Of all the magical feelings a guest experiences at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, there’s perhaps none more breathtaking that fireworks at the end of the night.
For over five decades, the skies above Cinderella Castle have been lit by pyrotechnics to the delight of millions of tired guests. Today we’ll be looking over the history of the park’s nighttime spectaculars, from Fantasy in the Sky to Wishes to Happily Ever After to Enchantment to… um… Happily Ever After, again.
Fantasy in the Sky Fireworks (1971-2003)
The lineage of the original Fantasy in the Sky fireworks show predates the Magic Kingdom. In fact, the show can be traced back to the earliest days of Disneyland. Soon after Walt’s original park opened, the man himself decreed that he wanted a fireworks show to end each day at the park.
Disney’s reasoning was two-fold: One, the fireworks exploding over Sleeping Beauty Castle mimicked the opening of the Disneyland television series, and two, it kept guests in the park longer. Initial shows were under five minutes long with fireworks hand-launched by cast members. The name “Fantasy in the Sky” came into use sometime in 1958.
By 1971, fireworks had become an iconic institution at Disneyland, making it a no-brainer that Disney would replicate it at the then-new Walt Disney World.
The Magic Kingdom’s version of Fantasy in the Sky debuted on October 24, 1971 — a little over three weeks after the resort opened to the public — to great fanfare. Initially, the show was about 6 minutes long and featured pyro set to iconic Disney songs including “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes”, “When You Wish Upon a Star”, and the “Mickey Mouse March.”
Over the years, the Magic Kingdom’s Fantasy in the Sky presentation received numerous upgrades, including most notably the addition — on nights when weather allowed — of a live Tinkerbell performer similar to the show’s Disneyland counterpart. However, by the early 2000s, even the beloved extravaganza had begun to show its age, and it was retired in 2003.
Before we get into what replaced Fantasy in the Sky on a full-time basis, it’s important to note that the show didn’t disappear from the Magic Kingdom forever after 2003. In fact, the following year saw a special Halloween version of it. Also, as the 2000s went on, Disney used the show — updated with effects that were installed for newer nighttime shows — for its New Year’s Eve pyrotechnic presentations.
Disney’s replacement for Fantasy in the Sky at the Magic Kingdom — Wishes — debuted in October 2003. The show was revolutionary for a Disney nighttime spectacular, as it was one of the first to feature a clear narrative story starring Disney characters.
The show began with narration from Jiminy Cricket before a live Tinkerbell made her by-then-iconic flight from Cinderella Castle. From there, the 12-minute show featured over 680 fireworks — including numerous “wishing star” pyrotechnics — special lighting, and audio “appearances” from numerous Disney characters, including Cinderella, Snow White, Ariel, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Aladdin, Genie, and the Evil Queen, all set to popular Disney songs, with a heavy emphasis on those from the late 1980s to late 1990s Disney Renaissance period.
Over the course of its run, there were numerous seasonal and/or special event-centric versions of Wishes. These included Happy Hallo-wishes — a spooky version that played as part of Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party events from 2005 to 2018, Holiday Wishes — a Christmas-themed version that ran as part of Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party until 2018, Magic, Music, & Mayhem — a version of the show that played during the Mickey’s Pirate and Princess Party special events and the Summer Nightastic promotion, and the Celebrate America version that has been part of the park’s Fourth of July celebration since 2008.
Happily Ever After, Version One (2017-2021)
The Magic Kingdom saw its final regular performance on May 11, 2017. The following day its replacement, Happily Ever After, debuted. In some ways, the show was a natural continuation of Wishes, as it featured an even heavier narrative with segments themed to Dreams, Journey, Friendship, Love, Adversity, and Triumph. It had Disney and Pixar characters and music from films including The Princess and the Frog, Ratatouille, Tangled, Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Brave, A Bug’s Life, Cars, Up, Finding Nemo, Tarzan, The Lion King, Toy Story, The Jungle Book, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Inside Out, Monsters, Inc., Mulan, Frozen, Dumbo, Zootopia, The Incredibles, Sleeping Beauty, Mulan, and Pirates of the Caribbean, before culminating in an appearance from Tinkerbell.
However, for as much as it had in common with its predecessor, Happily Ever After featured one major difference: projections. The 18-minute show included advanced projection-mapping technology that allowed massive scenes form the aforementioned Disney films to be projected on to the entire surface of Cinderella Castle, which, combined with fireworks and lighting, created an audiovisual experience like none before seen in a Disney park.
Happily Ever After was massively popular upon its 2017 premiere, quickly becoming beloved by hardcore Disney fans and casual guests as well… which made it all the more shocking to many when Disney announced that the show would be closing.
Disney Enchantment officially premiered on October 1, 2021, to mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of Walt Disney World (though Disney history aficionados will be quick to note that the show had a surprise “soft opening” performance the night before).
The show was praised for its technological expertise, taking the projection mapping introduced by Happily Ever After to the next level by expanding it from simply Cinderella Castle to all of the buildings of Main Street, truly enveloping crowds with visuals from many of Disney and Pixar’s most beloved films, including Aladdin, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, Onward, Tangled, Frozen, Brave, Hercules, Coco, Raya and the Last Dragon, Zootopia, Alice in Wonderland, Ratatouille, Lilo & Stitch, Finding Nemo/Finding Dory, Luca, Monsters University, Cars, Wreck-It Ralph/Ralph Breaks the Internet, Sleeping Beauty, Lady and the Tramp, The Lion King, Tarzan, Dumbo, Hercules, Big Hero 6, Treasure Planet, WALL-E, Soul, Mulan, Moana, The Little Mermaid, Fantasia, and The Princess and the Frog.
However, many of the same fans and reviewers who praised the show for its technical achievements lambasted it for its content. While it was chock-full of the aforementioned popular Disney films, many argued that Enchantment — which was heavily billed as a celebration of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary — had little to no content specifically dedicated to the resort, instead featuring characters and songs that were simply “generic” Disney and had been featured in several previous fireworks shows.
Disney responded to the complaints by adding a new opening segment to Enchantment beginning in August 2022. The new addition, which added three minutes to the show’s runtime, featured projected footage of Walt Disney’s EPCOT film and Roy Disney’s dedication of the Magic Kingdom, as well as footage of the construction and various attractions, set to the music from Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, and the Carousel of Progress.
While the new changes were praised in concept and execution, they were too little, too late to save the show’s reputation. In September 2022, Disney announced that the show would be ending with the conclusion of the Walt Disney World 50th Anniversary Celebration in early 2023, to be replaced by an old friend…
Happily Ever After, Version 2 (2023-Present)
That’s right, in the ultimate proof you can’t keep a good fireworks show down, Happily Ever After has returned. Not only that, but the show has been substantially improved as it now makes use of the Main Street projection technology installed for the Enchanted show.
The new iteration of Happily Ever After has added sequences featuring characters from Coco, Encanto, Elena of Avalor, Turning Red, Raya and the Last Dragon, and Luca, and has added laser effects to the finale, which were cut from the original 2017 version of the show.
That’s a look at all of the Magic Kingdom fireworks shows! Which version of the Magic Kingdom’s fireworks spectacular was your favorite? Let us know in the comments below, and keep following All Ears for the latest Disney news!