Magic Kingdom has debuted special projection effects to give Cinderella Castle a festive look for Christmas, providing a scenic backdrop for holiday photos. This post will shares photos of each design, our experience with crowds & physical distancing, and more.
This continues our resources about Magic Kingdom’s modified holiday offerings. Be sure to check out our Christmas Character Cavalcade Guide for best viewing locations, tips & info about that daytime entertainment. Once the sun has set and Santa and his reindeer have made one last “flight” down Main Street, these projections begin.
To quickly recap, these holiday projection backdrops are occurring in place of the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights, which were cancelled for 2020. Those brilliant icicle lights have become an icon of Christmas-time at Walt Disney World since they debuted 13 years ago, and hopefully this is only a single-year absence…
In explaining the decision to suspend certain offerings for the year, such as Candlelight Processional and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, Walt Disney World indicated that “holiday experiences that draw big crowds will be on hiatus this year.”
Walt Disney World did not expressly state that was the reason the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights wouldn’t happen this year, but it was the implication. Even prior to the announcement, we guessed that the Dream Lights wouldn’t happen in our “Christmas Conjecture” post.
Regardless of crowds, there were several other reasons not to have the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights, from installation to park hours (which have since been extended pretty significantly across the board). While it could be another cost-cutting measure, we’re willing to give Disney the benefit of the doubt here and chalk it up to timing.
Installation of the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights normally starts in early September, before an official announcement about Christmas at Walt Disney World was even made this year. It’s possible everything was up in the air until the last possible minute, and by that point, it was too late to do the Dream Lights. In which case, something is better than nothing.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s start with the basics.
Per Walt Disney World, there’s a rotating kaleidoscope of designs including festive stripes and dots (top photo), a whimsical Christmas sweater look (two photos down), a jeweled winter castle (pictured below), and a regal overlay of red, green & gold ornamentation (pictured immediately above).
Each of these is essentially an animated backdrop featuring scenes of Christmas. There are some moving elements and details, but it’s definitely not a projection show. There are also spotlights and trees around the Central Plaza are bathed in lights that match the colors on Cinderella Castle.
These holiday designs rotate once every 15 minutes, meaning it takes an hour to cycle fully through the projection backdrops.
In terms of a review of the designs, we generally like them. (What you see is what you get with these, so you probably can form your own opinion based solely on the photos.)
We do think there’s a bit too much similarity between a couple of the designs. Maybe three of them.
I don’t know why, but I was under the impression there would be a gingerbread Cinderella Castle. This would have been (and still would be!) cool. I know that because I’ve already seen it and have photos of it.
Back in the infancy of projection mapping at Walt Disney World, there was a Christmas segment in the “Magic, Memories & You” that featured a gingerbread castle, candy cane castle, light-strung castle, and other varied designs. (Even a brief castle cake!) More recently, Tokyo Disneyland did an entire Christmas projection show on its Cinderella Castle with fun and festive designs. I’m surprised none of those were used.
The limited nature of the designs is a minor quibble; again, something is better than nothing here. Moreover, others will likely enjoy the designs of the projection effects as-is.
Our bigger issue is that these projections in no way accomplish Walt Disney World’s stated goal of avoiding big crowds.
This was far and away the busiest we’ve seen Main Street and the Central Plaza since Magic Kingdom reopened.
We never felt unsafe and there were still plenty of pleasant spots for viewing the projections away from the crowds, but there were also areas of congestion. This was especially true between the Partners statue and Cinderella Castle. While this was opening weekend and that always draws visitors eager to be among the first to see anything new, it was also a relatively low-crowds weekend as compared to what’s ahead with Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Our Christmas character cavalcade post was fairly understanding on the point of crowding. As we pointed out there, those are fairly low risk given that they’re fleeting, outdoors, and everyone is masked. Additionally, Walt Disney World is doing its best on enforcement, it’s just somewhat of a losing battle.
The same is generally true here–Cast Members were everywhere doing a great job reminding guests to wear masks while taking photos and encouraging physical distancing. Nevertheless, there is definitely much more room for improvement with the projections.
The first and easiest improvement would be to shorten the duration of each holiday backdrop. Drop it from 15 minutes to 2 minutes.
This is a pretty significant cut, but part of the problem we observed is guests standing around, waiting for the full cycle. A longer cycle means more guests congregating on Main Street for longer periods of time. Two minutes is sufficient time for most people to grab a photo. If not, they can catch it on a second cycle, which would still be significantly less of a time commitment than what many guests are doing right now.
Alternatively, abandon this idea entirely.
That probably seems harsh, but that might be the better route. We’re not trashing the concept–the projections are fun and give a festive flair to Cinderella Castle. And of course, hindsight is 20/20. With that said, we saw and overheard many guests who were “waiting for the show to start” or asking Cast Members what time “it” began.
This might seem preposterous to knowledgeable fans or anyone who reads a Walt Disney World-centric blog; it’s important to remember that most guests are not like us.
For years (literal years!) after Main Street Electrical Parade ended, people would still line the curb each night. It takes a while for word of mouth to spread and collective knowledge to evolve. Suffice to say, some guests are going to be camping out for “the show” once these projections begin through the entire holiday season.
We’re not advocating for doing away with projections completely, but instead transitioning to an actual show. Given that the holiday season has already started, this might be difficult, but it’s not as unreasonable as it might sound.
Again, there are already projected vignettes of Christmas that fit Cinderella Castle from both Magic Kingdom and Tokyo Disneyland. A quick 3-5 minute show could be cobbled together from those, and easily spun as a “magical enhancement” to the holiday season.
The benefit of such a change to a brief projection mapping show for Christmas is that it would give guests what they’re expecting and send them on their way more quickly, lowering prolonged congestion on Main Street.
That’s exactly what’s happening over at Animal Kingdom with the Tree of Life Holiday Awakenings, which are being shown as normal. Those haven’t had nearly the crowding issues, with guests stopping when the vignette begins and leaving when it ends.
In fairness, there are very obvious differences between crowd flow around Cinderella Castle and the Tree of Life. Guests will always congregate around the Magic Kingdom icon at night. There’s no way to totally eliminate that, just reduce it. What’s currently being done could be improved upon, particularly since crowds will only get worse during the holiday weeks.
Ultimately, the projections on Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom are fun and do make nice backdrops for photos. It’s an idea that seemed great in theory, especially if the alternative was nothing at all. (Next year, we hope the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights return–this doesn’t hold a candle to those.) However, seeing the guest response and operational realities necessitates further tweaking of this idea. Here’s hoping Walt Disney World does exactly that and improves upon these holiday special effects!
What do you think of the holiday special projection effects at Magic Kingdom? Prefer these to the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights, or hope those return next year? Thoughts on our recommendations of shortening the duration of each projection or switching over to an actual vignette show? Concerned about crowding and physically distancing breakdowns? Do you plan on visiting Walt Disney World this Christmas, or are you sitting this year out? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!