Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Ranking the Current Nighttime Spectaculars

Disney is known for its nighttime spectaculars - shows that take place after the harsh sun has gone down, as a way to say goodnight and thank you to the guests for the day.  They usually involve  fireworks and projections (though not always) and are such a part of the Disney brand that fireworks are featured in ads and commercials.

I usually limit this blog to Walt Disney World specifically because, well, there's plenty of news just about those four parks and it is the most visited resort under the Disney umbrella.  But I was thinking about how the nighttime shows have changed over the years, and I decided to look at all of the current nighttime spectaculars at Disney parks around the world and put together a completely subjective ranking system (one of my favorite hobbies).

I've been critical of the current nighttime offerings at WDW, and in watching videos of the shows at some of the international parks, I see how it could be done better.  Most people will never get a chance to see these in person; heck, I doubt I ever will.  So I'm breaking my rule here - these shows have all been viewed on YouTube, where there are plenty of well made videos that show you the complete shows with no obstructions.  This is not the same as being there, but I think watching them all this way at least levels the playing field and allows for some comparison.  This is not the same as watching ride videos and reviewing them - I think most people would agree.  So while part of the experience is seeing them live, the music, projections, atmosphere, etc, can be viewed pretty clearly through the magic of technology.

I'm putting these in ascending order.  I have a lot to say about the current state of shows at WDW, and even more so after watching these shows.  I also reference Happily Ever After often in this piece - it's gone but not forgotten. I've included YouTube links for each, though a quick search will be your friend if these happen to not work anymore. 

As of this writing, these parks currently have no nighttime spectacular offered - Hollywood Studios (WDW) (though Fantasmic will make its long awaited return ... at some point this year), Animal Kingdom (WDW) (there hasn't been a show here since Rivers of Light closed), Tokyo DisneySea (Tokyo) (though the upcoming Believe! Sea of Dreams will change this at some point) and Walt Disney Studios Park (Paris).

9. Disney Light the Night (Tokyo Disneyland):

This one comes with a bit of an asterisk, for a couple of reasons. First, this show officially can be seen from both this park and Tokyo DisneySea, as it is a firework show with no projections.  The video I watched was from Tokyo Disneyland, in front of the castle (which is probably the best viewing location for atmosphere).

It's also a "nighttime spectacular" only in the loosest sense of the word.  The show is only seven minutes long (by far the shortest on this list) and is a nice fireworks show with nothing else surrounding it.  This might have been the norm in years past, but is certainly not by today's standards.  The bookend song used is a good one ... until I realized that it was borrowed directly from Disneyland Forever (see below).  This is a nice diversion but really not much else.  I included it on this list for completion's sake only.

8. Enchantment (Magic Kingdom - Walt Disney World):

I want to love Enchantment, I really do.  It's the nighttime show at my "home" park and I want it to be the best.  Ultimately it's a perfectly fine show, but not, to use the word, "spectacular."  You Are The Magic is a good bookend song, though there are better out there now.  The projections look beautiful but are often frenetic, as they rush from scene to scene with not a lot of time to digest each one.

Putting aside what this show ISN'T <cough> Happily Ever After <cough>, my biggest issue with it is that it drags in the middle. There's a whole section that's just instrumental, and that doesn't do it any favors.  It just feels very perfunctory to me, instead of hitting me in the feels.  There are worse ways to end your night at the parks, but this isn't a must watch, especially once you've seen it once.

7. World of Color (Disney California Adventure - Disneyland):

For the "non-castle" parks, nighttime spectaculars run the gamut.  This is an interesting show largely for the setting - the backdrop is the water in the Pixar Pier area, with the Incredicoaster and Pixar Pal-A-Round (the big ferris wheel with Mickey's giant head on the side) setting the scene.  The intro song (and name of the show) pays homage to the Wonderful World of Color, the old Walt Disney TV show.

This show doesn't have any fireworks, but instead relies upon large sheets of water where images are projected.  Illuminating lights add the "color" to World of Color.  There are lots of extended movie scenes projected throughout; if anything, the show runs a little long for my tastes.  But this is a nice way to end your night.  More than anything, I began to think about why this show (or something like it) couldn't be put in Animal Kingdom to replace Rivers of Light.  One of the limitations that park has is that they can't use fireworks or it would upset the animals.  This seems like a logical solution.  They really need SOMETHING to keep guests in that park at night (but I digress).

6. Disney Illuminations (Disneyland Paris):

No, this is not a port of Illuminations: Reflections of Earth that used to run at Epcot.  This is a completely different show, just with a similar name (as many of these are, actually).  The castle in Paris is a unique one, where it stretches left as you view it.  This leads to some interesting projections that no other castle can replicate.

One thing many of these international castle parks has is a water effect in front of the castle.  This is nice at all times of day, but especially once the sun goes down.  The projections and lights play off the water to great effect here.  This show has Mickey Mouse as a through line, as he seems to get himself into humorous situations as you watch.  A nice way to tie it together.

There are also some segments that you don't see in any other show - there is a live action Beauty and the Beast sequence (which I guess makes sense given that it's in France, though choosing live action over the animated version was interesting) and a Star Wars section which is a lot of fun.  The songs flow from French to English throughout.  There's technically no bookend song, though If You Can Dream serves as the exit music after the show.  

5. Harmonious (Epcot - Walt Disney World):

The more I revisit this show, the more I like it.  I think this one takes a little longer to appreciate, especially if you were a big fan of Illuminations.  But it interprets Disney songs through a worldly lens, which fits the park theme (if there still is one).  Disney invested a lot into the set pieces for this show, which ruins the tranquility of World Showcase Lagoon during the day.  But they work as part of the show, though you do have to be centrally located in order to see all of the effects from the Stargate (or whatever it's actually called).

The show starts as kind of a slow burn before really turning it up in the last few segments.  The Latin America section (which is mostly a vehicle for Coco's excellent music) is fantastic, and the United States one that features Dig a Little Deeper is an absolute showstopper.  The fireworks are beautiful and offer nice transitions between sections.  I did find Someday to be an odd choice for a finale section - it ends on a dramatic note, but I would have shuffled the order a bit to maximize drama.

4. Disneyland Forever (Disneyland):

This show has a unique history.  It was originally created in 2015 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Disneyland, and only ran for about sixteen months in its initial run.  It was brought back sporadically (as is often the case) but hadn't seen the light of day for while.  The most recent show that was in its place was Mickey's Mix Magic, which was a largely forgettable show with Mickey Mouse as a DJ.

Enter the pandemic, and when nighttime shows started to return, Disney made the wise decision to bring this one back again.  At the time of its creation, it was the largest projection mapping show that Disney had ever done, soon to be topped by Happily Ever After at Magic Kingdom in 2017.  That latter show is a good comparison point, as Disneyland Forever seems like HEA's little brother to me.

The bookend song here is "Live the Magic", which works tremendously.  There are also spoken parts from Walt himself, playing up the nostalgia factor.  The soundtrack moves along nicely and there are a lot of high points with the fireworks themselves.  The only limitation here is that Sleeping Beauty Castle is so much more compact than most of her future siblings, so it's hard to see the projections, especially in the back.  Still, though, this is a great show that has much more of an emotional resonance than a new show like Enchantment, for example.

3. Fantasmic! (Disneyland):

It's a fool's errand to compare Walt Disney World and Disneyland, though there are plenty of pieces written about this every year.  I won't go there except to say this - post-COVID, WDW has taken the long, slow approach of reopening, even though that reopening was well before Disneyland.  On the other hand, once Disneyland reopened, it got back to (mostly) normal much more quickly.  This is nowhere more apparent than in the nighttime shows - with four parks, WDW currently only has two nighttime spectaculars; with two parks, Disneyland has three night shows.  It's an embarrassment of riches, especially given the quality of these shows.

I can't compare the Disneyland version of Fantasmic with its Hollywood Studios counterpart, since the latter has still not returned.  But taken on its own, Fantasmic is a wonderful show and it's safe to say that when it returns to WDW, it will comfortably be the best of their nighttime shows.  The Disneyland version is the best of their current offerings as well, but not by a huge margin.

Fantasmic tells the story of Mickey Mouse and the power of imagination.  It has a loose overarching story that brings in many classic Disney villains.  There is a fantastic Pirates of the Caribbean segment, as well as neon floats that showcase Disney princesses and their princes.  By featuring the iconic Mickey Mouse (in multiples costumes no less), Fantasmic has timeless appeal.  There is also a tremendous sequence where Maleficent turns into a dragon, a really jaw dropping effect to watch live.  I don't think it's much of a spoiler to tell you that Mickey Mouse triumphs over evil with his imagination, but it is a great way to send people home for the night.  A truly unique and impressive show.

2. Momentous (Hong Kong Disneyland):

This is the newest show on this list, long delayed due to the pandemic.  This is a wonderful show that showcases the best of Imagineering.  There are fountains in front of this castle that make the laser lights pop.  The bookend song, Love the Memory, is one of the best of this kind, and is reprised multiple times during the show to segue from section to section.

The show starts slow, using Baby Mine from Dumbo as an opening piece.  But the theme of the show is time, and this starts you on your way featuring your favorite characters as babies.  This builds to some wonderful sections, featuring top of the line projections including Try Everything and a villains sequence with the underutilized Friends on the Other Side.  

Interestingly, all of the songs are in English here.  This isn't always the case with these international shows but it makes it more accessible for an American audience watching on YouTube (let's just say).  The finale sequence goes back to Love the Memory again, and reminded me the most of the Happily Ever After finale.  Great work all around.

1. Illuminate! A Nighttime Celebration (Shanghai Disneyland):

I guess I've learned that the China parks know how to deliver a nighttime spectacular.  This is another show that often comes and goes, as Shanghai has closed the parks due to Covid a few times.  But when it's on, it's ON.  Unlike Hong Kong, this show features songs in English and Mandarin, though I will say that I barely notice the transition as I'm watching the show.  There is a water feature here too, and the lamps surrounding the castle pulse and glow with light, making for a stunning visual.

The bookend song is Light Is In You, which I would put up there among the best (though Love the Memory probably edges it out).  This show starts off hot right out of the gate, pulling out the underused When Will My Life Begin.  Into the Unknown plays as a huge showstopper here, and there is an Avengers section that no other show has that is absolutely on point.  I know why they can't use the Avengers in a lot of their parks, but it totally belongs if it's done this well.

By the time you circle back to Light Is In You, this show has a bombastic feel that makes your emotions swell.  This is the kind of thing I want in my nighttime spectaculars, and it's something that Happily Ever After has in spades.  If this exact show was brought to Magic Kingdom (and changed entirely to English, I imagine), it would be a worthy successor to that show.

So there you have it.  I mentioned Happily Ever After a lot here, as I warned you I would, and if that show was still around, I would likely put it at number one.  The top few shows here are pretty close though, which is why I again wonder what happened with Enchantment - clearly the ability to make a rousing, emotional nighttime show is there.  Disney should lean on the international teams more.

One more note as I watched these.  The American shows seem to rely much more heavily on fireworks to make the show pop.  I'm not complaining - that's a component I definitely want in my shows.  But the international shows tend to go more heavy on the projections and lasers.  I don't know if this is a cultural thing or not.  I will say that it seems like this would be less expensive on a nightly basis, so it wouldn't surprise me if Disney started leaning into that more as they change out these shows.  They have the capability to use these projections to great effect, so I can see them slowly moving beyond over the top fireworks, even if they don't lose them entirely.

Take a look at these videos and let me know what you think.  Am I crazy to rank Enchantment so low?  How do you feel about the Shanghai and Hong Kong shows?  Drop me a line!

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