Concept art used in this post is from the Disney Parks Blog.
I love fireworks, and I’ve been going to Disney parks for around 50 years, but I’ve still only seen two fireworks shows that I’d call perfect. One was the show for Disneyland’s 50th anniversary, which used sound clips and songs from the various attractions to celebrate the history of the park itself.1The show used the announcer from the Disneyland Railroad announcing a Grand Circle Tour of the Magic Kingdom before setting off on a segment devoted to each land, which was a particularly brilliant touch.
The other was Illuminations: Reflections of Earth at Epcot, which used pyrotechnics to represent the dawn of creation and an LED-covered globe to tell an optimistic story about human civilization. From the pre-show music, to the opening narration blowing out the torches around the lake, to the spectacular conclusion, it’s still in my opinion the best show that Disney’s ever produced.
Almost all of the others I’ve seen have been fine but mostly forgettable. I get why people get misty-eyed over Wishes or Happily Ever After at the Magic Kingdom, but they’ve never made me “feel” anything. None of the songs or flames or projection effects really add anything to the experience; they feel more like they’re there only because they have to be. Disney can’t just launch off a bunch of fireworks and be done with it; people have paid money to see some real spectacle.
So I had low expectations for the new fireworks show that Disneyland has for the studio’s 100th anniversary. For starters, it’s called Wondrous Journeys, which I had to go look up right before writing this post, because it’s exactly the kind of forgettable Magical Word Soup that Disney insists on using to name things. It also starts out following the predictable pattern: introduction from a narrator talking about the importance of wishes or dreams or imagination; an inoffensive pop song done in whatever style is popular on Disney Radio at the moment; and then a series of songs from Disney TV and movies all grouped by theme, from the hero’s “I wish” moments, to the “scary” bit, to the end.
But by the end of it, I was in tears, and I felt like I’d actually seen something new from Disney entertainment, for the first time in over a decade.
It’s kind of an understatement to say that Disney entertainment is formulaic, but I don’t think it’s necessarily an insult, either. Usually “formulaic” means that the team half-assed it, but I don’t think that’s the case with most Disney shows. The sheer amount of technical work that goes into one of these shows is amazing — to name just one thing: they have to time everything perfectly, accounting for the lag between the speed of light vs the speed of sound, from multiple points throughout the park — so I don’t believe it’s laziness. Instead, I think it’s more that “formulaic” is also comfortable, repeatable, and universal. These shows have to play for millions of people from dozens of different backgrounds, speaking dozens of different languages, with hundreds of different levels of interest and investment in a fireworks show. Theme parks are definitely not venues that reward subtlety.
So while not “lazy,” it is “risk-averse.” There’s just not much incentive to do something original, and dozens if not hundreds of forces discouraging originality. I’ve never seen the Harmonious show at Epcot (and probably never will see it live), but I’ve got to respect that they took a swing and tried to do something at least a little bit different. Having the familiar Disney songs performed in the native languages of their characters was a particularly nice touch. Unfortunately, the show didn’t seem to resonate with enough people.2And the big barges used for the show were widely hated, even though I didn’t see what the big problem was.
The Wondrous Journeys show doesn’t deviate too much from the formula, but the ways in which it does deviate make it all feel new and intentional.3Yes, the opening narration says “sometimes the smallest thing can make the biggest change of all,” but I’m not quite twee enough to include that anywhere but in a footnote. It starts with “When You Wish Upon a Star,” but afterwards uses songs that haven’t been over-used in previous shows.4This uses “For the First Time In Forever” from Frozen, which might make it the first Disney production since 2013 not to use “Let It Go” somewhere? It still groups the songs thematically, but uses medleys instead of the whole song, making them all seem to interact with each other in new ways. And instead of having Tinkerbell fly around the castle, there’s the Blue Fairy from Pinnochio and an additional surprise guest.
What stood out to me was how well the projections worked along Main Street and on the castle. In past shows, they’ve been technically flawless and frequently clever5The only part I can remember from previous shows as being exceptional was all the chimney sweeps from Mary Poppins silhouetted up and down the street dancing along with “Step in Time.”, but functioned mostly just like background theming. In Wondrous Journeys, I got more of a sense of story. During the “our heroes face adversity” portion of the show, all of the facades up and down Main Street crumble and fall away.
Like Reflections of Earth, it felt as if it were giving a sense of story. Not just a thematically-grouped set of familiar songs used as background for fireworks, and not an explicit narrative. As a celebration of Disney’s 100th anniversary, it felt less like a history and more like a mission statement: These are the stories that we built our business on, and these are the types of stories that we’re going to keep telling. Not quite Joseph Campbell Plus Pyrotechnics, but still breaking the stories down to their core components and showing us how they work.
What makes it work isn’t its originality; it all felt like a basic format that Disney’s used dozens of times before, and even an idea that they’ve used before: I remember the animation studio tour at Disney-MGM Studios used to end with a short film showing clips from classic movies and explaining how the art of animation was about communicating a feeling to the audience. Instead, I think what made the show work so well for me wasn’t the originality, but that they’d finally combined all of those familiar components — music, animation, effects — in a way that made them feel as if they genuinely supported each other, instead of serving as just spectacle.
Before, I’ve acknowledged that hearing “Dos Oruguitas” from the end of Encanto will instantly make me cry, no matter what the context. So what moved me so much might be as simple as the fact that I was finally hearing more of my favorite songs from Moana and Encanto and The Princess and the Frog and even Frozen. But I like to think that what moved me was that the show used the songs the same way that they were used in their original movies: not as a Sound Board of Disney Emotions, and not as background music, but as a genuine, heartfelt, expression of a feeling. Which is something the movies do regularly, but the theme parks are rarely able to pull off.
- 1The show used the announcer from the Disneyland Railroad announcing a Grand Circle Tour of the Magic Kingdom before setting off on a segment devoted to each land, which was a particularly brilliant touch.
- 2And the big barges used for the show were widely hated, even though I didn’t see what the big problem was.
- 3Yes, the opening narration says “sometimes the smallest thing can make the biggest change of all,” but I’m not quite twee enough to include that anywhere but in a footnote.
- 4This uses “For the First Time In Forever” from Frozen, which might make it the first Disney production since 2013 not to use “Let It Go” somewhere?
- 5The only part I can remember from previous shows as being exceptional was all the chimney sweeps from Mary Poppins silhouetted up and down the street dancing along with “Step in Time.”