It’s officially Christmas at Magic Kingdom! While the park is decked out for the holidays, one stunning staple is missing from Walt Disney’s World’s winter lineup for the third straight year: Cinderella Castle’s Dream Lights, which is the dazzling display that transforms the icon into a shimmering ice palace.
We’ll level with you. “Will the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights come back for Christmas 2023?” is NOT a common reader question. Other entries in our “guest inquiry series,” like those about the Disney Dining Plan and Annual Passes, were written so we didn’t have to constantly, individually address reader questions. Honestly, that’s not the case here…which is precisely the problem.
While we’re asked about the Disney Dining Plan on a daily basis, I can’t recall anyone asking about the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights this year. The last two Christmases, it was definitely a somewhat common question–but it’s dropped off precipitously as of this year’s holiday season.
Accordingly, this post is being written with ulterior motives. (In my defense, at least I’m being upfront about it and honest with you.) The Cinderella Castle Dream Lights was one of our favorite things about Christmas at Walt Disney World for the last decade-plus prior to them being cancelled in 2020.
We spent many a late night on Main Street, simply gazing down at those resplendent lights, savoring the scene. I lost count of how many times we did this over the years–probably over 100. And yet, it still somehow feels that we took the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights for granted and didn’t enjoy them quite enough.
When Walt Disney World began its phased reopening in the second half of 2020, a lot was missing for that first holiday season. While disappointing, it was also understandable–capacity was capped at a low level and things were a long way from normal.
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.”
To my knowledge, Walt Disney World never drew an express connection between the need for physical distancing or avoiding crowds and the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights. However, it was relatively obvious to anyone who had visited the parks during the holiday season that they caused exactly that.
Colossal crowds congregate for “A Frozen Holiday Wish,” which features Anna, Elsa, and other characters in a show on the Castle Forecourt Stage. That twice-nightly show culminates in Queen Elsa using her incredible powers to present a gift to everyone in the kingdom, transforming Cinderella Castle into a glistening ice palace for the holidays.
While “A Frozen Holiday Wish” is the worst of it (we had advised for years that the show was too short to justify how long people camped out for prime spots), it wasn’t just that. Throughout the evening, the hub or Central Plaza in front of Cinderella Castle was often packed with people taking photos. And for good reason, as the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights were nothing short of stunning.
The point is that simply cancelling “A Frozen Holiday Wish” wouldn’t have side-stepped the problem. The Dream Lights themselves had significant crowd-drawing power, so the explanation proffered by Walt Disney World passed the smell test.
Even beyond that, it was fairly obvious the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights wouldn’t happen for other reasons. In a normal year, the infamous/iconic crane would appear in late August or early September to begin installation of the physical lights on the castle. (The infamous/iconic line is a joke. The crane’s arrival was always met with fanfare, and it became a staple of many family photos for fall visitors. However, Disney started putting it down during the day in more recent years.)
By that point in 2020, the parks were still finding their footing and most construction projects were paused. Disney’s decision making process is belabored, meaning it was likely too late to bring back the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights two years ago.
Finally, there were cost-cutting or ‘fiscal austerity measures’ in place due to the attendance caps and other constraints that were causing the parks division to hemorrhage money. While it’s (possibly) true that the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights recoup their costs in PhotoPass and other sales in a normal year, that was most definitely not the calculus back in 2020.
Even at that time, we speculated that the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights also would not return in 2021 and perhaps not even this year. That was due to the Walt Disney World 50th Anniversary, an 18-month “celebration” (allegedly) that would encompass both last and this Christmas seasons and feature a “royal overlay” to Cinderella Castle.
You might also recall that Disney replaced Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party last year with seasonal After Hours events. As we (over) explained last year, this was due to the dynamics of the 50th Anniversary. Perhaps we did a good (?) job of emphasizing all of this, and that’s why no one has been asking about the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights–you’re simply assuming the overlay will return for Christmas 2023 with the 50th in the rearview mirror.
This is at least partially fair and remains our hope. The problem with this perspective is that it ignores how Walt Disney World has essentially abandoned the 50th Anniversary festivities. Okay, “abandoned” is a harsh word. Those little lamppost banners and statues paying tribute to random characters that may or may not talk to you when you flail your arms about while wearing a MagicBand+ are still up. Disney Enchantment continues to limp along, as does Harmonious. (Although replacements for both have already been announced, with fans counting down the days until our long national nightmare(s) are over.)
However, Walt Disney World already gave up on maintaining a normal operating schedule for Magic Kingdom, realizing guests would rather have the “real” Halloween and Christmas parties back than see Disney Enchantment on a nightly basis. In short, it appears that the company has recognized the shortcomings of the “celebration” and is picking and choosing where it makes sense to throw in the towel on the event.
To that point, it would’ve made perfect sense for the Royal Makeover of Cinderella Castle or Beacons of Magic to be two of those things that quietly faded away. I think it’s fair to say that no one would’ve shouted “VACATION RUINED” had they stepped foot on Main Street to discover that the jabots, swag, bunting, and other faux drapery was gone. Or the uninspired projection ‘moment’ at night.
Well, maybe like 16 of you, but there are also weirdos out there who lamented the closure of Innoventions’ Vision House. If there’s a thing at Walt Disney World, you can be assured it has a cult following out there. No matter how bad, some corner of the fandom will be distressed when it’s gone. (No offense. I love a lot of super-niche things.)
Regardless, the overall reaction to installing the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights would’ve been resoundingly positive. Heck, Walt Disney World could’ve removed all of the overlay exception the 50 medallion, strung some lights around it, and called the overlay an ‘exclusive’ or limited time 50th Anniversary offering. That medallion in photos is all anyone cares about–no one is out there geeking out over the rest of the overlay or the “was that it?” Beacons of Magic.
This is what gives me cause for concern. If bringing back the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights were high priority, Walt Disney World could’ve done it this year. While different from the parties, the same underlying rationale could’ve been used to restore the holiday overlay even amidst Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary “celebration.”
With that said, it’s entirely possible that the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights will return for Christmas 2023.
However, we truly do not have any inclination as to whether that will happen. We’ve heard second-hand rumblings that Walt Disney World prefers the projections, finding them to be more economical and efficient since there are no installation costs. Although this info is indirect, it tracks with the type of sentiment we’ve come to expect from management.
Conversely, the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights supposedly had significant drawing power. Over the years, there were anecdotes about bookings, PhotoPass sales, etc. that supported the notion that the Dream Lights paid for themselves. Perhaps that’s still the prevailing sentiment, and they’ll be back. Or maybe Disney feels the projections are “performing” well enough. In our view from the outside looking in, it certainly seems like the decision could go either way.
Honestly, that’s sort of the point of this post. Not to offer a prediction…but to “raise awareness” about the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights and their uncertain future. When it comes to this type of thing, it’s better to offer feedback before a definitive decision to retire an offering has been made. If Walt Disney World announces details of the Christmas 2023 slate and the Dream Lights are absent, it’ll already be too late for outrage, petitions, or guest feedback.
My hope is that it doesn’t come to that. In the last ~15 years, Walt Disney World has already lost so much that made the holiday season special. Gone is the Country Bear Christmas attraction overlay. Ditto the Lights of Winter at EPCOT. Don’t get us started on the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. This is to say nothing of the many seasonal shows, parade overlays, displays, tree lightings, and more that have quietly faded away over the years. Our hope is that the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights do not similarly make the list of beloved-but-extinct Christmas offerings at Walt Disney World.
One thing we always recommend doing is respectfully expressing your disappointment and explaining how the company’s decisions and practices will impact your vacations and future business (or lack thereof) with Walt Disney World by emailing [email protected].
If you visit this holiday season and are disappointed by the lack of Cinderella Castle Dream Lights, address it when participating in guest satisfaction surveys, bring it up if you speak with managers or others in park leadership, or even proactively contact Guest Relations to politely let them know how you feel.
“Respectfully” and “politely” are the operative words here for a reason. While an irate rant might make you feel better, it’s not the route to take if your goal is effectuating change. We’ve seen and heard way too many guests offer snide or sarcastic feedback; venting can be cathartic, but that’s about it. “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” is a cliche, but it’s also one that a disturbing number of adults don’t seem to grasp.
Given all of the negative changes and guest unfriendly policies that Walt Disney World has enacted in the last couple of years, it might seem like the company no longer cares about guest satisfaction and feedback. It’s probably true that there are some at the highest levels of leadership who don’t, or focus more on objective KPIs, but there most certainly are leaders on the ground in Florida who care. In many cases, it’s simply a matter of them being able to show “support” when fighting for things, budgets, etc.
For those who have never had a chance to see the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights, they are nothing short of spectacular. Some of you cynics might think such a physical light display is quaint or antiquated, surpassed by the ease and flexibility of projections. That those of us who miss the Dream Lights are simply clouded by nostalgia and sentimentality, ignoring the daytime visual blight, installation, and simplicity of the physical icicle lights.
I wholeheartedly disagree. No projections can match the more than 200,000 tiny white lights that illuminate Cinderella Castle and transform it into a veritable ice palace. On paper or even in photos, it might seem simple and commonplace. In person, the display was anything but that. The Dream Lights would stop you in your tracks, with the resplendent physical display being an absolute jaw-dropper. Words, photos, and video absolutely cannot do it justice. I’m not normally one for the flowery language in Disney’s press releases, but even the company’s marketing teams undersold the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights. Whatever praise you’ve heard about the Dream Lights, it’s true. All of it.
Speaking of which, since no one leverages lofty language quite like Walt Disney World, here’s how the company described the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights when they first launched back in 2007:
As if suddenly dusted in a million ice crystals, Cinderella Castle shines like the galaxies, adding to the wintertime wonderment of the holidays at Florida’s Vacation Kingdom. And what a spectacle.
“We are thrilled to be adding this brilliant new castle spectacle to the holiday festivities at Walt Disney World this season and for seasons to come,” said Francois Leroux, vice president of Walt Disney World Entertainment. “This glistening holiday enchantment creates perfect fairytale magic for this festive time of year.”
“For a park aglow in holiday magic, this becomes the new and eye-filling superstar,” added Disney Entertainment show producer Rob Hamberg who supervised the weeks-long rigging of the turrets and towers for the light show. “Nothing will rival ‘Cinderella’s Holiday Wish’ for sheer visual spectacle.”
With a wave of Fairy Godmother’s wand — and guests joining in to make the wish come true — Cinderella Castle magically morphs into a glorious wintry confection, twinkling in the sky. “The castle suddenly shines like a glistening blanket of ice,” explained Disney show writer/director Alan Bruun. “Guests won’t believe their eyes at the spectacle as Cinderella’s holiday wish comes true.”
As for what replaces–hopefully still just temporarily–the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights for Christmas 2022, it’s another year of projections. There’s a rotating “kaleidoscope of designs” including festive stripes and dots, a whimsical Christmas sweater look, a jeweled winter castle, and a regal overlay of red, green & gold ornamentation.
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 change throughout the evening, and are each displayed for several minutes before changing.
A couple of these are fun. The holiday sweater scene is particularly good. The others mostly blur together or don’t strike me as particularly Christmasy.
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. 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.
My bigger issue with the Cinderella Castle Christmas projections is that they’re played out. Walt Disney World has way overdone it with projection-mapping, so it should be no surprise there’s a bit of fatigue with it. There are projections in the fireworks shows, on the other park icons (Tree of Life, Tower of Terror, Grauman’s Chinese Theater), and more.
Simply put, projection-mapping has lost its awe and novelty thanks to overuse. This is part of why the Beacons of Magic at EPCOT are beloved fan favorites, whereas no one cares about the rest of them. The Spaceship Earth display features physical lights and has a special, unique quality that projection mapping cannot match. Just like the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights!!!
Ultimately, the projections for Christmas on Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom are…fine, I guess. They’re better than nothing. Worth seeing once, I suppose. They exceed guest expectations when starting from a baseline of zero. That’s really about it, though.
By contrast, the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights were something special–truly a magical sight to behold, and that’s not a term we use lightly. Seeing the lighting ceremony and the transformation to a bona-fide icicle castle at dusk was mesmerizing. Turning the corner when entering the park and seeing Cinderella Castle aglow in 200,000+ glistening lights took your breath away. The Dream Lights were literally wow-inducing, and the projections cannot hold a candle to that. Walt Disney World should do the right thing, deliver an experience that exceeds expectations, and bring back the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights for Christmas 2023.
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 for Christmas 2023? Planning on voicing your thoughts about the Dream Lights–or anything else–to Guest Relations? Do you plan on visiting Walt Disney World this holiday season, 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!