Walt Disney World pushes projection mapping in new fireworks show

April 14, 2017, 11:16 AM · Ever since Disney dropped "The Magic, The Memories & You" in 2010, projection mapping has become one of the more popular tools in night-time entertainment at theme parks around the world. It's become a staple of Disney's fireworks shows, and the Magic Kingdom's upcoming Happily Ever After will be no exception to this emerging rule.

Today, Disney released another "behind the scenes" video showing the development of the projection mapping effects for Happily Ever After, which the company promises will represent its most advanced use of the technology to date.

Personally, I love projection mapping shows best when they play with the contours of the projection surface, creating an illusion of a static object that's become dynamic. Light pours from windows as characters dance on balconies, turrets spin, and spires disappear and reappear in total violation of the laws of physics. If thats not magic, what is? But projection shows fail for me when they treat their projection surfaces like a flat, blank movie screen — projecting characters and action that get lost in the visual texture of projection surface.

Of course, projection mapping offers many more uses than just castle shows. Universal Studios Hollywood uses it to make bullets fly in the prison attack scene in its The Walking Dead Attraction walk-through. And Disneyland uses projection mapping on a live actor to make Princess Anna "freeze" in Frozen - Live at the Hyperion at Disney California Adventure. Heck, NBA teams are using it to make their basketball courts morph into all sorts of images during player introductions. Within the next decade or so, I think it's probable that we will see more theme park attractions employing projection mapping than having actual, physical queues. (Which brings up a topic for another column....)

The use of projection mapping within fireworks shows opens creative opportunities at the cost of raising operational challenges, unfortunately. With so much action now taking place on Cinderella Castle, everyone wants to watch the show from the hub, instead watching sky-high pyro blasts from anywhere in the park. That's a large part of the reason why Disney razed all the trees on the Magic Kingdom's hub, filled in half the old Swan Boats canal and turned the center of the park into a giant fireworks viewing area.

When Disneyland programmed mapping into its Disneyland Forever fireworks show, it smartly designed projection effects throughout the park — on Main Street, on the castle, on the Matterhorn, and on the Small World facade — in order to draw fans away from its tiny (and still tree-filled) hub and distribute them throughout the park. With so much of the Disneyland crowd being annual passholders who would watch the show multiple times, the strategy more or less worked and kept the park from collapsing into total gridlock. (As opposed the normal, Disneyland-style, just-about gridlock.)

At Walt Disney World, with its abundance of one-time visitors, that strategy probably wouldn't work as all those one-timers would opt for the hub, anyway. I'm just waiting for Disney to build upcharge stadium seating atop Casey's and Tomorrowland Terrace in order to cram more viewers in front of the castle, like the bleacher seats atop all the buildings surrounding Wrigley Field.

Disney is debuting Happily Ever After on May 12, which should give locals and early adopters a couple of weeks to pack the hub to watch the show before the summer crowds descend upon the resort and take over that task.

Until then, what is your favorite use of projection mapping in a theme park so far?

Replies (7)

April 14, 2017 at 12:48 PM · I did see the 60th anniversary fireworks at Disneyland, with the projection mapping effects on Main Street. They were great. I assume they used the same technology for the visual effects on Small World and Main Street during the Halloween party, too. I see this tech as an enhancement, not a substitute, for physical sets. Like augmented reality.

Happily Ever After will be a must see for us on our WDW trip next Fall.

April 14, 2017 at 3:03 PM · The projection shows are a main highlight of any Disney trip. What would it cost for Universal, Sea World and Knott's Berry Farm to create and maintain their own projection/fireworks shows? Could be money well spent.
April 14, 2017 at 3:09 PM · Who first utilized map projection technology?
Was it Disney?
April 14, 2017 at 7:46 PM · I love the projection mapping, but I can't do fireworks (I get really bad light migraines). So I went to it's a small world at Disneyland just to see the projection there. It was the same throughout the entire thing. Either they were having issues that evening, or that's the norm.
April 15, 2017 at 12:10 PM · I agree to everything you say regarding projections, Robert. Using them to project movie clips looks horrible and doesn't work for me. I can watch the movie in it's complete form at home.
It's disappointing Disney tries more and more to replace (some of it's) fireworks to see another buck. It's something no other park can do due to residential restrictions or costs and they do it so well.
I think the projection on the tree of life is great. Not to camp out for (as is happening at the moment) but to have as a magical experience when walking by.
April 17, 2017 at 5:59 AM · Mickey's Most Merriest Celebration has my favorite Projection Mapping out of all the shows. You forget the Castle isn't decorated like that.
April 17, 2017 at 8:03 AM · Quicken Loans arena in Cleveland has used the imaging for the past few years for Cavalier games and even the minor league hockey team. It really adds to the in person fan experience.

When Disneyland did it on the buildings on Main Street, along with the castle, it was the best. So many more places to view the show.

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