Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Luminous The Symphony Of Us Review

The long awaited Epcot completion is finally at an end! Mostly - CommuniCore Hall is still (inexplicably) not open, but mostly everything else, largely revolving around the refresh of World Celebration, is now finished.  It was a long, strange journey that ended up both scaling back the initial, more grandiose plans for the area as well as took far too long, even given the pandemic.  A true double whammy.

But I have been on the record as saying that I would be satisfied once it was complete, because an open, inviting space was obviously preferable to the sea of construction walls that plagued Epcot for the better part of four years.  Being able to walk across the center of the park instead of having to get stuck in a long, looping path to get from one attraction to another is welcomed, regardless of how I feel about the end result.

And to be fair (I guess?), a lot of the substance of this area has been trickling out in bits and pieces over the last several years.  Creations Shop and Connections Cafe opened, providing a central gift shop and quick service restaurant, respectively.  More recently, Journey of Water Inspired by Moana opened on the side near The Seas pavilion.  What remained was simply the landscaping and architecture of the middle section, as well as the new Walt the Dreamer statue.  I was going to write a post about this stuff recently, but honestly I couldn't come up with a whole lot to say about it in a vacuum.  But it's done, basically, for now, though Epcot will always be in a state of becoming (or so I hear).

The one thing I didn't mention above, and the one new thing that doesn't actually appear in World Celebration is the opening of Disney's newest nighttime spectacular, Luminous The Symphony Of Us (and yes, I believe the official title has no punctuation, so that's how I'm writing it).  This show debuted December 5, and of course will play nightly in the World Showcase Lagoon, the obvious home for all Epcot nighttime shows.

Before I talk about Luminous specifically, I wanted to just touch on the (recent?) history of nighttime spectaculars at Epcot.  The obvious place to start is with Illuminations, because while it wasn't the first nighttime show at Epcot, it was certainly the most famous and longest lived.  It debuted in 1988, and while the show underwent some various transformations (most notably in 1999, when it was tagged "Reflections of Earth"), this was largely the show people would think of when it came to Epcot.

There was a time when I truly thought Illuminations would be there forever.  As I've grown more Disney savvy over the last few years, I should have realized that this wouldn't be the case.  But I am forever grateful that my kids got to experience it for the first and only time five years ago.  I didn't realize at the time that this would the last time I ever saw it, a show that I had seen as a much younger person years prior.

What made Illuminations so powerful and unique was that it was unlike anything else on a Disney property, before or since.  The music (mostly instrumental, with an original song towards the end) didn't feature any Disney characters or songs from their movies.  It was a wholly original Disney piece that took on a life of its own outside of the movies and other intellectual property Disney owned.

I should have seen it coming that this would ultimately spell its doom.  During the thirty plus years of its existence, a lot changed at the parks, Epcot included.  Disney IP began to seep into the formerly sacred space of World Showcase, much to the chagrin of many Disney purists.  It only made sense that the nighttime show would have to evolve to match the expectations of many guests, especially those with younger children for whom Illuminations (and Epcot as a whole) might seem boring.

Thus in 2019, Disney announced that Illuminations was going away, to be replaced by Harmonious.  But even that saga took longer than expected.  Epcot Forever was the temporary show that opened first, a cute but largely forgettable placeholder.  Harmonious' debut was pushed back, and this time the pandemic made a good fall guy.  

Harmonious ultimately debuted September 29, 2021, which was essentially the start of Disney World's 50th Anniversary Celebration.  The show was big and expensive to produce and most certainly wasn't supposed to end with the end of the anniversary.  But that is indeed what happened, as on April 2, 2023, Harmonious played its last show, replaced again temporarily with Epcot Forever.

What went wrong with Harmonious?  It's hard to say, though Bob Iger's return certainly seemed to seal its fate.  I've been told that guest satisfaction was not great towards the show.  I initially did not like it, as it was part of the disappointing duo (along with Enchantment at Magic Kingdom) that kicked off the anniversary.  But the show grew on me, and I ultimately enjoyed it for what it was.  There were some real high points in that show, even if it was uneven overall.

The real elephant in the room when it came to Harmonious was that the permanent barges installed in the lagoon were a huge eyesore.  They looked nice during the show, but for the other 23.5 hours of the day, it just created visual blight on one of the most photogenic locations on Disney property.  Even if I will miss this show, I certainly won't miss that.  Disney learned their lesson here, and one of the selling points of Luminous was the barges would be movable, much like the ones formerly used in Illuminations.

So that brings me to the actual discussion of Luminous.  How does it fit as a show, and is is a worthy addition to the Disney nighttime spectaculars?  Obviously I've only seen videos of it so far, as, alas, I'm not at the parks currently.  But I've watched it a couple of times, from a couple of different angles and tried to keep an open mind about what it would look and feel like if I had been there live.  If you want to see if for yourself and, like me, don't have a trip this week, I'd recommend the always great 4KWDW, who filmed the opening night.  

With that in mind, here are my first impressions.  My biggest thought throughout is that it actually has a lot of similarities to Illuminations.  Obviously, Disney songs make up the majority of the soundtrack, but as discussed above, that was inevitable.  But the overall feel of the show is very simple and bare bones, and I don't mean that as a negative.  There aren't a lot of bells and whistles, and there are no projections (a technique Disney has fallen in love with in recent years).

Instead, Luminous works in its setting.  The colorful fountains are in the middle of the lake and there are plenty of high bursts of fireworks above.  In other words, this show can be enjoyed from anywhere around the lagoon, as it should be at Epcot.  One of Harmonious' issues was that if you weren't lined up with the big circular barge, it was harder to see what was going on.  Not so here.  This was an obvious change for the better, and I'm glad Disney saw it the same way.

Some of the Disney songs used here are played out in many similar settings, especially a big emotional number like You'll Be In My Heart.  But I actually think they work well in context, as that song in particular is done almost in the round, layered on top of itself.  One of the holdovers from Harmonious that works is that a lot of these songs are sung in different languages, reinforcing the idea that we are all one people.  That is a worthy theme, and I'm glad that wasn't lost in the transition to this new show.

The show is also bookended by two original songs and they're both at least pretty good.  The stage is set with Heartbeat Symphony, and later the show closes with Beating of Our Hearts.  That latter in particular is a good crescendo, which is as it should be - this is the song you should have in your head as you're exiting the park.  It's no We Go On/Promise, but then again, nothing is (okay, last Illuminations comparison, I promise).

There are a few negatives as well.  This show is very even keel throughout, which was very different from Harmonious' highs and lows.  But even still, there are some moments that feel a little flat.  There is a segment on loss that doesn't land as well as I think they want it to.  There are also spoken segments in between the songs which use a lot of music metaphors to describe the human experience.  I truly don't know how I feel about these yet.  I like the way the theme plays throughout, but some of the wording is a bit ham fisted for me.  

I do think the show will grow on me as I get to appreciate it for all of its moments.  Already I enjoyed it more the second time than I had the first, which is a good sign.  Overall I think this is a good show that corrects some of the missteps of its predecessor.  I'd still put it as the third best show Disney World currently runs (behind Happily Ever After and Fantasmic) but it is a show worthy of its setting, and one that I think will be well liked by the masses.  I look forward to watching it in person, probably a few times on our upcoming stay just steps away at the Boardwalk.

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