The Seven Best Live Shows at Walt Disney World
Every theme park at Walt Disney World offers something for Disney movie lovers. Each gate has a few attractions that recreate the events of the most popular films in the Disney library. They’re amazing shows full of top notch production values, the type Disney has learned over the years while dominating Broadway ticket sales.
Yes, you can get a taste of Broadway during a hectic day at the park. Plus, many of these shows get you off your tired feet. They also double as quality babysitters when you need your kids to settle down. It’s a win/win situation AND you get to watch a great show. Here are the best seven live shows at Walt Disney World.
Before we get started, let’s state the ground rules. I’m not counting anything that has fireworks in it. Otherwise, Fantasmic! would win in a walk. Similarly, anything that Disney has described as a ride at some point is out (sorry, Carousel of Progress!), anything that’s a live comedy show (i.e. Turtle Talk with Crush and Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor) and I’m not counting other classic attractions like the Hall of Presidents, Country Bear Jamboree, or The Enchanted Tiki Room. This list is entirely about Disney shows based off of movies!
7) Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular
On May 1, 1989, Disney-MGM Studios opened to much fanfare and few attractions. A few months later, Disney added one to fill the void. That show, the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular!, instantly became one of the most interesting displays at the park. Almost 30 years later, the stunt show is frequently rumored to be going away, but it somehow continues to survive.
I’m grateful for its sustained existence, as I am a huge fan of Indiana Jones. I’m also someone who loves to know how the sausage gets made, and this show is fantastic in that regard. You can watch it to see recreations of several key sequences from Raiders of the Lost Ark, including some explosions such as a Jeep that meets a violent end. The stunt show is timeless since the film that its basis doesn’t change, yet Disney still does a great job of updating it when technological innovations allow. I’m never going to tire of it, but I also know that it’s a bit past its prime.
6) Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple
Jedi Training is the opposite of Indiana Jones. This version of Jedi Training only debuted in December of 2015. It replaces an earlier show that wasn’t as Disney-ish. Specifically, it didn’t include Kylo Ren, the (presumed) villain from the new Star Wars franchise. Otherwise, the show is exactly what you think it is.
A group of kids all receive training in how to use The Force. Specifically, Jedi warriors teach these “younglings” how to wield a light saber. By the end of the show, small children are able to defeat Darth Vader, which seems wholly implausible until you take a hard look at Mark Hamill circa 1977.
From a meta perspective, this show has the most variation each time. With so many kids involved, it’s an exercise in chaos that leads to some hysterical pictures and viral videos. When you hand a child glow-stick, you can’t be surprised when he starts swinging it at adults, trying to club them hard. That’s what I love about it, but as far as shows go, the lack of organization is also the glaring weakness about Jedi Training.
5) For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration
This show is difficult to rank. I think that a lot of people are tired of Frozen. I’m just not one of them. I didn’t grow so obsessive about it that I listened to the song 1,000 times and watched the movie o’er and o’er again. So, I still appreciate the simple beauty of the story.
At its heart, Frozen is a tale of sisters who love each other despite their differences. As the holidays approach, this kind of sibling story resonates that much more for those who have rivalries with brothers and sisters. I like Frozen because unconditional love wins in the end, which is usually the case in the greatest Disney movies. The show doesn’t offer that since it’s primarily two entertaining narrators offering segues to key scenes from the movie.
Still, you have to love anything that delivers the communal joy of a Let It Go sing-along. Just listen to the crowd go nuts as the song builds to its crescendo in this video. That’s purely organic, and it happens EVERY TIME they perform the show. I feel like this is something would make Walt Disney extremely happy if he were alive to see it.
PS: How many times do you think those two cast members have heard Let It Go? It’s got to be in the ten thousand range, right?
4) Beauty and the Beast – Live on Stage
Beauty and the Beast the Disney show opened the same day as Beauty and the Beast the movie. And I mean the animated version back in 1991. That was so long ago, that we’ve already had the live action remake, yet the Disney show continues to draw crowds more than a quarter-century later.
The reason why is obvious. Beauty and the Beast is a timeless story that hasn’t lost an ounce of its charm since 1991. Belle is still an amazing heroine and protagonist, Beast is still brooding and mysterious, and Gaston is still…Gaston. Most importantly, the songs are still so catchy that you can’t help but get into the proceedings. Plus, kids adore the giant costumed versions of Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, et al. I would argue that while other shows listed here are better, this one still has the best music.
3) Finding Nemo – The Musical
Production values are what elevate the top three shows from the rest of the list. The next two are especially impressive as both take place under the sea. Finding Nemo requires several cast members to play fish, which has to be a strange job requirement. They wear costumes that match the background as a way for viewers to forget that they’re there. The idea is to draw attention toward the giant fish that are the characters in the tale.
As for the story, Finding Nemo was at one point the most popular Pixar release of all-time. Its record stood for seven years until the release of Toy Story 3. Just as impressively, Finding Dory is also such a massive hit movie that two of Pixar’s three biggest global box office earners are about Dory and Marlin. In the show version, these two fish search for Marlin’s lost son. Along the way, they encounter many scary creatures, particularly Bruce the Shark. And yes, Bruce is in the show! He’s also so gigantic that he needs two cast members to control him onstage.
As far as recreations of Disney stories go, Finding Nemo isn’t the best, an odd thing to say about something ranked so high. You won’t care, though. The set pieces are so amazing and the colors so bright and attention-grabbing that you’ll pay more attention to the background than the proceedings. Meanwhile, children will be mesmerized by the entire event. And the rousing send-off of In the Big Blue World will have everyone grinning as you head to the exit.
2) Voyage of the Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid is the most important Disney project of the past 30 years. When the film was released, Disney’s vaunted animation division was in a huge slump. This project was their attempt to turn things around, and it did so well in this regard that it’s generally regarded as the start of a second golden age for the company.
A show version should demonstrate show reverence to the source material, and that’s absolutely true of Voyage of the Little Mermaid. It condenses the story down to a few songs followed by the malevolent act of Ursula stealing Ariel’s voice. Afterward, it shows a montage from the film that reveals how Prince Eric and Ariel overcome her witchy ways and somehow find true love in the end.
The black light puppets are especially great in this show. One towers above the rest, figuratively and literally. The Ursula puppet is 12 feet tall and 10 feet wide, making it the equivalent of a Mack truck onstage. She’s not the only impressive creation, though. Sebastian, a realistic puppet controlled by a human, actually performs Under the Sea. It’s a true showstopper, especially with the dazzling illuminations across the set.
The Little Mermaid is the movie that reversed Disney’s fortunes, thereby directly influencing Disney parks for the body of three decades. The show based on it has every right to the claim of best at Walt Disney World. Alas, I like trampoline gymnastics, so…
1) Festival of the Lion King
As a film historian, I would argue that the three most important Disney animated releases of the past half-century are Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King. Yes, an argument could be made for Frozen, but that’s beside the point, which is that all of the shows based on these films are among the best at Disney theme parks. That’s as it should be. All of them (including Frozen) deserve that level of respect.
What differentiates The Lion King is that it does something different rather than re-tell the story of the movie. This show is a revue rather than a shortened recreation of the film. To stand apart from other Disney park shows, it adds a level of aerial acrobatics would feel right at home in a production of Cirque Du Soleil. In fact, several of the cast members have that level of formal training in the field of trampoline jumping and other athletic prowess.
Lifts, jumps, and balancing acts are all a part of each performance of Festival of the Lion King. The sheer physicality of the show is enough to justify its status as the best. The interactive element truly puts it over the top, though. Like Jedi Training above, this show brings children (and adults) onstage to perform some of the routines. And I especially love when the children walk around the stage as the cast sings The Lion Sleeps Tonight. I could gush for longer, but there’s no point. Festival of the Lion King is simply a wonderful show. Disney has many great ones, but it’s clearly the best.