In pouring rain that simmered down to a drizzle, Walt Disney World just premiered a nighttime spectacular that leverages snazzy tech to its utmost advantage. Once Upon a Time is a new show at Magic Kingdom that’s mostly projection, partly pyrotechnic, and 100% wow-worthy.
A variant of a counterpart show in Tokyo Disneyland, Once Upon a Time celebrates some of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ most beloved moments. The Disney montage is a time-honored tradition of nighttime shows, and which films are highlighted is always an interesting study. What does Disney want to leave in guests’ minds as their final impression of the day? What does the company feel is most representative of its work? It’s always a bit different and, this time around, the story goes that Mrs. Potts is telling Chip a series of bedtime stories, each tale ushering in a Disney favorite. This format focuses on fewer films for longer stretches of time each, as opposed to covering more films in quicker succession. Among the spotlighted are the obvious (yes, there is quite a lengthy Frozen segment, rendering our theory of Disney growing tired of the franchise false), and the unexpected, but welcome (an entire Winnie the Pooh scene).
It’s notable to mention that “spotlighted” is not a metaphorical term. A collection of newly installed spotlights (inspired by Disneyland’s recent Diamond Celebration, no doubt) shimmer with impressive choreography and color throughout the production, just one example of the show’s technological sophistication. The projections are fluid, with several scenes bringing bold, dynamic imagery across Cinderella Castle that can be described as nothing short of awe-inspiring. (The Big Ben sequence from Peter Pan particularly comes to mind.) The pyro is aplenty, accentuating the projections without taking too much of the focus away from them. (It’s definitely still a projection-geared show.) Abundant are small moments that experiment with something a little bit in between both mediums.
The high-quality production value is obviously a welcome notion, yet presents an intriguing series of questions. Disney has been toying for the past several years with nighttime spectaculars that merge projections with fireworks. Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disneyland Forever are prime examples of this. Both the projections and the pyro play an equal hand in telling the story. Once Upon a Time does have quite a significant amount of pyro, but is unquestionably still projection-dominant. Wishes fireworks is still performed in addition to Once Upon a Time, because Once Upon a Time doesn’t pass as a fireworks show. The tricky part comes in asking if Disney was willing to put so much energy into creating a technologically sophisticated show that is miles more advanced than its projection predecessors, why not just go all the way and create a megashow that would collectively replace both Wishes and Celebrate the Magic? I’m not calling for Wishes to leave, but it is odd that so much advancement was made to still settle for not merging both technologies completely. Regardless, still having Wishes present gives Once Upon a Time some wiggle room to do its own thing without the pressure of being the end-all-be-all signature nighttime show. Who even says pyro and projection have to be merged?
Where voices are concerned, Once Upon a Time hits it right on the money from all vantage points. Angela Lansbury wonderfully reprises Mrs. Potts for the first time in who knows how long. Additionally, and curiously, the show uses archived voice tracks from Sterling Holloway as Pooh and Bill Thompson as the White Rabbit instead of having those characters’ current voices record new vocals. It’s a nice, unexpected touch of history.
In comparison to Celebrate the Magic, its immediate predecessor, Once Upon a Time appropriately feels a bit more timeless. Celebrate was a vast assortment of countless films from the Disney library, some of them given their own segments just after releasing in theaters and then removed as time passed. In this way, Celebrate always felt a bit disjointed and temporary, despite being wow-worthy in its own respects. For Once Upon a Time, the Mrs. Potts narrative adds a nice flow to the proceedings. The show gains a feeling of permanence by relying on well-established movies well versed in the Disney synergy machine. It seems to be more intentional about what it selects, perhaps because it intends to be around for a long while. We’ll see how long its run lasts to find out if that holds true. The primary downgrade from Celebrate is certainly the lack of reference to Walt Disney, making his presence in the park that would become representative of his grandest dream disappointingly minimal to the average guest.
While some of it may have shades of propaganda (trust us, Disney, we’re all really pumped for Beauty and the Beast this March), in Once Upon a Time we find a unique form of Disney production. It embraces the heights of new technology but is content to use that within the format of the tech of yesteryear. This makes it unlike anything before, and likely after, it. It will go down in the fabled catalog of Disney nighttime pageants as being another impressive conclusion to a day well spent making lifelong memories with family and friends.
Edited by: Hannah Wilkes