Wondrous Journeys is better than Happily Ever After. There, I said it. Disneyland’s newest nighttime spectacular is better than the fan-favorite fireworks at Magic Kingdom, which are so beloved that they were brought back by popular demand even after Walt Disney World said they were gone for good.
Before you start with the hate mail, we absolutely adore Happily Ever After. It’s the best permanent fireworks show we’ve ever seen at Magic Kingdom, and made our list of the Top 10 Disney Nighttime Spectaculars & Fireworks Shows of All Time. We begged for its return after being massively disappointed by Disney Enchantment. We also think Happily Ever After is better than Wishes, the fireworks show from our formative years as Walt Disney World fans and for which we still hold nostalgia in our hearts.
Point being, we are not Happily Ever After haters. (But then again, is anyone?!) Taking that a step further, you might notice that we refrained from reviewing Wondrous Journeys back when it debuted at the start of Disney100, despite reviewing World of Color – ONE. That was a seemingly odd decision, but honestly, it was because our first impression of Wondrous Journeys was so positive that I worried it was an “overreaction” and partly due to Disney Enchantment being so awful and underwhelming. After seeing Wondrous Journeys a dozen-plus times–including viewings within days of seeing Happily Ever After–I’m now more confident in my assessment…
Before we get going, I want to offer a couple of quick notes. First, we both love Wondrous Journeys, but it being better than Happily Ever After is strictly a “Tom Take.” Sarah has not been able to see Happily Ever After since its triumphant return, and does not necessarily share my controversial opinion. She has advised that I make it abundantly clear that this is not a joint commentary–direct all hate mail at me, exclusively!
Second, this is very much a “why not both?!” scenario. They’re both phenomenal nighttime spectaculars, and just as easily as I can make the below case for Wondrous Journeys being better, someone else could advance arguments in favor of Happily Ever After. In fact, I can think of 112! (What is the height difference, in feet, between Cinderella Castle and Sleeping Beauty Castle?)
More than anything else, this is a ‘just for fun’ post meant to underscore just how good Wondrous Journeys is for the uninitiated. It’s an article for the non-believers who were burned by Disney Enchantment and are skeptical that Disney Live Entertainment is capable of producing anything on par with Happily Ever After. They’ve still got the magical touch–and here are the top 10 reasons why!
No Walt – I’ll start with the hottest of takes that’s sure to catch the ire of some Disneyland diehards: I’m glad there’s no Walt Disney narration in Wondrous Journeys. Don’t get me wrong, I love Walt and appreciate when the parks honor him. But I also think sometimes he’s shoehorned into things as fan service or as a crutch.
Disneyland Forever, a nighttime spectacular I otherwise really like, is the prime example of this. This originally debuted for Disneyland’s 60th Anniversary Diamond Celebration, so the opening includes Walt’s dedication and stuff about Anaheim and orange groves. The show that follows is completely unrelated to all of that.
It’s like they developed the substance of the nighttime spectacular and then said, “oh shoot, this is an anniversary show. Somebody quick come up with a heartfelt introduction!” To each their own, but I’d rather have Walt Disney be honored in meaningful and appropriate ways, and not as an afterthought. I feel the same way about superfluous statues to gloss over a lack of substance, but that’s another rant for another day!
Love Letter to Walt Disney Animation Studios – Despite no words of wisdom from the man himself, Wondrous Journeys actually is a meaningful tribute to Walt Disney by virtue of being a love letter to the animation studio he founded, its rich historic legacy, and the creative process.
Wondrous Journeys begins with an animator sketching Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Donald Duck. More hand-drawn versions of classic characters–Snow White, Pinocchio, Lady & Tramp, Peter Pan, Bambi–follow, transforming into color illustrations. As the pages come to life, the infectious new song “It’s Wondrous” builds in intensity and the first pyro explodes overhead.
In its first minute, Wondrous Journeys already has more heart and is a more heartfelt homage to Walt Disney’s creative legacy than most nighttime spectaculars–especially the ones that directly invoke Walt–do in their entire runtimes. In the minutes that follow, the entirety of Main Street USA and Sleeping Beauty Castle come alive with new characters coming to life every second.
It’s surprisingly satisfying to see these familiar faces, and that’s a direct result of Wondrous Journeys doing the actual work of laying an emotional foundation and building to something, rather than using a “nostalgia shortcut.”
Endlessly Rewatchable – I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Wondrous Journeys, but it’s easily over a dozen. And I’d hazard a guess that about two-thirds of those showings were projections only (I love fireworks, but it’s always a risky commitment at Disneyland since pyro gets cancelled often and crowds are worse). As such, I’ve really been able to focus on the projections and not always been preoccupied by pyro (or photography!).
Suffice to say, it’s absolutely impossible to spot all of the 62 Walt Disney Animation Studios films represented in Wondrous Journeys during a single showing…or even multiple showings. Heck, even on the final night I saw Wondrous Journeys before it went on hiatus until 2024, I was still spotting new things, keeping my head on a swivel trying to watch both Main Street and Sleeping Beauty Castle.
Obviously, all of this has made me want to rewatch Wondrous Journeys itself. But how much I love the show also makes me want to rewatch my favorite movies that are highlighted. (Wondrous Journeys is a much better “advertisement” for Disney+ than Disney Enchantment, despite the latter feeling like it was made for that express purpose.)
Probably against my better judgment, but Wondrous Journeys has given me pause and caused me to reconsider my opinions of past flops–Treasure Planet, Atlantis, Home on the Range, Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons–that were ‘one and dones’ for me.
Better Projections – Despite being on the smaller canvas, Wondrous Journeys has better projections than Happily Ever After any Magic Kingdom nighttime spectacular. Not only that, but the secondary projections on Main Street, Rivers of America, and “it’s a small world” are all better and more ambitious than ever, with more actual animation that helps tell the show’s story.
I hate to admit this, but the projections in Wondrous Journeys actually are essential. I’ve long maintained that Happily Ever After is just as strong with or without them, but Wondrous Journeys just doesn’t carry the same emotional weight without them. (I actually saw it one night when the projections weren’t working that really drove home this point!)
That’s arguably a point against Wondrous Journeys, as the smaller Sleeping Beauty Castle can be harder to see. But with a range of locations with projections, it’s possible to get the full experience without being dead-center in the Hub. (My personal favorite spot is being between Gibson Girl and Refreshment Corner, fully immersed in the projections and pyro. See Where to Watch Disneyland Fireworks: Best & Worst Spots for additional advice on viewing areas for this and other fireworks shows.)
It’s Timeless – For me, the biggest very pleasant surprise of Wondrous Journeys is that it didn’t skew heavily to the last decade of Walt Disney Animation Studios movies. Sure, there’s a lot of Frozen, Moana and Encanto–but given their popularity, that’s to be expected. There’s also a lot of the original classics and Disney Renaissance era movies.
Wondrous Journeys is incredibly well-balanced, and every generation of Disney fan is going to see different things that “speak to them.” For me, that’s mostly the older stuff, plus Beauty and the Beast plus late 90s films that I feel were overlooked. More than anything else, though, I love how none of the scenes are a single generation. They all weave together decades of animation, as if old characters are passing the baton to newer ones, just as Walt Disney Animation Studios itself has learned lessons from the past.
Theme Song – “It’s Wondrous” itself is far better than almost any other show theme song I’ve ever heard. It’s really good, and by real song standards, not just schmaltzy show songs by Disney.
For a song that doesn’t include the word “Disneyland” in it even once, it has a real “Main Street at Disneyland” quality to it. (Don’t ask how, because I can’t for the life of me explain that.) There’s something about it that just embodies the spirit of Walt Disney’s original magic kingdom. It’s subtle and doesn’t hit you over the head…which is probably what I appreciate about it. I could see “It’s Wondrous” becoming an anthem of sorts for Disneyland, and wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see song outlive the nighttime spectacular itself, reused and remixed for adds and future entertainment.
Musical Medley – The music throughout Wondrous Journeys is fantastic, with great song choices and arrangements. This is similar to, but better than, Happily Ever After–and a very sharp contrast to Disney Enchantment.
There’s a lot I love about the Wondrous Journeys soundtrack, but the moment during my first viewing that cemented this being a new classic was the Songs of Hope and Yearning–the mashup of “Go the Distance” from Hercules, “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast, “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana, and “Out There” from the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The way those are weaved together is pure perfection.
Blue Fairy and Baymax – I’ve seen Tinker Bell fly over castles hundreds of times, and it never gets old. If ever I get cynical instead of sentimental about seeing that, it’s time to hang it up. With that said, seeing Blue Fairy instead of Tinker Bell for the first just hit different. I can’t put it into words, but I got goosebumps–maybe it was akin to seeing Tinker Bell for the first time all over again, proving that you can go home again.
Seeing Baymax buzz around Sleeping Beauty Castle is just really cool. Nothing deeper, just dang that was awesome. Well, and he also sets up what’s arguably the best stretch of the entire show–a few minutes that have more emotional range than most fireworks shows do in full.
It Gets Dark – Happily Ever After was the first Disney montage fireworks show that had a compelling narrative throughline, and didn’t just feel like a grab bag of movies and songs. It was the culmination of that era of nighttime spectaculars, applying and perfecting the lessons learned on the generation of fireworks shows leading up to it.
Wondrous Journeys takes that a step further, and has a sense of self-assuredness and swagger. It’s a confidence I wouldn’t have expected coming off of Disney Enchantment, quite honestly. Ironically enough, this is most apparent than in the choice to eschew a traditional hero/villain good/evil dichotomy for the low point being one of self-doubt, failure and uncertainty.
The air is sucked out of the show, the soundtrack goes silent for several seconds, and the projected canvases go back. It’s like entering a void, and it’s an absolute emotional gut-punch for the audience. It’s also really risky, as this failing to resonate would have been like Disney Enchantment all over again. But it does and it’s not–instead being an incredibly poignant moment in a show full of well-earned moments.
Also, and I don’t want to be one of those people who reads too much into things and sees subtext that was never intended, but the first time I saw Wondrous Journeys, I thought/wondered whether this was done to allude to Walt Disney Animation Studios itself. In particular, its Dark Era and the struggles and sense of self-doubt the animators had after Walt Disney’s passing. This probably was not intended–different films would’ve been chosen to convey this if it were the case–but I nevertheless still appreciate how this could be read as a metacommentary on the studio itself.
Pooh Humor – We all have a relative who posts “funny” graphics on Facebook featuring Winnie the Pooh and friends that look like they were made in Microsoft Paint ’98. I’m not going to name names, but some of us have aunts who go hard with these graphics, even when it makes no sense whatsoever. I’m not sure how Eeyore with an umbrella attached to his tail is applicable to the birth of our daughter, but I digress.
Despite being beloved by boomers, Pooh’s posse has an understated dry humor and this wryness is just waiting to be “discovered” by younger generations. The ending of Wondrous Journeys is an example of this, and one of my favorite parts of the show, as the narrator tells Winnie the Pooh that we’ve come to the conclusion of this chapter. Pooh breaks the fourth wall (do fireworks shows have walls at all?) and says, “oh no, please, can’t we go back to page one and do it all over again?”
In response, the narrator calms a tearful Pooh by telling him that “it’s just another turn of the page” and “that what comes next will be wondrous.” This is such a little thing, but it is so unbelievably brilliant and, to my knowledge, has never been done in another Disney nighttime spectacular. In fitting fashion, Winnie the Pooh provides an adorable moment of charm and humor, and the show deftly uses that to tightly transition to its emotional finale. More than anything else, that encapsulates the magic of Wondrous Journeys. Indeed, Mr. Pooh, can’t we go back to page one and do it all over again with Wondrous Journeys returning in 2024?
If you’ve seen both Wondrous Journeys and Happily Ever After, which do you prefer? Or is it hard to pick a favorite? Where does Wondrous Journeys rank among all-time Disneyland nighttime spectaculars for you? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Any questions? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!