Beyond Rides: Walt Disney World Entertainment Part 1

One of the most difficult things during the pandemic park re-opening is the lack of entertainment offerings. Some of it is practical, for safety measures. Others seem to be offline indefinitely due to business decisions. There were massive layoffs during the park shutdown and they have not brought back many of the cast members. For this reason, I would caution against a park visit at this time until at least more of these offerings have returned. Here are some of my favorite entertainment highlights and their current or predicted status in each park.

Character Experiences

Character meet and greets as well as character dining have been suspended. This to me is one of the most heartbreaking park casualties of the pandemic. Character experiences are some my most treasured memories and I honestly can’t imagine a trip without them. From my daughter comparing her wings to Tink’s, to a restaurant wide Princess parade these are some of my most magical park moments.

What Disney has offered instead is a sort of socially distanced wave scenario from balconies as well as character cavalcades, basically a small parade where characters walk down the street. They are brief with little fanfare. Good in a pinch, but not exactly an adequate replacement.

It’s not a matter of if, but when these experiences will return. At writing, the virus has mercifully begun to wain and I am optimistic for a return of character interaction in the Spring of 2022.

Signature Shows

Each park has and end of day nighttime spectacular to cap off your visit. Each is unique from display to medium, making each one a must see.

Magic Kingdom

In Magic Kingdom there is the fireworks at the castle. On October 1, 2021 Walt Disney World premiered their new 50th Anniversary Celebration fireworks show called Disney Enchantment. Using a number of projections on the castle and surrounding spires, as well as Main Street USA buildings, the show combines music, pyrotechnics and images to dazzle crowds. Die hard Disney fans have given the new show a mixed review, with many citing that a historical celebration should give a nod to Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse – neither of whom appear in the show – but I think most guests will enjoy the display. This show will presumably be in place for 18 months during the 50th Anniversary Celebration which places it all the way through 2023.

EPCOT

In EPCOT, they launched a soft opening of a new nighttime spectacular called HarmoniUS that takes place in the World Showcase Lagoon. Reception to this show has been universally warm, and having watched the live stream myself it is indeed, impressive. The show uses large floating barges with LED screens and fountains, along with pyrotechnics and music to celebrate all the cultures and continents in the World Showcase. In my humble opinion, it is a worthy replacement to the much beloved IllumiNations show.

Animal Kingdom

In Animal Kingdom, Rivers of Light is a nighttime show also on water using a series of boats, and fountains that are utilized as screens. Combining lights and music it’s truly a spectacular display that I saw myself and loved it. This show has not returned since re-opening however, and it was recently announced it is being discontinued. My best guess is there is a new show in development, unless Disney has entirely given up on their nighttime experiment at Animal Kingdom that seemed to have never really taken off. In the meantime, they are offering guests a short ten minute daytime kite based show in the same venue called Disney KiteTails for the 50th Anniversary Celebration. Unfortunately, the show is off to a rocky start with kite entanglements and wave runner accidents. Watch this space. At writing there is no evening show at Animal Kingdom.

Hollywood Studios

Which brings me to the final park, Hollywood Studios. On our last visit Hollywood Studios was offering not just one, but two separate nighttime shows. The first is Fantasmic, which was really Walt Disney World’s first attempt of combining water and storytelling. It’s a Disney classic and remained in high demand ever since its premiere in 1998. This makes it the most dated of all the nighttime shows. Since it is not expected to return until 2022 at the earliest, I think it’s safe to say it will return with some updates, if it returns at all. Seems logical after this prolonged, multi-year shutdown to re-imagine the show into something else that better reflects the direction that the park is now going, which was entirely different in 1998.

The second show was a pyrotechnic spectacular with projections on the Chinese Theater that was Star Wars themed. This was always intended to be a short lived show, but I’m glad I got to see it. The new pyrotechnic show is entitled Wonderful World of Animation which premiered in 2019 and returned in August 2021. It combines animation from both Disney and Pixar with music and pyrotechnics.

Tomorrow I will continue this discussion including parades and other shows.

Step One: Time of Year

Choosing the time of year you want to go to Disney World should be your very first step in planning. Disney World hosts a variety of seasonal events throughout the year that are included with admission, as well as special premium ticketed events. If you are someone who has been to the parks before, it may benefit you to go during another time of year to gain a different experience. Whenever you decide to go, know there is no way you will be able to fit in all the things you want to do, but good planning will help you make the most of your experience.

Winter

Starting with the beginning of the year, you are likely to see the least amount of crowds, but as a result you are also likely to see many attractions closed for refurbishment. This is the slowest time of the year in the parks and Disney takes full advantage of this doing annual maintenance and more. Now 2022 may be a little different considering that the parks had an unprecedented longtime shutdown in 2020/2021, but unless you are someone who frequents the parks a lot and doesn’t mind missing a few key attractions, I would not recommend visiting during this time.

Spring

The next season is spring, which features the fantastic Flower and Garden Festival at EPCOT. There are all sorts of presentations, a walk through butterfly tent, and beautiful topiaries. In addition, there are extra food and wine experiences throughout EPCOT featuring all sorts of sweet and savory treats. We have attended and it was a great time to visit with lower crowds, pleasant weather and excellent food offerings. Probably my favorite time to visit the parks.

Summer

The summer season is when most people visit the parks and thus it is hot and crowded. Growing up this is the only time available for my family to go, so this is when we went. You may be in the same boat. If so, planning is going to be absolutely critical for you to be able to squeeze in the experiences you want. Managing the heat and staying hydrated is critical to a good experience as well. Fortunately, the parks offer plenty of opportunity to cool off in the air conditioning.

Fall

Fall is close second as best time to visit in my mind. You have cooler weather and fewer crowds. EPCOT’s Food and Wine Festival, the sister festival to the spring festival, is occurring with great culinary features. If you are a fan of Halloween, you’ll enjoy the extra fall decorations that show up in September. There is a special, extra ticketed, after hours Halloween themed celebration. Just a fun time in the parks.

Holiday

The holiday season at Disney World Parks is just magical, and it’s why I want to visit again during this time. At the beginning of November, the Halloween decorations go away and by the second week of November it’s fully Christmas mode at the parks. It’s truly spectacular with extra lights, trees and more providing a festive atmosphere. The holidays like Thanksgiving week and Christmas week are notoriously some of the busiest days of the year in the parks, but if you plan it right you can enjoy low crowds and all the holiday features. This time of year also has an after hours special ticketed event.

I hope that gives you a decent idea of what each season is like at Disney World and helps you decide when is the right time to go for your family.