Describing something as “magical” at Walt Disney World, Disneyland, or the other worldwide parks is cliched and overdone. While the Disney Parks are awe-inspiring places that overfill people with joy and leave them speechless, magical is used a tad too much. It’s probably not the best word to describe a steak you had at Yachtsman Steakhouse. Okay, bad example–it absolutely is. (Updated December 15, 2019.)
Yet, there plenty of things that happen at Walt Disney World and the other parks that words simply do not do justice. Inarticulable moments where you’re left speechless and overcome with a sense of magic. I hesitate to call these wow-moments because some don’t have that sense of grandiosity and don’t blow you away, but are no less amazing.
Even as I try to describe what this list is and isn’t, I’m struggling. I suspect that, despite my babbling and lack of a coherent explanation, most of you (some of you?) are nodding along, knowing what I mean. I guess that’s the thing about magic: we can’t readily define what it is, but we know it when we see it…
Note: this list contains spoilers, and a lot of them. In several instances, the moment on this list is the defining aspect of a particular experience or attraction. Since this list covers every park in the world, if you are spoiler-averse and haven’t visited one of the parks, you should probably stop reading now…
Second note: that this does not mean ‘Magical Moments’ in typical Disney parlance (which is a Cast Member going above and beyond to make something special happen for a guest). All of the things on this list are experiences that can be enjoyed by anyone without any special “pixie dust.” Sorry if there’s any confusion–I couldn’t think of a more apt post title.
Okay, on with our favorite magical moments from around the Disney world…
11. Close Encounters of the Dragon Kind
I know this is item #11 on a top 10 list, but when it comes to the greatness of dragons, I think we should all be willing to make some exceptions. Fair enough?
I’m referring to La Tanière du Dragon, which is a walk-through attraction beneath Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant at Disneyland Paris. I’ve sat down in the dragon’s lair and watched it for the longest amounts of time–it’s always one of the first things I do whenever we go to Paris. This dragon is shockingly captivating for what is, in essence, a sleeping dragon that awakens in quick bursts of energy.
10. Animator’s Palate Second Show
In our Animator’s Palate Review, I remarked: “It’s sort of like The Magic of Disney Animation: The Restaurant. It’s an engaging, dynamic restaurant that has that certain je ne sais quoi that can best be described as Disney magic.” I think that’s apt, and that show remains my favorite implementation of Disney’s Living Character Initiative.
However, it’s the second show–a show we saw for the first time on our Norway cruise this summer–at Animator’s Palate that wowed me even more. In this, guests draw characters at the beginning of the meal, and these creations come to life later in the evening. It’s a concept that might sound hokey on paper, but it was the most captivating “interactive” experience I’ve ever had. Something that you drew has come to life? Really impressive.
9. Night Parade’s Approach
The specific moment that jumps to mind for me here is when Jiminy Cricket’s introduction of SpectroMagic ends, the Main Street lighting goes dark, and you begin to see the parade in the distance. Alas, that is no more.
Fortunately, the remaining night parades have similar moments. Seeing Paint the Night approach is mesmerizing, and I still get goosebumps as the music starts and the first floats of Dreamlights approach. For reasons that elude me, there’s something truly magical about Disney’s night parades, even the simple and older ones, and I become entranced by their special spell of light, glimmering, shimmering, carousel-ling. 😉
8. Holiday Castle Lighting
Say what you will about Frozen, but the moment the Cinderella Castle is transformed into an ice palace is truly a sight to behold. This should make sense: Christmas lights are beautiful, and Cinderella Castle is beautiful. Much like a maple bacon cupcake, you sorta wonder: why didn’t someone think of this sooner?
In actuality, the whole is more than the some of the parts. This isn’t just some Christmas lights haphazardly draped over the castle. The lights give Cinderella Castle a resplendent glow, and elevate it from just another ordinary theme park ( 😉 ) into something that truly resembles an ice castle. Seeing this transformation occur before your eyes is breathtaking, and worth braving the crowds to see.
7. Captain Jack Comes to Life
There are numerous wow moments in Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure that showcase Imagineering’s pushing of the technical envelope, but Captain Jack’s transition from a skeleton to pirate is (in my estimation) the most incredible to behold.
This is in large part because it occurs first, occurring as the atmosphere is building and not much has happened. This ‘whoa’ moment is kicks the attraction into high gear with a progressively more grandiose wow-inducing slate of scenes. Battle for the Sunken Treasure alone could probably populate an entire “how’d they do that?” top 10 list, but this early scene is tough to beat.
6. Mystic Manor Comes Alive
As with Shanghai’s Pirates of the Caribbean, Mystic Manor has no shortage of wow moments and impressive technical effects. However, the one that amazed me the most on my first ride-through–and sticks with me even today–is the first time the “magic” visibly rose from the music box and brought to life the previously-inanimate objects in the first room.
The expression on Albert’s face when he realizes what he’s unleashed probably wasn’t that much different than the look on my face.
5. Star Wars Comes [Redacted]
There are four specific wow moments for me in the new Galaxy’s Edge attractions, with Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance having three of the moments and Millennium Falcon Smugglers Run having the other. (The Smugglers Run ‘moment’ is entering the chess room through sitting in the cockpit.) Of the moments from Rise of the Resistance, two of these would rank ahead of both Mystic Manor and Shanghai’s Pirates of the Caribbean, while one would not.
However, I have a self-imposed spoiler embargo on Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance for all blog posts here until June 2020. After that point, I’ll return and cover these three moments. (If you’ve already experienced the attraction, you can probably guess two of them. The third isn’t quite as obvious.)
4. Drumming Mickey
Big Band Beat had already solidified its place as one of my favorite Disney shows ever about three-quarters of the way through my original viewing of it. Then Mickey Mouse rose, behind the drums and changed everything. At that moment in time, disbelief was fully suspended, and I sat there in awe as Mickey Mouse came alive and played the drums like a boss. I’ve seen Big Band Beat numerous times since, and I still am flabbergasted every time he plays those drums.
Honorable mention here for “Talking Mickey” or any meet & greet character, for that matter. For kids, any of these interactions could be the moment that Mickey Mouse came alive and they met him in the flesh. For their parents, the flood of emotions that followed that experience would likewise rank it highly.
3. The Stretching Room
This is probably the best instance of a ‘magical moment’ being distinct from a ‘wow-moment.’ Sarah thought this was an odd inclusion, especially so high up, but hear me out. Two of the strongest memories of magical moments from my childhood are the entirety of the original Journey into Imagination (that’s one long moment!) and the Haunted Mansion Stretching Room.
Perhaps it’s nostalgia coloring my opinion of this. As simple of an effect as I now know it is, for years I was befuddled by it. I really bought into the Ghost Host’s line, and wondered whether the room was actually stretching or if it was my imagination. (Well, more like whether it was stretching or a clever optical illusion, but still.)
Oh, and even though Journey into Imagination with Figment is not deserving of a spot on this list, I will say that the disappearing butterfly effect deserves an honorable mention. It’s another simple practical effect that leaves a lasting impression.
I think the Kiss Goodnight is an emotional powerhouse for so many people because it’s the culmination of a fun day in the Magic Kingdom. During this moment of pause, you let your guard down and Disney’s careful tugging at your heartstrings “gets you” as you’re already simultaneously drained and satisfied at the end of a long day in the park. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
1. The Big Reveal
From the end of the day to the beginning, our #1 choice is a pretty easy one. The first time you step onto Main Street and see Cinderella Castle, Sleeping Beauty Castle, etc. The first time you step through the breezeway and see Mount Prometheus. Heck, the first time you walk under the arch and see the Cadillac Mountains of Cars Land.
Sure, you might see the castles or those mountains towering in the distance from outside of the parks, but the magic of seeing them revealed for the first time from within the park is that we’ve arrived feeling. It’s like a shot of adrenaline and light-headness and the feeling that your heart is growing three sizes, and probably more, all at once. Again, my explanation of this feeling probably sounds odd and nonsensical, but anyone who has experienced this knows the feeling.
In Memoriam(?): IllumiNations, Illuminated
There are a few moments in IllumiNations that I loved (past tense). The opening narration followed by the torches being blown out. Hearing Walter Cronkite narrate the Peace on Earth tag. The ‘perimeter’ bursts shooting into the center of World Showcase Lagoon. The full “IllumiNations Post Show Stroll.”
However, the high point for me was Act II as the music builds to its crescendo, and the countries around World Showcase are illuminated. At this moment, I always pause to look around, and marvel at the fact that I’m standing in a theme park in Florida and gazing at faithful representations of different countries of the world, coexisting. That’s an undoubtedly hokey emotional response, but it is what it is.
Although IllumiNations has now been retired for Epcot Forever and soon, the permanent HarmonioUS nighttime spectacular, I remain optimistic that one or a few of these moments will find their way into HarmonioUS. While I don’t have tremendously high expectations for that show, it would make sense to incorporate the torches and country lighting into that show somehow. Until that happens (or doesn’t), I’ll leave this here, optimistic that it’ll rejoin the list…
What special moments in the Disney Parks really tug at your heartstrings or elicit an emotional response? Anything on this list with which you agree…or disagree? Any questions about any of the items on this list? We love hearing from readers, so please share some of your favorite magical moments at Walt Disney World and beyond, or any other thoughts or questions you have, in the comments!