When it comes to theme park nighttime spectaculars, nobody can hold a handle to Disney. With Rivers of Light opening this week, Walt Disney World now hosts six different nighttime shows. If you have young kids like me, even with a week in Orlando you won’t have time to see all the shows – too many late bedtimes.

I thought it might be fun to put together a biased, totally subjective list of the Walt Disney World nighttime shows. I got to preview Rivers of Light at #DisneySMMC so I’ve now seen all of them and can finally put this list together!

Ranking the Walt Disney World nighttime shows! Plus, a guide for parents with young children.

Disney’s projection of the new fireworks show Happily Ever After. (Photo courtesy of Disney)

A couple notes before I start. The direction Disney is heading towards – replacing Celebrate the Magic with Once Upon a Time and Wishes with Happily Ever After (on 5/12/17) – seems to be moving more towards fairy tales. Once Upon a Time is great and I’m sure Happily Ever After will rock, but I miss some of the less romantic aspects of Disney being highlighted, though they are still available at other Walt Disney World nighttime shows.

Secondly, my daughter, like many preschoolers, gets scared by loud sounds and intense images. So I’ve added an intensity rating for each of the shows for parents of young children, named after my daughter’s favorite villain, Captain Hook. 5 out of 5 Hooks means the show can get very intense, while 1 out of 5 Hooks would be…It’s a Small World. All the shows are more intense than that though. 🙂 I’ve included Youtube links for parents who want to preview the shows before deciding to take their kids.

Finally, I must mention that all these shows are amazing. Walt Disney World nighttime shows just cannot be topped. But I’d love for you to tell me where I’m wrong in the comments, too, so let me know your favorites. Without further adieu, here’s my list!

Ranking the Walt Disney World nighttime shows! Plus, a guide for parents with young children.

6. Illuminations (Epcot)

Year Opened: 1999

Length: ~12 minutes

Intensity: 3 out of 5 Captain Hooks

It pains me to say this, but Illuminations probably passed its expiration date. It’s the only show still around from my childhood and I still adore it, but it probably could use a refresh. The oldest Walt Disney World nighttime show takes place in the World Showcase Lagoon.

Every country (save Morocco and Norway) gets involved in the show as each pavilion gets its own chance to shine during portions of the show while the show conveys a message of world unity that comes off much less hokey than it sounds. The fireworks and lights are great, but the globe looks to be aging a little bit. Still, it’s one of the few shows where it’s almost impossible to have a bad viewing spot – being able to set up anywhere around the entire World Showcase is great.

It’s no more or less intense than any regular fireworks show so if your child can handle fireworks she can handle this without a problem.

5. Once Upon a Time (Magic Kingdom)

Year Opened: 2016

Length: ~14 minutes

Intensity: 2 out of 5 Captain Hooks

In October 2016, the Magic Kingdom replaced the Celebrate the Magic projection show with Once Upon a Time. I feel bad putting Once Upon a Time so far down the list, but Celebrate the Magic may have vied for my #1 Walt Disney World nighttime show so Once Upon a Time is a victim of my bias.

The show projects incredibly clear images on Cinderella’s Castle (the tech gets better and better) as Mrs. Potts and Chip narrate some of the most iconic Disney fairy tales. Relying heavily on Frozen and Beauty and the Beast, the Once Upon a Time marvels visually. I just miss Celebrate the Magic a lot. It all started with a mouse!

4. Fantasmic! (Hollywood Studios)

Year Opened: 1998

Length: ~30 minutes

Intensity: 5 out of 5 Captain Hooks

Fantasmic and Rivers of Light run for almost half an hour each, so both require a longer time commitment. Fantasmic! has some amazing moments, especially the finale, but it also has a very intense villains scene that could be frightening for young children.

Fantasmic! definitely is a full length Walt Disney World nighttime show. It tells a story as we enter Mickey’s dreams and nightmares. Of course, Mickey triumphs in the end but the story definitely takes a villainous turn in the middle. What I love about Fantasmic! is the great nostalgia strings it pulls – you’ll see a lot of your old favorites in this show. It’s an intense but fun walk through a lot of past Disney films with a great conceit tying everything together.

3. Rivers of Light

Year Opened: 2017

Length: ~30 minutes

Intensity: 1 out of 5 Captain Hooks

Rivers of Light definitely benefits from some recency bias, but I loved the ambitious ideas from Disney imagineers for this show. I wrote up my impressions elsewhere, but basically, the number of moving parts and the technology being used make Rivers of Light one of the most visually impressive Walt Disney World nighttime shows. I’d say the one thing working against Rivers of Light is the narrative isn’t as clear as Fantasmic!

However, the fact that we finally have a new show and it’s at Animal Kingdom gives Rivers of Light the slight edge over Fantasmic! There also aren’t any fireworks, so if your child is frightened by super loud noises, Rivers of Light might be the best option for a nighttime show. Some of the water projections are truly beautiful. I can’t wait to get back and see the show again!

2. Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular (Hollywood Studios)

Year Opened: 2016

Length: ~ 14 minutes

Intensity: 5 out of 5 Captain Hooks

Disney purists may disagree, but for my money Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular at Hollywood Studios ranks ne the top of my Walt Disney World nighttime shows list. For any fans of Star Wars, this show is a dream. It winds and weaves its way through the highlight of all the major films (though it is thankfully sparing with the prequels) with the iconic Star Wars music in the background. The facade of the entire Chinese Theater is used to great effect. The projections are amazing, the fireworks are amazing, there are lasers firing, explosions: what a treat!

Of course, all that means this is probably the most intense show on property. It can be a bit much for a young child, so be careful. But even if you’re not a fan of Star Wars, you can appreciate the painstaking work that was put into this show. I especially loved the ending – videos don’t do this show justice go see it for yourself!

1. Happily Ever After (Magic Kingdom)

Year Opened: 2017

Length: ~ 18 minutes

Intensity: 4 out of 5 Captain Hooks

When I first wrote this list, Wishes came in second only to Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular. When Disney announced the new show Happily Ever After would replace Wishes, everyone questioned whether the new could live up to the old standard Disney had set.

As I wrote in my Happily Ever After review, Disney completely exceeded my expectations with this show. They have really perfected the projection technology used in both Once Upon a Time and Star Wars. Happily Ever After is Disney at its best. The music, characters, fireworks, projections, lasers – the whole package is displayed beautifully and thematically. And of course it has powerful emotional moments that will hit any Disney fan (or really, anyone who is breathing), right in the heart strings.

If you’d like to know more, check out my review, but otherwise run, don’t walk to go see this show!

Final Thoughts

Composing this list, I marveled at just how much fun Walt Disney World nighttime shows are. If your kids can handle it, it’s definitely worth pushing bedtime for. My daughter has already asked when we are going to return to go see Rivers of Light. Let me know your favorites in the comments and enjoy the shows!

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Ranking the Walt Disney World nighttime shows! Plus, a guide for parents with young children.

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