Ranking the Four Nighttime Shows at Walt Disney World
You may find the idea impossible, but some Walt Disney World guests don’t stay for their park’s fireworks exhibition each night. Instead, they only pick one or two nights during their trip when they stay through the show. It’s shocking, I know. Just in case you’re feeling pressed for time during your next trip, however, you should know which fireworks display you should pick. Here’s a ranking and the pros and cons of each fireworks show at Walt Disney World.
4) Rivers of Light – Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Most people will differ in their rankings for the top three fireworks exhibitions. Pretty much everyone will acknowledge the weakest link, though. I’m even including Disney park planners in that. They’ve tweaked Rivers of Light multiple times to tighten the story and heighten the enjoyment of park guests.
The most recent change is to eliminate entirely the human storytellers from the show. This choice speaks volumes about the oddity of Rivers of Light. It weaves a fascinating yarn about humanity’s place in the universe. I wrote a Behind the Ride piece over at Theme Park Tourist that explains the proceedings. Most of the comments I received about the article were along the lines of, “I had no idea about any of that.” And that’s really, really not good.
The pros of Rivers of Light are readily apparent. It’s a visually breathtaking show complete with illuminated lights that have a hypnotic effect. The use of water as a digital display for shadows and colors is unprecedented for Disney. That aspect alone justifies staying for the show at some point. The cons outweigh it, though.
Rivers of Light’s story borders on impenetrable. Unless you pull up a guide as you watch, you’ll feel lost throughout the display. The show features such a gorgeous display of colors, however, you won’t care if you choose to ignore the story entirely. Simply focus on the shiny.
3) IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth – Epcot
I can hear the boos, hisses, and cries of outrage. Please direct all angry letters to my address at 123 Fake Street. Look, in terms of critical acclaim, nothing could possibly touch IllumiNations. It’s won more Golden Ticket Awards than any nightly exhibition in history. In fact, it’s won more of those awards than just about anything involving theme parks. If you adore it, I totally get it and respect it. Love what you love, my friends. Do so passionately and unapologetically.
Here’s my thing about ranking Disney’s nightly shows. It’s like picking your favorite Pixar movie. Finishing in the top three is still a huge honor, and I say that while talking about a category with only four possible options. IllumiNations is decidedly great. My family loves to spend a night at the World Showcase, eating an exquisite meal and watching the show. It’s bliss. I just don’t happen to feel as strongly about IllumiNations as I do the top two fireworks exhibitions at Walt Disney World.
The pros here are stylistic choices. World Showcase Lagoon provides a lush backdrop for a nightly display. When the rafts move into position to start the show, I get tingles every time. The world-positive, inclusive nature of the message is also inspiring. I find the fireworks underrated, too. Sometimes, guests pay too much attention to the giant globe in the middle and forget the accompanying sky portion of the show.
My primary con with IllumiNations is that I’m too familiar with it by now. This particular performance has lost its freshness. I suspect that park planners know this, which is why they’ll phase it out in 2019. A 20-year run is an eternity for anything related to a theme park. The fact that IllumiNations has anchored Epcot’s evenings for so long is a tribute to its greatness. Like Wishes last year, however, it has run its course. I’m ready for something new. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll still watch it a couple more times between now and its retirement, though.
2) Fantasmic! – Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Mickey Mouse battles a dragon! What more could you possibly want from a nighttime display? Since 1998, Fantasmic! has thrilled audiences with its dazzling pyrotechnics and deep roster of characters. So many cast members dress up as your favorite Disney characters during this show that it’s spawned a haphazard meet-and-greet called Character Palooza.
As the longest of Walt Disney World’s fireworks exhibitions in terms of run-time, it’s a deeply satisfying show, one that has satisfied guests for more than a quarter-century. The original version of Fantasmic! actually debuted at Disneyland in 1992 before transferring over to Hollywood Studios a few years later. In that time, Disney has ironed out all the kinks and elevated the production into something majestic and unforgettable.
The pros of Fantasmic! are almost too numerous to count. Let’s hone in on a few key ones. Odds are decent that your favorite Disney character makes an appearance during this show. They’ll even ride a boat right in front of you as the exhibition winds down, giving you a chance to see them wave and smile as they float by.
The story is unquestionably the best Disney’s ever written for a fireworks display. It’s cohesive in concept and epic in scope. Mickey Mouse and his team fight all of the most dangerous villains from Disney movie history, eventually winning the climactic battle because, you know, it’s Mickey Mouse!
The Fantasmic! set is also the most impressive Disney’s built, even over its more recent counterpart, Rivers of Light. It’s a multi-level stage that gives cast members enough room to pull off some incredible stunts. It also leaves space for giant animatronics come to life such as the 45-foot dragon version of Maleficent.
The con with Fantasmic! is similar to IllumiNations, only more so. This fireworks display dates back to the Bush administration, and I mean the first one. Back in 1992, Color Me Badd and Wayne’s World were all the rage. Much has changed in pop culture since then. Meanwhile, Fantasmic! continues to hum along at its own merry pace. While I find this show timeless, it’s certainly one that most Disney guests have watched by now.
1) Happily Ever After – Magic Kingdom
This show is the polar opposite of the other titles in the top three. It’s new and fresh and state-of-the-art. The digital projection system in place for Happily Ever After enables Imagineering wizards to recreate or take artistic liberties with some of the greatest moments in the history of Disney animation. It’s not just a celebration of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs through The Lion King, either. Relatively recent titles like Frozen and Moana receive lots of play during the show, too.
The pros of Happily Ever After are visuals and pageantry. Thanks to the digital projection, the images in this show are actually superior to Rivers of Light. While that exhibition requires some clever techniques to illuminate its barges, Happily Ever After doesn’t have such impediments. Its visuals are the best possible at the moment. And the pageantry of connecting several Disney movies together in a single show is a Disney fanatic’s dream come true. Oh, the music is phenomenal, too.
There isn’t a con to Happily Ever After at this point. It is the best show that Disney’s ever created at Walt Disney World. It’s a flawless spectacle that will put a smile on your face as you wind down your day at Magic Kingdom. It’s everything that you fantasize about when you dream of your next Disney vacation.