Disney Had Eight Successes in a Year of Flops in 2023

in Disney, Disney Parks

Bob Iger posing in front of several screens displaying various Disney owned properties

Credit: Disney

It’s no secret that this year hasn’t exactly been Disney’s best. Despite 2023 marking The Walt Disney Company’s 100-year anniversary, its financial performance has been lackluster over the past 365 days, to say the least, with Universal knocking Disney off the top spot at the box office for the first time in eight years.

Kamala Khan, Captain Marvel, and Monica Rambeau standing together on a spaceship
Credit: Marvel Studios

But it’s not all doom and gloom. While the majority of headlines stress Disney’s financial disappointments and unwanted records — and people will always talk about a company’s low points more than its high ones — the reality is that it’s had its fair share of success in 2023. This year has also marked a post-pandemic high for Walt Disney World after an initial lull in attendance earlier this year, as well as a few exciting announcements and additions to its parks worldwide. Here are Disney’s highest highs of 2023 (and here’s to bigger and better things in 2024).

Wondrous Journeys

Disneyland kicked off its Disney100 celebration with the debut of Wondrous Journeys. The new fireworks display – which replaced Mickey’s Mix Magic in January – focused on the history of Walt Disney Animation, featuring characters and songs from the past century.

Wondrous Journeys fireworks over Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland
Credit: Disney

The show was hailed a triumph, with fans praising its combination of projections, pyrotechnics, and the inclusion of not one but two flying characters (shoutout to Baymax and the Blue Fairy). It was sentimental, but not cloying, and nostalgic without being too in your face. That takes some work to balance, but Disney nailed it. Some even declared it better than Disneyland Forever, which had also established itself as a fan favorite several years earlier.

Our only critique of Wondrous Journeys was that Disney nixed it too soon. The show was performed for the final time on August 31, 2023. Fortunately, Disney has since announced that it’ll return again from March 22, 2024, to April 14, 2024, which is far to short a run, in our opinion. Fingers crossed that a longer stint is one of Disney’s biggest highlights in 2024.

The return of Happily Ever After

Speaking of fireworks, April brought a day we thought would never come. When Disney axed Happily Ever After in 2021, it claimed it was doing so forever. However, when its replacement, Disney Enchantment, proved far less popular with guests, Disney performed an impressive U-turn and announced that audiences could once again enjoy Happily Ever After from April 2023.

Happily Ever After fireworks and Castle projection display
Credit: Disney

Upon its return, the show proved as magical as ever (albeit with some technical upgrades, such as projections down Main Street, U.S.A., and new ambient sound effects). Most importantly, the dulcet tones of Jordan Fisher and Angie Keilhauer encouraging you to “reach out and find your happily ever after” are intact – as is Quasimodo’s “Out There” sequence – which means the show remains as much a tearjerker today as it was when it debuted in 2017.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3

Between Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023) and Secret Invasion, Marvel didn’t have much to celebrate in 2023. The exception was Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 (2023), which proved in May there’s still an audience for superhero films if they’re a) good and b) not a nonsensical stream of CGI, references, and cameos.

Nebula carrying Peter Quill as the Guardians of the Galaxy walk through Knowhere
Credit: Marvel Studios

The film focused on the real heart of the Guardians, Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), while also skillfully drawing the character arcs of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoë Saldaña), Groot (Vin Diesel), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) to a close. Deeply upsetting though it may have been, it was one of 2023’s most cathartic cinematic experiences – as well as making it clear that, with the right writing, direction, and characters, there’s still life in the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet.

Elemental

In years to come, Elemental will be remembered as “the little Pixar film that could.” What was initially declared a box office bomb maintained steam (no pun intended) throughout the summer to eventually become Disney’s highest-grossing animation since Frozen II (2019).

Lumen family in Pixar's 'Elemental'
Credit: Pixar

There’s been plenty of discussion about what kind of stories Disney and Pixar films should be telling. Disney CEO Bob Iger himself has commented that they need to focus on storytelling rather than messages – something some people felt Elemental didn’t manage to do. Regardless, the numbers speak for themselves, and it seems like enough people were interested in Elemental‘s tale of forbidden love, togetherness, and acceptance to earn Disney $496.3 million at the box office.

The Little Mermaid

Okay, so, from a financial perspective, The Little Mermaid (2023) wasn’t Disney’s biggest hit of 2023. While the live-action remake made back its budget at the box office, a finance insider told Deadline that the film was “not a huge disappointment, but a disappointment, nonetheless.”

Halle Bailey gazing upwards as Ariel in The Little Mermaid
Credit: Disney

However, that doesn’t mean the film wasn’t a success in other ways. Halle Bailey was widely praised for her performance as Ariel, something many critics noted as the movie’s highlight. Some critics also dubbed the film Disney’s best live-action remake yet – primarily because it wasn’t a beat-for-beat rehash of the original animation. The Little Mermaid may have got its fair share of backlash, but its push for greater on-screen inclusivity was one of Disney’s greatest successes in 2023.

Slowing down on Marvel

Just four months after the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3, Bob Iger confirmed what we were all thinking: there was too much Marvel content in the world. Since the dawn of Disney+, the studio has simply churned out too many projects per year, giving it a real “quantity over quality” problem.

Disney CEO Bob Iger posing behind a model of Shanghai Disney Resort
Credit: D23

Fortunately, Iger had a solution. In an interview on CNBC, he declared that the number of superhero shows on Disney+ had “diluted focus and attention” and that the studio would “pull back” from now on. Earlier in the year (after Ant-Man flopped), he said that they also needed to assess just how many sequels each character gets in the MCU moving forward and instead embrace “newness.”

While we’ll have to wait and see whether this new strategy has the intended result, it’s certainly a step in the right direction. It was always going to be hard to follow the mega-success that was Avengers: Endgame (2019), but the studio has stretched itself increasingly thin in its attempts to do so. More focus is exactly what the Marvel Cinematic Universe needs – and hopefully we begin to see that approach come to fruition from 2024 onwards.

Journey of Water – Inspired By Moana

After months of Te Fiti casting her shadow over the park, Journey of Water – Inspired By Moana (finally!) opened at EPCOT two years later than scheduled in October. It wasn’t an E-ticket, but rather an interactive garden walkthrough in which guests learn more about the water cycle.

Journey of Water in front of Spaceship Earth
Credit: Disney

It’s the kind of small-scale, crowd-consuming attraction that Disney seems to build less and less nowadays. It’s also the kind of “edutainment” that EPCOT seems to have forgotten it’s supposed to specialize in providing. We could rant for pages and pages about how multiple Disney parks have drifted from their original vision in recent years, but we’ll leave it at this: Journey of Water – Inspired By Moana is proof that EPCOT hasn’t totally forgotten its roots, and for that, we’re grateful.

EPCOT World Celebration

The final piece of EPCOT’s “makeover” slotted into place in December. World Celebration was greatly downsized from its first blueprints, which initially planned for an update of Spaceship Earth.

Walt Disney Statue in World Celebration at EPCOT
Credit: Disney

Watered down though it may be – and the jokes about Disney taking four years to essentially just landscape the area are very true, as are the memes about its fountain looking concerningly similar to an intimate body part – what we ended up getting isn’t too shabby. With an array of neon lights synchronized to those found on Spaceship Earth, World Celebration Gardens is spectacular come nighttime. It may be proof that Disney World takes longer to build a garden than Universal does a theme park, but it’s also proof that the small, magical additions make Disney’s theme parks what they are.

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