s exterior. The scope of the whole thing is at times overwhelming, not knowing where to look and certainly needing several viewings to take it all in, but ultimately amounts to a production value unequaled to anything seen in an Orlando park, and perhaps anywhere else.
While all of this makes for an outstandingly remarkable show, in this park all the bells and whistles are secondary to the story they support. In examining the narrative Happily Ever After chooses to tell (and not tell), we find a curious, unexpected commentary of modernity versus antiquity.
Unlock the Magic Within
Beginning in the 1990s, Walt Disney Animation Studios developed films that seemed to abridge the messages of its forefathers. Simba dreamed of becoming king, but was challenged by the very real, adult responsibilities attached to the job. Mulan’s family was faced with distress, but rather than wishing for circumstances to change, Mulan took action herself. By 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, characters were outright stating that the vintage Disney films of yore had it wrong, or at least left out crucial information. Tiana is urged by her father to wish upon a star if she so chooses, but to not forget the grind necessary to make her dreams real. Faith with works, as it were… the idea that perhaps either can exist without the other, but shouldn’t.
This shift in the company’s film output is directly reflected in Happily Ever After. Whereas Wishes implored guests to wish with all our might and every fiber in our being, Happily Ever After makes an amendment to that call to action by stressing its practical application, all the while careful to still carry the Disney magic it knows is essential to its existence. In perhaps the most controversial of its decisions, the show chooses to do this with almost all modern Disney characters (the word “modern” being relative in the sense of the 100-year Disney legacy) created since 1989 and after. It’s quick to welcome new properties into the fold and quicker to give the limelight to obscure films you may have forgotten about.
It’s logical for a newer show to include newer characters. However, it seems strange to so blatantly exclude older films, especially for a park that has always prioritized honoring its history. One factor could be Once Upon a Time, a (mostly) projection-only show which debuted in November 2016 and does include more traditional Disney selections (plus Frozen). Once Upon a Time was designed to complement Happily Ever After, meaning that its creators (mostly) didn’t include the same characters in both projects because they knew many guests would see both shows in the same evening.
It’s not as if Disney deems its earlier work as irrelevant—Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is the newest permanent attraction in the park, yet is based on the studio’s oldest film. It seems that Happily Ever After in particular, for whatever reason, feels it so important to connect with a specific generation so passionately that it is content with ignoring others. This can either be interpreted as insensitive or inquisitively strategic, and in the spirit of optimism that the park embodies, it’s worth assessing the latter.
You Are the Key
When truly thinking about it, it may be surprising to realize the age that some of these movies now hold. While new in comparison to the films that laid the foundation for Disney’s beginnings, in any other sense they are not new at all. Toy Story. Hercules. Tangled. For most of them, time has passed, and Happily Ever After faces us with the reality that they are now old enough to be classics in their own right, and for a generation, they have become as iconic as Snow White or Pinocchio.
Aware but in spite of what any academic study may announce about the millennial generation, if I may for a moment provide a self-definition of myself and my peers, I would say this: One of our greatest joys is identifying the skillsets within ourselves and learning how to use them best. I believe any label of entitlement or misuse of the unprecedented communication devices at our disposal to be faults of individual basis, unjustified to be indicative of an entire group. As with any large mass of people, there are occasional deviations from this, but the millennials who settle for less than what they are capable of are fewer in number against those who think their careers should be extensions of themselves, part of their being. It is this audience that Happily Ever After services best, its script overflowing with inspirational quotes waiting to be tweeted and Instagram captioned, its score teeming with moments of triumph and elation, its message begging to be used in its viewers’ pursuits of their dreams. The crucial part is those dreams being realistic and reachable rather than fantastical and far-off, with Happily Ever After effectively cementing its featured Disney heroes as icons of a generation and approved models for this “Disney Dreaming 2.0” philosophy. It is here where Happily Ever After is at its most triumphant. For the person who can quickly make the connection between these characters and their own story, the viewing experience has the potential to be provocative and personal if one allows it to be.
Happily Ever After finds its niche in carefully selecting its core characters and then harnessing that aforementioned technical wizardry to design a show that is beautiful, awesome, and inspirational. Its most poignant moments come in its unexpected, thoughtful merging of characters or film sequences with songs from movies different than the one in which they originate. To go into detail about such occurrences would deprive those who haven’t seen the show of several truly wonderful surprises. One in particular has become one of my favorite theme park moments of all time.
To compare Happily Ever After to Wishes is a bit like comparing The Hall of Presidents to The American Adventure. Both may appear to hold similar functions on paper, but their methods are completely different, and both are important to the legacy of this special place—to the people who spend time here and, more importantly, will leave here different than when they arrived. Happily Ever After is a beacon to those bold enough to dream—not in the lofty sense we grew up associating that word with, but in a very real context. In a kingdom where fairytales, as captivating as they may be, have always been assumed imaginary, Happily Ever After implores that the magic our heroes exude may not be all that distant.
Have you seen Happily Ever After? What do you think of the newest Disney nighttime spectacular?
To learn more about Blake and read his recent posts for WDW Radio, visit his author page by clicking the link on his name at the top of this post.