As Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary approaches on October 1, 2021, this series will attempt to determine one addition per decade which drastically impacted Disney Parks vacations going forward.
After weathering two difficult recessions and a vast period of stagnation in the 2000s, the Walt Disney Company was on the cusp of a second renaissance. The animation studio had made a triumphant return to hand-drawn animation with The Princess and the Frog, a film that would usher in a list of modern classics including Tangled, Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, Moana and more. As the animated slate improved, so did the company’s live action lineup. Disney was ready to soar following the 2009 acquisition of Marvel Studios, and the purchase of Lucasfilm would quickly follow in 2012.
At the same time as the company’s foundation – film production – was being revitalized, Walt Disney World was about to turn 40. Just like anyone who faces the reality of entering a fourth decade, the Florida Project could have spiraled into a midlife crisis, but instead, the “Most Magical Place on Earth” got ready for its triumphant second act.
Following a decade which saw the addition of very few attractions, most of which were overlays or imports, Walt Disney World was about to debut a new nighttime show that would open the technological floodgates in a way that would impact and practically reinvent almost every attraction and entertainment offering for the remainder of the 2010s and beyond.
The Magic, The Memories and You
The Walt Disney Company is credited with introducing the world to modern projection mapping when it opened the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland in 1969. In one show scene, guests in Doombuggies traversed a haunted graveyard while being serenaded by a quintet of singing busts. These animated statues were not achieved in the same way as the mansion’s other spooks via Pepper’s Ghost effects or audio-animatronics. Instead, the vocalists were recorded while performing and that film was then projected onto blank busts, giving the appearance of actual singing busts. Over the proceeding decades, Disney continued to utilize the technology in small applications and, in 1991, filed patent #US5325473A for the “apparatus and method for projection upon a three-dimensional object”. This filing was for an invention which could project “images upon a three-dimensional object so as to impart a vivid and realistic appearance upon that object.”
Throughout the two decades following the patent submission, Disney worked to perfect this system, and on January 19, 2011, Walt Disney World Guests witnessed the debut of The Magic, The Memories and You. This 10-minute nighttime experience utilized 16 projectors to transform Cinderella Castle via the power of light. Properly calibrated images created a number of impressive displays as vines grew up over the castle, “it’s a small world” dolls traversed its turrets and a rocket blasted from the top-most tower. While these sequences ran nightly, up to 500 photos and videos — either submitted online or captured by PhotoPass photographers — were changed daily. Families enjoying the park during the day were then able to search the show for their image at night.
This initial version of The Magic, The Memories and You also debuted one week later in Disneyland Park. The Magic Kingdom version was later updated to include a “romance” section and then again to feature a summertime theme. Guests were quickly impressed by the technological feat, and while this original projection show was short lived (giving its final performance in September 2012), it was not for a lack of resonance.
What began as a 10-minute, pre-fireworks starter became Celebrate the Magic, then Once Upon a Time, and finally culminated in the spectacular that was Happily Ever After. But the technology that debuted with The Magic, The Memories and You was not relegated to just the walls of Cinderella Castle. Disney’s Procams projection mapping software enabled Imagineers to quite literally reinvent theme park attractions.
From the facial features of audio-animatronic dwarves on Seven Dwarfs Mine Train to almost the entirety of Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, the overlay of two-dimensional images onto three-dimensional objects allowed for completely new experiences that previously only existed in the imagination. Even today, Disney Research (Disney’s Research and Development division) is pushing the boundaries of the technology that The Magic, The Memories and You debuted by creating live augmentation of human faces. This would allow for make-up and other facial features to be projected onto the faces of performers during a performance with the images being updated in real time as the individuals move about the stage.
It is unbelievable to consider the advancements in just 10 years’ time. Even though history will view The Magic, The Memories and You as simply the unveiling — the proof of concept — it is undeniable that its existence helped forge a new path in theme park entertainment. And while a number of factors in the 2010s — new lands, new attractions, new shows — played a part in Walt Disney World’s second act, projection mapping had a supporting role in them all.
Original lead Cinderella Castle image from the personal collection of Sarah Marjorie Niswender. The Magic, The Memories and You photos from the personal collection of Terri Stinson Daugherty. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train photo copyright Disney.